The USA is the most religious country in the Western world. Why is this? And what forms does this religiosity take?
For this issue we invited two distinguished US academics to write about religion in the USA. Betty A. DeBerg from the University of Northern Iowa presents some of her research on the current state of religion on US university campuses. Jason C. Bivins from North Carolina State University looks at the rise of the New Christian Right and its support for President Bush. There are also pieces from two writers who are already contributors to the magazine. From the US, David Rush provides some comparative facts and figures, and John MacDonald Smith, who lives in Worcestershire, looks at ongoing attempts to defend ‘creationism’ in the USA under the name of ‘intelligent design’.
Betty DeBerg describes how ‘colleges and universities have come under heavy criticism for alleged secularism and anti-religious bias by conservative “insiders,” some of whom are on the faculties of rather prestigious universities’. The Guardian of 4th April 2006 reports the attacks on Paul Gilroy, chair of African American studies at Yale University, because he made some criticism of the Iraq war, together with other ‘McCarthyite’ attempts to gag US academics. It also reports how a local school board in Pennsylvania has banned the A-Level equivalent International Baccalaureate as ‘un-American’ and anti-Christian. MacDonald Smith points to the ongoing hoo-ha about ‘creationism’ in schools. However, David Rush’s statistics show the wide variety of religious affiliation in the US. By no means all US Christians (or religious folk in general there ) support the New Christian Right agenda.
SoF ‘explores religion as a human creation’. If God is a human creation, we can make him up in our own image any way we see fit. And indeed have often done so. In his article in the January magazine (and in the forthcoming book he has edited – Godless Quakers for God’s Sake – to be reviewed), David Boulton describes some Quakers who regard God as the subjective projection of their highest human ideals of ‘mercy, pity, peace and love’. These ‘godless’ Quakers (who include David Rush in the book) and, of course, many ‘godly’ ones, espouse a ‘sane and kindly humanism’, often combined with humanitarian action. And they are not the only US Christians to do so. But as well as good gods, we humans have created mixture-gods – ‘all too human’ like some of the Greek gods – and horrific, monster gods. As the poet Stevie Smith says, we ourselves ‘are so mixed’ and capable of high virtue, humdrum ordinariness and deep depravity. So when SoF ‘explores religion as a human creation’, it must be religion for better or worse. As well as defending the right to freedom of conscience and religion, we should not flinch from casting a critical eye over the gods and religions we create.
This is particularly important with the US New Christian Right because Bush is the mightiest ruler in the world and this is the ideology that drives him. Bivins describes how Bush’s religiosity represents the consolidation of conservative evangelical power in the United States – ‘ardently patriotic, staunch supporters of free market capitalism, and committed to America’s role as a beacon to nations abroad.’ This is not the place to write at length about US government policy. Readers are probably well informed already and there are plenty of readily available sources to educate ourselves about what is happening in the world but brief notes are in order.
On 31st March 2006 Condoleeza Rice toured Lancashire with a sycophantic Jack Straw. She was greeted by, or rather carefully shielded from, Lancastrians wearing orange jump suits, like the prisoners in Guantánamo Bay. She made a speech saying America treats prisoners properly and does not torture people at home or abroad. And smiled. Jack Straw smiled. She was presented with a football strip... A week before that, Colleen Graffy, United States’ Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for public diplomacy, wrote an article in the Guardian denying that there is anything wrong going on now at Guantánamo. When the pictures came out from Abu Ghraib prison, the US authorities suggested that these abuses were just aberrations in the lower ranks. It is not possible to believe these dismissive claims, either about Guantánamo or Abu Ghraib. The CIA has been using similar well-researched techniques for decades, with manuals to train personnel in them.
Bivins describes how the New Christian Right emerged in the USA in the 1970s and how it has grown stronger over the last three decades, so that President Bush today enjoys the tolerance of millions because, whatever his faults, he is seen as A Good Man; a ‘person of faith’.
It is hard to credit how ‘America’ is seen as ‘a beacon to nations abroad’ during this period. To name just a few events, the period begins with ‘the other 9/11’, the CIA-backed coup that overthrew the elected government of President Allende of Chile on September 11th 1973, and brought in the dictatorship of General Pinochet, whose record of torture and other human rights abuse is well documented. The School of the Americas (SOA) – renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in 2001 at Fort Benning, Georgia, USA, trains Latin American military personnel in ‘counter-insurgency’ measures, which have been used to prop up repressive, pro-US regimes throughout the continent. Many dictators were graduates of the School of the Americas. Its training manuals teach interrogation techniques, advocate torture and the targeting of civilian populations.
The US government funded the contras in Nicaragua to overthrow the Sandinista government, which they feared as ‘the threat of a good example’. The contras specialised in destroying villages, schools and health centres. As Ernesto Cardenal says in his poem The US Congress Approves Contra Aid, after a murderous raid, ‘when the contras left they scattered Christ propaganda’. Among other killers, the School of the Americas trained Robert D’Aubuisson, the leader of the Arena Party in El Salvador and organiser of death squads. D’Aubuisson was responsible for the murder of Archbishop Romero on March 24th 1980, at mass in his own cathedral in San Salvador. As well as perpetrating the notorious El Mozote massacre of an estimated 900 villagers in 1981, the Atalacatl Battalion, trained in the School of the Americas, murdered the Jesuits of the Central American University of San Salvador on 16th November 1989.. The list goes on...
During Bush’s own presidency, on 12th April 2002 Washington was involved in an attempted coup (which failed) to overthrow the democratically elected government of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, whom televangelist Pat Robertson has openly incited his viewers to ‘take out’. Beyond ‘America’s backyard’, it is unlikely that the attack on Afghanistan in October 2001 was first planned after the attack on New York on September 11th 2001. If the sole motive for the invasion was to catch Osama Bin Laden, why haven’t they got him yet? We are all familiar with the dubious evidence produced to support the invasion of Iraq in 2003. We saw the contempt shown by the US government for the United Nations and indeed for every single nation, including its allies, when it made clear the US was prepared to ‘go it alone’, whatever anyone thought. Now we are daily reminded of the continuing post-war chaos the invasion created, and haunted by the murky terrors of ‘extraordinary renditions’ for torture.
The US government has consistently failed to support any measures to deal with pollution or climate change, refusing to sign even the minimal Kyoto Protocol. US free market policies have permitted biopiracy, the stealing of traditional healing herbs from poorer countries and the patenting of some of their medicinal properties by large pharmaceutical companies. US Pentecostal sects in Ecuador have even been reported as stealing rare indigenous blood samples and putting them on sale. The New Christian Right are staunch supporters of free market capitalism; the Free Trade Agreements NAFTA and CAFTA benefit large companies in the US far more than the people in the poorer countries south of the border. The free movement of goods is not complemented by the free movement of people and US borders are vigorously and violently guarded. At home, there was ‘the disastrous mishandling of Hurricane Katrina’. Was that because most of the people affected were poor blacks?
‘Bush,’ says Bivins, ‘has often professed that he is doing God’s will, that he has “prayed on” policy matters, that he believes the United States is divinely favoured.’ Some of the US government policies approved by the New Christian Right have involved human sacrifice on a greater scale than that of a former American superpower, the Aztecs, and Bush’s god can be compared to the gruesome Aztec war god Huitzilopochtli. (The Toltec god-king Quetzalcóatl had been driven out of the city for refusing to allow human sacrifice but promised to return to install a reign of justice and peace.)
Christianity has another tradition, looked to by many Christians in the USA as well in other parts of the world. This is of a gospel that is ‘good news for the poor’ (Lk 4:18) and ‘puts down the mighty from their seats’ (Lk 1:52). The Sermon on the Mount tells us to ‘Seek first God’s reign [kingdom] and his [its] justice’ (Mt 6:33). ‘God’s reign’ or ‘heaven’s reign’ on Earth is preached as the goal of Christianity: it is a reign of justice and peace. The Beatitudes say: ‘Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the reign of God (Lk 6:20). Blessed are the dispossessed for they shall have land (RSV: Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the Earth (Mt 5:5). Blessed are they that hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be filled. Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called God’s children.’
In the March issue of Sofia Don Cupitt writes about a spirituality of ‘ardent world love’ that generously pours itself out and values every aspect of the body. We can look at this spirituality from a private, subjective, individual point of view: how should I be? What should my attitude be to life? That is what Cupitt focuses on in his article, which has received a very positive response from readers. But precisely because we are bodies, should we not look at it from a public, objective and social point of view, as well? We are material beings belonging to one life system, the Earth. How do we look after it, so that it thrives? We are material beings, biologically related to each other as members of a species. How do we take care of our species as a whole? How do we ensure that everyone has the chance of a decent life? Spiritual generosity has to be more than just a nice warm feeling, a private attitude. Otherwise what will become of humanity and the Earth our home?
 See We Will Not Dance on our Grandparents’ Tombs: Indigenous Uprisings in Ecuador by Kintto Lucas, translated by Dinah Livingstone (CIIR, London 2000).