Felipe Fernández-Armesto

December 23, 2005

America is not becoming increasingly religious. It is interested in patriotism, not piety, and the church is a social resource

Americans are irreligious. I made this surprising discovery by going to church. Even in the Catholic-dominated district of Boston where I live, mass is an embarrassingly secular event. It begins with a rite of handshaking with people in the pew. The sermon never mentions death or sin or salvation or the sacraments: only citizenship, neighbourliness and other routine social virtues. A glaringly secular symbol - the Stars and Stripes - pollutes the sanctuary. We have to hold hands during Our Father, like suburbanites around a jokey Ouija board. The climax of the occasion is not communion or the kiss of peace but the coffee party after mass. Worshippers disperse to church-run divorce-counselling groups and motor-car maintenance seminars. Nothing religious happens. The church is a social resource to help nurture community in a culture of rampant individualism.

The world has mistaken American religious rhetoric for religion. Radical Protestant churches function as right-wing ginger groups.

Flag-worship is perhaps religion of a sort - a pagan sort. President George W. Bush abuses Christian language to justify unchristian behaviour.

Churchgoing in most communities is a socially conformist gesture, as it was in medieval Europe, not an act of faith. People bore you with assertions that they are "born again" but the assertion crumbles as soon as you ask what they mean.

So how do we explain the extraordinary atmosphere of Kulturkampf that clouds almost every courthouse and campus? Here are a few examples: in Georgia recently, a public high-school marching band had to cancel a performance of the Seventies hit The Devil Went down to Georgia because a parent threatened to sue. His grounds were that the mention of the devil infringed public institutions' constitutional obligation to maintain the separation of Church and state. A judge ruled that the Indiana State Legislature's custom of beginning every session with prayers was unconstitutional on the grounds that some mention Jesus - even though Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist prayers are included in deference to diversity. The Supreme Court has had to decide whether the US can properly be called a nation "under God" in the celebration of citizenship Americans call the Pledge of Allegiance. Yet every session of the court opens by tradition with the clerk's cry, "God save the United States and this honourable court." School districts in Kansas and Pennsylvania have been convulsed over whether the science curriculum should attribute biological change to "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution. Town squares may not get Christmas trees on the grounds that this symbol - which, as far as I am aware, is a purely pagan device - may offend non-Christians.

No one should mistake this for evidence of religion's abiding importance in America. The triviality of the disputes demonstrates what is really going on: a secular, commercial, materialist society is huffing and puffing at religious froth, like a Starbucks customer cooling his cappuccino. People are fighting not over religion, but over its meaningless residuum. The reverence at issue is not pious, but patriotic. At stake is the continuation of traditions and memories of a past in which religion did matter, when persecution drove pilgrims, prayer sustained pioneers and God legitimised the commonwealth.

Religion in this country is not on the rise. But something more disturbing is astir: the rise of superstition. This takes two forms.

First, the fundamentalism of the political right wing demands faith in dogmas that are not just irreligious but anti-religious. For instance: that abortion is murder - which is usually an untrue and always an unchristian way of characterising tragedy; that war and torture are justified in US interests; that human rights apply only to approved humans; that US-style "freedom" and "democracy" can be misrepresented as universal values and imposed on the world. These are superstitions, because they are rationally indefensible, and dogmas, because those who hold them do not doubt them.

Second, a postmodern form of benightedness is numbing some minds. Americans are, in my experience, better schooled than the British because nearly 60 per cent of them have at least some exposure to further or higher education. But a lot of what they learn is trash, and those who don't get to college, or don't get very far with their studies, never expose it to critical scrutiny. As most high schools teach them, science and religion make equally little sense. In a society struggling to craft patriotism out of pluralism, everyone is licensed to have his own truth, as long as he conforms to collective rites. So you can believe in astrology, chiromancy, UFOs, millenarianism and intelligent design indifferently. If alien abductors don't carry you off, just wait for the Great Rapture.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is Prince of Asturias professor of history at Tufts University in the US.

Features, page 20

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