More Americans say they go to church than actually do, according to recent research. As Shankar Vedantam reported on Slate, “two in five Americans say they regularly attend religious services,” but studies of actual behavior show that the real number is half that.
The churches themselves have been suspicious of the reported numbers. “If Americans are going to church at the rate they say they are, the churches would be full on Sunday mornings and denominations would be growing,” wrote C. Kirk Hadaway, now director of research at the Episcopal Church. Their own research confirms what social scientists are finding. In fact, church going here is at about the same depressed level for as it is for most western countries. (See, “Walking Santa, Talking Christ.”)
There are several interesting questions here. First off, of course, is why people say they do when they don’t? Then, why haven’t others noticed the discrepancy? It seems to be something no one really wants to challenge. Political leaders join in the hypocrisy, making a point of being seen attending church, and invoking god in their speeches. Clearly, we are engaged in a national conspiracy to seem more religious than we are.
“Upward of 90 percent of all Americans believe in God, pollsters report, and more than 70 percent have absolutely no doubt that God exists.” But in the light of the figures on church attendance, those figures are also suspect. Is this what they want to believe — or think they should believe?
Vedantam, author of The Hidden Brain, speculates that it might a matter of our American identity, but even he isn’t sure. We can be sure, however, that this boils down to a massive case of social conformity. And, as in most cases of conformity, it’s driven by fear.
We are a country marked by profound divisions. Successive waves of immigrants fleshed out what was for many years a struggling nation. Even after the Civil War, there were continual riots among immigrant groups struggling for political influence and jobs. They never got along well with each other, leading to our tradition of identity politics. And then there are the divisions and conflicts between the rich and the poor, the north and the south, the frontiersmen and the eastern establishment, the educated and the red necks, the catholics, the protestants, and the jews. European nations started out with a far more consistent core of citizens. We have profited immensely from our diversity, but at the same time, we struggle to know who we are, what we have in common.
All modern democracies are characterized by conflict, and that may be what ultimately makes them both difficult and successful. But America may be the most fragmented of all. Without the unifying belief in God, we might not have anything at all in common.
The Pledge of Allegiance says “One nation under god,” and that may mean more than we have thought. Without god, perhaps, we might not be able to think of ourselves as one nation at all.