Religion in America I

[sepoy notes: Gentle readers. I asked my good friend and, sometimes, collaborator farangi to write something explaining wtf is up with religion in America. Obviously, the elections were a motivation but there is something else going on. For example, just yesterday, Tom Delay – the embattled House Bully and born-again Christian – used scripture to castigate the poor tsunami victims. Not only is a particular variety of religious expression gathering prominence in civil discourse in America, it is shedding its inhibitions and moderations in public. I have talked about manic mullahs here often, and I believe that it is time we broadened the conversation not just to include religious zealotry of all stripes but also to cast an eye on the role of religion in the public and social life of this great country.]

Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God1 argued convincingly, to a wide audience, that religious fundamentalism2 was growing in response to modernity, and its effects could only be tempered by a thorough understanding of fundamentalist motivations. At the time of the book’s writing, her thesis seemed nonsensical to many educated urbanites, some of whom saw in religious faith an artifact, or a diluted cultural badge.

Not long before the book’s publication, a crime inspired by an odd brand of religious thought took asunder the biggest buildings in America’s biggest city. The attack forced many residents of New York and other, densely populated, hypermodern cities, like Los Angeles and Chicago, to reconsider assumptions about the relevance of faith. Armstrong’s thesis came true and timely.

Bookstores, talk radio and internet search engines experienced surges in interest about Islam, Osama Bin Laden, Pakistan, India, and even Sayyid al-Qutb, the philosophical idol of Bin Laden’s main lieutenant, Ayman al Zawahiri, and the intellectual soil from which much of modern Islam’s nuttier ideas spring.

It is good that people became more interested in Islam, which had for decades been little more than a misunderstood jumble of oriental symbols, frightening images, and racist calumnies in the popular western mind. It is also good that non-Muslim Americans became aware of the Muslims among them, and through education, many became sensitive to Muslim concerns, insofar as they uniformly exist. †

But it remains a tragedy that people who are now conversant on Islam’s “five pillars,” know nothing of glossolalia3, premillenial dispensationalism, the nondenominational movement, or various charismatic movements. Initial shock at Bush’s 2004 victory, coupled with the intelligentsia’s manic search for cause, is proof enough of a problem, a disconnect. The cause of Bush’s victory was always, and remains, right under their collective nose. They had been conditioned not to look for it, or in many cases, at it. And for good cause: The reason is strange and other and sometimes ugly, though it is distinctly American.

My aim in this essay is to encourage awareness of America’s modern religious context, similar to that following September 11 for Islam, by providing a brief, nonexhaustive primer on the state of religion in modern America. I will, by necessity, treat a slice of the religious population that is small in public voice and absolutely huge in numbers of adherents.

At first, we’ll look at a schismatic division, initially unique to America, among Protestants. That division has developed over time, to have a grossly passive-aggressive and mutually exploitative relationship with America’s, and the world’s, Jewish leaders; curiously developing despite little understanding of or contact with actual Jews. Regionally based, this element has also developed an isolated, peculiar but nevertheless popular theology that is part Luther, part science-fiction, part Scopes-trial, and part Bill Buckley. Finally, as America’s population has moved south and West, America’s evangelicals find themselves increasingly able to influence electoral outcomes in the Congress and the Executive. The ramifications of this situation are serious. To misunderstand it could be disastrous.

I should also add that I am intimately familiar with this slice of God’s acre, but warn that while I can speak with a small measure of authority on many matters concerning it, I also intend to indulge in naked conjecture; I shall do my best to warn when disrobing of reason. I will then draw conclusions based upon my observations, attempting humbly to limit them to what I know, and not what I feel.

High Church v. Low Church

Like many aspects of American culture, domestic Christian religious expression can be divided neatly using a class wedge; also, like many aspects of American culture, class rarely enters the lexicon of analysts who discuss religion. This may be due to etiquette, but it is more likely due to ignorance on the part of popular commenters.

Originally, the distinction between High and Low Church4 was a term of art; in the modern American sense, it has come to describe the schism between mainline protestant denominations and their evangelical counterparts. As writer Dennis Bratcher explains:

vangelical Protestants sometimes become offended when they hear that they are from a Low Church tradition. Indeed, in some cases those from more liturgical traditions use that term in a pejorative way to mean “less sophisticated” or “uneducated.”‚Ć But then, Protestant Evangelicals are not beyond throwing around the term High Church to mean “less spiritual than we.”

The difference wouldn’t mean much, were it not for the class distinction mentioned above, nor for the fact that “High Church” in America is in its death throes, while “Low Church,” is a political, cultural and social force that has helped define the past quarter century of American politics.

Right Reverend John Shelby Spong, Retired Episcopal Bishop, admits as much when appraising the state of High Church:

Darwin’s revolutionary concepts destroyed forever the power of the traditional Christian myth by which this religious system had defined itself for centuries.√ñ The basic Christian interpretive myth of Jesus as God’s divine rescue operation, designed to save a fallen creation, quickly becomes inoperative. As that realization has dawned in religious circles, both anger and defensiveness have risen and, simultaneously, religious power has waned. The heart will never respond to that which the mind rejects. √ñUntil we address these issues, all that we do as a Church will be akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the great ship Titanic! Yet from within the Christian institution seldom do we hear a voice that speaks to these concerns. Church leaders rather seem content to occupy themselves by stopping the leaks, denying the storm and pretending that things will soon improve.

Meanwhile, the ministries of nondenominational Low Churches, and the fortunes of established Low Church denominations from the United Pentecostal Church to the Southern Baptist Convention, continue to rise in adherents and dollars.

Quite simply, High Church has educated itself out of believing its own narrative, and while either wringing its collective hands or gazing at its navel, abandoned legitimate discourse to the Low Church crowd, who choose belief and narrative uber-alles. Americans inclined toward religious belief and religious expression act, if nothing, as consumers. They respond to the salesman who’s enthusiastic about his product, and uses it at home.

The problem: High Church traditions are an ark holding two millennia of Christian theology and history; taken together, the mainline denominations, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Eastern Rite have had the opportunity to examine, consider and dispose of nearly every controversy the Christian belief system might inspire, from the role of Charismatic prophecy to militarist expansion to temporal political entanglements to the nature of Christ’s personhood.

Yet, by virtue of disposition and doubt, the High Church is disengaged from evangelizing5 and the conversation between it and new Christians is diminished. The effect is worrisome: without benefit of hindsight, negative patterns and aberrances peculiar to Christianity, long dispensed with, may rise again. Worse yet, moral authority to speak for “Christians,” is abdicated to those whom remain unashamed to admit they are.

With the exception of explosive growth in Catholic numbers due to immigration, we are left with a growing nation within a nation of committed protestant Christian believers, ignorant of their own history, isolated in their narrative, increasingly willing to engage the outside as other, as foreign, as lost, as irredeemable. They call this outside “the world.”

The doctrine of Christian fundamentalists rests on two pillars: one, an obsession with the “end times,” which for them is best embodied in the reestablished state of Israel; and, two, the inerrancy and divine authorship of Christian scriptures, maintained through plain reading, anti-intellectualism and a fluid critical regime able to change when the outcome requires it….

[to be continued]


[1] Ballantine, 2001

[2]‚ĆAccording to Armstrong’s central thesis, a‚Ćspiritual outlook brought on by loneliness, materialism and modernity manifested as a yearning for a previous, mythical time made to seem real for the yearner through community reinforcement, textual “evidence” and given assurances that the mythical time’s return is imminent. Sometimes coupled with violence to that end.

[3] “Speaking in tongues.”

[4] Term describing division in English Christendom between Anglicans and denominations deemphasizing liturgy.

[5] The Christian’s responsibility to explain his beliefs to nonbelievers and unbelievers.

5 Replies to “Religion in America I”

  1. Dear Sir/Ma,
    Calvary greetings to you over there. How is the Ministry of our LORD JESUS going, with hope everything is in one accord? Sir, it’s my pleasure to use this medium to let you that there are so many souls out there languishing as a result of the message not being preached to them. Therefore, I want to appeal to your Ministry to extend its gospel down to Nigeria so that the work of Almighty God will be propagated.

    Thank you and God bless you,

    Yours truly,

    Bro. Titus Elekwe.

  2. Reminds of Robert Elwood’s 5 Stages of Religion: Apostolic, Imperial, Devotional, Reformation and Folk religion; where he places christianity in the last category. I see a correlation between his research/interpretation and the designation of “Low Church,” at least as it is realized in America.

    Gershom Gorenberg does a good job of discussion the Christian relationship with Israel in his book, “The End of Days.”

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