Five things I teach foreign students about American religion & politics

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Church steps

Kevin Dooley

Church steps and doors at St. Mary of the Lake, New Buffalo, Michigan.

Last week, I gave a lecture on religion and politics to a group of students from Azerbaijan, Turkey, Georgia, and Armenia. The students were in U.S. as part of a State Department summer educational program held at universities around the country. After years of participating in this program (and teaching international students in other classes), I’ve found that there five things about religion and politics that Americans take for granted but international students rarely appreciate.

Church steps

Church steps and doors at St. Mary of the Lake, New Buffalo, Michigan.

1. Americans are a religious people with a secular government

The U.S. often comes across as a Christian nation. As a people, we are much more religious than Europeans and others living in developed nations. Our politics is full of religious symbolism: Presidents invoke God’s blessing; our money features “In God We Trust”; we use religious language in our political discourse; we open Congress and other government meetings with prayer; and politicians often use religious rationales when making.

Yet, with all the religious symbolism and language, our government is adamantly secular. Our Constitution is grounded on the belief that “We the People” formed the government; it was not based on divine intervention or blessing. No where in the Constitution is God invoked or discussed. The only mention of religion was to exclude it from government.

In America, unlike most places on the planet, tries to strike a balance between a politics that is often intertwined with religion and a government that is separate from religion.

2. Religion is an unregulated market

In most countries, religion is regulated by the government. Even in nations in which there is a relatively high level of religious freedom, governments often have policies that favor some religious groups, penalize others, and regulate what religious groups can do.

In the U.S., of course, religion is an unregulated, free market. Religious groups have more freedom and more independence from government than any other type of organization.

To help students grasp this, I give them this list of things that are found in many countries but are not found in America. I tell students that in the United States, there is

  • no official religion,
  • no religious requirement for serving in public office,
  • no preferential treatment for one major religious institution,
  • no Ministry/Department of Religion,
  • no registry of religious groups,
  • no question on census on religion,
  • no listing of religion on government identification cards or government documents,
  • no reporting of financial information of religious groups to government,
  • no selection of religious leaders by the government,
  • no requirement for religious groups to follow civil rights laws when selecting leaders,
  • no laws against proselytizing,
  • no laws against starting new religious groups, and
  • no laws against defaming other religions

3. Churches and other religious groups rely on donations, not government subsidies

Sure, churches can receive grants for food pantries and other programs and there are some tax breaks for donations, but this is a drop in the proverbial bucket. American religion requires billions and billions of dollars, and that money comes from donations. We don’t have taxes for religion. We don’t have state-sponsored religion. The salaries of clergy aren’t paid out of the public coffers. Religion in the U.S. is paid for by the over $100 billion dollars it receives in donations.

4. Christian? Mostly, but diverse nonetheless

In the unregulated religious market, there is a wide variety of religions. There are many Americans who are not Christian. An ever growing number who are not part of any religion. Within American Christianity, there is a large Catholic population and many, many Protestant and evangelical groups. America has produced some of the fastest growing religious movements in the world, including Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) and Pentecostals. It also features some evangelical and fundamentalist movements that are relatively small in European Protestant countries.

5. U.S. support for Israel is not the result of a Jewish banker conspiracy

Yeah, this is one that I didn’t expect either when I first started lecturing students.

Foreign students, particularly ones from Muslim-majority countries, simply don’t understand why the U.S. backs Israel. They look at the U.S. and see that few Americans are Jewish. The only explanation for American pro-Israel stance that makes sense to them is an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that Jewish money buys our foreign policy. This belief is surprisingly pervasive and unfortunately resilient, even among university students. It’s also a belief sometimes found in America, where support for Israel is linked to campaign contributions from pro-Israel groups.

What always surprises these students is the strong support for Israel among many evangelicals, some of whom are accurately labeled as “Christian Zionists.” Support for Israel is tied to a literal, historical reading of the Old Testament, beliefs about God blessing Israel’s allies, the role of Israel in the end times, and positive feelings toward Jews. Add in negative views and ignorance of Muslims (particularly after 9/11), and you have a large segment of Americans who are strongly supportive Israel.