What Does Religiosity Say about America?

Observers starting with Tocqueville in Democracy in America have taken note of the vitality of voluntary associations in America.  Chief among these has been the diversity of religious organizations.  Although Europeans are apt to denounce the United States an overtly religious and Christian country, and overly conservative owing precisely to its religiosity, what they fail to realize is that the history of the church in the United States couldn’t be more different from that of state-sponsored establishment churches in European history.  Simply put, sectarian Christianity in the United States has been vital from the founding until this day, because there has always been a free market among religious denominations doing their best to draw new adherents.  Because the state was explicitly neutral and took no sides on what should count as an official church, organized religion was never seen as part of a political order that progressives would want to overturn.  What does the continuing vitality of the church in America today really say about the U.S.?  What implications might this have for how we see American culture and foreign policy?

Picture a strip mall in the heart of the Bible Belt and seat of the rebellion in the Civil War, South Carolina.  There’s a church over to the side, by an enormous parking lot.  It’s a very large, one-story building, with no steeple, no cross, and no sign that it’s a church other than the words, “Oakbrook Fellowship.”  It’s Sunday morning, so let’s go inside, past the entrance with its doughnuts and coffee, and into the sanctuary where everyone’s already seated.  People are not dressed in their Sunday best.  It could be an afternoon at a baseball game.  There are no pews.  Instead, there are folding chairs.  The Christian rock band is just getting started.  And as we listen to the wail of the electric guitar and the soulful backup vocals, we realize that this is actually a pretty good band, as the rocking and swaying of the churchgoers would attest.  As the band plays these very contemporary rock hymns, we take note of the words on the big screen above the stage, and they tell us of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  Such words might move us if we were inclined to believe that Jesus died for our sins, that this burden was incalculably painful, and that we therefore owe Him a debt of immeasurable gratitude.  The ladies raising their hands in ecstatic praise no doubt believe so.

This scene seems to confirm many European stereotypes about America, yet there is more going on than meets the eye.  It is true that ordinary Americans do not care about the way they dress.  In this church, they don’t care much about how they dress the church, either.  It is true that a pumping back beat and an amped-up rhythm section would hardly seem to signal religious piety, nor would a laptop projecting PowerPoint onto the big screen.  Yet, we should focus on what’s on that big screen.  The words and the message haven’t changed, and continue to have the power to move us, regardless of the outer trappings of how they are presented.  To the American mind, as congealed in the religious beliefs of Americans — which we must remember represented the major reason why the earliest settlers left Europe for America to begin with, to practice their religion as they saw fit and not according to the dictates of any secular authority – the presentation is not important.  The outer trappings are not important.  Protestantism was supposed to be about the Word of God as given to us in the Bible, not the luxuries and idolatries of the Catholic Church.  If so, then the simpler the better, if the message itself can be brought into even greater relief.  Simplicity was a defining characteristic of the original denominations of America, chief among which were the New England Puritans, who exercised outsized influence on the trajectory of American culture.  Simplicity of dress, manner, and expression continue to define Americans in the eyes of Europeans and other non-Americans.  There is a moral basis to this, to the extent that it is rooted in what Americans have been taught is important by their religious heritage, that a good heart trumps a sophisticated presentation, and that God sees through all manner of human artifice.

Something else that should impress the European or non-American observer is that Christian rock band.  There was no such thing as Christian rock thirty years ago.  Fifty years ago, rock was considered the handmaiden of the Devil by Christian conservatives.  What this band signals about American culture and American religion is a willingness to adapt to suit new times though the impetus of competition.  The market was never conceived of as profane by the earliest American settlers.  None of the original American settlers worked the land as peasants tied to the land for generations, like the great majority of their European ancestors.  They were, by and large, free-standing farmers, enmeshed in colonial and global markets.  Accustomed to the habits of the free market, Americans were therefore prepared to adapt the church to suit new “customers.”  They would do what it took to get new believers and expand their own denominations.  The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution bars the establishment of any state religion.  In the absence of religious monopoly, different American denominations were freed to compete for new adherents, resulting in the “service-orientation” that has kept Americans going to church to this day at rates far higher than in Europe.  Rather than marking off the U.S. as a “Christian nation,” that Christian rock band is in fact the direct result of the First Amendment and the American commitment to state neutrality in matters of religious conscience.

Preacher Stan served a tour in Afghanistan before coming back to lead the congregation.  He is wiry and intense, with a deep Southern drawl.  Preacher Stan goes up to the pulpit.  He speaks about our need to stay committed to the goal of the church this year to expand the membership.  A PowerPoint presentation underscores his points.  We must bring the message of Jesus Christ to new believers, through our example as good Christians and through community outreach, such as our life groups for fathers, retirees, teenagers, and others we may bring to our flock.  Preacher Stan speaks at length about the church’s organizational goals.  His sermon seems almost an afterthought.  To the European mind, he might seem less a conduit for God’s Word than a motivational speaker meant to mobilize any secular organization.  The European may scoff that in America, religion is business, just as business is religion.

Yet that business of converting souls does not in principle discriminate against anyone as long as it builds the church organization.  It draws from anyone who is willing to believe.  Today’s congregation consists of people of all ages, classes, and ethnicities, and in its zeal to gain new members and expand the church, we see a metaphor for America itself.  Conversion is much like the process of assimilation, in that anyone is welcome just as long as they renounce prior loyalties.  Anyone is welcome as long as they have the right ideology.  And if they have the wrong ideology, no one will think that they really belong.  Over time, this builds a group, or a nation, of great ideological homogeneity, drawn from constituents diverse in almost every other way.  Because they volunteer to join this particular group, and the only thing holding them together is an ideology, that ideology becomes constitutive of group identity, and people hold onto it with great conviction, on pain of losing that identity.  It is not imposed from above, as we are apt to understand “ideology” in the wake of 20th century totalitarianism.  Rather, it is an “organic ideology.”  An organic ideology — what could be stronger than that?  If, in the fevered imaginations of the Chinese, solidarity is the key to national strength, to the extent that it must be achieved through state-imposed ideology and coercion, then we see in this an explanation for why the U.S. has risen so unexpectedly from such humble beginnings.  The people became one through their zeal for their chosen country, they did so on their own and therefore with genuine vigor, and they continued to expand, because that was their business and their mission, just like the Oakbrook Fellowship.

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2 Responses to What Does Religiosity Say about America?

  1. Rongnan says:

    Very interesting discussion.
    Reading A Secular Age right now. In this book, Taylor explains the “American exception” on religious belief. He found that different from European societies, new immigrants in United States could be integrated by their religious belief that United States is a nation blessed by God, though they may belongs to various religious denominations. That is how religion still play a role in its public culture.
    In chapter of “The Age of Mobilization”, he compares the situation of European societies and that of the United States, “We have been describing two ways in which religious faith might re-establish itself within the Mobilization model, after the break with the ancien régime. The first involved a presence of God at the level of the whole society, as the author of a Design which this society is undertaking to carry out. The Design of God, as it were, defines the political identity of this society. The second consists in “free” churches, set up as instruments of mutual help whereby individuals are brought in contact with the Word of God and mutually strengthen each other in ordering their lives along Godly lines. They consist very well together. Not only are they both organized on similar principles: mobilizing to carry out the will of God; but they can also be seen as mutually strengthening. This was the case in the early U.S.A. The Republic secures the freedom of the churches; and the churches sustain the Godly ethos which the Republic requires.”

    • Frank Tsai says:

      Interesting that Taylor is venturing in some empirical exegesis! Now I’m curious to read what he has to say in The Secular Age. Despite the fact that he’s Canadian, and in my more extreme moments I’m inclined to think that no foreigners could ever truly understand a nation of which they are not a part (something else I’ve taken from the nationalists and cultural traditionalists in China), I do think he’s spot on about the curious mutual reinforcement of the American regime and American civil society. I would rephrase his last sentence to say that the regime granted the church freedom so that the church could further legitimate the regime that would sustain it — an expression of gratitude further solidifying the bonds of civil society and government and the identification of the people with their government. What kind of gratitude? Gratitude to be free of Europe and its religious intolerance.
      Much of American “expansion” into the West in the 19th century was done not by the government, but by civil society. The people moved, stole Native American lands, etc., and the government only belated moved to legitimize what were already facts on the ground. It’s almost as though civil society and government worked hand-in-hand, as though there had been some previously meditated conspiracy — but of course there was not. The people were hungry for land and for expansion, and the government followed in their wake. This would be the much uglier side of the “expansion” of the Oakbrook Fellowship that I write about above. In American foreign policy today, we continue to see civil society moving first, and government following society, i.e. whether that is business interests or religious influence in U.S. foreign policy toward China.
      It strikes me, as I read my last paragraph, that I do two things. First, I try to provide the reader a social scientific explanation: Americans are ideologically homogeneous (or put differently, philosophically closed-minded) because they are immigrants. All that immigrants have that tie themselves to the American nation is an ideology, and if that’s all they have, then they will believe in that ideology all the more fervently. Second, I’m engaged in myth-making. I “invent” a narrative of the American nation that then “explains” American expansionism. There is always a gap between myth and reality.
      Perhaps what non-American readers like yourself may not realize is the essential tragedy of that last paragraph. It is an exercise in wishful thinking. I wish that the country had been so full of solidarity as an expression of that wish for the United States today. Precisely because the country was so full of this purported solidarity, it was therefore “strong” — not for other reasons (natural resources, geographic isolation, English political institutions, etc.), but precisely because of its solidarity. I am just barely conscious of the fact that this is a wish. I put some space between myself and this wish when I say “if, in the fevered imaginations of the Chinese.” It may not be the case that solidarity equals national strength. This is what the Chinese (regime) thinks. Only if the Chinese (regime) is in fact correct, can we then explain why America rose “so unexpectedly from such humble beginnings.” The regime got this ultimately from Yan Fu. I am only right if Yan Fu is right. This is one way that my very long encounter with China has changed me and made me see the U.S. with Chinese eyes.

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