In this year-end holiday season, it is timely to reflect on American exceptionalism. Although this phrase is much abused in partisan polemics, it should not be discarded. The United States does continue to differ from most other developed democratic countries. And the heart of that difference is religion. The durability of American religious belief refutes the once-canonical thesis that modernization and secularization necessarily go hand in hand.He points to a recent Pew poll on beliefs in elements of the Christmas story:
Although Republicans are more likely to espouse these beliefs than are Democrats and Independents, each group endorses them by a two-thirds majority or more. As expected, conservatives are more likely to espouse them than are moderates and liberals. But here again, majorities of each group endorse each belief. Among liberals, 54% profess a belief in the virgin birth.
These public beliefs have constitutional consequences. When it comes to church and state, many Americans are soft rather than strict separationists. When asked whether religious symbols like Christian nativity scenes should be permitted on government property, 44% said yes, whether or not the symbols of other religions are present. An additional 28% said that Christian symbols would be acceptable only if accompanied by symbols of other faiths. Only 20% took the position that no religious symbols should be allowed.
Democrats should pay careful attention to these findings. In reaction to the excesses of the religious right in recent decades, many secularists and strict separationists took refuge in the Democratic Party. Their voices are important. But if the party takes its bearings only from their concerns, it risks serious misjudgment.