American Exceptionalism by Fred Bisson Ph.D
American Exceptionalism: Why America is so religious while Europe is more secular
On a sunny day in early June 1630, the Puritan leader John Winthrop defined the American role in world history in his famous sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” delivered aboard the Puritan flagship, Arbella, as it was approaching the coast of Massachusetts. According to Winthrop, God charged America with the task of building a “City on a Hill” that would be an example for a new world order. It was not a coincidence that Ronald Reagan used the same phrase in the 1980s when he was girding his countrymen in the struggle against the godless communists of the evil empire.
For many, America is unique. America, they believe, has received a dispensation from the historical forces that govern the fates of peoples. Some think these forces do not operate in America. They believe that we are uniquely appointed by Providence for a special role among nations. As Carl Sandburg noted in his powerful interpretation of American history,
Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind,
The doors were cedar
And the panels strips of gold
And the girls were golden girls
And the panels read and the girls chanted
We are the greatest city
We are the greatest nation,
Nothing like us ever was.
While some would recoil at the naked hyperbole of this sentiment, it is, I am sure, subscribed to by a majority of Americans. American’s have an ambiguous attitude toward the rest of the world. On the one hand, we wish to lead them and “civilize” them”, on the other we wish to shut them out, to build walls, such as at the Mexican border, and let them stew in their own juice.
But, America is really different than the rest of the world.
Here are some ways:
We are the only great industrialized society that does not use the metric system.
Our national sport is baseball, while much of the rest of the world is enamored with soccer.
We are the only great Western nation that hasn’t, at one time or another, had an avowedly Socialist government.
Labor unions are weaker in America than in any other industrialized Western nation.
The differential between the wealthiest and the poorest in America is more extreme than in any other industrialized Western nation.
We are still the only industrialized nation that doesn’t provide healthcare as a fundamental human right. All the European countries have much more effective economic safety nets than we do.
Americans are said to be more productive than most Europeans, to work harder, for longer hours, but by many measures, Europeans may be happier than Americans.
America has the distinction of having the largest prisons in the world, where more than two and a half million people, (mostly young men) are incarcerated, and the worlds largest and most expensive prison industry.
In addition, United States spends more on its military than all other nations combined.
America is more religious than most Western nations, ranking as extreme in religious fervor and bigotry as many Muslim lands, It will be a cold day in hell before we elect an atheist president, but other western nations are less concerned about the religiosity of their leaders.
According to the Pew Research Center, “59% of Americans say that religion was very important in their lives, while only 11% of the French, 21 % of the Germans and 33% of Britons do” Paradoxically, many European nations have established state churches, and some, such as Germany, mandate religious instruction in the public schools, while in the United States, the Constitution forbids an established church, and religious instruction is banned in public schools (even so, when I was a Catholic child in a Vermont public school, the teacher led us in Protestant prayers, and often started the school day with a reading from the Protestant King James Bible.
Despite the fact that the United States Constitution was framed as an avowedly secular fundamental law, and that the makers of the Constitution purposely omitted any mention of god in that document, subsequent American lawmakers were not as circumspect in adhering to the spirit of the Constitution. During the American Civil War, leaders of both the North and South used religious symbols to ensure the efficacy of their propaganda. The great rallying song of the North was the Battle hymn of the Republic, that, starting with the words “Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord” explicitly conflates religion and patriotism, and religious sentiments began to appear on the national coinage. But god was an equal opportunity agent: he fought on both sides.
Southerners, defeated in their great rebellion, poured their energies and passions in a religiosity, as they conflated their lost cause with their peculiar definition of their American identity. They became a people clinging to their guns and religion. Religion sanctified nationalism and nationalism strengthened religion.
In Europe, the 19th century witnessed the sanctification of the nation state. Every group speaking its own language and living its own culture demanded its place of as a unique nation. Whereas previously, kingship and royalty had received the mark of divine approbation, after the French Revolution, the “nation” was touted as the soul of the folk, and was increasingly recognized as the holy plan for human identity. The nation became the focus of a loyalty and called for sacrifices that in earlier times only God could demand. God and patriotism together became an unbeatable team, and nations became the principal actors on the world stage. Indeed, world events were defined as inter national relations, relations between nations, rather than as global processes. By the second half of the nineteenth century, the marriage between patriotism and religion was complete, and European armies were civilizing the African and Asian heathens while singing hymns like Onward Christian Soldiers. So America would not be left out of this holy enterprise, President McKinley sent the American army into the Philippines, to civilize and Christianize the Philippines, in spite of the fact that the Spaniards had already made the Philippines Catholic.
Religion united with patriotism seemed a match made in heaven, but during the first half of the 20th century, the union of patriotism and religion propelled Europe on a course of disaster. Some historians refer to WW WW II and I as European civil wars, because they were primarily European wars. They were terrible events in which the competing patriotisms of rival European nations is memorialized in great cemeteries like those in Flanders fields where “the poppies grow between the headstones, row on row” and in monstrous charnel museums, as at Auschwitz. These European wars of the 20th Century have been compared with the 16th and17th century series of religious wars, culminating in the Thirty Years War, during which nearly half the people of Germany perished. During the Thirty Years War, large tracts of countryside were depopulated and large and populous settlements were destroyed. Another comparison would be the terrible blood letting in Central Africa that started with the genocide in Rwanda and is still continuing in the Eastern Congo. But the devastation caused by competing nationalisms in Europe in the first half of the 20th century was a paroxysm on a mammoth scale. Wikipedia lists 16 million killed in WWI, but WW II resulted in over 60 million deaths. It is as if the total populations of California and Texas plus half the population of Florida were butchered. And God was on the side of all combatants! Such a grotesque result could only lead to disillusionment with both nationalism and religion.
United States was the only one of the major combatants in WWII without major devastation and its economy was immensely strengthened. Most other modern major military powers (with the notable exception of Britain) has been invaded in the 20th century and even when ultimately victorious, found their victories not much better than their defeats. This has led their people to be disillusioned with patriotism, with nationalism, and its handmaiden, religion. The defeats occasioned in the great wars as well as the colonial wars that followed produced in most of Europe a species of anti militarism, a reluctance to employ military means in settling international conflicts. For that reason, European armies became more ceremonial than actual fighting forces. The lure of religion in Europe has faded even as the call of nationalism has lost its force. As Europeans see it, so many crimes have been committed in the name of God and patriotism, that many have turned their backs on both. The Europeans learned that unchecked nationalism promotes wars, and wars are destructive for everyone. The scream of the nationalist eagles in Europe became only a distant echo.
In the second half of the 20th century the Europeans created the European Union an important supra national institution, which is evolving into what, might be the model for the rest of the world.
In addition, the Europeans have pre empted much of religion’s appeal by elaborating their general welfare state. As has already been mentioned, after the great bloodletting, every European country established universal medical care as a fundamental human right. In addition, after WW II, European nations put in place liberal social security plans, and comprehensive economic safety nets sheltering their people during periods of unemployment. They mandated generous vacation time, and paid maternal and sometimes paternal leaves. But perhaps as importantly, many European nations reorganized their educational systems, making them universal, compulsory and free. College education came with in the reach of all, in many European countries; students got not only free tuition but were also paid a stipend while attending higher education.
Out of these efforts of social democracy emerged a new European generation with a much different worldview than their forbears. The new European generations enjoy a standard of living undreamed of by the prewar generations, far exceeding the living level of their ancestors. The new Europeans are healthier, live longer, are more secure in their jobs, are protected against economic disaster and enjoy freedoms which are the envy of much of the rest of the world. Poverty, though not yet banished, has been much reduced and is not known on the scale that it exists in America’s central cities, or in Appalachia, or among the homeless of Volusia County. For many Europeans, life is good, the stresses of the past are gone, and there is a degree of contentment. Perhaps happy people do not need god.
In America, by contrast, nationalism is still very shrill, loud and kick ass. The American eagle continues to scream, and the /American spokespeople for god agree that
WE are the greatest, we are the best, and nothing like us ever was.
We are the world’s super power, the great police force of the globe, taking up the task at which the European nations so signally failed.
Life for many in America is very stressful. The business cycle, with its booms and busts, makes American economic life a much more dizzying roller coaster than its European counterpart. Here, economic booms are more are greater and billionaires proliferate. But the downturns are more serious .In most European countries; the unemployed get more support from the state. Here, when people lose their jobs, they lose their health insurance and often their houses. Lacking the securities of the welfare state, which European countries have elaborated, some American poor are forced to depend on the charity of church organizations, such as the Salvation Army. In America, the lack of an effective economic safety net is supplied, in part by the charitable arms of churches. For example, the Mormons have an elaborate church welfare system, Catholic charities run extensive programs, as do the Southern Baptists and many others, including most of the very well financed mega churches. Poverty breeds religion.
America’s justice system, which some call an injustice system, also breeds religion. Many find religion in the prisons, with the notable example of the Black Muslims. But many others also discover god in jail. And, with the most extensive prison system in the world, we provide the most fertile ground for religion to fester.
Racism nurtures religion. While Americans are not more racist than Europeans, we have historically had a larger racial minority than any European country. For most of our history, the only institution which could be controlled by the Black minority in America, and one of the few places talented Blacks could gain status was in the Black church. Now, there is a large and growing Hispanic minority in America which seems to be recapitualating the Black church experience. The Hispanic Iglesia is, for the population it serves, playing a similar role as the Black Church for that minority.
Finally, America is more religious because it is becoming Southernized. Southern culture is pervading and modifying mainstream American culture. As has already been mentioned, the South, defeated in the Civil War, turned to a peculiarly reactionary religion for solace. The Southerners embraced the Baptist faith, but in their hands the teachings of the gentle Roger Williams were transformed into something akin to the mean spirited Calvinism of the South African Boers. From the Civil War to WWII, the South was a poverty stricken economic colony of the Northeast, its people debilitated with hookworm, and its politics dominated by a particularly savage racism, fermenting in its own solitude.
The South reaped copious economic benefits from the New Deal’s programs, especially the Tennessee Valley Authority and from the demands of production for WWII. The South was industrialized and gained a greater stature in the nation. The South became a major factor in America’s cultural evolution and as the nation adopted more southern culture The religious outlook of the South, along with country music and Southern novels, invaded America’s mainstream popular culture. Southerners, both Blacks and Whites migrated to the West, the Midwest and even New England and established Mega churches. It is no coincidence that many of the religious entrepreneurs who lead fundamentalist mega churches are Southerners.
In conclusion, Europe is more secular because it learned the lessons of the 20th century. European nationalism is muted, militarism takes a back seat and European social democracy has created a new generation which enjoys an unprecedented good life and is happier.
America is more religious because it is more nationalistic, more militaristic, has a more stressful and chaotic economic life, has a somewhat dysfunctional system of criminal justice and the world’s largest prison population, suffers more from racism, identity politics, and Southern fundamentalist fanaticism.