God or Country?

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Here's a thought experiment. Let's say an opinion pollster, make it the Pew Research Center, surveys 820 Muslim-Americans and asks the following question: "Do you think of yourself first as American or as Muslim?" If 42% of them answered "Muslim first," how heated would the discussion on talk radio get?

Well, you can relax — that particular controversy isn't about to erupt. Pew did not canvas American Muslims. (Though a Pew pollster did say, "We're very interested in that!" so look out). What Pew actually did over two weeks in May was ask 820 self-identifying American Christians "Do you think of yourself first as American or as Christian?" And in this case, 42% of Christians did actually answer "Christian first." Another 48% answered "American first," while 7% ducked and said they thought of themselves as both.

Not surprisingly, the "Christian first" response emanated disproportionately from self-identified Evangelicals, 62% of whom said "Christian first." By contrast, the figures for other major Christian sectors were nearly reversed, with 62% of Catholics and 65% of Mainline Protestants saying "American first".

To some, the 42% "Christian first" number will seem a shocking bit of data. It certainly seems to be a new one. As far as Pew knows and I have been able to determine, nobody ever asked the "Christian or American?" question before. Perhaps that's because it's divisive on the face of it, almost un-American: why should anyone have to choose between his faith and his nationality? Doesn't the very query assume some sort of nefarious loyalty test, or hint at a fifth-column movement? And what would be the criteria for choosing? Why are you taking us down this road?

Pew actually mulled the offensiveness factor. The question had originated as a measure for Islamic attitudes, in other countries (that was, in fact, the inspiration for my opening fantasia). In that context it seems, if not intuitive, then probably justified by current headlines. The U.S. was, well, another question. Scott Keeter, the organization's Director of Survey Research, remembers, "We were really worried that lot of people would say 'none of your business' or 'this is a terrible question to ask.' But, he reports, "We didn't get any of that." People apparently found it completely legit.

One conclusion you might draw from the apparent willingness to go eeny, meeny with one's sympathies is that the separation of church and state is alive and well. All you liberals who worry that you live in an age when Christianity and patriotism have become inextricably intertwined? You can stop worrying. Most Americans polled could not only distinguish church from state, but were quite comfortable explaining where their primary allegiance lay. On the other hand, depending on how secular you're feeling, you might wonder about the possible implications of that 42%.

Let's look a superficially similar case. As I mentioned, Pew posed the "do you think of yourself first..." question to Muslims in a number of nations. Predictably, the percentage who said "Muslim first" was highest in Pakistan (87%) and high in Jordan (67%). Interestingly, in Turkey, where the state harped for decades on secularization but is now run by moderate Islamists, the "Muslim first" number is 51%, with 19% saying "Turkish first" and the rest taking a bye. Ominously, the country after Pakistan that showed the highest "Muslim first" percentage was Great Britain.

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