When it comes to the influence of religion in everyday lives, Americans have among the world’s most positive feelings. A recently released WIN/Gallup International global survey found that 62 percent of those who responded to the survey in the United States said religion plays a positive role in the nation, with 29 percent saying it did not. That equates to a net positive of 43 percent.
In much of Europe, by comparison, the feelings equate to a net negative. Denmark led the way with a net negative of 36 percent, with Belgium, France and Spain close behind.
The difference probably has as much to do with the value each nation has placed on religious freedom and tolerance historically. Much of Europe still carries the baggage of old religious wars and official state-sanctioned religions, just as it also struggles to assimilate religiously passionate immigrants, primarily from Muslim traditions, into a culture that has become largely secular.
Those are tough challenges to overcome, but their resolution becomes increasingly important in a world in which migration plays a significant role.
Few things incite passions as deeply as do spiritual beliefs, and these must be allowed free expression in the public square, while also allowing the same rights for people of all faiths, or of no faith. In this sense, the United States stands as a shining example to the world.
Twenty-six years ago, President Ronald Reagan articulated the value of religious freedom as part of a speech he gave to the people of the Soviet Union. He called religion a necessary counterweight to freedom’s tendency to make people “selfish and materialistic.”
That counterweight works best in a society in which all beliefs are treated equally and held in respect.
“Go to any American town and you’ll see dozens of churches, representing many different beliefs — in many places, synagogues and mosques — and you’ll see families of every conceivable nationality worshipping together,” Reagan said. Selfishness and materialism can be as corrosive to a society as sectarian violence, which religious freedom also mollifies. Unfortunately, there is a cynicism afoot today that has the potential to threaten the generally positive feelings about religion’s influence in the nation.
The survey’s results do not neatly dovetail with religious freedom in all aspects. Indonesia, for instance, was cited as the world’s most positive nation concerning religion, and yet its government recognizes only six official religions — Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism. Others are allowed to exist under some restrictions.
And the survey found that highly educated people were less likely to feel positive about religion’s role than those of little education. That differs slightly from a more nuanced Gallup survey of a year ago in which highly educated people were found to have more trust in clergy, and less in organized religion, than those with little education.
Other studies have found that, within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which owns this newspaper), educational attainment actually equates to greater levels of devotion.
These are all interesting aspects to religious worship. The bottom line, however, is that the American tradition of religious freedom and tolerance, despite its flaws and the occasional failure to live up to ideals, is the system most likely to allow religion to play a positive roll in society. It allows belief to weave itself seamlessly into the fabric of everyday life with a minimum of violence and imposition.