Religious Americans?

In reading books by Gertrude Himmelfarb, whom I have cited on numerous occasions in these posts, I delight in the fact that she and I agree so much with one another. This, of course, leads me to conclude that she is a brilliant woman, since brilliance is defined as “in agreement with oneself.” In any event, we do agree about so much and I have learned a great deal in reading her books. She insists on one point, however, that strikes me as simply mistaken and I decided to write this post pointing out just where I think she went wrong.

Himmelfarb insists that America is the most religious nation on earth — or certainly in the West, at any rate. She cites de Tocqueville as support who, when travelling in America in the nineteenth century, was struck by the religiosity of so many Americans. Indeed, he was convinced that the American Republic rested on religious faith. As he said:

“Religion is the first of [America’s] political institutions because it was the prerequisite of both freedom and morality — and thus of republican government itself. . . . [Freedom] considers religion as the safeguard of mores; and mores as the guarantee of laws and the pledge of its own duration. . . . At the same time that the law allows the American people to do everything, religion prevents them from conceiving everything and forbids them to dare everything.”

The problem is, of course, de Tocqueville visited America in 1831 for nine months and while his book was extraordinary — and still is — it may not be totally adequate to describe the state of things in this country today. But, more to the point, de Tocqueville and Himmelfarb both neglect to define what they mean by “religion” and this causes problems. Himmelfarb seems to mean by the word simply church and synagogue attendance which is higher in this country than it is in many European countries, especially France. As it happens, though, fewer than 40% of us report that we attend church regularly – and critics insist that this figure is inflated. In fact, attendance in church among the young has lately fallen off drastically and the vast majority of the “millennial” generation – born after 1980 – claim no church affiliation whatever. But, regardless of these figures, church attendance does not determine religiosity, especially in the age of mega-churches that serve our favorite coffee laté and provide us with television sets on site to fill our empty minutes when we are not browsing in the bookstore for souvenirs. Indeed, many churches are nothing more or less than social clubs where folks go to meet and greet one another for an hour or so of a Sunday in order to make themselves feel good about themselves.

But it behooves me to define what I mean by “religion.” When I was  freshman in college back in the dark ages I wrote a seminar paper on Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura as a religious work. The first question out of my seminar leader when I sat down to defend the paper was “what is religion?” I looked aghast. I gaped, I was stunned. I thought everyone knew what religion is! So I struggled and tried to bluff my way, which did not serve me well. Accordingly, I now seek to make amends for past failures and will define religion as a set of beliefs based on the conviction that there is something in the universe greater than the self and that we owe to that entity respect and reverence, even devotion. Those who are indeed religious center their lives around the worship of this entity and find meaning in their lives by devoting themselves to something greater than themselves.

Contrast today’s notion of what it means to be “religious” with the medieval world in Europe in which church was the center of most people’s lives, with daily attendance (sometimes twice daily), prayers in the evenings, and total dedication to making one’s life on this earth a preparation for the next one. In that regard, I do think Lucretius’ book was religious and his “entity” was Nature, which he sought to love and respect and, as far as possible, become one with. In doing so, as a Stoic, he was convinced that, with discipline and determination, we could become one with something greater than ourselves and find peace in a chaotic world. For the truly religious, there is profound mystery in the world and it gives meaning to their lives.

In that regard, there do not seem to me to be many religious Americans. The data suggest that the traditional churches are closing their doors or seeking to conform to the pattern of the non-denominational churches that focus on fellowship and good feeling, demanding as little as possible from the parishioners and continually reassuring them that they are loved and are among the happiest and luckiest people on this earth. In a word, those churches that do manage to fill their pews do not demand “respect and reverence” for the God they profess to worship. Certainly not sacrifice. Parishioners, for the most part, do not center their lives around the church and its teachings. Indeed, the churches demand very little of their worshippers at all. They seek, rather, to make things as easy as possible for the congregation so they will continue to attend and help pay for the new roof.

I exaggerate, of course, but I seek to make a serious point: the claim that Himmelfarb makes about the supposed religiosity of the American people rests on flimsy evidence and flies in the face of the fact that so many “religious” people in this country have tended to resort quickly to violence, elect self-absorbed morons to political offices, and are caught up in the self-as-God movement which places the focus of their lives on themselves and not on something greater than themselves “out there” in the world. I conclude therefore that Himmelfarb was mistaken — at least on this topic.


9 thoughts on “Religious Americans?

  1. Hugh, I think you are correct to paint the timeline. We have gone from being a very religious country, to one where some churches are in trouble. Pew Research has noted the significant increase in “Nones” in the answer to what religion you are. Even those who claim a religion, may be inclined to practice at home and not go to a service.

    Even back in the 1970s, when I attended Midnight Mass with my best friend at his Catholic Church, the Priest would half-jokingly which folks a Happy Easter, as he knew he would not see many of them until next Christmas Eve.

    I am a religious person, but do not regular attend a church. I think I am more than norm these days for religious folks. Thanks for writing this. Keith

    • I don’t trust the polls. How many would admit they are not religious when asked?? Judging by the behavior of so many people in this society, I think I can support my claim. Thanks for the note.

  2. Very nice post, Hugh. Since I spend little time in the USA, it would be hard for me to know what’s happening in Mississippi’s section of the Bible belt. Most of my friends and family are strong Christians and attend church.. One of my sons is presently trying to live each day by Jesus’s example and is working very hard spiritually. He has always been a very kind and sensitive person, and he dotes on many….

    In general, the ones I know that are strongest in faith are not ashamed to bow their heads before a meal and say a silent prayer, etc… But there are those who attend church yet don’t reflect a stong Christian example the rest of the week. And then there are those who don’t attend church, yet they often walk a strong spiritual path.

    The last time I was back, there seemed to be a growing undercurrent of racism, which disturbed me so much that I pondered stopping in at random churches and asking to ‘speak up…’

    We don’t need labels, even ‘he’s Catholic and she’s Jewish’ or ‘he’s Indian and she’s Creole.’ Even being ‘rich or poor’ divides our country. A strong spiritual fabric is what our country needs most… without it, we will continue to grow apart and be divided..

    • Exactly so. Well put. That’s what disturbs me and was the subject of my book “Inverted Consciousness From Dante to Derrida.” As Jung said, we are a culture “in search of a soul.”

      • …we are a culture “in search of a soul.”

        and that saddens my heart, i suppose because it’s true… there’s so much materialism. so many masks; masks that are so effective that even the one wearing the mask believes in its magic.

        it’s difficult to witness because we know that it’s not something one can preach while expecting a change.. people have to figure it out on their own… that’s where the religion plays a big role. one has to get quiet before realizing that true happiness comes from within… even if they are only quiet just during prayer, at least they’re quiet and looking inward – as well as to a higher power for guidance and assurance… in prayer we are humble.

        we also need religion for fellowship with others who have the same visions and expectations of a better more holistic world. To see beyond the challenges and know there is hope…

  3. ps… i especially appreciated this: ” define religion as a set of beliefs based on the conviction that there is something in the universe greater than the self and that we owe to that entity respect and reverence, even devotion. Those who are indeed religious center their lives around the worship of this entity and find meaning in their lives by devoting themselves to something greater than themselves.”

    the religious theme is a strong one today:

  4. I studied De Rerum Natura for my Latin ‘A’ level (exams taken at 17/18 that decide whether you get into university/which one takes you) at my Catholic girls’ school. Now, as I sit amid my disintegrating Catholic faith, I feel more and more that “with discipline and determination, we could become one with something greater than ourselves and find peace in a chaotic world.” – but had never connected back with Lucretius. It seems every time I think I am finding an original path someone else has taken it – like TS Eliot – which is reassuring but it does rather still the muse, since I am supposed to be writing about it and if TS Eliot did it first … Hmmm. I should perhaps do more reading! (Or just keep on reading you)

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