The Nation with the Soul of a Church

A Nation with the Soul of a Church?

The Strange Career of Religion in America


Paul S. Boyer (Professor of History Emeritus, University of Wisconsin, Madison)

José Casanova (Prof. of Socioloy, New School for Social Research, New York/Budapest)


Britta Waldschmidt-Nelson (American Institute, University of Munich)

Moderated by.: Berndt Ostendorf (American Institute, University of Munich)

A public panel in New York in December 2003 with European intellectuals drawn from the political Left and Right ended on a sullen note: „The role of religion in U.S. politics was an affront to European secularism“. What explains the recent vitality of evangelical, pentecostal and fundamentalist religious movements in the U.S., why could they become such a powerful political force and what makes this collusion of religion and politics so puzzling to most Europeans? The following five theses mark the crucial differences in the historical unfolding of the American religious experience.

First: Max Weber’s secularization paradigm does not apply to the US, certainly not to the entire country. Although the US was conceived by the Founding Fathers as a radically secular state with an enlightened constitution and although the forces of modernization, which Weber names as the primal cause of secularization, were in the US more radical and rigorous than in Europe, they did not lead to a disenchantment with or to a weakening of religion. The explanation for the failure of secularization lies in the dialectic tension within the First Amendment. While it codifies the institutional separation of church and state (anti-establishment clause) from above, it also protects the right of individuals to freely exercise their particular religion from below (free exercise clause). The First Amendment anticipates the privatisation, popularisation and pluralisation of religious beliefs within the constraints of an open market.

Second: After the foundation of a secular republic a process of reactive desecularization has set in, first regionally and then, in fits and starts, also nationally. Animated by the First Amendment’s “free exercise” and protected by the “anti-establishment clause” there have been a series of popular religious reactions to the separation of church and state, commonly called awakenings. From the 18th to the early 20th century most of these remained politically inconsequential. However, the liberal revolution of the 1960s provoked a string of popular political responses. Since then the formerly “silent minorities” morphed into “moral majorities” and became a new political force. After the prayer-in-school decision in 1962 and particularly after Rowe vs. Wade in 1973 desecularization accelerated rapidly and seriously impacted the national political arena in a divisive fashion pitting a secular-liberal humanism against a conservative moralism, pitting Darwin against “intelligent Design”. In order to combat excessive secularization and moral relativism the crisis management of the religious right called for simple answers, for so-called fundamentals. The born again experience of the evangelicals favored private instead of state-managed solutions. The new litmus test of moral authority became “Have you chosen Jesus as your personal saviour?”

Third: The promise of “free exercise” has transformed the USA into a biotope for new religious movements, as the yellow pages of any telephone directory shows. Throughout the history of the United States religious fringe groups that fled European persecution brought popular religious, apocalyptic and millennarian fantasies to America. These found a welcome home under the protection of the free exercise clause and could develop their exceptional character in an expanding religious market. Over time, an apocalyptic, Manichean narrative matrix has evolved that can be detected in Hollywood films as well as in foreign policy. It is characterized by doomsday fantasies and by a melodramatic battle between the forces of Good and Evil. Within the highly charged and divided battle zone between waves of modernisation and counter-waves of desecularisation new forms of religion have emerged whose types of worship and performance styles are quite (post)modern and are especially attuned to the metaphysical needs of those religious customers who grew up in that melodramatic confrontation.

Fourth: The new religious turn has deeply affected popular culture and vice versa. The demands of the market have honed the ritual and shaped the choreography of American religions and have over time lead to an increasing commodification of religion and to its mise en scene as spectacle. The popular culture market has hijacked religious symbolism as added value (Rap, Hollywood) and has introduced religious rhetoric to the secular sphere. The new mega-churches that are in the business of selling God, make skilful use of the new consumer-oriented media and of new marketing strategies, such as McDonaldization and franchising. The market-orientation has enhanced the service function of religions with several consequences. It has rendered religions doctrinally vapid, and it has stabilized a grass-roots anti-intellectualism. Mega-churches make available a post-secular life-style faith or a wellness-religion without having to submit to the doctrinal rigor of traditional religions.

Fifth: There has been a growing symbiosis of millenarian and democratic passions and their incorporation into a popular patriotism. Various religious organizations that had previously been apolitical networked into what is known as the “religious right”, and thus united they embarked on a march through the institutions. They managed to mobilise evangelical voters with emotional appeals to morality and patriotism. Politically speaking the new religious mobilisation proved to be particularly beneficial to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Stimulated by eschatological fantasies that were popularised by the bestselling “Left Behind” novels of Tim LaHaye, the religious right has had an influence on a number of foreign-policy issues such as the role of the UN, globalisation, NAFTA, ecology, the Iraq war and Middle East policy. The old missionary ambitions of a “city on a hill” heighten the soteriological temptation: for the religious right understands the United States as a redeemer nation that should make the world “safe for democracy”. The new Wilsonianism is buttressed by a general willingness to justify violence on religious grounds, a new faith that unites the lex talionis of the Old Testament with the bellicism of the Neo-conservatives. “Thus religious zeal,” wrote de Tocqueville, “is perpetually warmed in the United States by the fires of patriotism.” This fusion resulted in a sacralization of national rhetoric, which has over time become a habit of the American executive office. The president is expected to speak as the high priest of civil religion, particularly when addressing grave matters of national concern. Europeans tend to find such executive rhetoric hypocritical and hard to stomach.

These deviations from a European norm have given American political culture a religious spin that Europeans find difficult to understand and hard to accept.