Saturday, September 06, 2008

Why so many Americans are so religious

David Seaton's News Links
If we were looking for ways of defining the United States of America, one of the first things that would strike us would be the paradox of its deeply rooted institutions inhabited by constantly uprooted people.

America's constitutional government has provided its citizens with perhaps the longest lasting, least questioned and most stable political environment the world has ever experienced. And it is inhabited by surely the world's most deracinated, rootless, and often unhappy human beings.

What is rooted?

I remember the case of a small village in England, where they discovered an abandoned medieval cemetery with no burials later than 800 years ago. They took DNA samples of the skeletons unearthed and than compared them to those of the contemporary villagers and it turned out that the village schoolteacher was a perfect match for half the graveyard! "Identity" is just something you are born with in most of the world; wars, revolutions, the changing of frontiers or a string of constitutions don't affect it.

That is what our ancestors left behind when they emmigrated to America. Americans often seem obsessed with researching their family trees and so a lucrative business has grown up around
the search for "roots". A Spanish friend, who had lived in the states, once remarked, "I can see they might be interested, but in my case, my family has always farmed in the same valley in Asturias and if you went to the parish church, I suppose you would find that Pérezes have been marrying Gómezes and Gómezes marrying Pérezes and baptizing the little Pérez-Gómezes for the last 500 years... What a bore!" Perhaps the Byrds of Virginia could relate to that, but most Americans cannot. It has been 300 years of "so long it's been good to know ya". People uproot and move across the continent for a better job and familiar landmarks disappear with no other thought than for their cash value. Schumpeter calls "creative destruction" what Joni Mitchell calls "they tore down paradise and put up a parking lot".

If we add to that the American divorce rate, the amount of single parent homes and the mobility of the population, then the number of comforting and familiar points of reference -- outside of the Contitution -- surrounding the average American are precious few.

This takes us to the how the economy works.. I have read that something like seventy percent of the US economy is based on consumer spending. To move all that stuff, people have to be made dissatisfied with what they all ready have or who they are. Making people dissatisfied is called "marketing", a science which Americans invented and which they practice more successfully than anyone. I'll quote my standard rant on this:
The entire American economy is based on making people feel bad about themselves, making them feel poor, ugly, sick, helpless, stupid, inadequate and then offering to sell them something to relieve the pain of rejection and failure.
Americans are hardly ever away from a voice that tells them that they don't measure up to some impossible standard of perfection. The message is like the song by The Who, "all in all you're just another brick in the wall" ...unless you buy what the voice is selling.

This takes us to religion. The basic message of Christianity, especially the Evangelical variety, is that Jesus died in great agony on the cross to redeem those who believe in him, out of pure love for each of them, one at a time, although they have done nothing in particular to deserve this, the most precious of rewards.... and it's free... an "unlimited offer".

This means that a person who has been "born again", no matter if they are fat or have bad breath or don't have a high pay grade are beloved and unique in the eyes
of the central figure of Western civilization. Some may not think this is so special but they might admit that it is a culturally more grounded reason to feel special than because the brand of underwear they have on reflects their "unique lifestyle".

That is why, despite much of the grotesque tackiness and fanaticsm of some of it, that, at the risk of sounding condescending, I find the Evangelical movement filled with such promise, because it alone, even without knowing it, is the only serious rebellion against the "unhappiness principal" that drives American capitalism. Joy can be found for free... this is positively "un-American".

That is why I think that some sort of "liberation theology" is finally going to the only idea or movement that is going to change America. I'm sure that most of the Evengelicals that were attending the Republican convention would be horrified to know that British Socialism has its deepest roots in the Baptist and Methodist chapels of Wales and the industrial north of England. But there is no reason to believe that someone who drove the money changers out of the temple is a fan of Ayn Rand's.

I think that America's deeply rooted institutions are now in conflict with out modern globalized economy or as Joe Sleeper says:
obeisance to every whim of global capital, which is abandoning Palin's small-town America and Obama's urban America, a capital whose injustices and consumer palliatives are subverting our republican institutions and character.
There has to be found or be created, an overlap between American progressives and the Evangelicals. That is why I say that we need a new William Jennings Bryant.

Why American religion, which was often populist and defended the poor and the oppressed, has become so right wing is something to take up in future posts. DS


Anonymous said...

I view the American economy as largely imaginary in the sense that it would come to a screeching halt if everyone bought only what they actually needed.

RC said...

Having progressives and Evangelicals get on the same boat is like having a Lenin and Russian Orthodox Hierarchy love fest. Really, I see the fundamentalists as a group having about the same importance and legitimacy as the attendees at a Star Wars/ Star Trek Convention. Their beliefs are also similar.
Obama's wonderful statement about the rural fundamentalist beliefs and why they cling to them is one of my favorites. Too bad he had to dismantle it.
I think there really is a serious problem in the US, and it is related to mental deficiency over large sectors of the population.
Somewhere between Jefferson and Ortega Y Gasset lie some truths that modern society would do well to revisit. Democracy won't hold up too well commandeered by rubes. But the Evangelicals are not that interested in any mind expanding, thank you. They are saved, born again, will be raptured up one day soon, so screw intellectuality. Jesus had no advanced degrees {they feel} so spending a great deal of time on any kind of societal or religious analysis just is not in the cards for the majority of the value voters. The progressives for the most part are extremely irritated by the revival tent culture of the Bible Bunch, and when approached with the VERY Evangelical greeting "Have you been saved, have you been born again, is Jesus your Lord?", most, if not all progressives realize they are having a very bad day.
I do not see these twain meeting.
So, dream on Dave.

Anonymous said...

You meant Pink Floyd, right?

The latest marketing spin is being "Green". The absolute "Green" slogan, "Live simply, that other might simply live", would end the world economy over night.

Can't have that.

Mike Doyle said...

" another brick in the wall .."
is Pink Floyd.
We don't need no education
We don't need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!
All in all it's just another brick in the wall.
All in all you're just another brick in the wall.

Always found it a haunting and melancholy song.

Father Ted said...

You've reminded me of Cheddar Gorge man, who had one of his 9,000 year-old teeth DNA tested and compared to the present inhabitants of Cheddar village, one and a half miles from where his remains were found. And they found two perfect matches. Obviously a family that didn't get out much. (link at homepage)

Forensic economist said...

One reason for the popularity of religion in American is the lack of a state religion.

I recommend a reading of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations in which he discusses the competition among Presbyterian preachers in the Scotland of his day. Given that they had no job security or regular salary, they had to compete with each other for donations from their attendees. It meant that the more dynamic preachers had more income; the ones who got their attendees more committed had higher income. The result was much more intense religious services than in the episcopal church.