This Easter and Passover season is a good time to reflect a bit on the subject of religion in America. It is also a good time to think about how American ideas about religion may be very hard for many non-Americans to understand or appreciate.
How very very fortunate we are in the foresight of the nation’s founders.
I refer to the very first amendment to the Constitution, indeed the first item in the Bill of Rights. It is the first of the freedoms to be enumerated in that historic document and it says that Congress shall make no law concerning the practice of religion. None.
It is so easy to take this great freedom for granted. And so equally easy to assume that the separation of church and state, of religion and government, is the norm, that it is the natural state of things. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth.
But first, a few words about religion in America: It is alive, vibrant and well. And it is extraordinarily diverse. There has always been, almost from the beginning, a rich variety of religious beliefs and organizations in American life and that is more true today than ever before.
Those who decry the absence of values in American life have it wrong. It may indeed harder than ever to find and define the common ground or the shared values, but there is no lack of religious energy in the country.
Some may be surprised to learn that the number of Americans who claim to be regular church-goers has remained relatively constant as a percentage of the population over the last two hundred years.
Some scholars who pay attention to such statistics say that today’s percentages are in fact higher than the historical norm. That is almost certainly true if one counts the large number of Americans who pursue their religious or spiritual quests outside the constructs of so-called organized religion.
Now, back to the separation of church and state, or religion and government. It is a construct so deeply ingrained in American life and culture that most of us cannot even think of anything else as normal. Some argue that it is the single most distinctive trait of American culture-a system that protects all forms of religious expression while embracing none.
In many other countries and cultures, however, the American ideal is simply incomprehensible. This is true in many predominantly Christian cultures and in most Islamic cultures where there is no clear line between religion and government. There are of course many cultures where government and religion are indeed distinct but where the government in power gains its legitimacy by virtue of its being the defender and protector of the faith-whatever that faith may be.
In some parts of the world the very openness of the American system is seen as a threat.
And so, this Easter and Passover season, it is appropriate to think a moment of our good fortune, and to utter a quiet word of thanks for the early visionary articulation of this most fundamental of freedoms. It is also a time to acknowledge quietly to ourselves that this freedom, so highly valued and defended here, is hard for many others in the world to understand.
Happy Easter and Happy Passover, everyone.
This is Olin Robison.
–Olin Robison is President of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria. Audio versions of Olin’s commentaries are online at the Salzburg Seminar web site.