Hermits Rock

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When asked by the Times to comment on the Pew Religious Landscapes Survey Michael Lindsay said,

Religion is the single most important factor that drives American belief attitudes and behaviors. It is a powerful indicator of where America will end up on politics, culture, family life. If you want to understand America, you have to understand religion in America.

This is a claim that is widely believed, but it is not entirely true. Without doubt religion is indeed in the United States, and the history of religion in the U.S. reveals much about the nation. Moreover, religion directly affects a significant cross-section of Americans’ attitudes and behaviors. The problem, however, is that there is no single attitude or behavior—indeed, there is no set of attitudes and behaviors—that one can point to and say, “You acted that way because you are an American believer!” For example, take American Christians:1 Stephen Hart’s study of how they approach economic justice What Does the Lord Require? reveals that, while Christians demonstrate some influence from their faiths, that influence is erratic. Their faiths are rarely complete predictors for actual beliefs. Hart’s portrait of American Christians reveals what has long been a portrait of Americans in general: philosophically, we are amalgamations of competing desires and assertions about the world. The Word of Faith and the new monks for the most part do not constitute two separate movements that Americans sign their allegiances to; rather, they are each a part of American belief patterns, and most of us shuttle between them or other philosophies at any given moment. The result of that amalgam is that Americans can be understood in any of a dozen ways: not only by way of religion, but also by way of economics, institutions, ethics, laws, literatures, politics, technologies—any way you choose will reveal much of what is necessary “to understand America.”

1 I find it difficult to tell whether Lindsay is assuming that “religion in America” is the same as Christianity in America or whether he is being more inclusive. When I first read the article, I assumed he was only referring to Christianity, about which the article is primarily concerned.



I have found, with rare exceptions, that religion (and here I mean Christianity) is often a post hoc validation for political and economic beliefs, or emotional grooves in which people are already moving.

So, the socialist reads Jesus as a teacher who vindicates a collectivist view of property and possession, while the libertarian (and I am finding more and more of these among the religious right—despite the ensuant contradictions that embracing a truly libertarian stance means: think, especially in terms of social and moral stances), reads personal Jesus everywhere.

But I think it is not even that simple. Many people act in direct contradiction to what they acknowledge their faiths espouse. In such cases socio-political-economic beliefs and religion are a muddle of gestures about how to act in the world.

I don’t think we disagree on that point…

Actions often don’t match up with beliefs.

But, beliefs, at least in modern American Christianity, are much less informed by the Christian tradition than they are by secular ideologies and ideas of the self. Largely, at least in the particular context of the Sunday school class I teach, the cultural debates that pass as Christian vs. secular are really the encounter of opposing secular views and most have to do with how one imagines/enshrines the individual rather than anything that would be a true interrogation of one’s various ideologies by the Christian tradition.

Whether this is uniquely American (in how it so blithely disregards tradition and history) or not I am not prepared to say.

I would, though, tentatively venture that the divorce between belief and action is in part because as a culture and as a church we have given up on the idea of Christianity as an ascetic discipline.

But, I am now rather far off topic… and swimming among heretics (not that I am necessarily a heretic, but readers of this blog are… and not that I practice the ascetic disciplines, that, after all, would be utterly un-American).

But, beliefs, at least in modern American Christianity, are much less informed by the Christian tradition than they are by secular ideologies and ideas of the self.

How many American churches are there where there is one, even one, person who knows anything about the Christian tradition?



And they’re all in Searcy.