How Americans would respond to a new large religious building nearby

I’ll post a Quick Review of American Grace soon (see an earlier post here) but I wanted look at an excerpt about another topic I have written about recently: how suburban governments respond to requests for the construction of religious buildings (this includes churches and mosques). Here is a description of findings from the 2007 Faith Matters Survey (pages 512-514)

How Americans respond to land use matters involving religious groups depends on the religion in questions. According to the 2007 Faith Matter survey, an overwhelming majority of Americans (92 percent) say that the construction of a large Christian church in their community would either not both them (55 percent) or is something they would welcome (37 percent). This level of acceptance is high even among the most secular tenth of the population (87 percent), although their reaction is far less supportive. Eighty-two percent of the highly secular say that they would merely “not be bothered” by a large Christian church, while just 5 percent would explicitly welcome it.

Because of the near-ubiquity of Christian churches in American communities, we were also interested in reactions to a religious facility that would unfamiliar to many Americans, and so we asked about the construction of a “large Buddhist temple.”…

The point of asking about both kinds of religious structures it to distinguish among different reasons for opposing their construction. Some people might oppose both a large Christian church and a large Buddhist temple because they object to the construction of any sizable structure in their neighborhood, whether it be a church, a temple, a restaurant, a store. Or it could be because they have an aversion to religion of any kind. However, opposition to a Buddhist temple but not a Christian church would suggest that the concern lies with Buddhism specifically or perhaps “exotic” (or non-Christian) religions more generally.

For Buddhists who might be planning to build a temple, our results contain good news and bad news. The good news is the high overall support, at least in the abstract for a Buddhist temple. Three quarters of Americans (76 percent) say they have no problem with the construction of a large Buddhist temple in their neighborhood. The bad news is that only a small number (15 percent) would explicitly welcome it in their midst. Even worse news for the Buddhists is that one in five Americans (20 percent) say that they have no problem with a large Christian church but would object to a Buddhist temple…Approval of a Buddhist temple drops precipitously as personal religiosity increases…

These are interesting findings that suggest Americans are pretty favorable toward large new churches in their community and a majority would be favorable toward a large Buddhist temple. A few thoughts about these findings:

1. The interchanging of the term “community” and “neighborhood” bothers me. The original survey questions (see here) ask about buildings built in a community. I would assume many survey respondents would perceive a neighborhood as a smaller, closer geographic area and might respond differently. It would be one thing for a Naperville resident to express support for a Buddhist temple on the other side of the community, perhaps 7-8 miles away, compared to expressing support for a temple within a 15 minute walk.

2. I would suspect that more Americans would be less supportive if the questions asked about large religious buildings very close to their home. Residential neighbors often get worked up about such structures, not people from the other side of the community (unless it is a smaller community). This would be NIMBY in action.

3. The word “large” in the survey questions is a bit unclear here: are we talking about a megachurch or a congregation of 300? The sorts of problems Americans complain about regarding large structures, such as traffic, are larger with bigger buildings.

4. It’s too bad there isn’t a third question asking about responses to a proposal for a large mosque. While both Buddhists and Muslims are rated low according to larger American religious groups (see pages 501-509), I wonder if many Americans wouldn’t see Islam as more foreign than Buddhism.

On the whole, I am a bit skeptical that these survey results reflect zoning and municipal discussions regarding large religious congregations. Perhaps a very vocal minority tends to oppose such buildings – this tends to characterize a lot of local development discussions. But when residents feel threatened by such large structures, their magnanimity may decrease.

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  1. [...] recently wrote about a small section of American Grace but I have had a chance to complete the full book. Here are my thoughts about this broad-ranging [...]

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