One of the ways in which we Americans are exceptional in a good way is our separation of church and state. The United States is a country that is friendly toward religion, yet the government neither subsidizes religion nor takes orders from a religious authority.
In virtually every other country of which I know, the government either taxes the public for the support of religion, or is actively hostile toward religion. The U.S. government is neither. Perhaps for this reason, church attendance and religious belief are stronger in the USA than in the countries of western Europe.
We have storefront churches in poor neighborhoods here in Rochester, NY, with more worshipers on a Sunday than some of the empty cathedrals of Europe, or so I am told by friends who have toured Europe.
I think the reason for this is in our history. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Britain’s North American colonies provided refuge to religious dissenters not only from Britain itself, but from all over Europe. Being persecuted doesn’t necessarily make people tolerant, but the colonies became home to so many different kinds of dissenting religious groups that tolerance become a necessity.
Voltaire is supposed to have said that the best thing for a country is to have many religious sects, and the worst thing is to have just two. The religious diversity of the United States is a safeguard of religious freedom, because no one denomination is in a position to take over..
I admit the United States has not been free of religious hatred. The worst was the anti-Catholic riots and persecutions in the 1830s and 1840s. As late as 1960, there were still Protestants who questioned whether a Catholic could be trusted to occupy the White House. I do not think these attitudes were justified, but there is an explanation for them.
The Papacy in the 19th century aligned itself with European monarchs and was hostile to democratic movements and to religious tolerance. It was mistaken, but not crazy, to think of Roman Catholicism as incompatible with American freedom and democracy. Indeed, I might well have thought that way myself, if I had not had Catholic friends and realized that all these 19th century encyclicals were irrelevant to the way my Catholic friends and neighbors actually thought.
The same is true today of Islam. The fear of Islam is not so much intolerance of difference as the fear of being subject to the religious law of someone else’s religion. I think this fear is far-fetched, but if I had never met any American Muslims and nor had any Muslim friends, I would feel the same way about them as my 19th century forebears thought about Catholics.
We have a lot of controversies in the United States about separation of church and state. Most are about trivialities—whether a local government meeting can begin with a prayer, and, if so, what kind of prayer. I don’t care either way. Whatever is decided, nobody is denied the right to practice their religion nor compelled to practice someone else’s religion. This is as it should be. Religion that is practiced out of compulsion is meaningless.