Religion and American Exceptionalism

     Rodney Stark, co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, is the author of America’s Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists(Templeton Press, 2012). The major thesis of the work is that, contrary to popular belief and report, religion is not dead in America. In fact, Americans remain, as they have always been, a uniquely religious people. This reality contributes to measurable human flourishing enjoyed by Americans, compared with less religious societies in Europe. He wrote in his introduction, “It is past time for a full accounting of the tangible human and social benefits of faith in American society and for the recognition that one of our nation’s primary advantages over many others lies in the greater strength of religion in American life” (4). Stark’s work specifies how religion and general human flourishing are directly connected in America.
     Stark’s thesis is really interesting, especially when one bears in mind that Alexis de Tocqueville observed a similar reality in 1830s America. Tocqueville found that Americans—all Americans—believed that religious faith was key to sustaining and preserving the republic. He wrote, “it is in this same point of view that the inhabitants of the United States themselves look upon religious belief. I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in their religion—for who can search the human heart?—but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society” (Democracy in America, I.xvi.306). So, Tocqueville asserted that Americans, regardless of faction, saw religion as having an important public function, in addition to a private one.
     Similarly, Stark argues that religion in America fulfills a public function by connecting it with specific sociological benefits. Stark contrasts America, which enjoys religious disestablishment, with European countries having state churches. His findings show that America has lower crime rates, stronger and more fertile families, healthier mental and physical constitutions, higher rates of charitable giving, higher achievement, and a more robust intellectual life. Americans also have better sex lives, and Stark argues that there is a direct connection between religious life and these aspects of human flourishing.
     Tocqueville and Stark are observing two different Americas, to be sure. America in the 1830s has little in common with America in the 2010s when it comes to a huge variety of measurements. Still, human nature is a constant, as are the positive effects of religious faith—and in particular, the Christian faith—on human civilization.
     This is part of what Tocqueville means when he affirms that America is “exceptional” (Democracy in America, II.ix.36). Tocqueville did not mean that God had chosen America for any special destiny or mission (see here). He meant that Americans enjoy an exceptional set of circumstances in which to develop as a civilization. He observed that Americans owed a debt to Puritan theology, among other things, as they built their civilization in North America. He was proved right in many ways, in terms of the importance of religion in American society, from the 1830s to our own day. Stark’s observations, coming almost 200 years later, show that while much has changed in America, much has stayed the same.

3 responses to “Religion and American Exceptionalism

  1. John: I am enjoying your posts. Unrelated to your good work on American exceptionalism, I ended my long relationship with Networked Blogs. Twitterfeed now can transfer your posts to FB and Twitter automatically without the awkward "Networked Blogs" banner. It is pretty to easy to figure out how to do it. If I can do it, anyone can. Keep blogging and I will see you in November in my neck of the woods.

  2. Thanks for the tip, John, and thanks also for reading!

  3. Dan read a great quote in Bible study last night… I'm probably paraphrasing, but here's what I wrote down, "A society will never surpass its concept of God." A lot to chew on there, as I go back through civilizations we've studied.

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