Wednesday, April 18, 2007

I blame Thomas Jefferson

No, really, I do. We'll come back to that in a minute.

This version of the conversation(it is a multi-faceted conversation, indeed) started over at Street Prophets, with the question: why isn't America as secular as Europe? The thesis is that materialism is a religion, and so displaces "real" religion. Viz:

I’ve mentioned religion professor Dell deChant before. He’s written that commercialism is not a mark of secularism but of a new — or actually quite old — religion practiced with fervor throughout the country. In the new religion, worship occurs in malls and other businesses as actors buy and sell goods to take part in the cosmic story of acquisition.
But, of course, that hasn't dispelled religion from public discussions in Europe:

Passive indifference to faith has left Europe’s churches mostly empty. But debate over religion is more intense and strident than it has been in many decades.
Religion is re-emerging as a big issue in part because of anxiety over Europe’s growing and restive Muslim populations and a fear that faith is reasserting itself in politics and public policy. That is all adding up to a growing momentum for a combative brand of atheism, one that confronts rather than merely ignores religion.


As with many fights involving faith, Europe’s struggle between belief and nonbelief is also a proxy for other, concrete issues that go far beyond the supernatural. In this case, they involve a battle to define the identity of a continent.

Half a century after the 1957 Treaty of Rome laid the foundations for the now 27-nation European Union, Europe has secured peace and prosperity. But it is deeply uncertain about what binds the bloc together beyond mere economic self-interest...
Well, okay, religious belief as identity; that's an old story. Maybe we should come back to that, too. The interesting bit here is the question: if materialism drives out piety, why is America still so pious, while Europe is almost as materialistic, and clearly so non-religious?

As I said, I blame Thomas Jefferson. Well, not really; but we have to consider the cultural history of Europe, and of the United States, at least in very broad outline.

European culture was, for centuries, based on the authority of kings. But despite American prejudice towards monarchs (due largely to stories we tell ourselves about King George III and the attitudes of our "Founding Fathers"), monarchs were not maniacal dictators who only took from the people and gave nothing in return. The king may have "owned" the kingdom, but that created obligations rather than negated them. The English idea of criminal trials, for example, was based on the idea that to harm a subject of the king was to harm the king's property (just like poaching on royal lands is theft of the king's game). It seems an awfully proprietary theory to us, but this notion allowed the state to prosecute crimes by individuals against other individuals. It was a step up from keeping the peace by killing trouble makers on the spot, or looking the other way so long as the trouble didn't disturb the comfort of the sovereign. This idea also supporte the notion of noblesse oblige, the obligation of the nobility to provide some care, however crude, for the peasants and serfs.

America, of course, never had quite so strict a notion of the obligation of the community to care for the individual. When we do imagine such societies in America, we tend to imagine religious societies such as the Puritans, and tend to imagine their concerns as Pecksniffian, at best. Europe rather easily slid from monarchy to socialist democracy, where it was expected the government would provide the care for the least which the church, through monasteries, and the nobility, through charities, and even the state, had done before. America never quite accepted that the state should play such a role, and preferred the myth of the "self-made man," the "rugged pioneer" who achieves because he is not fettered by a third party, and is not responsible for anyone but his own family (and the image was almost inalterably male).

Europe, after the Enlightenment and events like the earthquake in Portugal, and the slaughter made possible by "improvements" in weaponry, rather quickly moved away from belief in God. As it did so, and as it prospered both as Empires, and later as socialist democracies (again wracked by two world wars in the 20th century), was able to abandon religion. That abandonment was not without cost (read the works of Hemingway, Eliot, Sartre, and Beckett, for example), but they found they could live on the other side of a "post-religious" world, and what the church had once done (provided material charity), the state could now do (socialism, of one form or another). So they shed religion as they gained material prosperity. But that doesn't mean the two events are inextricably connected.

Being an immigrant society, America did not take up these changes quite so avidly. Immigrants tend to revere the culture they have left behind, and preserve it even as that culture quite naturally changes in the "old world." The Enlightenment in America didn't take hold quite so firmly, especially in the wake first of the Great Awakening, and then in the blossoming of Romanticism (a much more spiritual than intellectual movement, in contrast to the Enlightenment). So while Americans slowly prospered, and finally (actually after the Civil War and Reconstruction) began to become widely materially comfortable (a condition only finally secured after World War II), they did not abandon their religious beliefs. Indeed, they wed them to their rising materialism, making wealth and prosperity signs of God's grace (and, given the rising prosperity which followed World War II and the Great Depression, that's an unsurprising conclusion).

Enter "The Gospel of Wealth." It's a very American version of Christianity, this idea that God will bless you and make you rich if you only accede to the odd metaphysical concept of "letting Jesus into your heart." But it is the undeniable teaching of the "mega-church," of the church as promoted by Joel Osteen and Ted Haggard and Willowcreek and Community Church of Joy, and on and on and on. Why didn't materialism drive out religion in America? Because of the roots of our culture, and because we found a way to wed blatant consumerism and religious piety into a self-reinforcing whole that preaches God's greatest promises are material wealth and personal comfort. No real metaphysic need be applied (is the Incarnation, Resurrection, or even the Crucifixion of God at the heart of the preaching of the mega-churches?) and the separation of church and state means the church was never so much of an ally to the State as to influence it to show care for the people of the country (as late as the 19th century, German immigrants to St. Louis set up the first orphanages, mental health care facilities, and hospitals, all German Evangelical church institutions, and most of those are still private facilities). Jeffersons' "separation of church and state" spared us in many ways; but it paved the way (quite unintentionally) for the religious and materialist culture we have today.

It should be true that, as people prosper, they become less religious. Jesus certainly taught that, at least according to Luke (the other gospels aren't nearly so critical of economic class as Luke is), and yet even Luke's second volume, Acts, records that one of the first supporters of Paul was Lydia, "a dealer in purple cloth." Such cloth was reserved by sumptuary law (and severe punishment) to royalty, so Lydia was very wealthy and very well-connected. It should be true that Christianity is a "fellahin religion." I've said so myself, many times, especially arguing for the "marginalization" of Christianity. But if it were solely that, Constantine would never have converted (unless we are going to cynically say his conversion was false on some grounds), and rich non mega-churches in America simply would not exist.

It is, in other words, a very tangled question. Is higher education an indicator of lack of piety? When the university system began, and for centuries thereafter, theology was the mother of the sciences, and a theological education one of the most rigorous one could attain. What changed was not human nature, nor the fundamental nature of theology, but secular understandings of what is valuable. Extremely wealthy and powerful kings once devoted themselves to God as much as to their kingdoms. St. Louis is not a saint solely because he was rich, or a king of France. If we find the two exclusive today, perhaps it is because of our understanding of religion, and theology, and the material world. Which, again, is not to critique the way this discussion began, but to recognize: things change.

It may be they are ripe for changing again. But, if so: how should we proceed?

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