According to the latest Pew Research survey, some 42% of Americans identify themselves as Christians first and Americans second. The numbers released today seem to underscore a growing concern among secularists that a large portion of the American population more closely resembles French Muslims than say British Christians. Simply put, Americans are more fundamentalist in their religious beliefs and identity than our brethren across the pond.
Almost as if to combat the finding, the press wires have been abuzz with news that Titanic director James Cameron (an American no less) is set to release a new documentary highlighting his discovery of Jesus' tomb- a claim which could significantly undermine the Christian faith as it proclaims Christ's physical resurrection from the dead.
The documentary has already sparked a flurry of denunciations from most major Christian denominations (though word on the street is the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire is a big fan), and the ridicule of leading Israeli and American archaeologists.
William Dever formerly of the University of Arizona "considered the dean of biblical archaeology among U.S. scholars," said:
I've know about these ossuaries for many years and so have many other archaeologists, and none of us thought it was much of a story, because these are rather common Jewish names from that period...It's a publicity stunt, and it will make these guys very rich, and it will upset millions of innocent people because they don't know enough to separate fact from fiction."
Of course, Cameron's finding would be a rather interesting discovery, indeed, if not for the minor point that the six ossuaries (coffins) in question were discovered some twenty-seven years ago.
Just for the record, Dever is an avowed secularist with over 50 years experience excavating ancient sites in the Middle East.
The stories plucked from today's headlines seem to accentuate a basic, long-standing tension between secularists and Christians pointing out why the two are so often skeptical of one another.
The Pew study makes clear that America is religiously more conservative than Europe- a point many on the left would rather not recall. Such numbers also make it easier for the same to cast this subset of the population in a similar light to some of the more fundamentalist elements of French Muslims for example.
Meanwhile, stories like the discovery of Christ's tomb seem to make the case for Christian Believers to distrust secular elements in the entertainment and media industries entirely- a group which is especially prone to publicizing such stories to the angst of American Christians.
The question I consider most valuable from all of this, perhaps surprisingly, is the following: Is this tension really a bad thing?
On some level, I think the religious fracture within the United States only speaks to the durability and vitality of the American experiment. Where else can so many agree on so little and still find themselves sharing common values?
We disagree on many things within our society but the continuing public discourse on faith and its clear role in informing our political conversation has historically been amicable and consistent- albeit one of tenuous agreeability to chat at all, rather than a formal collusion to agree on anything.
In short, here in America we typically agree to disagree and let the chips fall where they may- perhaps to the bewilderment of many in the Western World.