Andrew Fiala

America, a largely Christian nation, still has deep divisions among believers

Pope Francis arrives to celebrate Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, Sunday, April 14, 2019.
Pope Francis arrives to celebrate Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, Sunday, April 14, 2019. Associated Press

The United States has the largest Christian population on Earth, with 250 million Christians. About three-quarters of Americans identify themselves as Christian. Non-religious people make up the next largest and fastest growing group, with about 23% of the American population. Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists have fewer adherents – about 1% each.

Despite increasing diversity, the U.S. is predicted to have the largest Christian population of any nation for decades to come. You would think that the apparent homogeneity of the Christian majority would make it easy for us to get along. But Christians have always disagreed among themselves.

Christians even disagree about the date of Easter. This year Orthodox churches celebrate it on April 28, while most other Christians celebrate it on April 21. This is one result of the “Great Schism” that divided Christendom a thousand years ago into Western and Eastern churches. Five hundred years later, the Protestant Reformation further fragmented Western Christianity.

Andrew Fiala Fresno Bee file

After long years of wars and Inquisitions, the Western world developed the idea of religious liberty along with the secular ideal of the separation of church and state. Secularism has made it possible for non-religious people to come out of the closet in growing numbers. But before the emergence of non-religion, American religious liberty gave rise to new Christian faiths, including Black Protestantism, Mormonism, Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witness, and so on.

These faiths offer unorthodox Christian ideas. For example, I was recently on a panel with John McClendon, a distinguished African American philosopher, discussing his new book, “Black Christology,” which considers the question of whether Christ was black. This idea sees Christ as a liberator, while condemning white Christianity for using the Bible to justify slavery and racism.

The idea of a black Christ may seem bizarre to white Christians unfamiliar with black liberation theology. But it is no more peculiar than the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate Easter. The Jehovah’s Witnesses maintain that Easter is not found in the Bible and that its customs – the eggs and rabbits – make Easter more like a pagan fertility ritual than a Christian holy day.

Christians also disagree about moral issues such as homosexuality. Consider, for example, the Equality Act, a piece of legislation recently introduced to provide protections for gay, lesbian, and transgender people. Some churches and religious people defend the Equality Act. Others argue that it would undermine religious freedom by interfering with a religious organization’s right to reject homosexuality and transgender identity.

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is both gay and a Christian – and a supporter of the Equality Act. But Bill Donohue, the president of the Catholic League, recently criticized Buttigieg and the Episcopal church he belongs to for having “abandoned two thousand years of biblical teaching on the subject of marriage.”

And so it goes. The history of Christianity is a long debate. The ongoing struggle to make sense of Christianity shows us why we need religious liberty and a non-religious government. Individuals must be free to decide for themselves about spiritual matters.

Freedom opens the door to controversy and to religious switching. Thirty to 40% of Americans have changed their religious affiliation, according to the Pew Center. A few are leaving religion entirely. This process of sorting out religious belief is deeply personal. In our part of the world, the existential quest for spiritual fulfillment is encouraged. But this is not true in other places or at other times. History shows us that religious intolerance leads to violence and oppression.

The Easter narrative includes a warning about intolerance. Jesus offered unorthodox teaching and was crucified as a result. A similar story could be told about Socrates and a number of other free-thinkers and heretics who ran afoul of religious and political power. But Easter is not primarily about intolerance and violent oppression. The conclusion of the story offers hope for eternal life.

And what about hope for liberty? We have seen that there is no Christian consensus. But Americans do seem to have reached consensus about the fact that religious freedom is fundamental. That article of the secular faith should give us reason to hope that we can live together in harmony despite our differences.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala