Having a bit of a debate with my other half tonight, we came to wonder about the origins of the extreme religiosity of the US in modern times. Of course, we understand that the ‘extremism’ might be emphasised for media purposes, but even accounting for that, it still is open to ask why the US has adopted a more conservative Christian stance than (perhaps) any other western nation.
IOW, it seems to me (and many other western observers) that the US (as a whole) has regressed in its intellectual and cultural wisdom by adopting an extreme ‘religious’ social and political outlook of late.
I don’t have the energy to question this conclusion right now, but it needs challenging.
As to the whys and wherefores: a lot of the original US settlers were people who left their home country due to religious persecution. They *specifically *left England to obtain the freedom to practice their religion in the New World. People who were less devout would have just stayed in England and converted (at least for the sake of appearances). It’s no small thing to uproot your entire family and leave behind everything you know. So naturally, these settlers (sufficiently fanatical about religion to repatriate over the issue) were much more religious than average. And fanatical religion is invariably indoctrinated into the next generation.
Although that last may seem paradoxical to the current state of affairs, that policy was instrumental in allowing different religious “pockets” to flourish in various geographical areas. Hence, all the current tension. Bear in mind that the US is freaking enormous compared to England. It’s easier for a smaller country to be more heterogeneous (in terms of belief) than a larger one.
It’s not that American is more religious, it’s that Europe is less. America is pretty much exactly as religious as it’s always been.
I’d say it has something to do with America’s freedom of religion and religious diversity - they’re no official state religion, or no overwhelmingly dominant church, to abandon or rebel against. When the French tired of the Catholic Church they became atheists, because the Catholic Church was the only game in town; when Catholic Americans tire of the Church, many of them become evangelicals.
Another reason is Marxism, which for a variety of reasons had a far greater cultural impact in Europe. People who adopted Marxism for the class struggle more or less accepted the atheism as part of the package deal.
The United States has always been religious, but rachelellogram is right that officially, the US has no state religion and any attempt to introduce religion into government (at any level, be it local, state, or federal) tends to be faced with a lot of pushback. In fact, many social issues are controversial precisely because one side wants its beliefs incorporated into law and public policy, and the other side is protesting to try to stop that from happening.
What you’re also seeing is a very vocal but fairly small segment of the American population that knows how to get itself in the news; they are very strident and give good visuals, which appeals to television and visual media generally. This is also a group whose politics are formed by their religious beliefs; a lot of their political positions are justified by various Bible verses and theologies. Finally - and probably most importantly - they are allied with people and organizations that have a lot of money, and by a lot of money, I mean a LOT of money. Money buys access to media, and since the message was allegedly coming from regular people, it was that much more appealing. (Never mind that these people were being told what to say.) And since we’re in a presidential election year, and since the Republican candidates are running for the title of Mr. Conservative, you’re just seeing a lot more of it.
I am puzzled by the people who attend these “mega churches”-it seems to me that these services are mostly just harangues by a wealthy guy who calls himself a minister.
It seems more akin to going to a shopping mall-the sermons are quite banal-especially a guy like Joel Osteen. To me, a religious person is one who actually attempts to live according to the doctrines espoused.
But I guess (in Osteen’s case), its basically “feel good about yourself”…and little else.
Sarah Vowell’s Wordy Shipmates is a wonderful look into the Puritan settlement of Massachusetts, and the way she writes its easy to see those ideas translating into today. (Being Sarah Vowell, its a much better read than its subject matter would imply). Although America was founded by people looking to escape religious persecution and has no State religion, those same people were not necessarily tolerant of the beliefs of others and many of them would have LIKED their religion to become the State religion, its just that by the time we became a country 100 years after the Puritans, Quakers, Anglicans et. al. landed, there were too many religions.
There has always been the tension between those that would like to join religion and State and the realization that it might not be “the right” religion. I think the diversity of religion contributes to the depth of religion. Most of Europe has its religions broken off into regions - if you live in a Lutheran town in Germany, almost everyone is Lutheran. That’s less common in the U.S. - where a small town might have four churches - and which one you belong to is a big part of your social identity.
It becomes a little easier to understand if you think of the US as a continent comprised of countries a bit like the EU. While we may share some overarching cultural qualities, the states, along with regional variations and cultural backgrounds really mimic small countries better.
You’ve pretty much nailed it in the last sentence, I think. It’s a sort of “Christianity Lite” that teaches that people who have enough faith and donate enough money should reap financial prosperity because their interpretation of the Bible promises that. I’ve watched Osteen’s services on TV a few times and he seems to emphasize the financial prosperity over the faith. In fact, he struck me as being no better than a motivational speaker like Tony Robbins.
I think a lot of the differences between American attitudes and European attitudes (not just with regard to religion) can be attributed to our VERY different experiences during the two World Wars.
Communism and fascism flourished in Europe in a way they never did in the USA. Meanwhile, Christianity survived and even thrived in the USA long after Europeans had begun to abandon it. Why? I’d suggest that the horrors of World War I (and to a lesser degree, World War II) led Europe to doubt the legitimacy of ALL their institutions- including the monarchy and religion.
The USA, by contrast, came out of both wars smelling like a rose. There was far less reason for ANY American to look around in 1917 or 1945 and think, “How could any benevolent God allow THIS kind of slaughter and destruction?”
Europeans looked around after two devastating wars and thought, “Our OLD faith in our governments and our churches led us to this mess. We need to abandon that kind of faith.”
Americans looked around and thought, “We emerged on top- and surely our faith and patriotism are part of the reason.”
Pennsylvania is a special case, though. The Penn family was given the charter for what is now Pennsylvania as repayment for a debt owed to William Penn’s father by the crown. William Penn was a Quaker, which made him a thorn in the side of most of English society, so the crown handed over the charter to get rid of him.
Now, then. The Pennsylvania colony was more than just Philadelphia, and Penn wasn’t stupid. He kept some land for himself, but he sold the rest of it off to whoever wanted to buy it. As long as the money was green, he didn’t care. Consequently, Pennsylvania became the place to go if you wanted to start a new denomination, and there are several that were established in places like Lancaster County and the surrounding countryside. (Those horses and buggies in Central Pennsylvania aren’t there to amuse the tourists.) He also made friends with the local Lenni-Lenape people because he knew he couldn’t afford to piss them off.
Philadelphia itself thrived as a city that welcomed all comers, no matter how they worshiped. It welcomed Jews, Catholics, and free blacks where few other places would. Basically, Pennsylvania was established and thrived on no one giving a shit about religion, which is even more awesome than the typical story that it was established as a Quaker colony.
Of course, everything east of Pittsburgh and west of Philadelphia is redneck as hell, and it is politically fairly conservative. So much for Billy Penn’s vision.
You know that the Puritans are the forerunners of the Unitarians (you find many of them in massachusetts) as well as more conservative movements? The three hundred year evolution from “burn the witch” to marching for gay marriage is a fascinating topic to UUs.
But that doesn’t mean the puritans all evolved into liberals. But the ones that didn’t didn’t tend to stay on the east coast.
I do know that the first church built in Boston (aptly named First Church of Boston) started out fairly conservative, and is now UU. Ralph Waldo Emerson was once the pastor there, but they kicked him out because he was too much of a radical.
And yet there’s still a law on the books making it illegal to deny Jesus Christ in Massachusetts. While the law is, of course, never enforced every few years someone introduces a bill the repeal General Law 272, Section 36 and at the required hearing church leaders testify that while they don’t want to actually start arresting Jews they think that repealing the law would send the wrong message. At that point the repeal dies in committee until it’s resubmitted a few years later.
But the Amish faith was, in fact, founded in Europe. Those people you see riding in horses and buggies in Lancaster County (and in other communities as well) are mostly the descendants of refugees from Germany who wanted to practice their religion in peace. The migration was so complete that apparently there are very few Amish left in Europe - everyone who cared about their faith enough to keep it moved to the Americas and the faith died out in Europe.
And that explains two things - the diversity of faith here - we have a lot of splinter sects that all but died out in Europe when the splinter moved here, and we have people who have a tradition of creating/evolving different splinters - and the depth of faith, this country was populated by people who left everything they knew to be able to follow their faith - its been populated since by people who fled starvation, political oppression, or just were looking for something different - but at its core, a lot of us have a family history of giving up everything for what we believe. That’s a value that tends to be passed generationally.
In terms of belief, by your own analysis, the larger country is more heterogeneous, and the smaller country can be more homogeneous. Heterogeneous means that the parts are all different, homogeneous means that the parts are all the same (roughly)
I know that. I was just looking for the universally-recognized symbol. And even though the Amish themselves came over from Germany and Switzerland, there were further schisms once they got here, as well as other denominations (like Brethren in Christ) that formed here.