Thank the Protestants for Religious Tolerance?

The history of religion and immigration in the U.S. has made us more receptive to outside faiths. But, of course, our true religion is entrepreneurship.
  • Transcript


Question: Do democracy and religion require the same kind of faith?

Ian Buruma:  No, I don’t think the two are quite the same thing.  In a religion you have to have… you have to believe in some otherworldly or metaphysical force.  I don’t think that that is the case with democracy at all.  Democratic governments ought to be neutral as far as those big questions about the meaning of life, what happens after death and so on, are concerned.  I do think there has to be a common agreement to abide by certain rules and laws, and without that things of course would collapse very quickly.

How much does religious freedom in the U.S. owe to its Protestant heritage?

Ian Buruma:  I think that the particular nature of the separation of church and state in the U.S., as is true of Protestant countries in Europe or majority of Protestant countries in Europe, does have a lot to do with that. And that the authority of the Vatican, of the Catholic church, was much more opposed to democratic development in the past than the Protestant churches were.  The Protestant churches have a tradition of being suspicious of authority, certainly of absolute authority, encouraging a certain kind of individualism since every individual according to the Protestant faith has his own pipeline to God and doesn’t need to go on his knees or her knees to priests.

Has its immigration history made the U.S. more receptive to outside religious beliefs?

Ian Buruma:  Yes, I do think that.  It’s very clear what it is to be an American citizen.  It’s a political concept more than anything else.  It means that you are loyal to the Constitution and you’re a good citizen and then you can have whatever culture you wish in your private life, so you have the hyphenated citizen.  It’s much harder for Europeans to accept that this is possible.  Also the fact that so many Americans still themselves are religious makes them much more accepting of other people who are equally religious even though of religions that, you know, are not Christian or are not all that familiar.

Does entrepreneurship trump religion in the US?

Ian Buruma: Yes, I think that is probably fair to say.  Also the U.S. has a long history of a kind of folk Christianity in the form of evangelism, evangelical faiths, which in itself is very close to business and entrepreneurship.  People who start mega-churches or promote their religious faith on television are businessmen as well as preachers and that goes back you know almost the beginning of the United States.  That is why I started my book with the story of Elmer Gantry.

Recorded April 21, 2010