World religions

Is the U.S. a religious country?

On August 31st of this year, the Gallup organization issued the results of a poll conducted in 2009 examining the place of religion in people's lives. The survey included 100 countries and attempted to determine how religious commitment correlates with a country's wealth. While religious commitment is strong among the poorer nations, one of the conclusions reached in this study is that the United States stands apart from other wealthy countries, particularly Japan and certain countries in Europe, with a whopping 65% of the population saying that religion plays an important role in their daily lives. In spite of attempts by Gallup and other polls to determine the place of religion in American life, it may be a fruitless endeavor, at least insofar as identifying any correlation between wealth and religious conviction.

A more basic question is whether or not the place of religion in the United States represents authentic religious values, indeed whether or not this commitment is even truly religious. Almost as soon as the question is posed, it is obvious that we have set upon a treacherous path. After all, given that religious commitment is deeply private and personal, and given that one of the founding principles of the United States is freedom of religion, then on what authority can one possibly judge the validity of another's faith? I am not here concerned with the legal and constitutional issues of religious freedom. Nor am I concerned about the Judeo-Christian values out of which this nation is formed. I recognize that the United States, being the quintessential melting pot, is a reflection of the wide range of religious beliefs and teachings that abound in the world at large. But I remain convinced that there is something foundational to religious authenticity that is not being addressed. For this we need to look more broadly at the world of religion.

The concept of world religions embraces Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but I include the offshoots of these religions, and I also look to the numerous natural or animist religions that have existed among indigenous peoples around the world, such as what are found in Africa and among the native Americans. The social fabric that was intertwined in both religious belief and tribal structures is near universal in character. There is a theme that runs consistently through many of these religious traditions. That theme is a concern for the poor, the sick, and those whom we might define in a number of ways as disenfranchised, essentially those unable to care for themselves. In the case of tribal religion, such concern was essential for survival. In the case of the Abrahamic faiths, it is presented as an edict from God and so becomes part of revealed truth.

It is easy to look back through the history of Europe and identify the extravagances and excesses of the oligarchy that kept vast numbers of people in abject poverty. This self-indulgence of the rich directly contributed to the revolutions that sought a re-distribution of wealth and political self-determination in attempts to create some measure of equality. The violence that defined several of these uprisings is indicative of the desperation that such intolerable and inhuman situations created for so many people and for such long periods of time. Not all the revolutions succeeded equally, and some failed miserably, but their intent was the same. In the case of today's developing nations, a similar concern often serves as a driving dynamic in the political process. And, as in the case of European history, success is mixed.

Somewhat ironically, throughout all the injustices of the past, the rich and powerful often used religion as a tool for keeping the poor under control. So on the one hand we had religious traditions speaking about a concern for the poor, a concern sometimes directed by God. On the other hand, we had an oligarchy that used the same religious traditions to manipulate the poor and keep them in subservience. In the case of colonial powers, there was even an attempt to suggest that the religions of the West created superior beings who, by supernatural design should rule over the inhabitants of foreign lands. No wonder Marx judged religion to be the opiate of the people.

This brings us back to the United States and the recent Gallup study. Clearly, there is a great deal of religious commitment on the part of many Americans. More Americans attend religious services and, according to the recent study, for most Americans religion is an important part of their daily lives. Without doubt, much of that is truly authentic. But a closer examination indicates that a corruption, I would even say a perversion, has crept into the American religious culture that raises substantial questions about its overall authenticity. This appears to be occurring primarily on the so-called religious right, primarily Christian, which is flexing its muscles in an attempt to further corrupt the rest of American society.

I would call this a modern version of the abuse of religion that has defined so much of human history. The first indication of corruption surfaces in the observation that the Christian right has almost fully abandoned that most basic of religious principles, namely, concern for the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised. The next indication of corruption is perhaps even more obscene and is identified by a blatant misuse of God and God's name. It is bewildering how such groups claim to know what God intends in every situation. And it is at least arrogant that they use God in an attempt to dismantle every public policy that seeks to care for others and call out the best in each of us.

I suppose that the depth of the perversion is the self-centered orientation that motivates them to action. The Tea Party is a good example. It is loosely affiliated and not specifically religious. Yet, like many of the Christian right who make up the Tea Party, they possess no concept of the common good. They are driven by one concern only--getting and keeping their piece of the pie, no matter how many lives are lost or destroyed in that pursuit. When it comes right down to it, the Christian right is about money, not morality or values. Glenn Beck, whom I have previously criticized, is a perfect example. By calling on people to leave any church that preaches social justice, he has effectively called on people to turn their backs on God. Then he has the audacity to use God's name in a doomed attempt to bolster and defend his ideas.

As the great world religions prove, there is more than one way to respond to God's presence in our lives and to build a better world for all. In spite of their differences, what they proclaim collectively is grossly deficient in the American Christian right. So, is the U.S. a religious country? Yes, but we have a long way to go to be authentic.