By Tom Ehrich

Why don’t American believers talk more about religion outside their homes and immediate religious circles?

They rarely do so, according to a recent Pew Research Center study cited by The Atlantic. ( Is it because talking about faith in public is considered “impolite”?

I think the answer is a bit darker than politeness. Many religious people tend to be obnoxious about their religion. They see their faith as license to criticize, lament, shun or even condemn other people. Who wants to be on the receiving end of such smugness?

Similarly, many religious people see faith as a matter of their being right. Possessing right-opinion has become their god. Less important is doing the loving, welcoming and self-denial that faith requires. Right-opinion can be a conversation stopper every time.

One person who commented on The Atlantic article said he talks about religion all the time. His message: faith is the province of those with “mental defects.” He seemed surprised that few want to listen to him. This is the obverse of a common coin: “I am right, and you are wrong, and you just need to listen to me.” Not likely.

Religious talk can be dangerous. Literally, hazardous to your safety. Holding a minority viewpoint – like being a Muslim in Christian America or a Christian in a Muslim society or a Jew anywhere – can lead to violence.

Consider Facebook. I tend to be liberal about accepting friend requests. But I have learned to delete fundamentalists – not because we disagree, for I would welcome knowing more about their beliefs, but because their instinct is to attack. When I wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column, I could count on attacks emanating from Springfield, IL, Indianapolis, and anywhere in Texas – not just disagreeing, but condemning me as a believer and as a person, questioning my right to speak at all. I learned to ignore such attacks. Dialog, yes, but no responding to the closed-minded.

Besides, lives aren’t transformed by arguments or right-opinion. Lives tend to be changed by direct involvement in mission, in grappling with life, in being loved and listened to.

Instead of talking about religion in public, we should be talking about mission, justice, activities where we are putting our faith in practice. A friend talks so passionately about a feeding ministry in our community that it makes me want to help. If he surrounded that same passion with assertions of his religious excellence, I would walk away.

The answer to the Pew question, it seems to me is this: Common sense wins. When religion leads people to behave obnoxiously and smugly, let’s talk about something else. When religion tends to be self-congratulatory, let’s lament the Mets. God won’t be found in the strutting of the devout. God will be found in the tolerance and the sharing of people seeking love and hope.