I've got a long-standing interest in the question of why, given that American culture has been so heavily European, Americans are more religious than Europeans? I've never found an explanation that I find satisfactory. But there's a direction worth pursuing in this piece, which is revised from an article I originally published in the now-defunct Buffalo Report in March 2005. Except for the short addendum, I published this revised version in Truth and Traditions.
Salvation and Democracy, or How One's Personal Relationship with Christ Underwrites Governmental Legitimacy
In the immediate wake of the 2004 Presidential election there was a lot of earnest talk about the role of religion and morality in the election and more generally in contemporary American political life. The early word was that unless the Democrats get religion, they’re finished. While that talk has abated somewhat, the issue of religion in our political life remains with us.
What makes this particularly perplexing is that, while American culture is largely derived from Europe, Europeans are not nearly so religious. Thus a 1993 Gallup poll found that 43 percent of Americans attended church weekly as compared to 14 percent for the British, 12 percent French, and 4 percent Swedes. Not only is America more religious than Europe, but revivalism has been important throughout American history from the Colonial period through the present.
This question interests me, in the first place, because, in some measure I am a standard issue secular humanist who finds the European situation more compatible with a simple, perhaps naive, belief that human progress involves the advance of reason. I find the question a pressing one because of the current political situation. It is not simply that fundamentalism has been on the rise for the past two or three decades, but that it seems captive to some of the most destructive forces in contemporary American politics. And yet . . .
An Anthropologist Takes a Look
I have assumed the traditional posture of the Martian anthropologist in an effort to understand why religious belief remains central to American culture and politics: What would our political culture look like to an outsider, someone WAY outside the ordinary, like a Martian? This Martian might look at political doctrine. Consider the opening of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Forms, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
So, the Martian observes, the government gains its power by grant from the people. The people, in turn, gain their power, their unalienable rights, from their Creator. This reverses the logic of legitimization prevailing in traditional European monarchies. In those governments the rulers got their legitimacy from some god and their subjects, in turn, got their rights and obligations through their relationship to the ruler. In that scheme democracy is implausible. Jefferson who crafted this Declaration, and the new nation, emphatically rejected that scheme in favor of a different one.
In this new system the separation of church and state secures two ends, religious freedom and, even more fundamentally, the state itself. The first is obvious, and has occasioned much discussion. The second seems obvious as well, but is somehow more subtle. But, seriously, it’s a matter of logic: How can the people legitimize the state unless their authority is itself independent of that state? The only way to guarantee that independence is to guarantee the separation of church and state.
And that, our Martian tells his fellows, may be why religion has been so important in American society. For a large fraction of the population, though not for all, it has been the ground of capital “B” Being on which their sense of themselves-in-the-world depends. To understand this, however, we need to push beyond political doctrine, which is mere abstract theory, perhaps not even that. It is ideology. We need a sense of concrete social practices that make such ideology real.
Strength in Localism
So our Martian consulted Deborah V. McCauley, author of Appalachian Mountain Religion: A History (1995). This religion is an intense fundamentalist Christianity organized into small congregations housed in modest churches. These churches protect and promote a mode of religious experience that is foreign to highly educated secular humanists comfortable with the impersonality of urban life. The services are intensely emotional and promote an intimate and personal fellowship between the participants.
The central experience in these mountain churches is salvation through conversion, which has been the central experience of Protestant revivalism since the seventeenth century. In McCauley’s view “conversion breaks through the dominant status order by moving those who become part of a new or separate membership group beyond the control of the prevailing power structure at a basic level of identity.” That “dominant status order” is simply the network of public and private institutions that impinge on the local group from the outside. For someone who has been saved, identity is purely a function of the local religious community. Christian doctrine and stories couple this identity to the larger rhythms of the cosmos while local fellowship gathers the those rhythms to the sensible world.
The Appalachian churches McCauley studied make up a relatively small portion of America’s churches. But many of their attitudes and organizational motifs are quite common elsewhere. In particular, their centrifugal and strongly localist organizational style is wide-spread among fundamentalist denominations. This contrasts to the strong hierarchical structure characteristic of the Catholic or Episcopal churches. The world of Protestant fundamentalism is one of local congregations of varying scope cross cut by an extensive but loose web of revivals, conferences, and loose affiliations with Bible schools and colleges. As such, these congregations can serve as a concrete social mechanism for the bottom-up legitimization Jefferson’s doctrine demands.
The contemporary world, however, is very different from Jefferson’s. We are now an urban nation, not a rural one, so that many overlapping localities are crowded into a given region. The mass media have radically altered our awareness of the world. In Jefferson’s day it would have taken days, if not weeks, for news of an attack on Manhattan to reach the Appalachian hinterlands. By contrast, in our world, when the World Trade Center was bombed people watched that event across the country in real time. In Jefferson’s time the stray exposure of a breast in a pubic square wouldn’t have been noticed more than 20 yards away. But when Janet Jackson’s breast got loose at the Super Bowl it aroused indignation across the nation and that indignation sent email to the FCC.
In Jefferson’s time it was easy for Christian fundamentalists to live in a world dominated by fellow travelers on the pilgrim’s way. They were your neighbors and co-congregants. You may have known that there were others with different beliefs, but they did not come into your home day after day through the media, nor did you have to mingle with them on a daily basis. In particular, your children did not have to go to school with their children – if your children and theirs went to school at all. In Jefferson’s day it was easy for many people to live a local life. That is far more difficult now.
And so when fundamentalist Christians try to achieve even a local world that reflects their beliefs they engage with a political system that works at the national level. If you want your children to go to a school where there is daily prayer and where creationism is taught alongside Darwinism, then you must think and work beyond the local school board, though you must work there as well. And so we find ourselves in a political climate where government at all levels is being pressured to endorse specific religious views.
The resulting threat is not simply to religious freedom, but to democracy itself. What is particularly distressing is that this threat seems to have been latent in the institutional structure of American society. As long as localities could maintain a significant measure of cultural separation from the larger world, so that local life could be just that, members of fundamentalist Christian congregations could support and lend legitimacy to the Federal government. Now that the national has thoroughly colonized the local it becomes difficult for them to separate rendering unto Rome from rendering unto Christ.
To Regain Localism
Can we restore this separation? Yes we can. We can do so by strengthening local institutions or all kinds, and certainly religious institutions.
Indeed, we must do so for a whole host of reasons, economic as well as political and cultural. A revived and resilient localism will enliven religious life. Exuberant worship locally can take the urgency out of trying to control the center, or the nation's legislation, or gaining the Presidency.
Addendum, June 21, 2015: There's been a long and often pointless discussion over at Crooked Timber that started with the Declaration of Independence and got snarled up in racism, Christianity, and the recent racially-motivated murders in a church in Charleston, SC. Skimming through that conversation gave me the idea that there might be some connection between American religiousity and the presence of a large black population originally brought here as slaves. Just how that connection would work is not obvious to me, but it's not something that Europeans had to face. See comment #135 by Z in the CT discussion.