Religious Diversity by Steve Prothero

To Live and Die in Gwinnett County

An in-law of mine once worked as a pastor at a small Lutheran church in Gwinnett County in suburban Atlanta. Each time I got off the interstate and bent my car toward her home, I seemed to pass more signs with Asian scripts. Asian immigrants have been coming to the United States in huge numbers ever since Congress lifted immigration restrictions in landmark legislation in 1965, and by the 1990s they had clearly discovered Gwinnett County.

The rapid influx of these immigrants into a Southern Baptist stronghold (where not long ago Lutherans were considered eccentric) led to the proverbial white flight. Soon my in-law’s parishioners had moved farther out, and her church had closed its doors. The last time I visited the area, I passed a new Islamic center, the Masjid Omar bin Abdul-Aziz, not far from the old church. Although I had been studying America’s religious diversity for over a decade, I was surprised that Muslims had come so quickly and in such numbers even to the Bible Belt.

Islam is now widely regarded as one of the fastest growing religions in the United States. Estimates of the number of Muslims in the country vary widely, but those Muslims who are here are building mosques (known in Arabic as “masjids”) at a dizzying rate. According to a recent study sponsored by Hartford Seminary’s Hartford Institute for Religious Research, there are now over 1,200 mosques in the United States. How many Muslim cemeteries there are in the United States is difficult to determine. But this much is sure: every one of metro Atlanta’s estimated 60,000 Muslims is going to die some day, and each one will need a place to be buried.

Currently most of the Muslims who die in Gwinnett County are being laid to rest in the only Muslim cemetery in metro Atlanta, near Lovejoy in Clayton County. Yet that site is filling up fast, prompting the Georgia Islamic Institute of Religious & Social Sciences to propose a 1,500-plot cemetery a few miles from its mosque in Lawrenceville, Georgia. Their proposal was slated for review at a meeting of the Gwinnett County Municipal Planning Commission on September 18, 2001. But terror intervened and, as it is said, everything changed, including zoning procedures in suburban Atlanta. As the nation reeled from the events of 9/11, the September 18 meeting was cancelled, pending a reevaluation of matters as mundane as water pathogens and as sacred as the meaning of Islam.

Over the last few months, as proposed hearings have been scheduled and cancelled again and again (once because of a rare Atlanta snow), residents of Gwinnett County have joined President Bush in discussing Islam. Their particular focus, however, has been Muslim death rites. Like Jews, Muslims typically do not embalm. They bury their dead quickly, within twenty-four hours of death, in a simple shroud and without a coffin or a vault. They then top their graves with modest markers rather than fancy headstones. Given these customs, their cemeteries can look quite different from the typical American memorial park. Open graves are not unusual, given the requirement to bury within a day of death. And because Muslims eschew coffins and vaults, gravesites can sink over time, leaving small impressions in the earth.

Local opponents of the Muslim cemetery did not say they wanted their neighborhood free of the Muslim dead. They argued instead that Muslim burial practices represented a public health hazard and an eyesore: pathogens from unembalmed corpses would leak into the groundwater and imperil their children, and an unkempt cemetery would imperil their property values.

The First Amendment, of course, guarantees the free exercise of religion. At least in the popular imagination, it also erects what Thomas Jefferson famously referred to as “a wall of separation” between church and state. Yet Americans are not free to do absolutely anything they want religiously, and the wall separating church and state resembles a modest picket fence more than the Great Wall of China. To put it another way, the limits of religious exercise are constantly being tested, as are the limits on church-state collaboration.

Most observers of those tests and those limits have trained their sights on Washington, D.C., and the Supreme Court. Like politics, however, religion is local. The pope speaks for Roman Catholicism, but Catholics go to Mass in their local parishes; and while the Dalai Lama speaks for the Buddhist tradition, Buddhism takes place, literally, on the ground at Buddhist temples. Observers of church-state (and mosque-state) relations would do well to listen, therefore, not only to President Bush and Chief Justice Rehnquist but also to local zoning officials and town selectmen. At least as much as presidents and Supreme Court justices, those officials determine what we can and cannot do religiously — where Buddhist monks can live, whether Sikhs — can wear ceremonial swords, and even how Muslims bury their dead. The determinations of local officials are in turn influenced by popular opinion, which at least as much as legal precedents shapes interactions between America’s Christian majority and its many and varied religious minorities.

As the Muslim cemetery drama played out after September 11, a predictable array of characters emerged. Muslims invoked the First Amendment and reminded local politicians that Islam was not a cult, but, as President Bush had insisted, “a religion of peace.” Rednecks equated Atlanta’s Muslims with the killers of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. New South politicians mediated between the two camps, looking for an artful compromise.

In the end, John Dunn, of the Gwinnett County Commission was unable to satisfy everyone, but he and his fellow commissioners did fashion a compromise. By a 4-0 vote, they approved a special-use permit for a scaled-down 1,276-plot cemetery. They did not insist on embalming, but they did mandate wooden caskets and stone or metal grave markers, and they outlawed open pits. Opponents had requested a ten-foot-high brick wall surrounding the site. The commissioners gave them an eight-foot-tall wooden fence. “These are all Americans,” County Commissioner John Dunn told a reporter from the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, “and they should have all the rights and privileges afforded American citizens.”

Like every other county in Georgia, Gwinnett County is dominated by Baptists. Islam may be growing quickly there, but Baptists predominate. In this respect, Gwinnett County looks a lot like the rest of the United States. The United States may be, as Harvard professor Diana Eck has recently argued, “the world’s most religiously diverse nation,” but it is at the same time undeniably and overwhelmingly Christian. In fact, the United States now has more Christians inside its borders than has any other country in the history of the world. According to an important telephone survey just released by RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY and U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT, 83% of Americans describe themselves as Christians of one stripe or another.

This remarkable coexistence of radical diversity and Christian commitment is in my view a key paradox of American religion. The story of American religion is not, as Eck has implied, a tale of Christianity yielding to Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. It is a story of a country that somehow became astonishingly diverse religiously even as it remained overwhelmingly Christian.

The implications of this new situation on civil society are no doubt significant but they are as yet unknown. So I am grateful that the RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY/U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT survey took pains not only to measure the numbers of Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, and Muslims in the United States but also to gauge their attitudes toward one another.

While I was teaching at Georgia State University in Atlanta, I was always surprised to learn how many of my Baptist and Methodist students had never met a Jew or a Catholic. This survey shows that despite the country’s growing religious diversity, Americans remain quite isolated religiously. Nearly half of the adults surveyed were not “personally acquainted” with a Jew. Nearly three out of every four respondents did not personally know a Muslim. Hindus and Buddhists were not known to more than four out of five. Given this lack of interpersonal contact, it should not be surprising that most Americans knew little about religions other than their own. While 95% were either “very familiar” or “somewhat familiar” with Christianity, only 35% were familiar with Islam, 27% with Buddhism, and 21% with Hinduism.

Although few of the survey respondents knew much about Islam, they nonetheless held opinions about it. When it came to their “general impression of Islam,” the respondents were fairly evenly divided. 36% had a favorable impression of the religion and 37% an unfavorable one. When asked whether Islam was, as President Bush has maintained, a peaceful religion, the respondents answered with considerable skepticism. Although 40% said that Islam harbored about the same number of violent extremists as other religions, 39% said Islam had more violent extremists and only 4% said it had fewer.

One of the most revealing questions on the survey gauged the diffusion of Samuel Huntington’s thesis that the world is gearing up for a clash of civilizations between Christianity and Islam. “What do you think the chances are of a bigger armed conflict sometime soon between the Christian countries of Europe and North America and Islamic countries?” the survey asked. More than two out of every three respondents (69%) answered that such a conflict was either very likely or somewhat likely.

As I finished exploring the results of this survey, I couldn’t help wondering whether Americans’ convictions about this impending Muslim-Christian battle were tied to our unfamiliarity with Muslims and Islam. In Gwinnett County, tensions arose when a rapidly growing Muslim population encountered a Southern Baptist majority. Some Christians refused to accept a Muslim cemetery of any sort, and, when the compromise went through, they put their homes on the market. Most citizens agreed to work things out. Muslims agreed to adapt their time-honored practices to American tastes and norms. Christians agreed to live, and perhaps even to die, alongside their Muslim neighbors. In the process, local citizens of all religions got to know Muslims and learned about Islam.

Professors are often naive about the virtues of education, and sometimes familiarity breeds contempt. Still, I can’t help hoping that, as more Americans come to know Muslims and come to learn about Islam, fewer Americans will see a civilizational clash between Christianity and Islam as inevitable. The coexistence of Christianity and religious diversity is one of the paradoxes of American religion. Another paradox is the ability of most Americans to mix heartfelt faith with a strong commitment to religious tolerance. For centuries, immigration has tested that commitment, and virtually every decade has been marred by some measure of religiously inspired violence. Nonetheless, the commitment to religious tolerance runs deep, in the United States and in Gwinnett County.

Stephen Prothero is an associate professor in the Department of Religion at Boston University, specializing in Asian religious traditions in the United States. His most recent book is PURIFIED BY FIRE: A HISTORY OF CREMATION IN AMERICA.