This article I found on the blog of the Ochlophobist what seemed to be only a few weeks ago. I meant to post it and so what seemed like a few days passed by. When I finally found the time to go searching for it I discovered that it was actually posted at the end of June! Wow, how time flies. Is it true what people are saying, that summer is almost over?
On America’s God
I have been asked to address the character of American Protestantism as well as the religious awareness of the American people and the impact that awareness has on society and politics. No small topic. I think it first important to identify the perspective from which I speak. I am a Protestant. I am a communicant at the Church of the Holy Family, which is an Episcopal church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I teach in the Divinity School at Duke University, a very secular university, but before Duke I taught 14 years at the University of Notre Dame. I relate this history only to suggest to you I come from the Catholic side of Protestantism.
I am not sure I can make clear what it means to say I come from the Catholic side of Protestantism, but at the very least it means that I do not think Christianity began with the Reformation. When I was interviewed for possible appointment to the faculty at Notre Dame I was asked what Protestant courses I would teach. I said I did not teach Protestant theology because I thought the very notion was a mistake. Rather I would teach Thomas Aquinas, because his work was crucial for my attempt to recover the virtues for understanding the Christian life. I saw no reason that Aquinas should be assumed to be only a thinker for Roman Catholics.
But my presumption that I could claim Aquinas as a theologian in my tradition betrays a Protestant consciousness that may be distinctly American. Even those of us who would like to be identified as representing the Catholic side of Protestantism do so as a matter of choice. We may detest the idea that in order to satisfy our desires we get to make Christianity up, but the very presumption that we should not pick and choose those aspects of the tradition we like and dislike turns out to be a matter of choice.
This dilemma, I believe, is crucial for understanding the character of religious life in America. America is the first great experiment in Protestant social formation. Protestantism in Europe always assumed and depended on the cultural habits that had been created by Catholic Christianity. America is the first place Protestantism did not have to define itself over against a previous Catholic culture. So America is the exemplification of a constructive Protestant social imagination.
These are very complex matters, but I believe, as Mark Noll rightly suggest in his magisterial book, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln [Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 9], America is a synthesis of evangelical Protestantism, republican political ideology, and commonsense moral reasoning. Americans were able to synthesize these antithetical traditions by making their faith in God indistinguishable from their loyalty to a country that assured them that they had the right to choose which god they would or would not believe in. That is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer acutely characterized America Protestantism as “Protestantism without Reformation.”
American Protestants do not have to believe in God because they believe in belief. That is why we have never been able to produce interesting atheists in America. The god most American say they believe in just is not interesting enough to deny. Thus the only kind of atheism that counts in America is to call into question the proposition that everyone has a right to life, liberty, and happiness.
So constituted America did not need to have an established church because it was assumed that the church was virtually established by the everyday habits of public life. For example, Noll calls attention to the 1833 amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution that did away with church establishment but nonetheless affirmed that “the public worship of God, and the instructions in piety, religion, and morality, promote the happiness and prosperity of a people, and the security of republican government.” Noll points out that these words were written at the same time Alexis de Tocqueville had just returned to France from his tour of North America. Tocqueville descriptively confirmed the normative point made in the Massachusetts Constitution: “I do not know if all Americans have faith in their religion — for who can read to the bottom of hearts? — but I am sure that they believe it necessary to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion does not belong only to one class of citizens or to one party, but to the entire nation; one finds it in all ranks” (Noll, 10).
Protestantism came to America to make America Protestant. It was assumed that was to be done through faith in the reasonableness of the common man and the establishment of a democratic republic. But in the process the church in America became American; or, as Noll puts it, “because the churches had done so much to make America, they could not escape living with what they had made” (194). As a result Americans continue to maintain a stubborn belief in a god, but the god they believe in turns out to be the American god. To know or worship that god does not require that a church exist because that god is known through the providential establishment of a free people. This is a presumption shared by the religious right as well as the religious left in America. Both assume that America is the church.
Noll ends his account of these developments at the end of the Civil War, but the fundamental habits he identifies as decisive in the formation of the American religious and political consciousness continues to shape the way Christians, and in particular Protestant Christians, understand their place in America. Yet I think we are beginning to see the loss of confidence by Protestants in their ability to sustain themselves in America just to the extent that the inevitable conflict between the church, republicanism, and common sense morality has now worked its way out. America is the great experiment in Protestant social thought, but the world Protestants created now threatens to make Protestantism unintelligible to itself — an obscure remark I must now try to make clear.
Putting it as directly as I can, I believe we may be living at a time when we are watching Protestantism, at least the kind of Protestantism we have in America, come to an end. It is dying of its own success. Protestantism became identified with the republican presumption in liberty as an end reinforced by belief in the common sense of the individual. As a result Protestant churches in America lost the ability to maintain the disciplines necessary to sustain a people capable of being an alternative to the world. Ironically the feverish fervency of the religious right in America to sustain faith as a necessary condition for supporting democracy cannot help but be a strategy that ensures the faith that is sustained is not the Christian faith.
More Americans may go to church than their counterparts in Europe, but the churches to which they go do little to challenge the secular presumptions that form their lives or the lives of the churches to which they go. For the church is assumed to exist to reinforce the presumption that those who come to church have done so freely. The church’s primary function, therefore, is to legitimate and sustain the presumption that America represents what all people would want to be if they had the benefit of American education and money.
Let me try to put this in a different register. America is the exemplification of what I call the project of modernity. That project is the attempt to produce a people who believe that they should have no story except the story that they choose when they had no story. That is what Americans mean by freedom. The institutions that constitute the disciplinary forms of that project are liberal democracy and capitalism. Thus the presumption that if you get to choose between a Sony or Panasonic television you have had a “free choice.” The same presumption works for choosing a President. Once you have made your choice you have to learn to live with it. So there is a kind of resignation that freedom requires.
I try to help Americans see that the story that they should have no story except the story they choose when they had no story is their story by asking them this question — “Do they think they ought to be held accountable for decisions they made when they did not know what they were doing?” They do not think they should be held accountable for decisions they made when they did not know what they were doing. They do not believe they should be held accountable because it is assumed that you should only be held accountable when you acted freely, and that means you had to know what you were doing.
I then point out the only difficulty with such an account of responsibility is it makes marriage unintelligible. How could you ever know what you were doing when you promised lifelong monogamous fidelity? I then observe that is why the church insists that your vows be witnessed by the church: because the church believes it has the duty to hold you responsible to promises you made when you did not know what you were doing. And if the story that you should have no story but the story you choose when you had no story makes marriage unintelligible, try having children. You never get the ones you want. Of course Americans try to get the ones they want by only having children when they are “ready” — a utopian desire that wreaks havoc on children so born, to the extent they come to believe they can only be loved if they fulfill their parents’ desires.
Of course the problem with the story that you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story is that story is a story that you have not chosen. But Americans do not have the ability to acknowledge that they have not chosen the story that they should have no story except the story they choose when they had no story. As a result they must learn to live with decisions they made when they thought they knew what they were doing but later realized they did not know what they were doing. Of course they have a remedy when it comes to marriage. It is called divorce. They also have a remedy for children. It is called abortion.
The story that you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story obviously has implications for how faith is understood. The story that you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story produces people who say things such as, “I believe Jesus is Lord — but that is just my personal opinion.” The grammar of this kind of avowal obviously reveals a superficial person. But such people are the kind many think crucial to sustain democracy. For such a people are necessary in order to avoid the conflicts that otherwise might undermine the order, which is confused with peace, necessary to sustain a society that shares no goods in common other than the belief that there are no goods in common. So an allegedly democratic society that styles itself as one made up of people of strong conviction in fact becomes the most conformist of social orders because of the necessity to avoid conflicts that cannot be resolved.
Such a view has devastating effects on the church, for the church does not believe that you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story. Rather the church believes that we are creatures of a good God who has storied us through engrafting us to the people of Israel through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Christians do not believe we get to choose our story, but rather we discover that God has called us to participate in a story not of our own making. That is why we are called into the church, as well as why we are called “Christian.” A church so formed cannot help but be a challenge to a social order built on the contrary presumption that I get to make my life up.
But a church formed capable of challenging the reigning ethos that sustains America is no easy achievement. You may well think that the Roman Catholic Church surely would be up to that task, but you need to remember, as Francis Cardinal George of Chicago often remarks, that Catholicism is America is a form of Protestant Christianity. Catholics in America, like their Protestant sisters and brothers, are likely to assume that there is no essential tension between being a Christian and an American. As a result, Catholics in America think the distinction between the public and the private, and their “faith” clearly falls into the latter, is a given that cannot be questioned.
If I am right about the story that shapes the American self-understanding, I think we are in a position to better understand why after September 11, 2001, the self-proclaimed “most powerful nation in the world” runs on fear. It does so because the fear of death is necessary to ensure a level of cooperation between people who otherwise share nothing in common. That is, they share nothing in common other than the presumption that death is to be avoided at all costs. That is why in America hospitals have become our cathedrals and physicians are our priests. Accordingly medical schools are much more serious about the moral formation of their students than divinity schools. They are so because Americans do not believe that an inadequately trained priest may damage their salvation, but they do believe an inadequately trained doctor can hurt them.
The American desire to use medicine in an attempt to get out of life alive is but the domestic form of American foreign policy. September 11, 2001, gave America exactly what she so desperately needed after the end of the cold war. It is unclear if America can live without a war, since otherwise what would give us a moral compass? So we got a “war against terrorism,” which is a war without end. That Americans are willing to die for America is indicative of their most basic conviction. As Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle observe in their book, Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag [Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 9]:
In an era of Western ascendancy, the triumph of Christianity clearly meant the triumph of the states of Christianity, among them the most powerful of modern states, the United States. Though religions have survived and flourished in persecution and powerlessness, supplicants nevertheless take manifestations of power as blessed evidence of the truth of faith. Still, in the religiously plural society of the United States, sectarian faith is optional for citizens, as everyone knows. Americans have rarely bled, sacrificed or died for Christianity or any other sectarian faith. Americans have often bled, sacrificed and died for their country. This fact is an important clue to its religious power. Though denominations are permitted to exist in the United States, they are not permitted to kill for their beliefs are not officially true. What is really true in any society is what is worth killing for, and what citizens may be compelled to sacrifice their lives for.
America is a culture of death because Americans cannot conceive of how life is possible in the face of death. Freedom names the attempt to live as though we will not die. Lives lived as though death is only a theoretical possibility, moreover, can only be sustained by a wealth otherwise unimaginable. But America is an extraordinarily wealthy society, determined to remain so even if it requires our domination of the rest of the world. We are told that others hate us because they despise our freedoms, but it may be that others sense that what Americans call freedom is bought at the expense of the lives of others.
I love America and I love being an American. The energy of Americans, the ability to hew out lives often in unforgiving land, the natural generosity of Americans, I cherish. But I am a Christian. I cannot avoid the reality that American Christianity has been less than it should have been just to the extent that the church has failed to make clear that America’s god is not the God we worship as Christians. If I am right that we are now facing the end of Protestantism, hopefully that will leave the church in America in a position with nothing to lose. When you have nothing to lose all you have left is the truth. So I am hopeful that God may yet make the Church faithful even in America.