Sunday, May 08, 2005

Our cultural evolution

Those of us in the US that are aware of our environment and at least moderately interested in politics and history can’t help but notice the influence of religion in general and Christianity in particular. It’s well understood that Christians were the majority of those that immigrated from Europe to establish the first settlements on the continent…well, after the natives of course. Regardless, the territory was under the control of European monarchs until the Colonists engaged in an armed revolt, after having declared independence. No matter the beliefs of the citizens of that fledgling nation, there was to be no state recognition of any particular sect, nor undo prohibition of the free exercise of any religion. But despite clear, documented history, many insist that America was intended to be a Christian country, by “manifest destiny”.

In the course of two centuries, the influence of religion has ebbed and flowed. From a token mention of “the creator” in the Declaration of Independence to perhaps its lowest point of influence in the 19th Century, when “higher criticism” gained popularity. Higher criticism was an effort to independently verify the claims made in the Bible, but some insist that its real goal was to discredit the Bible and indeed Christianity. By the beginning of the 20th Century, many Christian sects were formed around the idea of “experiential faith”, which was and still is the belief in a “tangible experience” with God. These so called Pentecostal sects stressed “feeling” God’s presence; I would argue that emotionalism is responsible for much of the “experience”. Some suggest that the shift was in response to secular skepticism of Biblical texts. In any event, the political landscape became increasingly secular and personal faith became increasingly private, with few exceptions.

By the 1970s, the “charismatic movement” exploded and began to put Christianity back on the political map. Arguably, the “moral majority” played a large role in the election of Reagan and to a lesser extent, Bush 41. While Clinton was hardly orthodox, he wore his Baptist credentials on his lapel. Then, like a gift to the “religious right”, he displayed poor self control (which is not criminal) and perjured himself (which is criminal) in a failed attempt to answer for other “alleged” trysts. Now it seems that religious morality is back in the seat of power and in the news. Syndicated columnist George Will wrote a good piece that examines the current climate.
The state of America's political discourse is such that the president has felt it necessary to declare that unbelievers can be good Americans. In last week's prime-time news conference, he said: "If you choose not to worship, you're equally as patriotic as somebody who does worship."
Was that statement really necessary? In fact, one could construe that comment in such a way as to assume that, even though America is a Christian nation, we’ll tolerate secular folks. I’m not sure that Bush feels that way, but I’m inclined to say not. There are many however, that think precisely that.
According to the American Religious Identification Survey, Americans who answer "none" when asked to identify their religion numbered 29.4 million in 2001, more than double the 14.3 million in 1990. If unbelievers had their own state -- the state of None -- its population would be more than twice that of New England's six states, and None would be the nation's second-largest state:
California, 34.5 million.
None, 29.4 million.
Texas, 21.3 million.
It’s not as though believers are outnumbered by non-believers. George Will goes on to mention all of the success that Christian literature, music, movies et al. have enjoyed recently. Of the many things they may be, victims they are not. The last bit of Will’s article is especially noteworthy:
Religion is today banished from the public square? John Kennedy finished his first report to the nation on the Soviet missiles in Cuba with these words: "Thank you and good night." It would be a rash president who today did not conclude a major address by saying, as President Ronald Reagan began the custom of doing, something very like "God bless America."
Unbelievers should not cavil about this acknowledgment of majority sensibilities. But Republicans should not seem to require, de facto, what the Constitution forbids, de jure: "No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust."

Acknowledgement: Apesnake