April 2, 2013


Why Is American Politics So Religious and Divisive? (Jordan Michael Smith, Mar 30, 2013, Daily Beast)

Europeans are often mystified at the religiosity of Americans. However much atheism may be gaining ground, America is still far more religious than other economically-advanced societies, thanks to our earliest settlers. The Puritans "saw themselves as Israelites fleeing a new Egyptian captivity," Shalev writes, "crossing a seat to reach freedom and taking possession of a promised land."

It is not novel to observe that Americans are religious. But the content of American religious belief--the way they have fused biblical beliefs with nationalist myths--is distinctive. Settlers in the young country believed quite literally that Israel's second coming was in the New World. Even deists such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin reimagined the revolution as an "Exodus-like deliverance from slavery," notes Shalev. Just as the first Israelis were to a light under the world, so too have Americans been convinced that they must be a "redeemer nation," in the words of Ernest Lee Tuveson. [...]

[T]he widespread belief that America has a mission to bring democracy to the world--a notion introduced at the policy level by Woodrow Wilson and maximized rhetorically by George W. Bush--is in many ways a secular version of the national beliefs popular prior to the Civil War. It is a testament to the power of American religious views that they can be transmuted into secular terms--virtually divorced from God--with little change in actual policy.

It also helps explain why political disputes in America are so bitter. Consider that when Canada's Supreme Court ruled in late 2004 that same-sex marriage was constitutional, there were few protesters outside the courtroom. In the U.S. this week, conversely, thousands warred over the issue, frequently describing their respective positions in apocalyptic terms. Indeed, everyday issues from taxation to gun control to health care are frequently discussed in religious terms, as if the fate of the universe depends upon the specific level of Amtrak funding. But if one recognizes that Americans see their country in religious terms, the level of acrimony is more easily understandable. If nothing else, Shalev's convincing book reaffirms G. K. Chesteron's notion that America is a nation with the soul of a church.

Posted by at April 2, 2013 7:01 PM

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