When one pastor in Florida announces "Burn the Koran Day," it makes news. It was news because it was... new. Its novelty, and thus newsworthiness, poses an interesting puzzle: why are there not more
Koran burnings in the United States? Why not more
expressions of religious hostility? The U.S. would seem to be ripe for religious conflict, as Americans are both religiously devout and religiously diverse. And yet Americans are quite religiously tolerant.
Our evidence for Americans' acceptance of faiths other than their own comes from a comprehensive national survey we conducted, consisting of interviews with over 3,000 regular Americans. In that survey, we found that Americans overwhelming agree — 89 percent! — that a good person not of their faith can go to heaven. This is true even when we specified that the person in question is not a Christian. Eighty-three percent of Catholics, 79 percent of mainline Protestants, and even 54 percent of evangelical Protestants all say that a non-Christian can go to heaven. Similarly, 80 percent of all Americans agree that there are truths in many religions, rather than one true religion; 84 percent believe that religious diversity has been good for America. When we asked their approval of other religions, we found that Jews and Catholics — historically, two groups to suffer from religious bigotry — are the two most popular religious groups in America.
How can America manage this unique combination of devotion, diversity, and tolerance? Part of the answer lies in the nation's constitutional architecture, as the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights simultaneously prohibits government from establishing religion while maximizing individuals' free exercise of their faith. But to simply attribute America's mix of devotion, diversity, and tolerance to the First Amendment tells an incomplete story. Instead, the First Amendment created the conditions for our thriving religious ecosphere. America has long been an incubator for new religions, and a place where old religions are made new again. Religion here is fluid — as evidenced by Americans' frequency of religious switching. Roughly two in five Americans have switched religions at least once in their lifetime. With such permeable religious boundaries, it should not be surprising that most Americans have a close friend or family member of another religion. More precisely, the average American reports that three of their five closest friends are of another religion, while 84 percent report having at least one extended family member with a different faith than their own. Nearly all of us have an "Aunt Susan." Susan is that aunt of yours who, you know, is destined for heaven, even though you and she have different religions. You may be Catholic and she is Jewish. Or you are an evangelical and she is a "none" — someone who has no religious affiliation. Or maybe she is a Muslim. The point is that whatever your own religion's theology may teach about Aunt Susan's prospects for heaven, you know that heaven was made for her. In an increasing number of families, such exposure to other faiths is even closer to home. Many Americans wake up every morning next to someone of a different religion, as nearly half of all marriages cross religious lines.
However, simply establishing that there is a lot of religious switching, mixing, and matching does not necessarily explain America's relatively high degree of religious tolerance. To see whether it does, we interviewed the respondents to our survey twice, roughly one year apart. Even though that is not a lot of time, it was enough to see what happens when people befriend someone of a different religion — or become newly aware of a current friend's religious background.
This is not the place for the statistical complexities of our analysis, but the bottom line is that befriending, say, an evangelical results in higher regard for evangelicals. Likewise, befriending a "none" corresponds to greater approval of non-religious people. Furthermore, we can rule out that we might have reversed the direction of causality — it is not that people are warm toward a group and then seek out friends of that group. Nor is this a conversion effect, whereby people convert to a religion (or drop out of religion) — becoming a fan, and befriending other fans, of that same faith (or absence of faith).
Now, you would probably expect the world to work this way. Become friends with a NASCAR fan, develop an appreciation for NASCAR. Become friends with an evangelical, develop a higher regard for evangelicals. But not so expected, perhaps, is how this inter-religious bridge-building affects people's regard for religions that are not represented among their friends. Become friends with someone of religion X and you become warmer toward religion Y. Befriend an evangelical, think more highly of Mormons. Befriend a "none," have a higher opinion of evangelicals — even if you do not know an evangelical. We call this the spillover effect.
To understand how this spillover occurs, consider your pal Al. Just as nearly all Americans have an Aunt Susan, virtually all of us have a friend like Al — someone with whom you have a lot in common except religion. Perhaps you came to know Al because you are both beekeepers and, in the midst of swapping beekeeping tips, you learn that he is an evangelical Christian — the first such person you have ever known. If Al can be such a good guy, perhaps evangelicals are not so bad after all. And if evangelicals are not so bad, then maybe other unfamiliar religious groups are not so bad either: Mormons, "nones," Muslims. If friendships foster religious goodwill, it is safe to assume that family bonds would have an even more potent effect.
Importantly, this spillover is not as strong as a direct personal tie, and so it does not equalize the perceptions of all religions. But even if all religions are not met with equal approval, they are met with greater approval than in a religiously-segregated society.
We are not claiming that America is an interfaith utopia. Some tremors of religious intolerance still exist — particularly toward groups with which most Americans are unfamiliar (see: Burnings, Koran). However, we should also remember that for much of its history, the U.S. was a religiously segregated nation. Catholics, Protestants, and Jews did not mingle much, and rarely married one another. Today, they mix freely, with an accompanying decrease in interreligious tension. Instead of contempt, familiarity bred acceptance.
Predictably, then, today's unfamiliar religions meet with the most disapproval. In our survey, we found that Americans were coldest toward Muslims, Buddhists, and Mormons — and, we suspect, the same would be true for members of other "exotic" religions like Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains. As these religions become more familiar to Americans, especially through personal friendships and familial relationships across religious lines, they too will enjoy a more positive image — just like Jews and Catholics.
How can the U.S. combine religious devotion, religious diversity, and religious tolerance? The answer lies in America's inter-religious mixing, mingling, and marrying, which produces a web of interlocking social relationships among people of different faiths.
This is America's grace.