O pray can you see? – part 2

Part 1 summarized some of the explanations put forward to account for the anomalous popularity of religious belief in the United States. In Part 2, I want to present the two arguments which seem to me most likely, in the first case, and most appealing, in the other.

The first argument has been suggested by a number of writers, recently including Richard Dawkins. They point out that the United States, in the main conceived and founded by Deists, never had a single, establishment church. As a young country with no official state church, the United States never endured the corruption and oppression typical of a long conjunction of church and state. Europeans in particular suffered centuries of power-sharing between monarchs and patriarchs, and the inevitable backlash against this powerful pair has fueled Europe’s rejection of both king and priest in ways not possible in the United States. Ironically, then, this argument states, the United States is a very religious country because it was never an officially religious country.

Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and other prominent American revolutionaries were thoughtful Deists. They believed that the existence of an orderly universe implied a Creator, but they rejected the notion of a personified god and all that goes with it: personal salvation, revelation, miracles, redemption, heaven and hell. They particularly opposed the establishment in the United States of a sanctioned religion. (Vocab sidebar: the longest non-technical word in the English dictionary, “antidisestablishmentarianism,” means opposition to the proposal to remove favoured status from the Anglican Church in England.)

Paine rejected the need for formal churches with his famous declaration in The Age of Reason: “I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.” When Patrick Henry (of “Give me liberty or give me death” fame) proposed renewing Virginia’s colonial tradition of “multiple establishments” (essentially, taxing for religion and splitting the proceeds among recognized churches), James Madison countered with his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Establishments, in which he sketched the negative history of established churches:

During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution. . . . What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of poliltical tyranny; in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people.

Jefferson reiterated the antiestablishment intention of the Founders when he wrote to a group of Connecticut Baptists that the Constitution had built “a wall of separation between church and state.” This separation left religion free to flourish without becoming overly identified with political evils. The result is that religion in America avoided the resentments and backlash common to other Western nations.

(How much Christianity’s “free ride” in the United States is being compromised by American fundamentalism’s ever-stronger identification with a radicalized Republican Party is open to speculation. The governing Conservative Party in Canada is headed by a staunch fundamentalist, but for the most part it has adroitly minimized the damning public perception of being too closely tied to a single, extreme world view — so far, that is.)

Combine this American opposition to establishment with a history of churches as strong rural social structures, as presented in Part 1, and I think that a pretty convincing case can be made that American religious life has had “the best of both worlds” — a long history of positive experiences with churches, without either the oppression common to a single sanctioned faith or the corruption of religious ideals by too close an association with state power.

The other explanation that appeals to me argues that the position of the United States high on the list of religious societies is not so much a religious as it is an economic anomaly. In this view, the United States is one of the most unequal advanced societies, with such atypical features as a huge earnings gap between the rich and the poor, an imbalance that creates a socio-economic dynamic that is often more like that of a developing nation than that of typical post-industrial countries.

Weak social safety nets; high poverty and illiteracy levels; low unionism and worker protection legislation; weak and ineffective regulation of corporations and the financial sector; expensive, inadequate or nonexistent health insurance and medical care; high crime rates – these and other factors give significant sectors of American society characteristics that are more like those of the rest of the highly religious nations of the world than like those of the other major economies. Large parts of the United States are economically impoverished, and tens of millions occupy a social underclass from which it is difficult to escape. Seeing American life this way, there is no inconsistency between the apparent status of the United States as an advanced country and its actual reliance on religion for stability and solace in the face of extreme economic and personal insecurities.

Again, the description of the importance of churches as a central community resource in a dispersed rural society may combine with the idiosyncracies of an atypically insecure economic system to account for the power and persistence of the influence of religion in American life today. Insecurity and refuge are strong motivators, and the powerful position of religious belief in the United States may well be the legacy of their interaction.

Of all of the explanations in Parts 1 & 2, the “antiestablishment” argument made by Dawkins, et al., seems likeliest – but the argument that American society reflects its aberrant, “Wild West” social and economic structures appeals most strongly to the lefty in me.