Why Do So Many Americans Believe in God and Fundamentalist “Christianity”?

I’m guessing that some of this blog’s readers have already purchased the latest Noam Chomsky book – Imperial Ambitions (Metropolitan, 2005) a remarkable set of interviews with Chomsky (2003-2005) conducted by the award winning radio journalist David Barsaniam, who has a special gift for asking evocative questions that bring NC’s unmatched brilliance to bear on numerous, urgent, and wide-ranging issues of interrelated contemporary, historical, domestic and global relevance. Somewhere in this excellent collection (currently sitting a few miles from my computer), there’s an interesting exchange on a problem that seems to uncharacteristically baffle the conversants: why there’s so much religious and particularly so much extreme religious belief in the U.S.

It’s a fascinating and important issue in a country whose “messianic militarist” (Ralph Nader’s description) president once invoked “Christ” as his favorite political philosopher (“because he changed my heart”) and announced his imperialist war(s) on (of) terror and the Arab world as “a crusade.” A friend of school prayer and the death penalty and a religiously based opponent of abortion rights, gay rights, civil rights, evolutionary science, and stem-cell research, Bush is possibly the nation’s most theocratic president to date.

More to the mass-belief point, Bush finds critical electoral support among the highly mobilized group of Americans – equaling perhaps a third of the first “modern” nation’s citizenry – who call themselves Fundamentalist Christians and who believe literally in such biblical prophecies as Armageddon, and the Second Coming. These beliefs, taken from the book of Revelation, “imply acceptance,” as the prolific Marxist geographer David Harvey has noted, “of the horrors of war (particularly in the Middle East) as a prelude to the achievement of God’s will on earth.”

As various scholars have noted over recent decades, the high levels and often extreme nature of religious belief in the U.S. are more than a little counter-intuitive for the standard Western social-scientific thesis and observation that theological commitment and explanation tend to fade in direct positive relation to the advance of science and industry. The argument, I think (and no this is not my “field,” for what that’s worth), is that the frankly fantastic cosmology that lay at the pseudo-explanatory heart of religious thought is rooted largely in peoples’ related senses of ignorance, mystery, and powerlessness regarding the workings of the natural world and the universe. By demystifiying and subduing (or seeming to subdue) so much of the natural world that had for so long haunted humanity and above all by opening the door for human dominance over much of that world (for better and/or worse and yes we are finding out what an illusion this “dominance” can be), the advance of “modern” technology and its handmaiden scientific explanation tend to enshrine glorious (or awful, depending on your perspective) self-active Human Agency, thereby de-throning Gods, Devils, spirits, goblins, spells, magic, and other such mysterious super-natural agents and powers.

Fine, so why does the United States, which steps into the glorious (and/or grotesque) vanguard of nature-subordinating material modernization (replete with simply astonishing rates of industrialization and urbanization) through the march of the significantly science-based “second industrial revolution” (with related triumphs of mass production and managerial revolution) during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, exhibit such seemingly counter-intuitive widespread and extreme religious belief? America’s religious and fundamentalism levels are simply “off the charts,” reminding Chomsky of a “developing” (presumably pre- industrial) nation.

My working draft thesis has three parts, which I suppose are interrelated and combine to suggest that the nation’s distinct political history is part of what’s going on:

1. One of the reasons for relative non-belief (secularization) in modern Europe is the interrelated histories of feudalism, monarchy, and the Catholic Church, whereby Christianity became a significantly embedded and established exploiter institution at the heart of the old regime and a dedicated and transparent enemy of democratic revolution and the broad populace. This history favored anti-clericalism and related general suspicion of religious belief in much of Europe, the usual leading comparison region. The organized feudal and state churches of feudalism and absolutism helped discredit Christianity and helped determine anti- and non-religious strains in the heart of modern popular movements in the “Old World.”

There was no real established church or comparable related feudal social order in the British North American “New World” and this made for a different religious history that did not tend to make popular and democratic movements anti-clerical or anti-religious to the same degree. Christianity or some bastardized versions thereof (the American great black activist and escaped slave Frederick Douglass wrote eloquently about the “wide difference” between the “pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ” and the “corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial, and hypocritical Christianity of this land”) developed in America without the same tar of association with unjust aristocratic and related state power.

2. For various reasons that are the subject of a vast academic and other literature, the American historical, social, and political context and its leading actors (individual and collective capitalists) tends to militate against the sort of common-sense Marxian, laborite, and left-syndicalist — broadly class-based — explanations that European workers and intellectuals commonly (and I would say rightly) developed to make sense of —- and communicate the basic truth about —- current public affairs and daily social experience. It’s difficult and even damn-near impossible to make sense of current events and that experience without that elementary social-historical common sense….without class analysis. Just name the issue — warfare, empire, environmental destruction, deindustrialization, corporate globalization, overwork, racial conflict and inequality, the corruption and perverted priorities of government, etc. —- and you find that class and class interests provide critical and central parts of the explanation for what’s happening. But for various reasons, this basic common sense is exceptionally unavailable to ordinary Americans.

The traditional Western analysis invokes ignorance and a feeling of helplessness vis-a-vis nature and natural forces as the cause of religious belief. But surely a feeling of mystery and powerlessness about sadly all-too determinant SOCIAL FORCES AND THEIR ROLE IN HUMAN EXPERIENCE might well have quite the same effect.

I suppose something along this sort of thought occurs in social-scientific thought on this issue but usually minus my leftist emphasis on class-based explanation as the essential component of the demystifying tonic that is tragically unavailable to America’s Joe Six Pack. My point, I guess, is that many more ordinary Europeans have tended to possess an elementary Marxist understanding of basic essentially of how their societies work and that understanding and mastering social as well as natural forces is part of the antidote to religious fantasy.

3. The relative disabling of democracy and the “left [positive social and democratic] hand of the state” (Pierre Bourdieu’s wonderful phrase) in neo-Jacksonian, so-called “free market” (corporate-ruled) America tends to leave non-affluent people (the majority) feeling hopeless, helpless, and marginal in the face of God-like “market” and “economic” forces. This tends to encourage a fantastic cosmology in the “richest nation on earth,” which has the 26th highest life expectancy among the world’s states and the most unequal distribution of wealth and power in the “advanced” (industrialized or post-industrialized) world.

I read something suggestive in an essay by Pierre Bourdieu on this. He noted that the relative disabling of basic social-democratic policy in (admirably anti-clerical) France had given rise to an upsurge of highly personalized spiritual belief among many who no longer felt empowered in the real material and social world and who had therefore turned to more ethereal realms to find (illusions of) agency and satisifaction.

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