James Madison, a primary author of the Constitution and its guarantee of religious freedom, once spoke approvingly of the “multiplicity of sects, which pervades America, and which is the best and only security for religious liberty in any society.”
Madison added, “For where there is such a variety of sects, there cannot be a majority of any one sect to oppress and persecute the rest.”
Madison’s support for religious pluralism was somewhat utilitarian: If we have lots of different religions, he reasoned, no one group could become too powerful and oppress others.
That’s a good reason to support religious/philosophical diversity, but there are others. For one, the right to believe in the faith of your choice or reject religion entirely is a fundamental human right. In countries like America where religion and state are separate and the government does not espouse an official theology, this kind of pluralism just naturally arises. In other words, pluralism is a sign that our country has got religious freedom right. We should celebrate that.
Here’s another reason: Many Americans would argue that the diversity of religious and non-religious thought is the mark of a mature society; it’s a sign that the state is confident that people can make the choice about which religion, if any, to affiliate with on their own, without interference from the government.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but not everyone agrees. A new survey by Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) finds that a disturbingly high number of white evangelical Protestants don’t appreciate America’s religious diversity. They’d rather that everyone believed as they do.
PRRI asked people to evaluate two statements and place themselves on a scale between them. The first statement was, “I would prefer the U.S. to be made up of people belonging to a wide variety of religions” and the other statement was, “I would prefer the U.S. to be a nation primarily made up of people who follow the Christian faith.”
Among all Americans, 38% placed themselves close to the statement that supports religious diversity, and 38% put themselves in the middle. 24% said they identify with the statement favoring a county where most people are Christian.
But among white evangelicals, the figures were much different. 57% of them said they’d rather live in a country where most are Christian. Only 13% expressed support for pluralism, and 30% were in the middle.
No other religious group rejected pluralism so decisively. As PRRI noted, “[W]hite evangelical Protestants are the only religious group in which a majority (57%) express a preference for a mostly Christian country.”
White evangelicals may feel this way because they simply don’t appreciate other faith and non-faith perspectives and what they bring to our nation. Or, like Madison, they may acknowledge pluralism as a barrier to efforts by one religious group to impose its theology on others and bend the law to its liking. (But unlike Madison, they don’t see that as a good thing.)
Either way, it’s disturbing to realize that so many of our fellow Americans, despite their claims to be patriots who love our country, don’t appreciate the diversity that springs from a policy of complete religious freedom for all.