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Friday, January 16, 2004

HOW RELIGIOUS IS AMERICA REALLY? In the current issue of Prospect there is an excellent article by Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Centre for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College on Americans' religiosity. The idea that Americans are all religious maniacs and probably bent on erecting a Christian theocracy in the US is a very popular image here in Europe and is often quoted to explain anything about America that the largest section of European opinion making doesn't, or more accurately, doesn't want to understand about America, whether it be a preference for voluntary vs. state welfare provision, invading Iraq, American patriotism or whatever else is on the plate. It's a must read article that convincingly concludes:

But to believe that the US is about to turn into a theocracy is to misunderstand both America and its believers. Nor, because of the importance of the religious right, will the US close its borders to non-Christians. (Europeans, in fact, although less religious than Americans, are also more likely to insist on the Christian character of their societies in the face of Muslim immigration than Americans.) America's conservative Christians are as American as they are Christian and conservative. And that I find reassuring, because it tells me that if they have to choose between old-time religion and the seductions of modernity, they are more likely to opt for the latter.

(As an aside note: it is probably because they are less religious that Europeans feel their Christian heritage and basic character of their culture threatened in a way that more observant Americans don't. For example, I more-or-less-regularly attend Anglican-Episcopal churches that have large and vibrant congregations, so I cannot for the life of me feel, that somehow the religious quality of the society I live in would significantly altered by a handful of Muslims more or less. But if I had never seen a church from the inside but took the Christian churches as the sole exercises of religion in my society for granted, I suppose then an increase in Muslim believers would actually be something new one would have to accommodate to, and we all know that this often ends in hostility towards the unknown "other". On the other hand, please don't be carried away into believing that sending the whole lapsed-Christian population to regular Anglican services will put an end to Islamophobia. It's not that easy, sorry.)
I'll briefly comment on some of the issues Wolfe raises.

when religion and American culture come into conflict, as they often do, culture tends to shape religion far more than the other way around. And because US culture is individualistic, populist, entrepreneurial and experiential, old-time religions that stand for unchanging truths, rigid dogma, and strict conceptions of sin do not have much chance.

Although Wolfe doesn't say, the conclusion is that under such circumstances religion will be near impossible. All religions ask at least to some extent, that we go against these trends; most commonly to put our own happiness back to help others. The other thing they normally call for is the adherence to some sort of tradition for its own sake.

Those who fear that born-again Christians stand in opposition to modernity fail to recognise what it means to be born again. Traditional people inherit the views of their parents and grandparents and pass those views on to their children and grandchildren. Born-again Christians, by contrast, value authenticity of experience over historical continuity.

So, they reject tradition as well. This leaves us with a religious movement that refuses to be organised. Perhaps it's at least serious about getting in touch with God's will directly?

No other aspect of their faith is as important to conservative Protestants as worship: prayer, visible and frequent, is what attracts them to church. But worship in conservative Protestant America rarely involves introspective efforts to honour a supreme being whose concerns are other-worldly. (. . .) most involve health, money, and real estate, along with issues facing the church. We should not doubt the meaning that worship has for conservative Christians. But nor should we ignore the fact that, judging by how many believers express themselves in prayer, these are people who believe that God helps those who focus on themselves.

Unsurprisingly, many of the Christian leadership are not particularly happy about this. I can't quite avoid the creeping suspicion that this is perhaps not quite as serious a religious movement at all, but rather more, at the risk of sounding patronising and unnecessarily hostile, like s self-improvment or 60s counter-culture find-youself type thing. I mean, how on earth can a movement so dedicated to individual salvation, actually fulfil the Christian idea of helping others? Reaching out to help others, independently of who they are and their circumstances, is one of the central tenets of Christianity, so in a way the evangelicals are a sort of post-Christian Christianity, and are just another manifestation of a widespread trend in the modern West, that has turned its back on tradition, because tradition wasn't "producing results" rapidly enough. So, instead of strengthening traditional religion this pick-and-mix approach will actually weaken the Church and Christianity, just in a way that the less Christianity-fixated fast-food-religionists will do, that Libby Brooks portrayed. Religious and moral improvement, like all social progress, is something that requires great patience and the willingness to put up with doubts.

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