God’s “almost Chosen People”

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More mundane explanations of America’s pattern should begin with the formula chosen by the new nation about two centuries ago. The act of “separating church from state” removed most occasions for public resentment of formal religion. Anti-clericalism has consequently seldom been an agent of political partisanship in America as it has been, say, in Spain or Mexico. The Founding Fathers, in separating the civil from the religious sphere, made religion an escapable choice, something that could also be more attractive than when it was forced upon their ancestors. Thrown on their own resources, the churches had to win Americans’ hearts.

Charters and formulas for freedom do not make people religious. They only allow for them to be nonreligious or to be pious in an infinitely rich number of ways. Americans needed and possessed other assets. First among these was the landscape itself, the vast map of open spaces for refuge, colonizing, pioneering, building cities and utopias, fashioning new communities, and providing isolation for those who wanted to stay away from people of other religious outlooks. Certainly, they thought, God spoke through the environment with its “templed hills.” But human resources were even more impressive, as endless varieties of believers from Europe, Africa, and Asia came and had to make sense of that environment.

As the various peoples arrived, they brought along some traditions to forget and then chose to remember many of them. They eventually left behind most of their ancient and tribal customs, Old World languages and customs and recipes. But through the centuries they kept on having to ask who they were in this new and bewildering place. To whom and to what did they belong in a mobile society? What might they hope for in a culture that inspired so many competing dreams?

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Given such resources and needs, why are we a “religious people”? Conservatives will be offended by one plausible answer, and progressives by a different version of the same. Conservatives first. They have warred against evolutionary theories since before Darwin, but in religious life they live out an example of evolutionary development. By evolution here I mean something far more subtle than the crude motifs of “natural selection” and the “survival of the fittest,” though these have also been visible in American piety. Evolution rather refers to the ability of religious groups to adapt to their complex environments with ever more complex forms. Eventually they came up with a “church of your choice” for almost everyone, with a cafeteria line of spiritual options for most tastes, and with custom-made faiths for every kind of customer and consumer.

American religious history is a stunning story of adaptation and diversification of choices. In the early nineteenth century, the earnestly pious set out to reform the nation. They developed answers to questions yet dimly asked, cures for diseases only vaguely then felt, solutions to problems only rarely yet perceived. People invented societies for all purposes, to the ultimate point of forming local branches of the London Society for Providing Trusses for the Ruptured Poor. Ever since, religious decline would have spelled trouble for reform of society or voluntary action to improve it. From abolition through the clerical activism of recent years, the pious have agitated on both sides of most worthwhile disputes. Even today people channel far more than half their charitable dollars through religious agencies, and give more than half their hours of voluntary service to churches.

In quiet ways religion is locked into too many parts of too many peoples’ lives to slip easily away. Churches and synagogues may be more than burial societies, but they are at least that. They also provide outlets for the expression of egos, places to be seen and accepted, occasions for spiritual enjoyment, and where they do this well there is little danger of their decline. European clerics, by contrast, talk ruefully about apathetic life in tail-ending establishments. There, some say, people come to church only on the four wheels of baby carriages for christening, limousines for marriage, and hearses for burials—to be “hatched, matched, and dispatched.”

Established European religion did far less adapting and diversifying. After World War II, for example, we heard much of the lay renewal in Christian Europe. In 1960 I thought it timely to seek out the traces. Typically, a Dutch cleric showed me a new room with a table and eight chairs that was attached to his old church. It was, he said, “the locale of our lay emphasis.” A thriving American church would have had a gymnasium, credit union, nursery, art galleries, business office, senior citizens’ center, sanctuary, and bookstore.