The Wisdom of Doubt, Part V

The late Susan Sontag once tried to explain American religiosity to a German audience:

Many commentators have noted that perhaps the biggest difference between the United States and most European countries (old as well as new according to current American distinction) is that in the United States religion still plays a central role in society and public language. But this is religion American style: more the idea of religion than religion itself.

True, when, during George Bush’s run for president in 2000, a journalist was inspired to ask the candidate to name his “favourite philosopher,” the well-received answer — one that would make a candidate for high office from any centrist party here in any European country a laughing stock — was “Jesus Christ.” But, of course, Bush didn’t mean, and was not understood to mean, that, if elected, his administration would actually feel bound by any of the precepts or social programs expounded by Jesus….

… This modern, relatively contentless idea of religion, constructed along the lines of consumerist choice, is the basis of American conformism, self-righteousness, and moralism (which Europeans often mistake, condescendingly, for Puritanism). … The very fact of being religious ensures respectability, promotes order, and gives the guarantee of virtuous intentions to the mission of the United States to lead the world. [Susan Sontag’s acceptance speech for the Friedenspreis peace prize, Frankfurt, Germany, October 12, 2003]

I don’t know how George W. Bush views his own religion. For all I know, he believes himself to be a sincere Christian. He may very well read the Bible and pray as much as he says he does. It is plain, however, that even if he “believes in” Christianity, he neither practices it nor follows it, except in the most superficial way.

In the August 2005 issue of Harper’s, Bill McKibben wrote that America is “a place saturated in Christian identity.” It is not, however, saturated in Christian understanding or practice.

Only 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments, and a scant half can cite any of the four authors of the Gospels. Twelve percent believe Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. This failure to recall the specifics of our Christian heritage may be further evidence of our nation’s educational decline, but it probably doesn’t matter all that much in spiritual or political terms. Here is a statistic that does matter: Three quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.” That is, three out of four Americans believe that this uber-American idea, a notion at the core of our current individualist politics and culture, which was in fact uttered by Ben Franklin, actually appears in Holy Scripture. The thing is, not only is Franklin’s wisdom not biblical; it’s counter-biblical. Few ideas could be further from the gospel message, with its radical summons to love of neighbor. On this essential matter, most Americans—most American Christians—are simply wrong, as if 75 percent of American scientists believed that Newton proved gravity causes apples to fly up.

Asking Christians what Christ taught isn’t a trick. When we say we are a Christian nation—and, overwhelmingly, we do—it means something. People who go to church absorb lessons there and make real decisions based on those lessons; increasingly, these lessons inform their politics. (One poll found that 11 percent of U.S. churchgoers were urged by their clergy to vote in a particular way in the 2004 election, up from 6 percent in 2000.) When George Bush says that Jesus Christ is his favorite philosopher, he may or may not be sincere, but he is reflecting the sincere beliefs of the vast majority of Americans.

And therein is the paradox. America is simultaneously the most professedly Christian of the developed nations and the least Christian in its behavior. That paradox—more important, perhaps, than the much touted ability of French women to stay thin on a diet of chocolate and cheese—illuminates the hollow at the core of our boastful, careening culture.

I think Sontag nailed it when she said religion “American style” is more the idea of religion than religion itself. Of course, you can say the same thing about many other matters supposedly dear to Americans. How many right-wing web sites have you come across that defend, say, the NSA warrantless wiretap program in the name of “freedom“?

I don’t have to tell you there’s some heavy-duty weird shit going on in American Christianity. Militant Christianists are out to abolish reproductive rights, dictate science curricula, and even run the Pentagon. But at the same time, another part of American Christianity seems downright soft and fluffy, and getting fluffier.

Yesterday The Guardian ran a profile of mega-church preacher Joel Osteen, currently on tour in Britain. Stephen Bates writes that Osteen’s basic message “could charitably be described as theology lite.”

Go to one of his services, as I did last year, and you will be told God wants you to do well: “God is a good God. He is smiling down on each one of you today We are going out for next week changed by God … Lord, we are filled with hope.”

Attending a service is an extraordinary experience. There are no religious symbols in the building. The stage is decorated with artificial waterfalls and a giant revolving globe, while above all flies an enormous stars and stripes.

The message of Osteen’s 12-minute sermons – precisely timed to hit the programme schedule – is studiously upbeat: if you keep a right attitude, God will reward you. It even extends to physical fitness in the obesity capital of the US: “Make changes for your health’s sake and God will make you better … if you get the physical side in balance, you will be rewarded by God.”

One on one, explains Don Iloff, Osteen’s press officer and brother-in-law, Joel knows where the rubber hits the road: “He’s telling them, God loves you, come on back. When they listen to Joel, they recognise a new face of God.”

Joel, he explains, does not have a great deal of time for pastoral work; visiting the sick, for example. There’s not enough time: that sermon takes two days to write and rehearse each week.

On the stage the preacher is accompanied by his former beauty queen wife Victoria, delegated to hand out the communion wafers, so that the ceremony becomes something like an upscale Tupperware party. Victoria, who has something of the appearance of Anthea Redfern in the Generation Game years ago, blotted her copybook a year or two back in an argument with stewards over their slowness in clearing up a drinks spillage on the armrest of her first class seat while the family was on a flight to Vail for a skiing holiday. She was fined $3,000 by the Federal Aviation Authority but insists she behaved throughout in a “Christian-like” manner.

“He gets 30,000 in his congregation every weekend and 18 million more tune in each month around the world to watch his services,” Bates writes. For what? Is this religion, pop psychology, or entertainment? And did I mention Osteen has virtually no pastoral or theological training?

American popular culture has grown a kind of pop Christianity that is increasingly untethered from any standard doctrinal base. Many Americans learned everything they know about religion from televangelist/entertainers like Olsteen. Or even worse, from zealots such as those described by Jeff Sharlet in the December 2006 Harper’s

I walked the streets of Brooklyn listening to an eighteen-tape lecture series on America up to 1865 created for Christian college students by Rousas John Rushdoony, the late theologian who helped launch Christian homeschooling and revived the idea of reading American history through a providential lens. (For instance, the “Protestant wind” with which, according to the eleventh-grade text, God helped the British defeat the Spanish Armada so that the New World would not be overly settled by agents of the Vatican.) I was down by the waterfront, pausing to scribble a note on Alexis de Tocqueville—Rushdoony argues that de Tocqueville was really a fundamentalist Christian disguised as a Frenchman—when a white-and-blue police van rolled up behind me and squawked its siren. There were four officers inside.

“What are you writing?” the driver asked. The other three leaned toward the window.

“Notes,” I said, tapping my headphones.

“Okay. Whatcha listening to?”

I said I didn’t think I had to tell him.

“This is a high-security area,” he said. On the other side of a barbed-wire fence, he said, was a Coast Guard storage facility for deadly chemicals. “Somebody blow that up and boom, bye-bye Brooklyn.” Note-taking in the vicinity might be a problem. “So, I gotta ask again, whatcha listening to?”

How to explain—to the cop who had just clued me in on the ripest terrorist target in Brooklyn—that I was listening to a Christian jihadi lecture on how democracy as practiced in America was defiance of God’s intentions, how God gave to the United States the “irresistible blessings” of biblical capitalism unknown to Europe, and how we have vandalized this with vulgar regulations, how God loves the righteous who fight in His name?

Like this: “American history.”

Olsteen seems harmless, compared to the paranoia of the best-selling Left Behind series. The now-fallen Rev. Ted Haggart’s New Life mission combined teachings on Jesus’ plan for free market capitalism with a call to convert evil and decadent urbanites with “violent, confrontive prayer.” (See Jeff Sharlet’s “Soldiers of Christ” in the May 2005 issue of Harper’s.)

American religion has always had its unusual elements — snake handling comes to mind — but these days unusual is the new normal.

In the past several years American religion and American politics have both been dominated by the extreme Right, which sees the world (and mass media) as its own magic view screen upon which it can project its darkest fears, ignorance and greed and declare it to be the only legitimate truth. Bill Moyers spoke to this last year

For a quarter of a century now a ferocious campaign has been conducted to dismantle the political institutions, the legal and statutory canons, and the intellectual, cultural, and religious frameworks that sustained America’s social contract. The corporate, political, and religious right converged in a movement that for a long time only they understood because they are its advocates, its architects, and its beneficiaries.

Their economic strategy was to cut workforces and wages, scour the globe for even cheaper labor, and relieve investors of any responsibility for the cost of society. On the weekend before President Bush’s second inauguration, The New York Times described how his first round of tax cuts had already brought our tax code closer to a system under which income on wealth would not be taxed at all and public expenditures would be raised exclusively from salaries and wages.

Their political strategy was to neutralize the independent media, create their own propaganda machine with a partisan press, and flood their coffers with rivers of money from those who stand to benefit from the transfer of public resources to elite control. Along the way they would burden the nation with structural deficits that will last until our children’s children are ready to retire, systematically stripping government of its capacity, over time, to do little more than wage war and reward privilege.

Their religious strategy was to fuse ideology and theology into a worldview freed of the impurities of compromise, claim for America the status of God’s favored among nations (and therefore beyond political critique or challenge), and demonize their opponents as ungodly and immoral.

At the intersection of these three strategies was money: Big Money.

It’s hard to tell sometimes how much of the current insanity is calculated for effect and how much of it is genuinely insane. I suspect both. Righties are second to no one when it comes to shrewdly and ruthlessly obtaining power. But their ideas — and ideals — are hallucinatory.

Moyers weaves familiar names into this plot — Tom DeLay, Newt Gingrich, Jack Abramoff (who received a “Biblical Mercantile Award” from an organization that laundered money for Tom DeLay), Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed. If there’s an ounce of sincere religious devotion among the lot of them I’m the Pope. These guys fabricated bogus Christian fronts and recruited “some of the brightest stars in the Christian firmament – Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Phyllis Schlafly –” to carry out their various schemes to enrich themselves at the expense of others. It’s hard to believe Robertson et al. were entirely innocent of what DeLay et al. were up to.

While the unholy alliance of right-wing politics and religion prospered and conservative Christian organizations grew, the old “mainline” Protestant denominations began to lose members in 1965. An article from the April 2006 issue of The Lutheran says that for the most part the decline did not come about because people switched churches. Rather, as Protestant baby boomers reached adulthood many left religion entirely. Also, it says, Protestants just don’t have as many children as more conservative religious people do. Thus, the influence of the older, moderate-to-liberal Protestant churches has waned considerably.

And that’s a shame, because moderate to liberal Christian denominations also take moderate to liberal positions on social issues, including reproductive issues, gay rights, and separation of church and state. But when the “mainstream” media cover these issues, the only “Christian” opinions presented are those of the Right. Moderate to liberal religious voices are shouted down, just as they are in the political realm.

Bill Moyers continues,

These charlatans and demagogues know that by controlling a society’s most emotionally-laden symbols, they can control America, too. They must be challenged. Davidson Loehr reminds us that holding preachers and politicians to a higher standard than they want to serve has marked the entire history of both religion and politics. It is the conflict between the religion of the priests – ancient and modern – and the religion of the prophets.

It is the vast difference between the religion about Jesus and the religion of Jesus.

Yes, the religion of Jesus. It was in the name of Jesus that a Methodist ship caulker named Edward Rogers crusaded across New England for an eight-hour work day. It was in the name of Jesus that Francis William rose up against the sweatshop. It was in the name of Jesus that Dorothy Day marched alongside auto workers in Michigan, brewery workers in New York, and marble cutters in Vermont. It was in the name of Jesus that E.B. McKinney and Owen Whitfield stood against a Mississippi oligarchy that held sharecroppers in servitude. It was in the name of Jesus that the young priest John Ryan – ten years before the New Deal – crusaded for child labor laws, unemployment insurance, a minimum wage, and decent housing for the poor. And it was in the name of Jesus that Martin Luther King Jr. went to Memphis to march with sanitation workers who were asking only for a living wage.

In light of the way right-wing religion is trying to drag us all back to the Middle Ages, it’s understandable that the non-religious are increasingly hostile toward religion. But it would be a lot more useful if liberal and progressive people, religious and non-religious alike, worked together to defuse the pernicious influence of right-wing politics and religion.

I want to go back to Susan Sontag. “[T]his is religion American style: more the idea of religion than religion itself.” What is the “religion itself” that is being missed? Bill Moyers says “It is the vast difference between the religion about Jesus and the religion of Jesus.”

A perfect real-world example of what Moyers is talking about is the way many Christians treat the Ten Commandments. You may remember the Georgia congressman who sponsored a bill providing that the Ten Commandments would be displayed in Congress and in federal courthouses. Then when he was interviewed by Stephen Colbert, he could name only four of the Commandments, barely. I assume this wasn’t just an act.

Obviously, the Ten Commandments have significance to this congressman apart from what they actually say. That significance may be pandering for votes. But in recent years I’ve seen several polls saying that about three out of four Americans think the Ten Commandments ought to be displayed in public buildings. However, according to Bill McKibben (quote above) only 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of them.

The statistics suggest that more people “believe in” the Ten Commandments than actually know what the Ten Commandments say. And I don’t care what religious tradition you call your own; just “believing in” something that you don’t practice or understand or follow is crap. It’s not even religion. It’s an idea of religion, but not religion itself, except on a very primitive level.

I think many Americans regard the Ten Commandments as something like a tribal totem. They want it placed in institutions of power, like schools and courthouses, as a symbol of their tribal dominance. Think of it as territorial marking. And this is just as true of the hard core fundamentalist as it is for the “cultural” Christian who has read most of the Left Behind books but doesn’t know the Beatitudes from spinach.

It’s hard to define religion in a succinct, universal way. The dictionary definitions don’t quite reach it. Non-religious people assume that religion is a supernatural belief system, but beliefs are what define the parameters of a particular religion; they aren’t the heart of it. The heart is devotion, commitment, and practice.

I like Paul Tillich:

Religion is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself contains the answer to the question of a meaning of our life.

If I might presume to speak for the sincerely religious, I’d say religion is what provides the context of our inner life. Whether a devotional faith or a mystical practice, religion helps us come to terms with who we are while expanding our sphere of concern and compassion outward to others.

Faux religion, on the other hand, is about bullshitting ourselves about ourselves and demanding that the universe cater to our greed and fears and ignorance.

Sontag said that when George Bush said Jesus was his favorite philosopher “Bush didn’t mean, and was not understood to mean, that, if elected, his administration would actually feel bound by any of the precepts or social programs expounded by Jesus.” She’s right. We all understood that, even before we knew Bush very well, and isn’t that remarkable? These days Jesus is little more than the Right’s team mascot.

Update: More good Christians.