Thursday, June 7, 2007

Ross Douthat Again: Why Are Americans So Religious?

Ross Douthat is on a roll. As a follow-up to his article in the Atlantic Monthly, he asks the question: why is America more nation than Europe. Here is his response:

Because we're geographically mobile and ethnically diverse, says Brink Lindsey. Because our families are stronger than Europe's, says Mary Eberstadt. My own preferred explanation - which is doubtless a small part of the pantomime - is theological rather than sociological: Christianity has thrived in the United States by adapting its theology to the habits and mores of the American people, in a way that religion in Europe hasn't managed to do. America is an Emersonian country, and its religious innovators have invented an Emersonian form of Christianity - which some might suggest isn't Christianity at all, of course - that's nicely tailored to the broader culture in which it swims. Call it gnosticism, or Moral Therapeutic Deism, or just plain Americanism - it means Elaine Pagels and Karen Armstrong for highbrow audiences and T.D. Jakes and Joyce Meyer for the masses, and it works.

If Christianity in America meant the Christianity of Benedict XVI - or even the Christianity of C.S. Lewis, for that matter - I bet that about 15 percent of the country would be practicing believers. But you don't get Benedict or even Lewis from most pulpits; you get socially-conservative Emersonianism in Red America and socially-liberal Emersonianism in Blue America. This wouldn't fly in the European cultural context, but maybe there's a form of organized religion that would - its theology just hasn't been invented yet.

So you don't have to follow the links above, here is what Brink Lindsey has to say:

So what is the solution to this riddle? I have nothing more than speculation to offer, but I suspect that two distinctive features of American society may play some role: our ethnic heterogeneity, and our pronounced geographic mobility. Surely one factor that has dampened the aggregate numbers on secularization here is the big influx of poor Hispanic Catholic immigrants. My assumption is that African Americans are less secular than whites as well. Among white ethnics, continued affiliation with the Catholic Church offers a way to maintain your family heritage. And for Americans of all backgrounds, church affiliation offers an easy path to membership in a community after pulling up stakes and moving away from your hometown — which, I take it, is much more common here than in Europe.

I think that Brink and Ross both have a point. I can't speak for the European experience, but there it is certainly the case in America that virtually every community has a church to meet the theological views and style of virtually anyone. And, immigration has certainly made played a major role as well. One of the more interesting aspects of American religious life is the large increase in Spanish speaking evangelical (and largely Pentecostal) congregations.

So what do you think?

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