Wednesday 8 June 2005

America's Rising Religious Zealotry

It never ceases to amaze me how the more religious a person becomes the less tolerant they seem to get. Not to mention that the more they preach, the less they seem to practise!

Some snapshots of religious zeal in the US: there are churches in Texas where 20,000 worshippers pray every Sunday; Alabama's most senior judge was dismissed for refusing to remove the Ten Commandments from his court; the re-election of George Bush ­ returned with the support of thousands of evangelicals lured to the polls by local laws banning homosexual marriage.

Such images leave little doubt about the importance of religion in a country where more than 40 per cent of the population say they regularly attend church. But a survey has underlined the huge gulf between the US and other industrialised countries on the influence of religion in everyday life.

Despite the separation of church and state being enshrined in the US constitution, more than 40 per cent of US citizens said religious leaders should use their influence to try to sway policy-makers. In France, by contrast, 85 per cent of people said they opposed such "activism" by the clergy.

"These numbers are not surprising," Daniel Conkle, who teaches law and religion at Indiana University, told The Independent. "The US, in separating church and state, has not followed with the notion that it includes a separation of religion and politics.

"In other words, it's believed the institutions of church and state should be separate but there has never been a consensus that religious values should somehow be separated from public life or kept private."

The survey, carried out for the Associated Press by Ipsos, found that, in terms of the importance of religion to its citizens, only Mexico came close to the US. But unlike in the US, Mexicans were strongly opposed to the clergy being involved in politics ­ an opposition to church influence rooted in their history.

The survey ­ which questioned people in the US, Australia, the UK, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, South Korea and Spain ­ found that only 2 per cent of people in the US said they did not believe in God. In France and South Korea the number of people who said they were atheists stood at 19 per cent.

The survey has again highlighted the gap between the US and Western Europe, where Pope Benedict XVI has complained that growing secularism has left churches empty. It has also reopened the debate among academics as to the reasons for the difference.

Some specialists, such as Roger Finke, a sociologist at Penn State University, point to the long history of religious freedom in the US and say it has created a greater supply of options for citizens than in other countries. That proliferation, they argue, has inspired wider observance.

"In the United States, you have an abundance of religions trying to motivate Americans to greater involvement. It makes a tremendous difference here," said Mr Finke.

Others argue that rejecting religion is a natural result of modernisation and the US is an exception to the trend. And then there are those who argue Europe is an anomaly and that people in modernised countries inevitably return to religion ­ they yearn for tradition.

Gregg Easterbrook, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank, said: "By a lot of measures, the US is the most religious of the industrialised nations."

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