Is America Too Damn Religious?

'In God We Trust' on the back of the $20 bill.

As if it weren't provocative enough to hold a debate on religion in America, panelists in a recent debate were tasked with answering the following: "Is America Too Damn Religious?"

The event was part of a series of Oxford-style debates called Intelligence Squared U.S. Produced in New York City by WNYC, it is based on the Intelligence Squared program that began in London in 2002. Three experts argue in favor of the motion; three others argue against it.

In a vote before the debate, about 67 percent of the audience agreed with the motion. After hearing the debate, more than 70 percent agreed with the motion, roughly 24 percent were opposed and about 5 percent were undecided, concluding that America is in fact "too damn religious."

WNYC logo

Produced for broadcast by WNYC, New York.

Highlights from the debate:


Barry Lynn
Photo: Kevin Wick/Longview Photography

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says: "What is a damned religion? Damned religion is a religion so weak-willed and unsure of its own capacity to persuade others to support it or live by its guidance that it seeks the blessing of government. That it seeks financial aid from government. And that it even tries to convert its theological beliefs into legislative fiats. This damned form of religion is a corruption both of faith and of constitutional democracy. And it makes a mockery of the best in our history...."

Susan Jacoby
Photo: Kevin Wick/Longview Photography

Susan Jacoby, author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism: "We must first talk about the retrograde form of religion that holds one-third of Americans in thrall. This is the proportion of Americans who say that they believe every word in the Bible is literally true. Not merely inspired by God but the literal handwriting of God. One out of three. What an astounding statistic.... Our opponents would have you believe that those of us who consider America too bloody religious are concerned mainly with legalistic issues involving the separation of church and state. In fact, our nation's excessive religiosity affects individual lives and public policy in ways that are often matters of life and death...."

Alan Wolfe
Photo: Kevin Wick/Longview Photography

Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College: "If Americans were much more religious, there would have been much more protest against the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib and other aspects of our foreign policy. For someone to be tortured and hung up like he was being crucifixed would be so unacceptable if Americans were more religious that there would have been massive protests. Not only against the tactics, the illegal torture tactics used by the Bush administration, but by the whole war in Iraq, which would have violated the social teachings of the single-most, largest Christian denomination in the United States, the Catholic Church...."


Jean Elshtain
Photo: Kevin Wick/Longview Photography

Jean Bethke Elshtain, a professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago: "One should not, from any direction, separate America's citizens who accept a secular world from those, the religious, who alleged do not. Citizens of religious commitment are among the most enthusiastic supporters of a secular government. They don't want established religion, but they also understand that to support a secular government and state does not commit us to a thoroughly secularized society, shorn of religious voices, symbols, activities and commitments. We would be a greatly impoverished country were this to come to pass. So too damned religious? Nope. Just pretty damned American...."

Albert Raboteau
Photo: Kevin Wick/Longview Photography

Albert Raboteau, who teaches religion at Princeton University: "The way in which I took the question — and this partly gets at the question of what is religion — was, what's the role of religion in terms of the American ethos, the spirit of the American people? As we all know, Jefferson changed Locke's notion of the inalienable rights from life, liberty and property, to life, liberty and the... pursuit of happiness. What I see as being part of the ethos of American culture and the American direction has been a reversal of that, those inalienable rights. That is, we are back to life, liberty and the pursuit of property. Property in terms of rampant consumerism, which is what I see as the real danger to American culture and spirit today...."

William Galston
Photo: Kevin Wick/Longview Photography

William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution: "Religious Americans are among our most engaged citizens today and their engagement strengthens our community.... Religious Americans, unlike what you have heard from our worthy opponents are not — repeat not — a threat to our liberties. An overwhelming majority of religious Americans practice what one eminent scholar has termed a quiet faith. It is private rather than public. Tolerant and inclusive, moderate rather than extreme and above all, non-judgmental."

About The Panelists



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.