Who is America’s God?

Stanely Hauerwas claims that America’s god is dying. The Duke theologian argues that the god of America is unique to American Protestantism:

That is why it has been possible for Americans to synthesize three seemingly antithetical traditions: evangelical Protestantism, republican political ideology and commonsense moral reasoning. For Americans, faith in God is indistinguishable from loyalty to their country.

American Protestants do not have to believe in God because they believe in belief. That is why we have never been able to produce an interesting atheist in America. The god most Americans say they believe in is just not interesting enough to deny. Thus the only kind of atheism that counts in America is to call into question the proposition that everyone has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Hauerwas goes on to argue that this “belief in belief” has had grave consequences for the church and is leading to the death of American Protestantism as we know it.  Hauerwas ends pointing out that America’s god is not the God that Christians worship. The full piece is worth your attention.
What jumped out to me, though, was  the connection between Hauewas’ argument and this passage from Emile Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life:
[The totem] expresses and symbolizes two different kinds of things. From one point of view, it is the outward and visible form of what I have called the toemic principle or god; and from another, it is also the symbol of a particular society that is called the clan. It is the flag of the clan, the sign by which each clan is distinguished from the others, the visible mark of its distinctiveness, and a mark that is borne by everything that in any way belongs to the clan: men, animals, and things. Thus if the totem is the symbol of both the god and the society, is this not because the god and the society are one and the same?

Durkheim was describing the religious life of aboriginal Australians but re-read that quote and substitute “nation” or “state” or “country” for “clan.” This is the same phenomenon Hauewas is pointing out. As Hauerwas points out in the opening of his article, American Protestantism grew up in a new country that did no have to identify itself over and against at Catholic past (the Catholic was always an interloping immigrant to the American Protestant, not a historical precursor). Protestantism, then, became part and parcel of American society along with the Enlightenment values of republicanism, and common sense philosophy. As such, the God of America functions–at least as Durkheim and Hauerwas would see it–as the god of the aboriginal clan; flags and all. American exceptionalism, Manifest Destiny, Spreading Democracy, freedom, equality, the city on a hill, capitalism, In God We Trust, separation of church and state, and all the other ideas, rituals, and myths of the Right and Left in this country carry “the visible mark of its distinctiveness.” They are “everything that in any way belongs to the clan.” They all make up the totem of America’s god. A god placated, promoted, relied upon, and upheld by the religious and the secular, the poor and the rich, the Right and the Left.

Somehow “civil religion” is to shallow a name for the cult of America’s god. It captures everything considered sacred and powerful in the American imagination. It truly is America’s god.

NIMBY Mosques and the Taxonomies of Religion in America

Cross-posted at the Religion in American History Blog

In case you missed it, there are plans to build a mosque in New York two blocks from the the site of World Trade Center attack.  The proposed mosque has ignited a variety of discourses about religion in American culture.  Opponents of the mosque have various reasons for their opposition but a recent ad from the National Republican Trust PAC offers the most obvious examples of the “us” and “them” language opponents are employing.

The ad was rejected by by CBS and NBC.  As Entertainment Weekly reports:

CBS and NBC have rejected an ad by the National Republican Trust PAC that seeks to rally viewers against a proposed mosque that would be built two blocks from the site of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack in New York City. The one-minute spot (embedded below) begins with the words “the audacity of JIHAD” flashing on the screen followed shortly thereafter by the image of a plane flying into the World Trade Center; an accompanying voiceover declares that “to celebrate that murder of 3,000 Americans, they want to build a monstrous 13-story mosque at Ground Zero.”

The national spot “didn’t meet our broadcast standards,” said a spokesperson for CBS, confirming the network’s decision not to run it. An NBC spokesperson also confirmed the decision to reject the spot, but did not offer an explanation why. Nonetheless, EW obtained a letter from NBC Universal advertising standards manager Jennifer Riley to the NRT PAC explaining that: “An ad questioning the wisdom of building a mosque at ground zero would meet our issues of public controversy advertising criteria. However, this ad which ambiguously defines ‘they’ as referenced in the spot, makes it unclear as to whether the reference is to terrorists or to the Islamic religious organization that is sponsoring the building of the mosque. Consequently the ad is not acceptable under our guidelines for broadcast.”

As I read it, the basic message of the ad is “If the mosque gets built then the terrorists win.”  Patrolling the borders of acceptable religion has been a mainstay of American culture: colonial Quakers, nineteenth century Catholics, twentieth century Communists, and now, twenty first century Muslims  What is remarkable about this ad is just how unremarkable it is in its rhetoric.  The same strategies always work.  Slap on a foreign label (“Jihad” or “Papist” or “Pinko”), add violence (terrorism, nuclear threat, licentious priests and nuns), predict the downfall of “American values” (read Anglo Protestantism) then stir until a nice foment of emotionalism forms.

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Women’s History is Tea Party History?

This morning I read this great piece from Ruth Rosen over at the History News Network where she unpacks the role of women in the Tea Party movement.

Women also play a decisive role in the Tea Party and now make up 55 percent of its supporters, according to the latest Quinnipiac poll.  Hanna Rosin reports in Slate that “of the eight board members of the Tea Party Patriots who serve as national coordinators for the movement, six are women.  Fifteen of thetwenty-five state coordinators are women.”

Why, I’ve wondered, does this chaotic movement appeal to so many women?  There are many possible reasons.  Some of the women in these groups are certainly women who love men who love guns and who hate the government and taxes.  Professor Kathleen Blee, who has written widely about right-wing women, suggests that there are probably more religious right-wing women than men in general, that Tea Party rallies may attract more women who are not working and therefore can attend them, and that the Tea Party emphasizes family vulnerability to all kinds of external danger.

Then, tonight I was getting back to my exam reading, which included Tom Tweed’s edited volume Retelling U.S. Religious History.  I was re-reading Ann Braude’s chapter in the book, “Women’s History Is American Religious History,” where she argues that women have always made up the majority of religious adherents in American history.  Her essay calls for a history of religions in America that takes into account the presence of women, rather than traditional narratives that focus on the presence and absence of men.

So, connecting the dots, I began to wonder.  To what extent is the Tea Party movement channeling the same dynamic that has driven American religion?  Are the reasons that women have supported religious institutions that have largely excluded them from authority and power the same as the reason why women are now supporting Tea Party conservatism? Maybe the Tea Party’s greatest connection to American religious history is its women.

What theories and theorists guide your work?

The Religion in American History Blog has a discussion question on their Facebook page about theories that guide scholars work.  Kelly Baker asked, “How do you all approach American Religious History? What methods, theories or theorists guide your work?”

I posted an answer there but I thought I’d copy it here as well. What about you? What are your guiding lights for your work, religious studies or otherwise?

Here are the three strands I try to pull together in my approach to American religious history:

1) Emile  Durkheim: Those who know where I am and who I’m working with ought not be surprised here. The category of “the sacred,” for me, offers a chance to look at a whole host of things previously left unconsidered in American religious history. Burning Man, sports, and all the other usual examples are just the start. Recent work on Oprah points the way to more and more places we can reconsider “American Sacred History.”

2) Thomas A.Tweed’s Crossing and Dwelling:  I really like Tweed’s focus on positionality and his focus on the movement and motion of religions. I think it adds a dynamism to our study that has been lost in an under-theorized notion of culture and snapshot approach to religions.

3) Foucault, Said, and post-colonial theory generally:
In thinking about religions in American history I’m always wanting to find ways to rigorously account for power. In my current diss. research on representations of Hinduism in America I’m realizing more and more the ways “religion” as a category functioned in the deployment, maintenance and organization of power. I think religious historians are often wary of reducing religions down to “just power” without thinking about the ways religions function to channel power, resist power, and basically move it around and (dis?)organize it.

So, that’s my triparte answer. Wow, Kelly, really good question. I’ve never thought it through like this. Helpful.