Why Are Americans So Religious?

Why Are Americans So Religious?

Ross Douthat 07 Jun 2007 12:05 pm

My own preferred explanation – which is doubtless a small part of the pantomime – is theological rather than sociological: Christianity has thrived in the United States by adapting its theology to the habits and mores of the American people, in a way that religion in Europe hasn’t managed to do. America is an Emersonian country, and its religious innovators have invented an Emersonian form of Christianity – which some might suggest isn’t Christianity at all, of course – that’s nicely tailored to the broader culture in which it swims. Call it gnosticism, or Moral Therapeutic Deism, or just plain Americanism – it means Elaine Pagels and Karen Armstrong for highbrow audiences and T.D. Jakes and Joyce Meyer for the masses, and it works.

If Christianity in America meant the Christianity of Benedict XVI – or even the Christianity of C.S. Lewis, for that matter – I bet that about 15 percent of the country would be practicing believers. But you don’t get Benedict or even Lewis from most pulpits; you get socially-conservative Emersonianism in Red America and socially-liberal Emersonianism in Blue America. This wouldn’t fly in the European cultural context, but maybe there’s a form of organized religion that would – its theology just hasn’t been invented yet.

I came across this old post of Douthat, an evangelical turned traditional Catholic, who is now a columnist for the NYT, in the process of trying to add context to the Douthat review of Karen Armstrong’s new Book in Sunday’s book review.  Douthat assumes that American’s are religious because they do not deal with Benedict and Soloveitchik. Or for that matter even C S Lewis would hinder to faith.

One of the comments wrote: ” This insight is both horrifying (I am Christian of the Benedict XVI varietal) and true. I think you have struck a wide vein here.” So are all those who debate Rabbis Soloveitchik and Lichtenstein, Heschel, Hirschenson, and Kook really just unrelated to American Orthodox Judiasm which is also Therapeutic Deism?

Douthat writes about Armstrong, a nun turned toward moral and liberal monotheism:

The time, in other words, is ripe for a book like “The Case for God,” which wraps a rebuke to the more militant sort of atheism in an engaging survey of Western religious thought. Karen Armstrong, a former nun turned prolific popular historian, wants to rescue the idea of God from its cultured despisers and its more literal-minded adherents alike.

Both modern believers and modern atheists, Armstrong contends, have come to understand religion primarily as a set of propositions to be assented to, or a catalog of specific facts about the nature of God, the world and human life. But this approach to piety would be foreign to many premodern religious thinkers, including the greatest minds of the Christian past, from the early Fathers of the Church to medieval eminences like Thomas Aquinas.

These and other thinkers, she writes, understood faith primarily as a practice, rather than as a system — not as “something that people thought but something they did.” Their God was not a being to be defined or a proposition to be tested, but an ultimate reality to be approached through myth, ritual and “apophatic” theology, which practices “a deliberate and principled reticence about God and/or the sacred” and emphasizes what we can’t know about the divine. And their religion was a set of skills, rather than a list of unalterable teachings — a “knack,” as the Taoists have it, for navigating the mysteries of human existence.

For Armstrong, religion is not prepositional but a practice and God is an unknown. Douthat summerizes this position as follows.

This is an eloquent case for the ancient roots of the liberal approach to faith, and my summary does not do justice to its subtleties… The casual reader, however, would be forgiven for thinking that the leading lights of premodern Christianity were essentially liberal Episcopalians avant la lettre.

Douthat concludes

It’s possible to gain some sort of “knack” for a religion without believing that all its dogmas are literally true… Not every churchgoer will share Flannery O’Connor’s opinion that if the Eucharist is “a symbol, to hell with it.” But the Catholic faith has endured for 2,000 years because of Flannery O’Connors, not Karen Armstrongs.This explains why liberal religion tends to be parasitic on more dogmatic forms of faith, which create and sustain the practices that the liberal believer picks and chooses from, reads symbolically and reinterprets for a more enlightened age.

So how to react to the debate? Those who like theology such as  Commonweal write

The problem isn’t literalism (conservatism) vs. symbolism (liberalism). Moreover, the question of which is prior — dogma or practice — involves a sort of futile chicken and egg regression… I would say to both Armstrong and Douthat that the real divide is between abstraction and presence. Christianity has survived for 2000 years because people have continued to encounter a presence in their midst (primarily through an encounter with human beings in whom this presence is felt rather than through dogma or practice per se). They experience this presence as a fact, something concrete–Christ. But at the same time they perceive that this concrete particularity reveals a mystery, which cannot be reduced to abstraction. (O’Connor, by the way, understood this is a more nuanced way than Douthat seems to realize.) Problems arise when the encounter is forgotten and the presence is lost, when all that is left are fragments, abstractions, mere discourse (i.e., conservatism and liberalism).

I kinda like this approach, but it seems that the blogs side with Douthat in order to reject liberal religion and make it a choice of literalism or secularism. I am left wondering – Is this really the American theological landscape? Can I discuss Fishbane and Benedict?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s