August 22, 2004


A democratic & republican religion (Marc M. Arkin, Summer 2004, New Criterion)

The United States is without question one of the most religious countries in the industrialized world. Current surveys indicate that over 80 percent of Americans claim to believe in God, compared with 62 percent of the French and 52 percent of Swedes. About two-thirds of Americans claim church membership, 40 percent say they go to church once a week, 60 percent go monthly, and 43 percent describe themselves as born-again Christians. Three times as many people in the United States believe in the virgin birth as in evolution. Although twenty-nine million Americans say they have no religion, fewer than 5 percent of the population will admit to atheism or even agnosticism. Whether these figures reflect reality is irrelevant; the point is that the vast majority of Americans want to be seen as religious and think it unacceptable to be viewed otherwise, even by an anonymous polltaker. This is hardly surprising since 58 percent of Americans—as opposed to only 13 percent of the French and 25 percent of the British, but along with 89 percent of Pakistanis—think it necessary to believe in God in order to be moral.

Yet, at the very same time, thoughtful Americans of all denominations complain that religion is excluded from American public life. They point to the dominant secular culture and to the separationist constitutional regime that assertedly favors it. In fact, there are two separationist cases on the Supreme Court docket this term—whether a state must provide scholarship funds to support a student’s training for the Christian ministry and whether the phrase “under God” can remain in the Pledge of Allegiance. The irony is that the Court sessions that heard both cases—like every other Supreme Court session—began with the invocation, “God save the United States and this Honorable Court.”

This American inconsistency has a long pedigree; the same week that Congress passed the final draft of the First Amendment’s religion clauses, both houses also passed a measure providing funds for congressional chaplains. Indeed, the Non-Separating Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony—they who limited the franchise to adult male church members who had experienced a saving work of God in their own souls, and who were still hanging Quakers on Boston Common well after it was illegal in England—believed themselves to have established the most secular state in the world because they had no ecclesiastical courts and ministers did not hold public office. What is more, they were probably right. American religious history admits of no easy generalizations. [...]

In providing the foundation for a free social order and government, American religion was indubitably “republican.” Yet de Tocqueville was too astute an observer not to perceive that democratic mores themselves exerted an effect on religion. Even in the 1830s, de Tocqueville recognized a certain homogenization of religious doctrine—even between Catholics and Protestants—and the pervasiveness of a “passion for well-being” in religious exchange. Of American preachers, he remarked that “it is often difficult to ascertain from their discourses whether the principal object of religion is to procure eternal felicity in the other world or prosperity in this.” And, of democratic religiosity, he presciently noted a tendency to pantheism, an egalitarian desire to identify the Creator and His creation. Recent writers have seen in these tendencies a single, peculiarly democratic constellation of beliefs, a modern instantiation of the gnostic impulse, which plays itself out in the restless American hope for hermetic knowledge—preferably of a fabulistic variety—that will yield individual salvation in the form of personal well-being. However conceived, from the arrival of the first white settlers, American religious life has been characterized by a tension between the authority of organized denominations and the individual search for religious fulfillment, with its myriad spiritual experiments, a tension that the Puritans characterized as that between community and calling.

American is also characterized by the tension between God and Caesar and between Athens and Jerusalem. Perhaps the main lesson to draw is that a healthy society needs to be confident enough to welcome these various tensions. From that perspective the thing crippling Europe could be seen to be the desire of its people to avoid conflict of any kind--a tendency that may derive from their experience in several continent wide wars or from the rapidity with which its population is aging or from a lack of confidence in its own culture or some combination. Perhaps what makes America unique is the ability to walk these high tension lines without often falling off to one side or the other, no matter how much we wobble.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 22, 2004 9:33 AM

How does your mentor Kraynak's vision of an authoritarian "Constitutional Monarchy under God" reconcile with such a tight-rope walk? Kraynak is definitely on one side of that divide, no?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at August 22, 2004 11:47 AM

I definitely think that the gnostic "calling" side of the divide is winning over the authority side. In that respect a New Age disciple of J Z Knight is as much a representative of the American religion as an Evangelical Born-again Christian. As Harold Bloom pointed out in his book "The American Religion", America's religion is Gnosticism. Gnostics have no need of authority or sacred scriptures, their feelings are their scriptures.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at August 22, 2004 11:56 AM


To the contrary, the gnostic side enjoyed a long run--the whole New Age era--but orthodoxy is much more the order of the day, with a restoration of pretty traditional and conservative morality on issues from marriage to evolution to bioengineering to the Crusade.

Posted by: oj at August 22, 2004 12:07 PM

Perhaps what distinguishes Americans is the ability to forgive our adversaries; to retain goodwill for those with whom we argue. In Europe, conflict tends to degenerate into violence.

Posted by: pj at August 22, 2004 5:56 PM

Uncle Bill Sez:

Dynamic balance is central. Static balance is death, loss of balance leads to bad things, some fatal.
Posted by: Uncle Bill at August 23, 2004 11:13 AM

OJ, two points:
Orthodoxy, to the extent that it has been re-established, relies on a moral consensus, not religious. The fact that an atheist, a protestant, a catholic and a jew can share in a moral consensus indicates that this is not driven by a resurgence in obedience for religious authority.

The "New Age" morality is still with us. Sexual license is no longer revolutionary, it is status quo. Pornography is widely accepted among religious and non-religious alike. Since you don't get out much, you can be forgiven for believing that the Victorian era has returned.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at August 23, 2004 11:42 AM


Morality is religious.

Posted by: oj at August 23, 2004 9:28 PM

Religion isn't morality.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at August 24, 2004 12:14 PM

No, morality is religious.

Posted by: oj at August 24, 2004 12:35 PM

Morality is religious just like bipedalism is.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at August 24, 2004 9:31 PM


"And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth."

Hey, you did it again...

Posted by: oj at August 24, 2004 10:48 PM

OJ, do you have to consult the Bible in order to walk across the room?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at August 25, 2004 2:38 PM

Morality is religious unless the moral actor is irreligious.

Then it's not.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 25, 2004 2:49 PM


Walking or net generally isn't a moral question.

Posted by: oj at August 25, 2004 3:43 PM


Of course it is--all the irreligious do is borrow religious morality.

Posted by: oj at August 25, 2004 3:44 PM

Human nature is, over anything like human lifespans, effectively immutable. Religionists put a God-gloss on our evolutionary heritage.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at August 25, 2004 8:25 PM

Human nature is immutable.

Posted by: oj at August 25, 2004 8:30 PM

Up to 5 Rooms FREE, FREE Standard Installation, FREE Shipping, FREE Choice of DVD Player, Digital Camera or Luggage/Backpack, FREE HBO and Cinemax for 3 Months, the best freeking deal on the planet

Posted by: at November 4, 2004 7:08 PM

Up to 5 Rooms FREE, FREE Standard Installation, FREE Shipping, FREE Choice of DVD Player, Digital Camera or Luggage/Backpack, FREE HBO and Cinemax for 3 Months, the best freeking deal on the planet

Posted by: at November 4, 2004 7:09 PM

have for people who are not pregnant.Probably shoes just as well for Mark's blood pressure ps2 that American Idol isn't being shown bag in the UK. What is it with this absolute dish network obsession with correct pitch? I'm computer fairly sensitive to things being sung plasma tv out of tune myself, but honestly, playstation some of the stuff that Randy Jackson ionic breeze

Posted by: contact lens at November 29, 2004 5:17 PM