President Bush’s remark the other day that the theory of ‘intelligent design’ should be taught alongside the theory of evolution brought howls of derision from his detractors in Europe and the United States. It was, they said, one more piece of evidence that America is populated by fundamentalist zombies who are potentially as dangerous as bin Laden’s boys. Intelligent design, it goes without saying, is a boneheaded piece of pseudo-science, almost as simplistic as the naive materialism that Darwinists teach. But neither side of the argument cares about logic, much less truth. The important thing is to declare which side you are on: religious fanaticism or cosmopolitan anti-religious fanaticism.
Both sides agree on one thing: that America really is the promised Land of true-believing Christians. In ‘Old Europe’, the United States is seen as a land of extreme piety and fanatical Puritanism. In the United States, at least among those who support the Bush administration, Europe — France, in particular — is regarded as impious, socialist and immoral, but then France has always been America’s favourite whipping boy.
‘Man,’ declared Mark Twain, ‘is a creature who stands somewhere between the angels and the French,’ and French husbands, according to American legend, are flagrantly disloyal, while American men are the very models of marital fidelity. But there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that the French are more likely to cheat on their wives than the Americans; and in most areas of traditional morality, the French are better behaved than the Americans. According to a worldwide survey of abortion rates in the 1990s, for example, a statistically average American woman could be expected to have .69 abortions, while her French counterpart would have .39 (and a German woman only .23). In America, furthermore, the divorce rate is more than twice as high as it is in France, and the rate of teenage pregnancies more than five times as high. In so far as these things can be measured scientifically, Americans are more sexually permissive — though also more puritanical — than Europeans.
So is there anything to American piety, or is it one of those useful myths that make it easier for BBC presenters to pretend to understand complex issues?
America has always been a strange place, even to Americans. While most countries are content merely to exist, America is supposed to have a project, a destiny, a divine mission. New England Puritans suffered from the delusion that their little settlement was a ‘city on a hill’, and Cotton Mather, who played a key role in the Salem witch trials, thought New England was plagued by witches because, before the arrival of white European Calvinists, the continent had been a playground for devil-worshipping Indians and idolatrous Catholics. President Lincoln went so far as to describe the United States as ‘dedicated’ to a proposition, and secular Americans speak glibly of America as ‘an experiment’ — a grisly idea, if ever there was one. Even today patriotic conservatives believe that ‘God’ has blessed our nation as a reward for our virtue and our piety. As H.L. Mencken observed in a more candid age, ‘No one ever went broke underestimating ...the American people.’
Small wonder that so many Europeans are afraid of the United States and its messianic approach to foreign policy. The good news is that all our exceptional virtue and piety is so much buncombe, as Mencken would have said. Despite the many myths of American ‘exceptionalism’, most Americans have always been just as content to muddle through as if they had been born among the unredeemed heathens of London and Paris.
In fact, America’s lack of genuine piety has aroused the ire of some excitable Catholic intellectuals who regard the United States as a masonic conspiracy. After pointing out the masonic symbols on the dollar bill (to say nothing of the masonic design of the national capital), they will go on to cite the fact that the constitution (drafted by leading freemasons) never mentions Christianity. This omission is aggravated by the doctrine of ‘the separation of church and state’ — a notion unacceptable to some traditional Catholics. This historical interpretation (apart from the bit about the masonic conspiracy) is utter nonsense. Christianity is not mentioned in the constitution because it is a treaty of union, not an ideological declaration. In a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional union, the best way to avoid religious conflict was for the national and state governments to be neutral towards competing Christian sects.
Conservative evangelicals, on the other hand, insist that the founders of the republic were all pious Christians. In fact, few of the men who led the revolution or drafted the constitution could be described as pious or even orthodox. Washington was an ordinary Anglican, which even in the 18th century meant very little, while John Adams was a Unitarian, Jefferson a mildly anti-Christian deist, and Ben Franklin a sceptical freemason as well as a rake. America —alas, it is all too true — has been swept periodically by revivals and cult crazes. Many of the cultists went west and ended up in California, the last stop of the rootless and disaffected before falling into the Pacific.
I have lived 60 years in the United States, the first 25 of them as an atheist, the last 35 as an increasingly reactionary Christian. I have never witnessed the great piety and deep spirituality which I have heard described in 4 July addresses and in semi-scholarly tomes on American religion. We are a practical people, above all else, and, as I have heard repeatedly from business and political leaders, religion makes good sense: the man who goes to church also goes to work, takes care of his family, pays his taxes. This is religiosity, not Christianity.
For American Christians, what they say they believe does not always translate into concrete actions or even into support for Christian moral positions. They complain, occasionally, about the prohibition of prayer in school and resent media attacks on religion, but they seem unaffected by the pervasive blasphemy of television commercials and by the barbaric post-Christian morality of everyday life in these United States. This is a country, remember, where Britney Spears was a spokesbimbo for the Episcopal Church. Many evangelical and Catholic Christians actively supported the philandering, lying Bill Clinton, and many traditional Catholics, in defiance of both the Vatican and the Church’s teachings on just war, support George Bush’s war in Iraq. In March 2003 Pope John Paul II, who described his opposition to the war as ‘unequivocal’, sent Cardinal Pio Laghi to dissuade President Bush from attacking Iraq. The President told Cardinal Laghi, ‘We’ll be quick and do well in Iraq.’ As Cardinal Laghi, who calls the invasion ‘tragic and unacceptable’, points out, ‘Bush was wrong.’
But warmongering Catholics are no match for the Revd Pat Robertson. Mr Robertson has gone beyond deflecting hurricanes and denouncing Ariel Sharon for turning Jewish settlers out of land that God gave them. Now he has called for the assassination of Hugo Chavez, the troublesome president of Venezuela. In defiance of both logic and Christian ethics, Robertson recently said: ‘If he thinks we’re trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it. It’s a whole lot cheaper than starting a war.’
When foreigners speak of American piety, they usually have in mind some form of evangelical Protestantism. But that is a very broad category, which includes austere and disciplined Calvinists in the South as well as clownish TV preachers and the megachurches fitted out with rock bands and wall-sized video screens. Imagine a luxurious sports complex with Elvis, in his sequinned powder-blue Vegas jumpsuit, crooning ‘How Great Thou Art’ to a mob of hysterical middle-aged women writhing in the aisles. This is not ‘that old-time religion’, unless the ‘old time’ in question is the heyday of the Münster anabaptists. Perhaps I am biased: as a pure-minded young atheist I was arrested for mocking a travelling evangelist who healed the sick and raised the dead with wirework that anticipated Hong Kong martial arts movies.
The United States was never a ‘Christian country’ in a confessional sense, though it was once a nation of mostly Christians. Today, it is a nation with a weak-kneed Christian majority that elects, year after year, an actively anti-Christian political class that encourages divorce, protects abortion and pornography, and banishes prayer and Christian symbols from public places. Republican leaders, it is true, pander to their Christian constituents, but they have never and will never lift a finger to advance the cause of Christian morality, much less Christian faith.
Most Americans say they ‘believe in God’, and Americans do attend religious services more frequently than Europeans, or at least they tell pollsters they do, though when the numbers of an ABC poll are broken down, weekly churchgoers tend to be women, Southern, Republican, and old. In western Europe, far fewer people go to church or profess any religious faith, but, from what I have seen, observant Catholics in Italy and France are a good deal more serious than their counterparts here in the land of ‘In God We Trust’.
To compare apples with apples, the most prominent conservative Catholics in the United States are the so-called neoconservatives. They are indifferent or hostile to the traditional liturgy, defend the discovery of democratic capitalism as an event of ‘incarnational significance’ (Michael Novak), and have routinely defended US foreign policy against explicit statements of John Paul II. Catholic neoconservatives represent the triumph of ‘Americanism’ in the Church. They are more Republican than Catholic, more loyal to George Bush than to any Pope. In secular, anti-Catholic France, a Catholic has to be resolute, even courageous; in America, he just goes with the flow.
European leftists can breathe a sigh of relief. A typical American may go to church too often to be respectable, but when he walks out on the street he is either a little liberal or else a little conservative. If there really were a ‘Christian America’, Hollywood would be broke, and the ashes of both political parties would be reposing quietly in the dustbin of history.