Christmas Eve and Christmas Day — are religious holidays for Iowans who are Christians. Radio Iowa asked a handfull of the state’s “thinkers” to ponder a question: how do the religious beliefs of Iowans shape our state’s society and culture? Iowa’s Governor, Tom Vilsack, says faith is a very strong element of life in Iowa. “It defines how we look at one another. It defines our willingness to share, to volunteer. There’s a very strong ethic in our state of sharing and volunteering,” Vilsack says.
“I think it is essentially faith-based. It starts from a very strong faith that we instill in our youngsters as they grow up and it’s translated into action as they get older in business and in society in general.”
Radio Iowa also posed the question about faith to Drake University president David Maxwell. Maxwell says Iowa’s religious heritage is a “tremendously important” part of the state’s culture. “A number of the populations that came to Iowa in the 19th century either came because of religious reasons or certainly were guided by very strong, powerful sets of religious beliefs,” Maxwell says. “Whether it was European immigrants from central and northern Europe (or) the Mormons (who) came through here…for religious reasons. There were various kinds of utopian protestant sects that founded some important institutions in this state, including my alma mater, Grinnell (College), so it’s certainly part of our legacy and I think shapes very much part of who were are.”
Maxwell says there’s a “powerful sense” of social justice in Iowa. “Whether it’s the Christian faith or the Jewish faith or the Muslim faith…or Hindi, there are lots of people in our population whose ideas of social justice and what it means to be member of a society derives from a very powerful set of beliefs,” Maxwell says.
University of Iowa president David Skorton shares the view that social justice is an important ethic in Iowa. “The Judaeo-Christian background of the vast majority of the population affects everything from our legal system to our approach to each other in the sense of being considerate of the other person and prescriptions against crimes and so on. I know you’re asking something deeper than that,” Skorton told Radio Iowa news director O. Kay Henderson. “I would say that this is a state in which there is a close connection…between the underlying ethos of the Judaeo-Christian tradition and the way I think people try to live their lives. Now I hasten to say that I think that ethos can be followed if you’re an atheist, if you’re a secular humanist and many, many other traditions exist in the world — the fastest growing Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and so on — and I think that there are ethical and moral underpinnings that are of more of a common character among those traditions than they are different.”
Vilsack agrees that the Judaeo-Christian beliefs of Iowans shape the state’s culture. “Iowa has a tradition for being progressive in terms of expansion of rights and civil rights in particular. I think that’s part of our faith tradition. In my experience, the faith tradition is really defined more by the extent to which we reach out and help people,” Vilsack says. “One of the most amazing things I see in my job is when there is disaster or tragedy the Iowa community — whether it’s the neighborhood, whether it’s the small town — reaches out to people and makes them feel as if they are supported and surrounded and protected and I think that absolutely is a result of the faith that we have in a higher power and the religious traditions that suggest we have a responsibility to each other.” But are these characteristics unique to Iowa?
Governor Vilsack has some perspective on that, having moved to his wife’s hometown in Iowa after he finished college. “I had a unique growing-up-experience in Pittsburg. Our family was the only Catholic family in a Jewish community, a Jewish neighborhood,” Vilsack says. “What I saw were the very, very strong traditions of the Jewish faith that really defined everything about life in my neighborhood from the importance of education to the significance of hard work and contributing and making sure that you were shouldering your portion of the community burden. That system reinforced what I was learning as I went through parochial school and learned the lessons of my faith that, again, it was the sort of Golden Rule: you do unto others as you wish others to do unto you.”
Statistics from 2002, the most-recent year available, indicate 78 percent of Americans are Christians. Of those Christians, 52 percent are protestant, 24 percent are Roman Catholic and two percent are Mormon. One percent of the U.S. population is Jewish and one percent is Muslim. Ten percent of Americans identify with other religions, like Buddhist or Hindu, and 10 percent have no religious affiliation.