The End of Christian America

post-christian-america-na01-vl-verticalNewsweek leads with an article suggesting that the number of people saying that religion can answer all or most of the problems in the US today has fallen dramatically in the past few years.

Leaving aside the obvious cheap funnies, this goes all the way back to the founding days, when those who came over on the first little wooden ships were pretty much split between fundamentalist Puritans, seeking a New World to allow for the expression of their strict Protestant religious views, and a bunch of wayward adveturers, looking to make a buck.

This is what led to the ideal of a separation of church and state. It was less to do with some high-minded philosophy about the dangers of religion interfering with the state, and much more to do with the fact that Mammon wanted to be left the heck alone, and the fundamentalists had already fled one society of religious oppression, and wanted to be sure that it was not replacing it with another. Less accommodation, and more a balance of mutual terror. And it is why we enjoy today the cultural dichotomy of “God Bless America” living alongside Las Vegas and Larry Flynt.

The creative tension, even societal schizophrenia, that has existed between the two opposite national character traits, has defined us as a society ever since. There is a constant jostling for influence between the desire to be moral and the freedom to earn money any which way that we can. It’s why we have the expression “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence, and the phrase “one nation, under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s why Oliver North took a Bible to Tehran, while selling TOW missiles to Iran’s Islamic leaders.

Religion found itself on the rise in the Eighties, in response to permissive social reforms of the Sixties and the economic difficulties of the Seventies. People from all sorts of different social backgrounds, who might previously have been on opposite sides of the political divide on economic matters (conservative Southerners and blue-collar Northerners), suddenly found themselves beating the same drum on issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

Those beating the drum loudest, of course, were the Christian Right. The Evangelicals. The Southern Baptists. They probably had their greatest victory, not in the Eighties, with Reagan, but with Bush in 2004. Then, even with a still doddery economy, and a deeply unpopular war, they helped to underpin a close Election win for Bush. I remember telling my disappointed Catholic and liberal uncle that the remedy in 2008 lay not in winning back the Democratic Party from the political cynics, but in winning back the Catholic Party from the religious cynics.

I believe that what we are seeing now is a reaction against the meddling of the Christian Right in the past couple of decades. A realization that the Bible calls as much for social justice as moral adherence. This began to be seen in 2006, saw further expression in 2008, and deepens every day with growing disenchantment with supposedly caring religious types who call for the failure of a President whom most see as one who is trying to help the nation.

So, I’m not surprised by the Newsweek poll. But, I further believe there is a danger embedded in the poll which activist progressives ignore at their peril – whether the peril is morally altruisitic or politically expedient.

I sense that people generally are fed up with the problems of society and the solutions being cast in any sort of religious context. If we spend too much time wrapping up the activism of President Obama in the moral cloak of the religious and moral calling of Jesus, then, if that activism is less than miraculous, we may be setting up the legacy of Obama for further religious backlash down the road.

By all means, allow our own religious and moral beliefs to inform our own personal desire to help. But let’s mirror the separation of church and state in our own efforts. Let’s leave religion out of governmental good works. I remember a friend telling me how, as an avowed atheist, she happily worked alongside Republicans and Christian Evangelicals in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, because everyone agreed to leave their political manifesto’s and Bibles at home.

In this way, religion can be allowed to re-discover its natural and separated role in society, and ordinary folks are left to judge the activism of their Government on its merits, and not by some blind adherence to an irrelevant moral belief – a confusion between practicality and religion that we observe and fear in societies like those of Iran and Northern Ireland.

Published in: on April 8, 2009 at 10:08 am  Leave a Comment  
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