America Without God-sanewnetworks
The United States has long been a unique and perhaps even suspiciously devout adversary among Western democracies. From 1937 to 1998, church membership remained relatively constant at about 70 percent. Then something happened. Over the past two decades, that number has dropped to less than 50 percent, the sharpest drop in American history. Meanwhile, the number of atheist nonists, agnostics and those who do not declare their religion has grown rapidly and today is a quarter of the population.
But if secularists hoped that a decline in religiosity would lead to more rational politics, devoid of the fanciful passions of faith, they were likely to be disappointed. As the influence of Christianity weakened, in particular, ideological tension and fragmentation increased. It turns out that American faith is just as fervent as ever; just what was once a religious belief has now become political. The political debate over what America should have in mind has become a theological debate. This is what religion looks like without religion.
Not long ago, I could comfort an American audience with the contrast: while in the Middle East, politics is war by other means and sometimes literal war politics in America was less existential. During the Arab Spring, in countries like Egypt and Tunisia, the discussions were not about health care or taxes they were, sometimes with alarming intensity, on fundamental questions: what does it mean to be a nation? What is the purpose of the state? What is the role of religion in public life? There were moments of fermentation in American politics under Obama tea drinking and brown suits but still relatively boring.
We didn’t realize how lucky we were. Since the end of the Obama era, the debate about what it means to be American has been filled with a fervor that would have been impossible to imagine in a debate about, say, the Belgian origins or meaning of Sweden. It’s rare to hear someone being accused of not being Swede or British, but anti-American is a common insult that left and right use against each other. Being called non-American is like being called non-Christian or non-Islamic, an accusation is akin to heresy.
This is because America itself is almost a religion, as Catholic philosopher Michael Novak once put it, especially for immigrants who are coming to their new identity with the zeal of converts. The American civil religion has its own myth, its own prophets and processions, and its own scripture the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers. In his famous speech, I Have a Dream, Martin Luther King Jr. wished that one day this nation will rise up and make the true meaning of its creed come true. The very idea that a nation can have a creed a word associated primarily with religion illustrates the uniqueness of American identity as well as its predicament.
The notion that all deeply rooted beliefs are sublimated religions is not new. Abraham Kuyper, the theologian who served as Prime Minister of the Netherlands at the dawn of the 20th century, when the country was in the early throes of secularization, argued that all solid ideologies are in fact based on faith and that no man can live long without utmost loyalty. If this loyalty did not stem from traditional religion, it would find expression in secular commitments such as nationalism, socialism, or liberalism. Political theorist Samuel Goldman calls this the law of the preservation of religion: in any given society, there is a relatively constant and limited supply of religious beliefs. What changes is how and where it is expressed.
The understanding of American doctrine, which no longer has clear roots in white, Protestant dominance, has become richer and more diverse but also more fragmented. As fragments of a creed, each side seeks to make exclusive claims against the other. Conservatives believe they are loyal to the American idea and that liberals are betraying it, but liberals are equally confident that they are loyal to the American idea and that conservatives are betraying it. Without a common ground created by a common external enemy, as America did during the Cold War and shortly after the 9/11 attacks, mutual antipathy grows and each side becomes less understandable to the other.
America Without God-sanewnetworks