NOVEMBER 24, 2003
Martin E. Marty
The Economist (November 6) brought new life to old debates about American
exceptionalism by devoting a whole supplement to "A Nation Apart."
Thesis: "Americans are becoming more religious, but notnecessarily more
censorious" reads the headline for a section on "Therapy
for the Masses." Face this "more religious America" theme
against a New York Times article (November 12) headlined "Continent Wrings
Its Hands Over Proclaiming Its Faith."
In that article, Richard Bernstein tells how European nations, in which religious expression is diminishing drastically, tend to keep "religious rituals outside the rituals of government." He details the battle between the Vatican and its kin and kind on one hand and secular or "religion-keep-your-distance" leaders in much of Europe. They fight over whether there should or should not be reference to Christianity in at least historical or heritage-mindful sections of the EU constitution. (Advice to the reader: supplement Bernstein and the others with Andrew M. Greeley's Religion in Europe at the End of the Second Millennium: A Sociological Profile. It notes more vital, if formally changing, faith in Europe.)
The Economist claims, probably on good authority, that "To Europeans, religion is the strangest and most disturbing feature of American exceptionalism. They worry that fundamentalists are hijacking the country … They fear that America will go on a "crusade … in the Muslim world or cut aid to poor countries lest it be used for birth control." Well? asks a little voice within. Europeans cannot figure out why America, in some ways an offspring of the Enlightenment, did not secularize the way much of Europe has. The weekly quotes sociologist Peter Berger who has long argued that Europe is the exception: most of the world did not turn secular on schedule, much of it is becoming more religious than before.
The Economist notes that the boom in U.S. religion has been among the Baptist, Confessional, and Pentecostal churches (toss in Evangelical and Fundamentalist) and that they've switched sides. Once anti- or non- or sub-political (my terms), they are now the most overtly political of any groups. Once resentful for being left behind, they now show will to power and skill at using it. They still harbor resentments, as if marginalized, even though they now help "run the show."
The authors do not get carried away about the indicators of religious awakening that they have cited. "Church attendance has not been increasing, as a new awakening would suggest." There are other signs of the limits of aggressive and exuberant religion; for instance the number of self-described secularists grows, slightly. And most religious Americans are not religious in order to represent polar political commitments, "to sign up for a crusade or to sit in judgment on miserable sinners." I won't try to improve on the magazine's image: "The pattern of religious belief has the profile of a Volkswagen Beetle: a bump of evangelical Protestants at the front, a bigger bulge of uncensorious congregations in the middle and a stubby secular tail. That must temper the notion that religion is running amok in America, or that it is causing America to run amok in the world."
The Atlantic is wide and the fog is thick. Does anything do more than religion to define Euro-American exceptionalisms?