Thursday, July 21, 2011

Why do Americans claim to be more religious than they are?

From Slate courtesy of AlterNet:

Finally, in a brand new paper, Philip Brenner at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research compared self-reported attendance at religious services with "time-use" interviews in the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Norway, Finland, Slovenia, Italy, Spain, Austria, Ireland, and Great Britain. Brenner looked at nearly 500 studies over four decades, involving nearly a million respondents.

Brenner found that the United States and Canada were outliers—not in religious attendance, but in overreporting religious attendance. Americans attended services about as often as Italians and Slovenians and slightly more than Brits and Germans. The significant difference between the two North American countries and other industrialized nations was the enormous gap between poll responses and time-use studies in those two countries.

Why do Americans and Canadians feel the need to overreport their religious attendance? You could say that religiosity for Americans is tied to their identity in a way that it is not for the Germans, the French, and the British. But that only restates the mystery. Why is religiosity tied to American identity?

More here.

I think it was Gandhi who once said,“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” This notion has been on my mind a lot lately. If America really was the Christian nation all the right-wingers claim it to be, wouldn't there be some evidence of that? Wouldn't more people go to church? Wouldn't people talk about Jesus more publicly? Wouldn't our politics be more compassionate and loving? I see none of these things, but we're supposed to be a Christian nation.

The reality is, of course, that we're not a Christian nation. I mean, not in the sense that we are a nation which takes Christianity seriously, and the studies noted in the above linked essay puts this thought on some fairly solid ground: people say in polls, again and again, that they go to church every Sunday, but deeper studies find that most people are straight up lying about their church attendance. After all, religious belief doesn't amount to much if it's not paired with action. And going to church is an action we usually associate with belief in Yahweh, the Christian God. Sure, it's possible, I suppose, to be a rabid believer, one of the fearless faithful, without going to church. But it just seems so odd that so many people who self-identify as Christian sleep in on Sunday morning. And then lie about it for anonymous polls, which is also decidedly non-Christian behavior.

So we have this strange dynamic. Millions of Americans insist that they're Christians, but don't act like it at all. Christian politicians legislate policy from a seemingly Christian perspective--indeed, you can't be elected dog catcher in this country if you don't express deep loyalty to Christ. But many of these same politicians end up being caught with their hands in the cookie jar, or, as the case may be, with their dicks inside a male prostitute. All of these politicians push legislation that is harmful to the poor. Athletes, singers, and other celebrities give thanks to Jesus when they accept their honors at awards banquets. It's all Jesus Jesus Jesus. But only a fifth of the population actually goes to church on a regular basis. And a whole lot less than that seemingly even attempt to live their lives in emulation of their Lord.

Clearly, as the excerpt above asserts, Christianity is part of the American identity, as a concept, or a symbol, but definitely not in any real philosophical way. And I don't really know why that's the case, either.

But, make no mistake, this is a problem. Lip-service Christianity has taken us down some very dangerous paths. It has allowed the "abstinence based" sex ed people to effectively put an end to real sex education. It has ferociously chipped away at abortion rights. It has given theological cover for xenophobia, homophobia, Muslim hatred, war mongering, and bizarre attitudes about global warming--throw in some "prosperity gospel" and you also have cover for fucking the poor and rewarding the rich. Being a Christian nation, in name only, is not some benign identity thing. It's downright harmful.

Actually, we might be better off in many ways if America really was a Christian nation. At least we'd try to care for the poor and the sick.