The role of religion in American society has often been viewed as highly paradoxical. Considered at first glance, it seems, by its very nature, to be incompatible with national tendencies. Its doctrines value tradition and authority. They preserve what was handed down from the past. They demand to be accepted on faith. They disparage the present world and emphasize an afterlife. Since all these things are contrary to the inclinations of Americans, one might suppose that religion in the United States would be of little and diminishing importance, as it is in Europe.
Why do Americans
“have this thing
The very opposite is true. Ever since the early Nineteenth Century, one of the first surprises to confront foreign visitors has been the frequency with which God is invoked in the formal ceremonies of public life. Large meetings often begin with a clergyman offering thanks to the deity and requesting divine blessing. This is especially the case with the operations of government, such as the opening of legislative sessions or the inauguration of officials. Politicians from the president on down are expected to make reference to God in their speeches on solemn occasions and to be seen attending church. As one puzzled Canadian was heard to ask, “Why do they [the Americans] have this thing about themselves and God?”
At the same time, it has also been observed that these pious practices are extremely vague in content and highly circumscribed in expression. The references to God are general enough to embrace nearly every variety of believer and almost any sect. Politicians take pains to express the wide latitude of their religious inclusiveness, though seldom with the bluntness of President Eisenhower, who once declared, “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” Aside from the formal invocation of God as the nation’s protector and the abstract profession that one is personally a believer, religion has little place in public discourse. Any politician who might venture to employ the language of faith or the logic of theology in addressing an issue of the day or a question of policy would be considered unsound, unstable, even a dangerous zealot.
Both the popularity and the limitation of religion in public life are also characteristic of religion in private life. On the one hand, the percentages of Americans who say that they believe in God, that they pray, and that they attend services regularly are much higher than those of Europeans. On the other hand, as polls also reveal, Americans are astonishingly ignorant of the most elementary points of their professed faith. They have difficulty reciting the Ten Commandments or identifying the members of the Holy Trinity or explaining the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament or between Catholics and Protestants. People say that the Bible is the word of God, but they do not read it or have much knowledge of its contents. Anyone who does and makes reference to it in daily life is dismissed as a “Bible nut.”
However much Americans may like to think of themselves as religious, their actual practice is very superficial, as foreign observers have consistently reported. In the early Nineteenth Century, an Italian Jesuit remarked that two Americans could live together for years without either becoming aware of the other’s religious convictions. At about the same time, Harriet Martineau discovered that whenever her talk about religion became “intimate and earnest,” her interlocutor automatically assumed that she must be a convert to some sect. The same is true today, and even more so. Religion has its place (divine service on holy days, ceremonies for birth, marriage, and death), but otherwise it does not intrude into one’s life. A person may engage in activities organized by a religious body, but these are usually social, recreational, charitable, or even commercial in substance, and only superficially religious.
American is a
Americans agree, and have agreed for the last two centuries, that it does not make much of a difference which particular religion a person belongs to—one is more or less as good as another. Prompted by convenience, personal taste, or social advantage, they have changed from one creed to another with casual ease, and in recent times the practice has increased—“faith-hopping” as it has been called. Clergymen themselves have been able to shift their careers from one denomination to another—an act that is still considered extraordinary and scandalous in other countries.
America’s freedom of religion goes beyond a choice among recognized doctrines and formal organizations. In response to a poll, 80 percent agreed to the statement that “an individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any churches or synagogues.” A good number of people are not participating members of any religious group, yet they consider themselves to be personally religious. The more inventive mix and match various beliefs and practices and come up with their own unique blends, like the woman who did so and named the new faith after herself—“Sheilaism.”
In view of the enormous latitude that Americans tolerate in religious practice, one might expect them to be equally tolerant of those who reject religion entirely, but this is not at all the case. As interpreted by public opinion and expressed by the occasional politician (including one vice president in 1921 and one vice-presidential candidate in 2000), the guarantee of religious freedom in the United States Constitution does not mean freedom from religion. Utter and outright disbelief has always been abhorrent to Americans, and they have persecuted it with a ferocity that has astonished foreign visitors.
In 1837, Harriet Martineau heard people whispering about a suspected atheist in tones of loathing and malice, as if they were referring to someone who was possibly guilty of a vicious crime or afflicted with a hideous disease. Tocqueville encountered similar attitudes. In 1996, one social critic and forthright unbeliever averred that atheists were as much abominated as pedophiles—perhaps more so, since they could not claim the excuse of involuntary physical compulsion. Despite the recommendation of his father’s name, President Reagan’s son admitted that he could never be elected to anything because he had publicly declared his disbelief in God. Back in President Eisenhower’s day, and in his very presence, a prominent and respected clergyman pronounced the terse verdict: “An atheistic American is a contradiction in terms.”
in league with
and you will
The nature of American religion, as represented in the preceding paragraphs, may seem puzzling and perplexing, but there is an explanation. One needs to understand that in essence the national faith is a cosmic endorsement of idealistic optimism. Americans believe that the power which constitutes and directs the universe has established goodness, harmony, and simplicity as the basic qualities of nature and mankind in general, and of the United States in particular. By thus raising their characteristically benign attitudes to such a high level of abstraction, they have produced a religion that is vague and amorphous in substance but at the same time commands fervent allegiance.
The popular poem “Each in His Own Tongue” (1908) by W. H. Carruth is a vivid example of American faith. It selects some attractive phenomena from the natural and human worlds and arbitrarily labels them “God.” However simpleminded and unreasonable this may be, it reflects the national conviction that religion contains all the good of the universe, especially all the good of mankind—that is, all morality. Ever since their earliest days in what some of them like to call God’s country, Americans have been telling each other over and over again that religion is a necessary reinforcement and essential guarantee of moral behavior.
If religion is equated with the good, it follows logically that anyone who is a disbeliever rejects the good. Atheism is therefore unthinkable and intolerable. Since religion is specifically equated with morality, anyone who rejects it rejects morality. Seen from this point of view, an atheist is naturally and automatically a loathsome creature—someone who accepts immorality in the abstract and therefore is most likely to be immoral in his personal conduct.
The reverse side of condemning irreligion is the remarkable favor and indulgence that religion enjoys among Americans. School textbooks mention only the attractive features and positive benefits of various faiths and carefully avoid any of the vicious behavior and benighted ideas they may have engendered and propagated. There is a general feeling that every religion deserves respect and that religious practices, however outlandish and bizarre, are not to be publicly ridiculed.
When a sect of fanatics does something so atrocious that it cannot be excused or ignored (such as the mass suicides at Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978), editorialists, pundits, and public figures unite in declaring that the behavior was entirely exceptional and that its perpetrators in no way represent other people of faith. Even a crime as abhorrent as pedophilia has been mitigated by the fact that the perpetrators were Catholic priests, and so, during recent scandals, they did not have to face the full fury and punishment of the secular law but were left to the indulgent mercies of their own ecclesiastical authorities.
“A God without wrath
brought men without sin
into a kingdom without
judgment through the
ministrations of a Christ
without a cross.”
Religion has not always appeared attractive enough to inspire such indiscriminate favor and partiality. During the early years of national growth, America’s powerful influence went to work on the dogma of traditional theology and recast it in an acceptably positive and optimistic form. Doctrines of original sin and innate human depravity were discarded, along with the idea that heaven was for the few and that many if not most souls were destined for damnation. The entire orientation of rejecting the world and preparing for an afterlife was turned around.
By the early Nineteenth Century, the task had been completed. Americans could now listen to preachers of religion who told them that sin was superficial and goodness was fundamental, that everyone could attain salvation by a simple act of willpower, and that the efforts of a righteous people would create a millennium of peace and prosperity on earth.
This was indeed an act of putting new wine in old bottles. As foreign visitors have often noticed, there is a lack of sanctity and holiness in American religion. Its sects and denominations do not stand apart from the world; they are active participants in it. They promise their members blessings in the present life, specifically the realization of personal ambitions and desires. “Follow me, and you will get rich,” an English essayist paraphrased their appeal. “Follow me, and you will get well. Follow me, and you will be cheerful, prosperous, successful.” Instead of man serving the purposes of God, in America God serves the purposes of man.
One should not be surprised at this development. From the beginning of the new nation, with the disestablishment of religion and the consequent loss of automatic state funding, separate denominations have had to compete with each other to attract paying customers. In the process, the men of God resorted to whatever tools and tactics the men of the market managed to devise—business strategies and advertising gimmicks, techniques of mass communication and the allure of popular culture. One or two churches even offered a money-back guarantee: make donations for 90 days, and if you haven’t received a blessing in your life, you can get back what you contributed. “I am selling the greatest product in the world,” declared one highly successful evangelist. “Why shouldn’t it be promoted as well as soap?”
In terms of real, practical assistance, churches have played an enormously important role in American life as the providers of social services that people would not have found elsewhere or could not have afforded to purchase on their own. This was especially the case during the migration westward in the Nineteenth Century, and it has remained so to the present day. The range of activities sponsored and undertaken by religious organizations is so wide as to include many things that have only the most tenuous connection, or no connection at all, with the promotion of piety and faith, which may find themselves dominated and overshadowed. One of Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury cartoons ridiculed this tendency by depicting a fictional denomination that cancelled its church service because of “a conflict with the self-esteem workshop” and obliged its congregation to perform their acts of worship on its web site, so that it could use the church building for other functions.
“I believe in God
and I believe in
Americans have long engaged in the devising of methods and strategies for the improvement of human behavior and the enhancement of human well-being. Religion has been intimately involved in these endeavors. Religious language, techniques, and personnel have appeared in many if not most of them, from the reform movements of the early Nineteenth Century to the therapies of the late Twentieth Century. This is only natural, since practitioners of moral and mental betterment assume that by utilizing religion they are wielding a potent and powerful instrument for accessing the benevolent forces of the universe. Norman Vincent Peale, for example, added religion to optimistic autosuggestion and produced a turbocharged positive thinking. Some innovators, like Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science) or L. Ron Hubbard (Scientology), threw science—or what they called science—into the mix. From time to time, a new combination of psychology with mysticism produces a brew that is heady and novel enough to attract a notable number of followers.
However vague and exalted the methods, doctrines, or language, the results they promise tend to be very practical and at times grossly tangible. There have been several pious programs aimed at helping women lose weight, from the old-fashioned Pray Your Weight Away (1957) to the contemporary dieting as spiritual empowerment (“The diet is within me, I shall not cheat”). Even more popular is the idea that one can make money by being religious. In 1836, Thomas P. Hunt wrote The Book of Wealth, in which he declared, “No man can be obedient to God’s will as revealed in the Bible without, as the general result, becoming wealthy.” The book became a best-seller, and its theme has been repeated in religious exhortations of every subsequent era, such as, “Godliness is in league with riches” (1901) or “Be Christians and you will be successful” (1921). Today, downmarket customers can listen to a Bible-thumping evangelist who shouts that Jesus was not poor and that their faith will bring them money. Upmarket consumers can listen to a New Age guru who reassures them that “the more spiritual you are, the more you deserve prosperity.”
There have always been a few zealous persons who regard the religion of their fellow countrymen as crass and shallow. H. Richard Niebuhr, for example, summed up the American view of Christianity as follows: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” In general, such complaints maintain that the new wine in the old bottles is nothing but a soft drink. Actually it is a pep tonic. The American’s conviction that God is working with him and favoring his enterprises gives him a boost in morale. It makes him more confident and energetic, ready to try harder and put forth more effort.
“America is the most
moralistic nation on
earth and also the
The beneficial influence of this kind of religiosity extends through the entire population, affecting all groups and persons, from the national majority to single individuals. Americans believe that God directed the founding of their country, has presided over its development, and continues to guarantee its prosperity. The ceremonial oratory of politicians reflects this faith, as does the inscription “in God we trust” on the currency and the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. This has been called a “civil religion.” It contributes to self-confidence and optimism, both collective and personal.
The national body politic is not the only group that invokes supernatural sanction and has its resolve strengthened thereby. Almost any organized effort to induce people to behave better can assume religious overtones. This tendency first appeared in force during the antebellum era, when a swarm of idealistic causes sprang up, ranging from the promotion of temperance in drink to the prevention of cruelty to animals. Their leaders spoke as if they were doing the work of the Lord, they frequently operated with the assistance of church bodies, and they were often clergymen themselves. Ever since that time, it has been easy and natural for most any attempt at achieving an improvement in human conduct to present itself as appealing to transcendent motives and purposes. This can be illustrated by something as prosaic as a campaign to encourage personal cleanliness. Some years ago, the following printed statement appeared in restaurants all over the country: “Sanitation is a way of life. As a way of life, it must be nourished from within and grow as a spiritual ideal in human relations.” Foreign visitors must have found this a rather grandiloquent way of urging people to wash their hands before meals.
Invocations of God and his assistance in human affairs are particularly loud and frequent among businessmen and business groups. They proclaim the beneficence of the free market and the perniciousness of government interference, not merely as economic concepts, but as spiritual convictions. If there is an “invisible hand” regulating the economy, it must be the hand of God, and the politicians and bureaucrats of Washington should not presume to think that they can do a better job than the Almighty.
This commercial faith or pious commercialism was prominent in the Nineteenth Century. At the beginning of the Twenty-first, it is as strong as ever, if not stronger. “I believe in God and I believed in free markets,” declared the CEO of Enron just before his company went bankrupt, and he was indicted for fraud. “Competition always works better than state control—I believe that premise as a matter of religious faith,” asserted one of the architects of California’s electricity deregulation in the face of rolling blackouts.
and the Supreme Being
are all in agreement,
“No one has a right
to ‘louse up a job.’”
As explained earlier, businessmen like to think that by making a profit they are contributing to the nation’s prosperity (doing good by doing well). Religious faith in its American configuration reinforces this belief and, in addition, assures them that they are also doing the work of the Almighty. Other cultures may regard serving God and making money as two entirely separate and usually opposite activities. In America the two are seen as closely joined, in a commercial partnership, as it were. Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows portrayed Jesus as an aggressive businessman and successful entrepreneur. Since its publication in 1924, it has remained continually in print and has inspired various imitations and updates, such as Jesus CEO (1995).
“America is the most moralistic nation on earth and also the most materialistic.” The two are in fact intimately connected. The American mind contains a simple, obdurate, and enduring linkage of materialism, morality, and religion: religious practice promotes moral conduct, which in turn results in emotional well-being and material prosperity. The equation works in both directions: if a person is moral and religious, it is assumed that he will prosper; if he prospers, it is assumed that he is most likely moral and religious.
The celebration of this inclusive view (individual self-advancement as collective social progress as well as personal self-improvement) is an incessant theme of business rhetoric. In a milieu that is notorious for cold calculation and ruthless competition, one may hear the most extravagant and gaseous pronouncements of higher aims and larger benefits. Business conferences and conventions exude the aura of revival meetings. Inspirational speakers extol the noble enterprise in which they are engaged, and the ordinary participants are expected to share the enthusiasm.
A certain amount of all this is artificial and simulated, but much is genuine. Many businessmen—probably most of them—sincerely believe the optimistic theology that they repeat, and it motivates them, as it does Americans in general. Instead of the traditional “great chain of being,” there is a great chain of service, in which the individual employee, by his efficient performance at work, promotes the interests of himself, of his company, of the consumer, of the nation, of mankind, and ultimately of God. Participation in so grand an alliance bestows blessings and benefits, but it also imposes discipline and responsibilities, as a popular manifesto of commercial uplift entitled “Skyhooks” once emphasized: managers, stockholders, and the Supreme Being are all in agreement, “No one has a right to ‘louse up a job.’”