Religious Pluralism and Persecution in America

PrayingSince the earliest days of its inception as a federal constitutional republic, the United States of America has symbolized religious pluralism and freedom. Recognized by many as an inalienable human right, freedom of religion is guaranteed in the U.S. by decree of the First Amendment which states that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Despite this glorious declaration affirming the value of religious freedom, the history of the U.S. has unfortunately been filled at times with heartbreaking stories of religious intolerance, discrimination, and persecution. In more recent years, potentially concerning trends have arisen on a national level as the American population struggles to relate with two rapidly growing religious groups in particular, Muslims and Mormons. In this paper I will explore some of the various definitional intricacies surrounding this issue, differentiate between security and cultural threats, define the role of social identity theory as a model for understanding religious differences, and describe the roles of both government and social regulation as they relate most specifically to religious persecution. At the close of the paper I will make some personal observations for addressing our ongoing relationships with these two important groups and other similar social and religious minorities in America.

In any discussion of religious pluralism and persecution, it is vitally important that we define the terminology that will serve as the foundation for our discussion. Religious pluralism is best understood within the context of the First Amendment as listed above. It is a system in which two or more complimentary or conflicting conditions coexist. By definition this would indicate the presence of many different religious views enjoying the freedoms of public worship without fear of either government regulation or social reprisal. While pluralism is a seemingly more concrete concept, persecution, on the other hand, can be an extremely abstract term depending on our individual perspective. Many people conflate all opposition and grievances under the category of persecution. For the purpose of this paper I will adopt the following specific definition, “physical abuse or physical displacement due to one’s religious practices, profession, or affiliation” (Grim 2007, p. 643). Accordingly, we can distinguish between the verbal insults and legal assaults to personal freedom that might be better understood as being based in discrimination rather than being expressions of actual persecution.

At this point, it would benefit us to add the two terms tolerance and discrimination to our discussion. Tolerance involves the willingness to allow for the existence and expression of opposing schools of thought and religious expression. Contrasted with this concept, discrimination is the idea in which people justify unjust behavior towards others based on these express differences. Discrimination and persecution, while originating from the same root of intolerance, are different expressions in and of themselves. Persecution is distinct from discrimination in that it involves physical harm or displacement. While some would perhaps argue that these nuances are more subtle in nature, the differentiations between discrimination and persecution are important for the balance of this paper. My employment of both words is entirely intentional in the places where they appear and the usages thereof are not meant to be interpreted, particularly within the realm of the American situation and experience, as either interchangeable or synonymous.

Having established definitional parameters, I turn my attention to the concept of threats. It is important to draw attention to one salient and critical point of separation between Muslims and Mormons in particular. For many American people the complication regarding the Muslim issue revolves around the concepts of realistic, security threats as opposed to symbolic, cultural threats. Drawing from the work of Stephen, Wike explains the two differing threats in this way:

Symbolic threats “involve perceived group differences in morals, values, standards, beliefs, and attitudes” and “jeopardize the worldview of the ingroup,” while realistic threats, “refer to threats to the very existence of the ingroup (e.g., through warfare), threats to the political and economic power of the ingroup, and threats to the physical or material well-being of the ingroup” (Wike 2010, p. 7).

Any attempt to frame the issue of religious discrimination or persecution, particularly as it relates to Muslims and America, solely in the context of a cultural threat is insufficient. Due in large part to a general religious ignorance combined with increasingly distorted media presentations, many Americans are unable to differentiate between the Muslim faith that characterizes the majority of the world and the Islamic extremists that are often the focus of our daily news feeds. For many Americans, Islam extremists represent a credible and tangible national security threat. To the casual and uninformed observer it is impossible to distinguish between the traditional Muslim and the Islamic extremist. Further complicating the issue, as well as exacerbating the problems of prejudice and discrimination, is the reality that one extremist, given today’s technological capacities, is able to catalyze a considerable catastrophe.

Accordingly, much of the current American perceptions toward Muslims in general have to be understood as an outgrowth of these important political and social dimensions. Wike echoes this point in his own research: “our findings reinforce what much of the long running literature on tolerance and prejudice suggests: threat perception is a major, and perhaps the single most important perception of ingroup attitudes toward outgroups” (Wike 2010, pp. 19-20). More specifically, he adds this explanatory note, “fear of Islamic extremism is the primary driver of negative views regarding Muslims” (Wike 2010, p. 21). Although much of the existing research demonstrates that few members of the Muslim community share these extremist views, both American politicians and the general public would more readily err on the side of religious discrimination if it means that the “trade-off” is increased national security.

It is this consideration of a realistic, security threat that distinguishes the Muslims from the Mormons and other comparable outgroup religions and social minorities. While Muslims do share a commonality with the Mormons in terms of being perceived as a cultural threat, particularly to those with strong religious associations, the Mormon faith is not a national security issue for the general populace. It is this distinction that accounts for the percentages of the population who regard Muslims as “highly unfavorable.” As I will discuss later, it is these interpretations that create the social regulations which can ultimately, if left unchecked, lead to religious persecution. Given the important distinctions between security and cultural threats, my concern as it relates to persecution in America is far more focused on the Muslim faith than any of the other religious and social minorities currently present in America.

Having addressed the distinctions between security and cultural threats, I will now address the role of social identity theory in helping explain current American levels of intolerance and discrimination toward Muslims and Mormons in particular. Borrowing from the work of Bellanca, social identity theory is described by Penning in the following manner: “social identity theory posits that in order to understand human motivation and behavior, we must go beyond studying individuals as individuals and must understand how, when and why individuals define themselves in terms of their group associations” (Penning 2009, p.282). Social identity theory advocates that we, as individuals, compartmentalize our world in terms of groups of people, those with whom we share an identity or affinity become the “us” group and those who are very socially or culturally distinct become the “them” groups. This simplified means of group assignments enables us to more rapidly process information about these groups and form subsequent opinions regarding them. Unfortunately, one inherit concern is that this process “diminishes perceptions of in-group diversity by focusing on what unites the collectivity and, second, it exaggerates the differences between the in-group and the out-group” (Penning 2009, p. 283). Accordingly, our perception can become extremely distorted as commonalities are minimized and differences are maximized. In the case of religious groups here in American, the social identity theory helps us understand the foundations behind current levels of religious intolerance, discrimination, and intolerance. Despite any social or moral similarities, Muslims and Mormons are consistently viewed by many as outgroups in America.

Penning’s research work validates this hypothesis. Based on groupings of seven distinct religious groups, Americans gave the highest percentages of “very or mostly unfavorable” designations to the Mormons, American Muslims, and Muslims. Penning notes that “only a plurality (43%) of the respondents gave Muslims ‘very’ or ‘mostly favorable’ ratings and over a third (35%) assigned them ‘very unfavorable’ or ‘mostly unfavorable’ ratings” (Penning 2009, p.290). According to the research results, Mormons did not fare significantly better in the American estimation. And while the contributing variables used to determine these estimations differed slightly between groups, the final conclusion was:

“…that people do indeed tend to categorize religious groups and process information pertaining to these groups in terms of perceived group characteristics. Members of out-groups tend to be viewed less favorably than members of in-groups.” (Penning 2009, p.298)

In other words, there is sufficient data to support a theory of an “us” and “them” mentality in the minds of many Americans. The presence of cultural and theological differences have contributed to a mental compartmentalization in which minority religious groups like Muslims and Mormons are now distinct outgroups. The troubling concern is that such social delineations, as stated previously, only further serve to exacerbate the points of already existing separation. Rather than focusing on the social, political and religious elements we share in common with these outgroups, we focus our attention almost exclusively on the differences, often enlarging them and thereby distorting them into critically divisive issues that can potentially, if left ignored and unaddressed, foment into religious persecution through the process of cultural and government regulation.

It is now important to make a clear distinction between cultural and government regulation. Cultural regulation is best understood as a catalyzing force that empowers and emboldens the state to create government regulations. Whether arising from the influence of what Grim refers to as “religious cartels” (Grim 2007, p. 646) or a more subtle societal consensus, cultural regulation directly correlates in influence upon government regulation. However, the key distinction is that the mechanism behind religious persecution is the actual government regulation itself. Grim summarizes it in this manner:

The main finding is that religious persecution is most powerfully explained by government regulation of religion… social regulation had the strongest effect on increasing government regulation” (Grim 2007, p.650).

From this vantage point, the concern is that lingering social mores and opinions regarding Muslims, Mormons and other minority religious groups would become a serious social concern, especially at the point in which negative public sentiment are translated into political policy. It is at that critical juncture when the possibility of actual physical persecution becomes most pronounced as the state gives official approval to the public’s general intolerance and leanings toward discrimination. Grim goes on to summarize that these interactions of cultural and government regulations, as well as their relevance to the issue of religious persecution, can become a dangerously cyclical process:

Our statistical model indicates that the regulation of religion has clear consequences: it results in the abuse and displacement of people based on their religious affiliations… Social pressures from competing religions, social movements, and institutions can prompt increased regulation; increased regulation holds the potential for unleashing persecution from or condoned by the state, and this persecution can stimulate greater social regulation in response” (Grim 2007, p. 652).

Social, i.e., cultural, regulations beget governmental regulation which begets persecution which begets increased social regulation. It is through this process that some of the most tragic moments of religious persecution in world history have been birthed.

Having established the theoretical and empirical framework for pluralism and persecution here in America, I will proffer some personal interpretations while discussing larger social and religious implications. Initially, I would like to address one of Penning’s key analyses by bridging it with work done by Wald in his book Religion and Politics in the United States (2003). Penning in his closing statements makes the following observation:

The most important variable helping to explain variance in Americans’ views of Islam proved to be perceptions of distance given a respondent’s religion and the religious group in question. Other important contributing variable was whether or not a given responded was “born again.” (Penning 2009, p. 298)

I would like to bridge my following comments by appealing to Wald’s groupings of religious expression here in American, specifically as it relates to what he refers to as “Evangelical Protestants.” In attempting to distinguish evangelical Protestants from their “mainline” counterparts, Wald employs the following description of evangelicals:

Consistent with their view of Jesus as personal savior, evangelicals “are obligated above all to share their creed” by bringing others to salvation through a personal embrace of God. The church, a limited community open to those who have attained salvation, sees its principle task as sustaining and extending belief. (Wald 2003, p.162)

Although it was intimated in some of Penning’s writings, I will use this paper as an opportunity to further pursue the concept of religion as competing entities. For those who are not part of the “ingroup” of evangelical Protestants it is hard to fully appreciate the zeal that emboldens much of their world-view. Their firm adherence to the unique and exclusive nature of Jesus’ claims to divinity and offers of salvation leave no room for conflicting religious ideologies. From a purely rational standpoint, the exclusive nature of Jesus’ assertions relegates all other religions to the status of outgroup. For the evangelical Protestant, the Muslim or Mormon issue is not simply a struggle with cultural differences or potential national security concerns. Inherently, it is one of contradictory religious views. The sociologist may be inclined to dismiss these interpretations as components of the social identity theory, i.e., the ingroup has minimized their own diversities while also maximizing the differences realized in the outgroup. But for the evangelical Protestant these distinctions are paramount in their worldview. In the religious “clash” for the souls of humanity, Muslims, Mormons and countless other religious minority groups represent a realistic threat in spiritual terms. In this regard I would appeal again to the earlier quote from Wike that, “threat perception is a major, and perhaps the single most important perception of ingroup attitudes toward outgroups” (Wike 2010, pp. 19-20). These fundamental distinctions regarding salvation and the “born-again” understanding of evangelical Protestants are an essential component of their own group characterization. They cannot be easily dismissed in the conversation regarding social conflicts like persecution.

Further complicating this discussion in American terms is the political ideology and party affiliation of many evangelical Protestants. Wald makes two very relevant observations in this regard: (1) he recognizes in his research that “evangelical Protestants were the only group with a plurality of Republican identifiers” (Wald 2003, p.165), and (2) he asserts that “religious group differences in party identification and presidential voting are greatest among persons with the strongest involvement in their respective religious families” (Wald 2003, p. 197). In other words, the potential for Grim’s proposition of government regulation would seem to have the greatest possibility of occurrence during those times when the three components of conservative ideology, evangelical Protestant faith, and Republican leadership are in the majority in the American political arena. Stated more bluntly, the assertion is that those groups most associated with religiosity and conservative values would in fact be the greatest threat to religious pluralism and freedom.

However, I would add the following caveats. Research has consistently demonstrated the important role of democracy in this discussion. Grim states, “Put simply, democracy, given enough time, will bring about social and legal transformations that ensure the peaceful commonweal of a country” (Grim 2007, p. 640). He also states in relation to the impact of variables in his studies that “percent Christian, however, is negatively associated with government regulation of religion” (Grim 2007, p. 650). I would propose that the current data reflecting unfavorable estimations of Muslims and Mormons needs to be more accurately interpreted through the paradigm of religion itself. In truth the labels of “favorable” and “unfavorable” could certainly use greater explanation and qualification. The complexities of religious experience are hard to capture in empirical studies and the role that they have in understanding issues like social conflict, particularly of a religious nature, cannot be overemphasized.

In closing, I would return to my opening statements. America was founded on the concept of religious freedom. In recent years there has been increased talk of a “culture war” in America, a struggle between conflicting religious and social ideologies that seek to control and direct the social and political policies of our nation. I think we would all do well, regardless of our religious experiences and preferences, to understand that inherit in the legal concept of “freedom of religion” is the social reality of “religious pluralism.” Policies and regulations, whether they be social or government, that promote intolerance, discrimination, and persecution ultimately serve to only weaken the very foundation of religious freedom itself. As Laycock explains, “Religious liberty consists of not being discriminated against: the law that applies to any religious minority will be the same as the law that applies to anyone else” (Laycock 1994, p. 885). And as the record of human history has demonstrated, today’s majority can quickly become tomorrow’s minority. As a nation and as a people, we would be amiss to emphasize and promulgate our own personal faith in such a manner that in the end it meant the death of the very freedom that first allowed us that privilege.

Works Cited

Grim, B.J. & Finke, R. (2007) Religious Persecution in Cross-National Context: Clashing Civilizations or Regulated Religious Economies. American Sociological Review, vol. 74, no. 4, pp. 633-658.

Laycock, D. (1994) Free Exercise and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Fordham Law Review 1994, vol. 62, no. 4, pp. 883-904.

Penning, J.M. (2009) American Views of Muslims and Mormons: A Social Identity Approach. Politics and Religion, vol. 2, pp. 277-302.

Wald, K.D. (2003) Religion and Politics in the United States, 4th Edtn. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Wike, R & Grim, B.J. (2010) Western Views Toward Muslins: Evidence from a 2006 Cross-National Survey. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, vol. 22, no. 1, pp. 4-25.