In recent weeks there have been a number of conflicts in the United States between those who favor a more prominent place for religion in public life and those who insist on strict adherence to the separation of church and state established by the constitution. At the same time, the diversification of spiritual beliefs in America has changed old assumptions about religion.
Christians are in the majority in the United States, but some describe themselves as increasingly under siege and persecuted by a secular society. In Alabama recently a controversy erupted over a stone monument of the Ten Commandments that had been placed in a public building. It was removed despite the objections of many conservative Christians.
Similar controversies have arisen in other places, including Houston, where a monument outside a court house was challenged in a lawsuit because it included a representation of a Bible. Among the people who are fighting its removal is a black minister, C.L. Jackson, who had been involved in the civil rights march on Washington in 1963.
"Forty years ago I left this city to go to Washington, DC, for my civil rights," he said. "Today, 40 years later, I stand before the courthouse for my Christian rights."
Those objecting to the Bible monument, however, say the rights of non-believers and non-Christians are violated by its presence outside a government building.
Rice University Sociology Professor Michael Emerson says such incidents reflect the transformation of religious life in this country from one dominated by Christianity to one in which there are followers of many beliefs.
"When this process happens, then Christians, particularly conservative Christians, feel they are being shoved out of society, that they are being asked to leave," said Professor Emerson. "[They say] 'we have always done it this way. Look what it says on our money, it says 'In God We Trust.' So why are we doing this? We must be becoming non-religious as a society." What I think is really happening is that we are becoming more diverse religiously."
Mr. Emerson hopes to learn more about religious diversity and the effect it is having on U.S. society through a new study being conducted by both Rice University here in Houston and Notre Dame University in Indiana. Backed by a $3.3 million grant from the Lilly Endowment, investigators will embark on a long-term study of religious beliefs and behaviors among various ethnic groups. Professor Emerson says the study will track individuals and families for decades to come.
"When we follow people over time we will not only get to see that this particular event seemed to trigger a change in their view or involvement in religion, but we will be able to look at what they were like 20 years ago, what were they thinking about these subjects at that time and see if there is a relationship between what you were thinking at age 20 and how a death in the family at 40 affects you," he explained.
Mr. Emerson says information from this study could be useful to political as well as religious leaders in that it will provide understanding of changes within various communities and conflicts that can arise between them.
"We hope to be able to provide information that can help us understand what, on the grassroots level, is really happening in people's minds and then use that to reduce conflicts that are going to come," added Professor Emerson.
Conflicts could arise, according to Mr. Emerson, from any number of changes that are already under way. The growth of Islam in the United States, for example, has created conflicts over such issues as the right of a woman to wear a veil at school or work. There are also changes within the Christian world, where large numbers of Hispanics have been leaving the Catholic Church and migrating to evangelical Protestant congregations. The growth of the Mormon church has also created diversity within the Christian community.
In the Rice/Notre Dame study, researchers will begin by interviewing 2,500 people across the nation. They will then follow up by interviewing these people every three years for the rest of their lives. Their children, upon reaching the age of 18, will then also be asked to join the study. It is a daunting task, but Professor Emerson says it holds the promise of providing insight into a crucial aspect of American life for many decades into the future.