Media Images of Religious Americans: Elitist, Condescending and Wrong

Events of the last few months have produced a spate of stories about religious Americans, almost all of which are elitist, condescending and wrong.

America is by far the most religious of the industrialized democracies. With no established church and with religious freedom guaranteed by the constitution, Americans have created a vibrant and contentious religious free market. Americans believe in God, send their children to Sunday school, and seek out the holy far more than others in the developed world. More Americans will attend a house of worship this week than will attend football games this season.

Yet following the publication of the Pew Study on Religious Knowledge, the mainstream media and the blogosphere were filled with attacks on American religious life. In an often gleeful tone, article after article saw the study as a rebuke to believers and to religion itself. The subtle -- and sometimes not so subtle -- message of these attacks was: "The study shows that religion is rooted in ignorance, and therefore the loyalty that religion fosters should be tolerated but not valued. Haven't we said all along that religious Americans don't know what they're talking about?"

There are three problems with this line of argument.

The first is that the Pew Study was mostly silly. It did not demonstrate widespread ignorance at all. Only a minority of the questions dealt with the Bible or the day-to-day concerns that touch upon the lives of religious Americans. As a Jew, I am not overly worried if my non-Jewish neighbors do not know who Maimonides is.

The second is that religion is about behavior as much as it is about knowledge. And religion does an exceedingly fine job in promoting good behavior. As Robert Putnam and David Campbell demonstrate in their just-published "American Grace," religious Americans make better neighbors than non-religious Americans by virtually every index. They are more generous, more trustworthy and more civically active. And this is not surprising, despite the stereotypes of popular culture. Religious Americans are particularly adept at building communities that are characterized by compassion and caring.

The third is that religion cannot be understood without reference to religious belief. Finding God is a significant benefit of religious engagement -- a powerful, life-changing and life-affirming experience. Some Americans may resist theological language; they may speak of connecting with the sacred, creating holy community or giving expression to the spiritual dimension of life, but they are still speaking of an encounter with God. Committed secularists, of course, find all of this hard to comprehend. Experience of this type cannot be measured in the way that knowledge can be measured. Nonetheless, it is no less important on that account, and according to all the evidence, the great majority of Americans welcome the holy in their lives.

Do not misunderstand me. I belong to a progressive religious movement that promotes religious learning and affirms the importance of reason. But Jews have always prescribed two paths to tradition: the path of the mind and the path of the heart. And both are essential to religious well-being.

American religion has its share of dolts, doofuses and extremists. And inevitably, extremism is highlighted by a 24-hour news cycle that gives unwarranted attention to tiny religious groups that have learned how to command media attention. Still, occasional extremism is the price that we gladly pay for the remarkable diversity of American religion, including its passionate particularism.

How should we judge religion? We should judge it by what people know, but just as importantly, by what they do. And we should see religious belief, for all who are inclined to embrace it, as a virtue and a blessing. On this basis, there is no room for doubt: religion is a great asset for our country, one of those things that makes America great.