God’s “almost Chosen People”

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Religious liberals, not always friends of the competitive free market, will not enjoy seeing it credited with helping provide for their religious prosperity. Americans, in such a reading, are religious because competitive religious groups have successfully exploited every changing taste and need. The capitalist model inspired a century of competition and lived on in an ecumenical age when milder-mannered leaders became uneasy over the churches’ efforts to do each other in.

When the American West was opened, Baptists, Methodists, and Disciples of Christ lunged at each other as they raced to overwhelm the old colonial denominations—the Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians—and to keep Catholics at bay or away. When boatloads of later Europeans arrived, they were often only nominal Catholics or Protestants, but priests and missionaries met their boats, cajoled them into showing loyalty, and inspired them to activity. When conventional options did not offer the right products, new religions arose: Mormon, Adventist, Christian Scientist, Jehovah’s Witnessing, Theosophist. Blacks turned the church into the chief zone of their common life. Dispersed Jews often converged on synagogues. It was not easy to escape the nets thrown out by religions of all sorts. Today new groups derived from Asian, African, or occult sources have borrowed the familiar aggressive tactics of Western faiths.

Competition and divisiveness have been played down at least since 1908, when the Protestants’ Federal Council of Churches was formed, and certainly since the Catholics’ Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s. Jews have sought “brotherhood” through the years. The spiritual climate is generally friendlier. Still, in 1972 Dean M. Kelley provided shock treatment for brotherhood’s shock troops when he showed in Why Conservative Churches Are Growing that it was the blatantly competitive and unfriendly churches that prospered in the new market.

Consumer-oriented religion has finally become so custom-made that in America’s free climate there seem to be not simply as many religions as there are churches—over 220 in the Yearbook of American Churches —but as there are citizens. German sociologist Thomas Luckmann speaks of “the invisible religion,” the faith that survives in the high-rise apartment or over the long weekend, far from rabbi, priest, and minister. This is the spirituality of the do-it-yourself American religionists who blend a completely private mix of everything from astrology to Zen, of mail-ordered, televised, and Great Booked options that satisfy their own search for meaning even if the result cannot easily be transmitted to others or to new generations.

Not everyone has taken such private religion lying down. Racial, ethnic, and denominational groups have been talking again the common language of tribe and peoplehood. Public philosophers from Benjamin Franklin in 1749 with his “publick Religion” to Robert Bellah and his “civil religion” in 1967 have tried to minister to the American hunger for wholeness. “We are a religious people,” and many of us do come together around occasions provided by presidential inaugural addresses, public holidays, and elementary-school ceremonies. Major writers took the old biblical language about God’s elect people and Americanized it. Thus Herman Melville boasted: “We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people-the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world.” Even Abraham Lincoln thought his were God’s “almost chosen people.” Such language by fusing spirituality with national purpose contributed to our sense of mission and manifest destiny, thus assuring religion a secure place whenever Americans have wanted to take on something for which they needed courage.

When the arrival of religious freedom brought the possibility of freedom from religion two centuries ago, few citizens lost faith and many gained it. With the onset of modernity, whatever it was supposed to mean, prophets predicted the death of God and the demise of religion. Not all believers try to account for God’s ways, but religion itself did not die. It was simply relocated, sometimes disguised, busy seeking to fill society’s many nooks and crannies that offer growth to both old and new religious organizations and private emphases. If the polls are correct, few are trying to evade religion’s claims or appeals. So long as citizens seek freedom and justice, hunger to be whole, want to be saved, and wish to know who they are and to whom they belong, many are likely to find new ways to give support to the Court’s claim that “we are a religious people.” The American majority, for all their secular styles and worldly concerns, are likely to see in such expressions what Jonathan Edwards perceived in the 1730’s, “the Surprizing Work of God.” And they will gladly say so to Dr. Gallup or anyone else who asks.