Religion, in One Way or Another, Is Part of America’s Social Contract

September 23, 2019 | Suzanne Garment
About the author: Suzanne Garment, who was the chief operating officer of the Institute for the Study of Global Anti-Semitism and Policy, is a visiting scholar at Indiana University. She is writing, with Leslie Lenkowsky, a book about the politics of American philanthropy.

Surveying the deep divisions and intense passions that have seized American public discourse since 2016, and some of the attacks on traditional politics from both right and left, Suzanne Garment sees a threat to the country’s underlying social contract, which she terms the “American deal.” Garment defines this deal “as a set of political ideas that have persisted in this country over the past couple of centuries and, most of the time, have kept our political arrangements from falling apart.” Of the twelve rules she enumerates as constituting this deal, the fourth is that “most Americans are religious, more or less.”

Today, lots of people are more inclined to call it “spiritual”; certainly large numbers of citizens have drifted away from organized religious denominations. As a result, we’re surprised when we get seemingly anomalous news, like the story of female religious orders that are growing once more because millennials are interested in becoming nuns.

Moreover, numbers aren’t the sole measure of the influence; there’s nothing like religion to remind us of the salience of intensity. Sometimes the story is that religious influence has prompted a state legislature to ban abortion after a term of eight weeks; sometimes the news is about Muslim, Jewish, and Christian clergy joining together to guard a sanctuary after a hate crime.

Almost nothing is embedded more deeply than religion in the American fabric. Other elements of the Bill of Rights may have equal respect, and at least one item—the Second Amendment—periodically explodes in importance, as it’s exploding now. But none of them matches religion, unruly and unpredictable, as an ineradicable part of the deal.

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