A visit to Old City of Jerusalem in the holiday season, where Christian pilgrims, Jewish Hanukkah revelers, and Muslim muezzins’ calls to prayer mix in very tight quarters, underlines again the atypical nature of religion in the United States. Many countries, including western ones such as Israel, explicitly join state and church. Many have a formal state religion — in much of the Islamic world, and elsewhere, such as Argentina and Finland. Government officials in other countries route tax money to support clergy and church institutions. Many nations establish separate public school systems by religion, for instance, in Northern Ireland, Fiji, and some Canadian provinces. Governments mandate religious training in, for example, Finland, or provide separate religious instruction, as in Germany. Most dramatically, police forces enforce Islamic cultural codes in, for example, Saudi Arabia.
In contrast, church and state are officially separated in the United States, although this has been an evolving practice. For example, reading the (Protestant) Bible and reciting the Lord’s Prayer in public schools was quite common for much of American history. That Protestantism was long the default religious culture of American public schools sparked strong resistance from Catholics and the construction of a private parochial system. Some would argue that tax deductions for church dues today breach the separation. Still, the U.S. remains relatively distinct in its formal blindness to religious affiliations. The key distinction, however, is the grass-roots, associational nature of church in America compared to the more “tribal” nature of church elsewhere.
Religion in America developed in a grass-roots, congregational format – basically as a voluntary association which individuals are free to form, to join, to leave, and to dissolve. Together with the disestablishment of churches by the various states in the 19th century, this associational format has created a “religious marketplace” in which Americans “shop” around among churches to find the one most to their taste. Protestants move from denomination to denomination with relative ease and Americans of most faiths move freely among specific churches, synagogues, and mosques. Roman Catholicism differs greatly from this model, a contrast which helped energize nativist suspicions against Catholics for generations, but the American Church over the years accommodated democratic impulses. (Posts on the American religious history are here, here, and here.)
In much of the world, well-represented among the pilgrims in Jerusalem, religious membership is tribal, primordial, almost as fixed as one’s race. For Americans, religious membership is more like a choice that expresses one’s “true” identity — a choice that can always be re-made as one seeks a better faith. No wonder, then, that Americans are likelier to switch religions than are other nationalities. [See note below.]
To be sure, there are religious seekers everywhere. Jerusalem attracts so many of them that there is a definable psychiatric syndrome associated with the city. Nonetheless, perpetual seeking and choosing seems built in to the American religious experience.
Note on Comparative Rates of Religious Switching
I analyzed the International Social Survey Programme’s 2008 survey which asked respondents around the globe to state their current religion and the religion in which they had been raised. Fourteen percent of the respondents in the United States reported switching from Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or Muslim to another religion. (This rate does not include denominational switching such as from Episcopal to Baptist.) The 14 percent is, with only rare exceptions, higher than any other percentage in over 30 comparable countries. Illustrative comparisons include Venezuela at 12 percent, the UK 10, Mexico 5, Germany 2, Sweden, Poland, and Israel 1, and Turkey 0 percent. However, 17 percent of New Zealanders had switched. All the other nations with higher rates of switching than the United States were special cases: Russia, South Africa and East Asian countries. (What if one includes “No Religion” as a religious origin and destination? The U.S. switching rate remains well above average, but several nations move head of the United States mainly because many adults in a few European countries reported switching from organized religion to no religion and many in a few former Soviet bloc nations reported switching from no religion to an organized religion.)