Why Are Americans So Uptight about Religion?

America can learn from the way Hong Kong invites, celebrates, and affirms people of all faiths.

“Chris, meet Tim. He’s not a Christian like you. He’s a Buddhist.” The introduction affronted my American sensibilities. I would have been less shocked if he had disclosed my net worth. But my friend and my new Buddhist acquaintance seemed unfazed by the candor, so I pretended to be comfortable with it too. But I was pretending.

Though I hold strong religious convictions, I am also a product of the American religious culture — one that elevates privacy, restraint, and non-infringement among its chief values. Living two months in Hong Kong helped me realize how much Americans can learn from this Chinese city, and how our values stifle freedoms for all American citizens — and uniquely ostracize religious minorities.

In rankings of both religious diversity and freedom, the United States is no longer a global leader.

Hong Kong features rich religious diversity. Well over half of the city’s seven million residents adhere to some form of Buddhism or Taoism. About 10 percent identify as Christian. About three percent identify as Muslim. Smaller but still significant populations of Hindus, Mormons, and Jews also coexist in the city.

Hong Kong is among the most statistically diverse places in the world. According to Pew’s research, Hong Kong is the 10th (out of 232) most religiously diverse country or territory in the world. The city is as free as it is diverse, allowing its citizens to practice and express their faith openly. The government describes religious freedom as one of the “fundamental rights enjoyed by Hong Kong residents.”

Hong Kong’s religious diversity and freedom stands in contrast to modern America. Historians often extol the American religious environment, a place lauded for its safety and freedom for people of all religions, but this is not as true today as it used to be. In rankings of both religious diversity and freedom, the United States is no longer a global leader, and it trails far behind Hong Kong.

In that same Pew study, the United States ranks as the 68th most diverse, and we are not as free as we might think. Pew describes the “rising tide” of restrictions on religion in the United States over the past five years. During that time, we’ve shifted from a country with “low” restrictions on religious freedom to only “moderate” levels of freedoms.

Religious freedom cases have also dotted headlines over the past few years. Hobby Lobby, Wheaton College, Little Sisters of the Poor and dozens of other faith-based institutions sued the federal government (and won) because the Affordable Care Act mandated they pay for abortion-inducing drugs for their employees, even when some of those drugs and procedures violated their religious convictions.

Government agencies have discriminated against Christian schools by denying land permits. But it is America’s religious minorities that suffer most from decreased religious freedoms. Muslim prisoners have been forced to shave their beards against their religious convictions. A terrorist gunned down worshippers at a Sikh temple in Milwaukee due to their religious beliefs. The UCLA student council cross-examined and questioned whether a Jewish student could effectively serve in school leadership, solely because of her faith.

By the conclusion of our stay in Hong Kong, it left me wondering: Why are Americans so uptight about religion?

On the contrary, Hong Kong’s religious environment has flourished, creating a hospitable, transparent, and accommodating environment for all its citizens. Religious expression radiates through Hong Kong’s streets and high-rises. In the alley behind our apartment building, we regularly saw small offerings of fruit, with incense burning alongside it, a Buddhist practice of gratitude and meditation. On a larger scale, beautiful Taoist and Buddhist temples become sites for the devout and the curious alike.

We visited the fascinating 10,000 Buddhas monastery and the breathtaking gardens surrounding the Chi Lin nunnery. We attended the historic Saint John’s Anglican cathedral, located in the heart of Hong Kong’s powerful financial district. We also worshiped at several other evangelical churches situated on the second, third, or fourth floors of soaring skyscrapers.

Religion permeates the streets and creates a hospitable venue to practice it.

At a different lunch, a friend welcomed me to “pray or do whatever I do” before eating our meals. He did not join me in praying, but he gave me space to do so, reverently accommodating my religious practices, no matter how strange or foreign it may have seemed. This attitude of respect allows people of all faiths to hold strong convictions and practice them in their lives, rather than hiding them from public view.

By the conclusion of our stay in Hong Kong, it left me wondering: Why are Americans so uptight about religion?

Several prominent journalists recently exposed their religious views. In Christianity Today, Kirsten Powers wrote of her conversion to Christianity, describing the inner battle she faced at the “horror of the prospect of being a devout Christian.” The piece instantly became the magazine’s most-read piece of 2013 (and one of its top posts of 2014).

Similarly, Ann Marie Cox, also a liberal journalist, wrote an honest account for The Daily Beast about why she was going public as a Christian.

For people of deep religious conviction, private beliefs will always have public expressions.

“The only place where my spirituality feels volatile is in my professional life,” Cox wrote. “The only time I’ve ever felt uncomfortable talking about my faith is when it comes up in conversation with colleagues.”

Her piece also went viral, landing her seats on talk shows to describe her courageous decision to expose her religious persuasion. And it was courageous. For both Powers and Cox, the American religious climate is unfriendly. It is cold, judgmental, and easily offended.

From all angles, it feels dangerous to tip our hand for fear we might offend the various factions roaming America’s streets. These columnists’ testimonies struck a chord because of just how bold they are. Is this really good for America? My sense is that in Hong Kong these stories would be met with a shrug.

But here in America, it seems religious sanitation, not religious accommodation, is the destination where we’re heading. Rather than affirming and valuing the diversity of (what might seem) strange, divergent, and conflicting religious views of our citizens, we attempt to enforce an impossible form of religious neutrality. But neutrality is not a tenable strategy for American religious life.

For people of deep religious conviction, private beliefs will always have public expressions. If we ignore that fact, we’ll only see America continue to diminish religious freedoms and squelch religious diversity. Hong Kong provides another path, a path that invites, celebrates, and affirms people of all religious views — even those whose views might seem crazy, outdated, or both.

The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Chris Horst
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  • Carstonio

    Horst is mistaken about the covered contraception under the Affordable Care Act being “abortion-inducing drugs,” and that error is symptomatic of his whole thesis. The problem with the religious climate in the US is that one faction – the religious right – rejects the increasing diversity of religions in the nation. It doesn’t seek public expression of all religious faith, but only of its own faith, and equates opposition to its theocratic agenda with hostility to Christianity. Horst enables that view when he misinterprets enforcement of the Establishment Clause with religious “sanitation” – government is supposed to be neutral among competing religions. Preventing a courthouse from displaying the Ten Commandments doesn’t amount to stifling public expression of religion, since government shouldn’t have a religious viewpoint.

    • saneandreasonable

      Coming from a long time poster that has illustrated his anti Christian bias and bigotry, your post is rich. Rich indeed.

      • Carstonio

        My posts disagree with some Christian doctrines and condemn things like proselytizing and the eternal damnation concept, as well as the political agenda of extremists within Christianity. None of that equates to bigotry against Christians. That’s like accusing a critic of the Kardashians of hating all TV shows.

        • saneandreasonable

          Another rich comment. Interesting when Christians proselytize that is not considered free speech- and when others have extremist positions you probably give them a pass. Several posts illustrate your bigotry over time.

        • saneandreasonable

          Another rich comment. Interesting when Christians proselytize that is not considered free speech- and when others have extremist positions you probably give them a pass. Several posts illustrate your bigotry over time.

          • Carstonio

            Probably? Don’t make assumptions about what I believe or don’t believe. My objection to proselytizing applies to all religious positions, including atheist proselytizing, even though I’m rarely confronted by proselytizers outside Christianity or atheism. It has nothing to do with free speech, since that concept is about government limitations on speech. Instead, it’s about manners and politeness and personal boundaries – it’s rude and invasive to want to change someone else’s position on religion. Everyone should be entitled to have others treat his or her beliefs about religion as none of their business. Can you offer examples of my supposed hatred of Christians?

    • Sam

      I looked it up because I wanted to make sure but Hong Kong provides universal health care. Imagine if we just went ahead and did that instead, then no one would be forced, especially those poor corporations, to “[violate] their religious convictions.”

  • Martin Hughes

    I don’t believe that the variety of religious buildings in HK exceeds that of London or New York. Freedom in religious matters includes being able to argue against, even to argue in strong terms against, the religions of others. If people around me keep silent or merely shrug when they do in fact consider my religion absurd it is their freedom which is restricted, not mine.
    Perhaps complete freedom of expression on religious matters creates a lot of problems. I think that I have restricted my own freedom all my life to say what I really think of some religious ideas because I want to maintain my relationship with people. But I might as well call this the self-censorship that it is, not claim that my society sets me totally and effectively free on these matters.

  • georgex9

    In strict Islamist societies even expressing a doubtful thought can bring punishment. By restricting critical expression a religion does change in spite of errors. It just grows more certain.

  • Joe Fontanetta

    Like so many others, this article is long overdue and richly received by this post. I share many, if not all, of the opinions and sentiments. Mr. Horst is bound to, and indeed has, received many different takes and opinions, as I am sure he expected. At times, the truth truly is stranger than fiction.