Comfort and Conviction

Business Casual
Susan Percy

A little shiver ran down my spine when I read a Peach State Poll conducted by the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government that indicates “Georgians generally support mixing religion and government.” Somehow that was more chilling than all the TV footage of crowds rallying in favor of posting the Ten Commandments in courthouses. It certainly obliterated any lingering “Thank God for Alabama” thoughts left over from the spectacle of that state’s former Chief Justice and his zillion pounds of granite inscribed with the Ten Commandments.

Isn’t the idea of separation of church and state a pretty essential part of who and what we are as a country?

Maybe not. The poll found that 72 percent of Georgians “either strongly approve (59 percent) or mildly approve (13 percent) of displaying the Ten Commandments in a government building.” In addition, one in three Georgians approves of posting a verse from the Koran, the Islamic Holy Book, in a government building. The same poll found that 79 percent of Georgians approve of allowing a nondenominational prayer in a public school ceremony.

Interestingly, 65 percent of Georgians approve of using state funds for “social programs run by Christian organizations,” although only 39 percent “approve of the state funding social programs run by Islamic organizations.”

A report on the poll results, prepared by Rich Clark, director of the Peach State Poll, begins: “Americans generally accept the separation between church and state as a principle, but the interpretation of this idea can be hotly contested.”

Because of this separation, he says, Americans are the most religious people in the developed world. “Religious organizations, able to stand aloof from secular politics and not tainted by inextricable ties to government, stay above the fray of secular banalities.” He quotes from a recent Gallup Poll that reports roughly 6 in 10 U.S. adults say religion is very important in their lives.

Clark says the impetus for this particular Peach State Poll, conducted in November, was the Ten Commandments court case in Barrow County and the availability of data that allowed pollsters to make comparisons between Georgia and the rest of the country.

Some 73 percent of Southerners say religion is important in their lives, according to the Gallup Poll, compared with 60 percent of Midwesterners, 56 percent of Easterners and 50 percent of Westerners.

Clark says the UGA poll’s surprises came “in the magnitude of differences or areas where we expected greater differences. It was a surprise that Georgians were more supportive of funding for Islamic organizations than the rest of the country and that they were more supportive of the Koran than the rest of the country.” More Georgians approved of displaying a verse from the Koran, in a public building, than did the country as a whole.

How does he explain these surprises? “I think Georgians are just more open about religion. Southerners in general are more comfortable with religiosity and are used to bringing religion with them into their everyday lives.”

I think he’s right about that, and I also think that attitude leads us to an odd kind of intolerant tolerance that assumes everyone shares the same notions of religion. Take the idea of a nondenominational school prayer. Sounds harmless enough from a majority perspective: no Baptist prayer favored over Methodist or Episcopal prayers. But for those who don’t practice a Christian faith, a public or official prayer could be uncomfortable, even intimidating.

I don’t presume to say I understand what it feels like to be a member of a religious minority, but I grew up Catholic in Atlanta at a time when simply professing a non-Protestant faith was likely to raise eyebrows. I’ve had just the faintest taste of being the outsider, the one who said a different version of The Lord’s Prayer, the girl in the UGA freshman dorm who was told by a hall-mate that I was the first Catholic she’d ever talked to. I’ve had some experience listening to other people’s prayers.

Where you end up on all these church-state, religious-secular questions, I believe, is as much a matter of comfort as conviction. There are still a lot of us who have not yet looked beyond our own comfort. And maybe it’s time that we did.

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