Familiarity with Difference: Muslim and Evangelical Devouts in the US and Europe

by Marcia Pally 


I am talking today about the US tradition of religious pluralism within a society that has liberal, secular, economic, educational, governmental and legal institutions. What impressed me is how opposing phenomena emerge from the same traditions. On one hand, the US is a highly pluralistic society in which hundreds of religious groups work with each other and with secular institutions in the economy, government and law. This pluralistic arrangement emerged in part from American evangelicalism - that is, what happened to Calvinism when it came to America - and evangelicalism’s radical individualism and insistence on freedom of conscience. On the other hand, some evangelicals seek to challenge the very separation of church and state that emerged from their own doctrine.

In short, American evangelicalism has contributed to pluralism and to a secular government and economy, and it yet has strains seeking to undermine both. Were there a good religious America and a bad one, we could possibly uncouple one from the other. But if opposing practices are bound by common traditions, then it is more difficult to rid ourselves of one part without losing the other. To rid America of its religious evangelizing, we may lose one source of its pluralism and secularism.

Two Models for Religion and Immigration

In describing the American situation, I will rely on two concept-pairs: secular/pluralist, and the second, assimilationist/participatory models of immigration. I will also discuss the paradoxical-sounding ideas of “familiarity with difference” and “traditional change.”

To begin: The US is home to 1,500 religious denominations; 90% of Americans consider themselves religious.1  Over 60% reports that religion is very important in their lives (21% of Europeans do)2; 40 % of Americans report weekly religious worship (2% in Britain and 10% in Germany do; in France, fewer than 10% attend church even once a year).3  In America, roughly 30% describes itself as evangelical, and they are rising as a percentage of the population.4  

The dominant narrative for these religious groups has been one of success: in spite of prejudice, especially against Catholics up through the 1940s, these groups have immigrated to the US, lived in relative peace with no religious wars and little religious violence, and integrated into the political and economic arenas, and with remarkable fluidity and generative capacities. That is, believers have moved often and easily among confessions and have broken away from established churches to start their own, with disturbing and irreverent frequency from a European point of view.

Muslims in the US and Europe

A similar picture is true for Muslims in American today5 , which number. 2.35 million, 34% from Arab countries, 8% from Pakistan, 8% from Iran, 10% from other South Asian countries, and 35% native-born Americans (20% of those, African-Americans). Muslim-Americans are about as religious as the rest of the country: 40% say they attend religious services once a week, exactly the figure for other Americans; 72% say “religion is very important” in their lives compared to 60% of other Americans. In both income and college graduation levels, US Muslims match the national norms. Only 2% of Muslim-Americans are low-income, compared to 18% in Germany and France, 22% in Britain and 23% in Spain.

Comparing America’s Muslims with Europe’s, the Pew Forum found Europe’s Muslims to be “ghettoized” and “markedly less well off than the general population, frustrated with economic opportunities and socially isolated.” Most Muslim-Americans say “their communities are excellent or good places to live” and report that a large proportion of their closest friends are non-Muslims. 71% say people can succeed in the US if they work at it; 63% report no conflict between religious devotion and living in a modern society. According to Ibrahim Hooper, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). "America gives people the unique opportunity to leave cultural, historical baggage behind."6  In the US, tensions between Sunni and Shia are relaxing into what is called an inclusive “big tent Islam” in which people call themselves—combining Sunni + Shia—“Sushi,” like the Japanese food. (Muslims who report dissatisfaction with life in the US are largely African-Americans, who have experienced economic and social discrimination as “blacks” in the US.)

Though 53% of US Muslims reported that it had become more difficult to be a Muslim in the U.S. since 9/11, most found this to be the fault of the government, not of their neighbors. 73% said they had never experienced discrimination in America. 85% said suicide bombing is rarely or never justified; only 1% said violence to defend Islam was “often” permissible. Significantly higher percentages of Europe’s Muslims believe suicide bombings in the defense of Islam are “often” or “sometimes” justified.7

What’s Behind Muslim-American Success?

Amaney Jamal, an adviser to the Pew study, called this “the great success of the Muslim American population in its socioeconomic assimilation." Yet “assimilation” is not what is successful. Assimilation” means dissolving into the mainstream, but Muslim-Americans do not dissolve. They remain devout in a country that is 85-90% Christian. They do not assimilate religiously but rather they participate in the economic, political, educational and social life of America, as other religious immigrant groups have done. This is our first concept-pair: assimilation/participation.

One frequent argument is that participation works well in America because of a self-selection process: only the most educated Muslims immigrate to America, as poor social services allow only the best-prepared to survive. This is a piece of the puzzle, but educated, middle-class Muslims in Britain become alienated and violent, and, unlike the Muslim poor in Europe, poor Muslims in America don’t express alienation or sympathy with suicide bombers. It can be argued that only those poor eager for the harsh but open possibilities of American life immigrate to the US. Yet this doesn’t explain why these poorer immigrants remain religious; wanting to succeed US-style, they should be quick to “assimilate.”

What we are looking for are the conditions that explain why Muslim-Americans do well while remaining devout, even after 9/11. Why can Muslim-Americans participate without assimilating? Two factors appear significant: a pluralistic public sphere and relatively porous economic, political and educational arenas that allow immigrant participation. That is, in spite of the discrimination and poverty that immigrants initially suffer—and I don’t want to minimize these-- barriers to economic participation have been relatively low. The immigrant narrative of economic, educational and political participation is an American myth, yet it is also grounded in long term economic patterns.8 

The second factor contributing to Muslim-American participation is the pluralistic public sphere, an arena not with no religion but with many, which are not privatized but are visible and active in civil society as the bases for institutions, publications, and symbols that inform people’s values and conduct. Two examples of how public religion is in America: a Muslim prayer group has met every Friday in the Capitol Building in Washington DC for ten years (uninterrupted by 9/11), as other prayer groups do,9  and Congress in Oct, 2007 passed a resolution commemorating the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, as it has commemorated the Jewish festival of Hanukah, the African festival of Kwanza etc.10  “Secular” by contrast, is an Enlightenment concept about authority in which the authority to explain phenomena, interpret ideas, and act on them does not emanate from the divine or sacred text. It is the Weberian “disenchanted.”

In sum, then, of our first concept-pair, assimilation/participation, the US has a participatory model in economics, education, and politics. Indeed the host country can demand participation because it has made participation possible; immigrants can get in. Of the second concept pair, secular/pluralist, the US has a pluralist—not secular—society with specific secular institutions in the economy, government, education and law. These secular institutions in practice support pluralism, as they allow people of many confessions to work in them - the multi-faithed workplace.

Pluralism and Participation: The historical Ground

How did this come about? It emerged from three aspects of American life:

(1) evangelicalism, which was radically liberal and America’s dominant religion from the colonial era through WWI,
(2) the frontier and size of the US, and
(3) the immigrant experience itself. Here’s how these three worked: evangelical doctrine disposed Americans to pluralistic (rather than exclusionary) responses to immigration; pluralism in turn encouraged immigration; and immigration of people of many confessions demanded secular umbrella institutions in the economy, education, government and law so that people of many faiths could function in them.

I will describe this in a bit more detail. First evangelicalism: emerging in the 18th century from the “enthusiast” Calvinist churches and from the pietistic and Moravian movements in Germany, American evangelicalism was a distinctive approach to Calvinist Protestantism which emphasized, among other things, an “inner” individual relationship with Jesus, individual acceptance of Jesus’ gift of salvation, individualist Bible reading by ordinary men and woman, and the priesthood of all believers, and thus insistence on absolute freedom of conscience.11  The anti-authoritarian, individualist emphasis is strong, and the high value placed on freedom of conscience disposed Americans to allow multi-faithed communities - in other words, to pluralism. Even the strictest, most monolithic Puritan colony in Massachusetts Bay, by the 1660s had to get used to non-Puritans in their midst, who lived and worked with equal rights. For this purpose, the Bay colony created the half-way Covenant: a form of baptism for those who did not hold to Puritan belief. 

The relatively open religious (and economic) environment in the colonies attracted immigrants, who once on the continent, continued to move westward. Mobility across the American continent led to sparse settlement and isolated frontier living. I emphasize not only the size of the continent—other countries like Russian have large land masses--but the freedom, economic incentive and habit to move. Under these accidental physical conditions, evangelical liberalism-- the individual as the primary unit and importance of his freedom of conscience--were reinforced. To guarantee this freedom for America’s many-faithed immigrants, governmental and legal institutions would have to be secular—a guarantor of rights blind to religion--and civil society would have to be pluralistic so that the multi-faithed could work in it. Notice the combination of principle and pragmatism: the American separation of church and state which created secular institutions came in part from the principled belief in freedom of conscience. But it came also from the pragmatic need for immigrants: America had to persuade people to risk the ocean and endure the hardships of the frontier and later industrialization. Freedom to practice one’s religion was an advertisement. America could not afford a state church that discriminated against, and thus discouraged, people of different faiths. Neither could it afford a civil society that barred them from economic gain.

Separation of Religion and State as the Ironic Advocate of Pluralism and Religion

We’ve already seen how secular government boosted pluralism by allowing the multi-faithed workplace. It also strengthened American religiosity. Ironically, because religion was outside government, it was protected from the stains of political hypocrisy and corruption; it retained its good reputation as protector of individual freedom and therefore held transcendent power over the American worldview. One Rev. Wainwright of Auburn, NY told Tocqueville that involvement in party politics would increase church influence over some but lose its influence over the many. Through the 19th century, especially the evangelical churches supported the ordinary man and woman: they were anti-Federalist, Jeffersonian, anti-landlord, anti-banker, for land squatters, and populist Jacksonians. The more radical churches were, the more popular they became, supporting women preachers and black churches.

Europe’s Different History

This meant that the feeling for church and state in America became nearly the opposite of that in Europe. In Enlightenment Europe, established churches became suspect, as they were associated with the ancien regime and with the conservative, monarchist and militarist parties of the 19th century. Etatism grew, as secular state institutions were seen as the protector of the nation against the irrationalities of religion and aristocratic power. In the US, born in the revolution against British rule, government—not church--was suspect, and liberalism was emphasized over etatism. Religion, as defender of freedom and as part of civil society not government, was seen as the protector of the individual. In the US, religion supports love of country, not of government; in Europe, because religion has been part of government, it lost much of its people’s love.

Dealings with Religious Pluralism in the US and Europe

To return to today: because America’s pluralism and secular institutions were designed to attract immigrants, they struck America’s participatory deal: immigrants have to participate in the secular, economic and political fracas of the nation because they lack the sort of social-service “net” one finds in Europe. But they can participate because these arenas admit them; immigrants get in. And they keep not only private faith but public community practice. Tolerance for other people’s religion in the price paid for tolerance of one’s own. Prejudice has tended to fall as participation increases.

It has been in no one’s interest for very long to disturb this live-and let-live pragmatism. One result of the deal is America’s paradoxical-sounding “familiarity with difference.” As Americans are used to many different sorts of people in the economic, educational and political arenas, they’ve gotten used to distinguishing those differences that might damage the country from those- most - which will not. At least they tend not to panic. Even after 9/11, there were but a few anti-Muslim incidents. Our first Muslim was elected to Congress (Keith Ellison, D, Minnesota) after 9/11. But it’s more than not panicking. It’s confidence in the deal. The belief is strong in America that, once immigrants are participating, they won’t feel the need to make a violent point of their differences. If they’re participating, whom would they attack? In a positive feedback cycle, the relatively porous economic and political arenas boost familiarity with difference, which reduces fear of newcomers, which lowers the demand for assimilation and lowers the barriers to immigrant participation in economic and political arenas. Or so has worked so far, in the dominant immigrant patterns.

The situation in Europe is somewhat different. If we believe the Pew Forum and Europe’s own press, there is considerable demand for assimilation and a less porous economy and politics, yielding less participation. With less participation comes less familiarity with difference on the host country’s side. On the immigrants’ side, there is more resentment, which may lead to lassitude about the economy and politics, a rejection of the host society, violence, or angry insistence on maintaining symbolic differences—ironically, in a society less able to accept them precisely because of its discomfort with difference. This in short is Europe’s headscarf kerfuffle (Durcheinander). It speaks to none of the economic, educational or political barriers to participation nor does it address immigrant responses to such barriers. But it demands symbolic assimilation.
US Evangelicalism and the Republicans: From Progressivism to Conservatism

Thus far, the situation in America seems sanguine and this talk, self-congratulatory. And yet. And yet we have seen a 35-year coalition between American evangelicals and Republicans that seems to threaten pluralism--by insisting on evangelical values in the public sphere and law--and to threaten secular institutions, by insisting that government and law enforce those Christian values. How is that possible, given evangelicalism’s traditional defense of the individual?

I’d like to suggest that the evangelical-Republican coalition emerged because of evangelicalism’s defense of the individual. And this is what I meant earlier about opposing outcomes emerging from common traditions. Evangelical individualism let to both liberal and conservative political positions in different historical contexts. The first evangelical turn towards conservatism was at the beginning of the 20th century, when a schism emerged in evangelicalism. On one hand were the progressive evangelicals—who focused on aiding the poor and who developed a thorough critique of capitalism. On the other were conservative evangelicals, who were alarmed by the historical, critical method of Bible criticism imported from Germany. This took a literary and archeological interpretive approach requiring educated men where America had relied on literalist Bible-reading by the common man. The German approach offended evangelical individualism and populism. In short, conservative evangelicalism in America is your fault. Confronted by this new German Bible scholarship, scandalized by the “immoral” Jazz Age and the godless Bolshevik revolution, these evangelicals insisted on their simple, homegrown Christianity, and became for the first time, fundamentalist.

A similar backlash was responsible for the coalition between evangelicals and Republicans beginning in the 1960s. In response to fears of communism, in response to the anti-Vietnam war protests, the youth counter-culture, and civil rights movements with their social service “handouts” to blacks and the poor, evangelicals and the Republicans made common cause to redirect the country back to its individualist self-reliance and its mission to fight illiberal tyranny -communism- the world over. The key premises of the coalition was that classic Republican business-interests--liberal markets, “small government”—are the finest flowering of self-reliance and personal liberty. In foreign policy, American needed a government big enough to fight illiberalism -communism- overseas. Note that the evangelicals had not changed their views. But in the post-60s political context, when individualist self-reliance seemed best understood by Republicans, the liberalism of early evangelicalism had become conservative.

Evangelical participation in the Republican party has not been a Faustian bargain in which the Republicans run candidates who oppose both abortion and taxes, and so evangelicals, by voting against abortion, end up voting for tax cuts. This may occur at times but more important is the evangelicals’ direct support for Republican policies from their own understanding of individualist liberty, self-reliance, and small government. For instance, Grover Norquist’s powerful anti-tax organization, American’s for Tax Reform, has the support of nearly every major evangelical organization.

And Back to Progressivism: The new evangelical turn

And yet, there is another yet. The radical individualism of American evangelicalism has in the last two years begun taking another turn—or rather, it has begun retuning to the traditional positions it held through much of US history. A loose group of ministers around the country have begun preaching a nonviolent, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, anti-globalization theology which seeks to take churches out of political parties. Richard Cizik, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals said, "Never in my Bible did it say I have to be an economic or a political conservative, although I happen to be both."12  Going beyond the environmental protection that is now well in the evangelical mainstream,13  these evangelicals hold that Christians should follow Jesus’ path of personal sacrifice and devotion to the downtrodden, and move away from what some have called the self-absorbed creed of suburban living and power politics.14  The Rev. Gregory Boyd, pastor of a suburban St. Paul mega-church, holds that the church should avoid politics, avoid moralizing on sexual issues,15 cease calling the United States a “Christian nation,” and stop glorifying American military campaigns. “When it [the church] conquers the world, it becomes the world. When you put your trust in the sword, you lose the cross.”16 

Critically, these evangelicals are positing a relationship to secular institutions different from the Republican-evangelical coalition of the last 35 years.

How Will Evangelicals Vote in 2008?

This turn among evangelicals is neither small, embracing over 20 million,17  nor elite. Rob Bell, who tells his congregants where exactly in Grand Rapids, MI they can drop off their excess wealth, preaches Sundays to 10,000 people; 50,000 listen online. Evangelical disaffection for the Republican party is having its effects on US politics. Between 2001 and 2005, the percentage of young, white evangelicals (age 18-29) who considered themselves Republicans was 55%; in 2007, just 37%.18  As they become “independent” voters with no party affiliation, the Republican party loses a substantial portion of their voter base. The Rev. Tri Robinson of the the Vineyard Boise evangelical megachurch in Idaho explained that his congregants are “looking for someone who supports life in an out of the womb,” and that "Evangelicals are really, really going to have a problem in the next election,” he said, “unless someone stands up and is for both.” 19

Religion: Human, all too human

In conclusion, what are we to make of a religion -American evangelicalism- that has been progressive, contributed to pluralism, freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state, and has been conservative in coalition with the Republicans, and is renewing itself again. We can conclude that religion changes. A human institution, religion evolves as everything human does; it has its internal, traditional mechanisms for change as does politics, culture and economics. Let me give an example from the Orthodox Jewish tradition: Orthodox married women wear head-coverings; all women sit in segregated, hidden sections of the synagogue and may not perform certain rituals or study, which is the privilege of men. Yet, there is a growing movement within Jewish orthodoxy to educate women in Judaic law; orthodox women are starting women’s prayer groups, where they do everything men do. Similarly, the first Muslim prayer service run by a woman was held in New York about 18 months ago. These changes in women’s roles will continue, but they would not have been tolerated had they been demanded by secular feminists or civil libertarians. They have traction because they emerge from the logic and traditions within orthodoxy itself.

Tradition of Change”

I’d like to suggest that this “tradition of change” might prove helpful in the current debates about Islam in Europe, in which Islam—or religion overall—is often seen as an unchanging, permanent threat to democracy. Yet within Islam—as within all religions—are mechanisms for evolving the interpretation of sacred texts and practices, and thus for incorporating new circumstances in a way the confessional community takes seriously. This, I believe, was Tariq Ramadan’s point in a now-infamous 2003 debate with Nicolas Sarkozy, where Ramadan called for a moratorium on stoning adulteresses but did not condemn it.20  Whatever you may think of Ramadan, consider this point: “What does a moratorium mean? That we absolutely end the application of all of those penalties, in order to have a true debate. And my position is that if we arrive at a consensus among Muslims, it [stoning] will necessarily end.... I can please the French people who are watching by saying, ‘Me, my own position.’ But my own position doesn't count. What matters is to bring about an evolution in Muslim mentalities.” This “traditional-change” is a paradox, like “familiarity with difference.” Yet it is how long-lasting change occurs. Sadly, it is this process which both fundamentalism and assimilation obliterate-fundamentalism by obliterating traditional mechanisms of change in favor of a usually-idealized fixed past, assimilation - be us now! - by obliterating traditional mechanisms of change in favor of a quick shift to a modern western model.

“Traditional change” can proceed only in a pluralistic framework where it has time and space, and where religious immigrants have real, pragmatic access to the economics, education and politics of their new countries. The access is important because without it, there is little for tradition to ponder. Segregated from economic and political life, tradition is not presented with anything of value to consider. The traditions of change should be allowed to work. Otherwise, Europe demands assimilation before participation in an economy immigrants can’t get into anyway. This is a ticket to the ghetto. Shall we consider instead a participatory model of immigration where believers - immigrant and native—can proceed normally with “traditional change” and so that host countries can become familiar with difference.


 1 Wood, G. (2006, June 8). American religion: The great retreat. New York Review of Books, p. 60
 2 Lambsdorff , O. (2005, June 22). Three corners of the world try to find their bearings. Religion and global politics,  International Herald Tribune. 
 3 Economist, (2005, June 23). America’s religious right. You ain't seen nothing yet.; Heineck, G. (2001, Oct.). The determinants of church attendance and religious human capital in Germany. Discussion paper no. 263. Berlin: Deutsches Institut fuer Wirtschaftsforschung; Wacker, G. (2000). The Christian right. The twentieth century: Religion and the national culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Divinity School. National Humanities Center.
Between 1988 and 2003, the percentage of Protestants who identified themselves as evangelical rose from 41% to 54% while between 1960 and 2003, membership in mainline denominations fell by over 24% (29 to 22 million). Evangelicals are now also seeing an influx of Latinos, both converts from Catholicism and those who remain Catholic but have a charismatic form of religious practice. Mead, W. (2006, Sept./Oct.). God’s country? Foreign affairs
5  see, The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 2007 for the US; 2006 for Muslims in Britain, France, Germany and Spain 
6 Grossman, C. (2007, Oct.) Tensions between Sunnis, Shiites, emerging in USA.
7  The area in which Muslim-Americans differ from the general US population is terrorism: only 26% of Muslim-Americans believe the government’s “war on terror” is a “sincere” effort to reduce terrorism, and only 40% believe Muslims committed the 9/11 attacks. In sum, regarding quality of life in the US, Muslim-Americans are as content as anyone and on par economically and educationally.
8  Roughly a third of second-generation Asian and Hispanic immigrants marry a non-Asian or non-Hispanic, and the figure is well over half for the third generation.[15] Children of unskilled immigrants also move up the economic ladder at about the same rate as children of unskilled native-born workers, closing roughly half the gap between their parents and the average American, see George J. Borjas, "Making It in America: Social Mobility in the Immigrant Population," National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 12088, 2006, and James P. Smith, "Assimilation across the Latino Generations," American Economic Review, Vol. 93, (May 2003), pp. 315–319.
9  Parry, R. (2007, Sept. 23).Multi-faith prayers thrive in US politics, 
10  Sacirbey, O. (2007, Oct. 5). U.S. Muslims Hail Ramadan Resolution as Symbol of Acceptance. Religion News Service
11 American evangelicalism was rarely fundamentalism, which focuses on in-group purification, a dooms-day or Armageddon eschatology, and intellectual absolutism (one path for right living).
12  Caron, C. (2007, Aug. 23). Evangelicals Go Green -- Will Conservative Candidates Follow Suit?: Some Christians lead the charge in enivoronmenal policy. ABC News. 13  Pew Forum data from 2006 show 68% of white evangelicals view global warming as a serious problem, Caron, C. (2007, Aug. 23). Evangelicals Go Green - Will Conservative Candidates Follow Suit?: Some Christians lead the charge in enivoronmenal policy. ABC News; In February, 2006, 86 prominent evangelical leaders issued a warning about climate change; a year later, the National Association of Evangelicals published “An Evangelical Call to Action on Climate Change,” explaining, “This is God’s world, and any damage that we do to God’s world is an offense against God Himself,” 
14  See Balmer, R. (2006). Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America — an Evangelical’s Lament; In Irresistible Revolution, Shane Claiborne wonders why literalist Bible reading hasn’t led evangelicals to follow Jesus literally, and give up all to help others, see Claiborne, S. (2006). Irresistible revolution: Living as an ordinary radical.  Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Press. 
15 Revolutionaries oppose abortion and extramarital sex, but encourage female leadership in the church
16  Goodstein, L. (2006, July 30). Disowning Conservative Politics, Evangelical Pastor Rattles Flock. The New York Times; Boyd, G. (2006). The myth of a Christian nation: How the quest for power is destroying the church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan publishing.
17  Barna G. (2006). Revolution: Finding Vibrant Faith Beyond the Walls of the Sanctuary. Tyndale House Publishers.
18 Caron, C. (2007, Aug. 23). Evangelicals Go Green - Will Conservative Candidates Follow Suit?Some Christians lead the charge in enivoronmenal policy. ABC News. 19  Caron, C. (2007, Aug. 23). Evangelicals Go Green -- Will Conservative Candidates Follow Suit?: Some Christians lead the charge in enivoronmenal policy.
20  The debate took place on the French television program "One Hundred Minutes to Convince." Aziz Zemouri provides a transcript in Faut-il faire taire Tariq Ramadan ?  [“Should Tariq Ramadan Be Silenced?”] (2005). L' Archipel.


Vortrag im Rahmen der Veranstaltung Kopftuch, Kruzifix, Karikaturen - Demokratie und religiöser Pluralismus im transatlantischen Vergleich, Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung am 8. November 2007

Bild entfernt.

Marcia Pally ist Professorin für Multicutural Studies an der New York University und war im ersten Halbjahr 2007 Fellow am Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. Ihre Kolumnen erscheinen in zahlreichen deutschen Tageszeitungen.