In God's Country | The Nation


In God's Country

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On November 4, 2004, two days after George W. Bush was narrowly re-elected President, the New York Times published a gloomy op-ed by historian Garry Wills titled "The Day the Enlightenment Went Out." The United States, observed Wills, was "a product of Enlightenment values--critical intelligence, tolerance, respect for evidence, a regard for the secular sciences." But, as the election results showed, these principles had given way to something new--"fundamentalist zeal, a rage at secularity, religious intolerance, fear of and hatred for modernity." Wills was hardly alone in this reading. "The reelection of a president such as George W. Bush," declared Michael Tomasky of The American Prospect, "is a culminating event in the political retreat of modernity, a condition of existence whose fundamental tenet was the triumph of scientific skepticism over what used to be called 'blind' faith."

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Eyal Press is a Nation contributing writer and the author of Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict...

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Who exactly upheld this tenet Tomasky didn't say. Certainly not the nine in ten Americans who have said they've never doubted the existence of God. Or the eight in ten who believe the Lord works miracles. Or the same number who are certain they will be called to answer for their sins on Judgment Day. Or the tens of millions who attend church every week--more, in a typical seven-day span, than those who turn out for all sporting events combined. These figures are drawn from the 1990 book Under God, by Garry Wills. As Wills pointed out at the time, the idea that urbanization, scientific progress and rising living standards would gradually transform America into a secular society has long appealed to journalists and intellectuals. Talk about blind faith. In reality, noted Wills, "nothing has been more stable in our history, nothing less budgeable, than religious belief and practice."

The source of this stability is not, as some right-wing demagogues now insist, that the Founding Fathers were devout evangelicals who viewed America as a Christian nation and who would have sided with conservatives in today's culture wars. As Brooke Allen points out in Moral Minority, most of the Founders were deists and Unitarians who rejected doctrines like the Incarnation. Thomas Jefferson dismissed the Trinity as "incomprehensible jargon." He and other Founders made no mention of God in the Constitution, and took pains not to establish an official church on US soil. And yet, as various scholars have noted, disestablishment grew out of respect, not disdain, for religion, which, James Madison observed, "flourishes in greater purity without [rather] than with the aid of government." He was right. The level of religious observance in America has long dwarfed that in various European countries where official churches still exist. It has remained exceptionally robust despite periodic predictions of its imminent decline. In the 1960s, for example, falling church membership stirred much excited talk about the so-called "death of God." Somebody forgot to inform the American people, an overwhelming majority of whom told pollsters they were believers. When, a decade later, a Baptist deacon named Jimmy Carter was elected President, the media discovered that tens of millions of Americans considered themselves born-again, which had been true for some time but had managed to escape most commentators' notice.

It doesn't get overlooked much these days. From Frank Rich to Kevin Phillips, author of the recent bestseller American Theocracy, sounding the alarm about America's transformation into a Christian version of fundamentalist Iran has become a popular sport (not to mention a savvy career move) among critics of the Bush Administration. The sense of alarm is, to some degree, understandable. It's undeniably true that the Republican Party and the religious right have grown increasingly hard to distinguish in recent years. It's also evident that some Christian fundamentalists want to live in a country purged of people who don't think exactly like themselves (which would exclude not only atheists and agnostics but the majority of people of faith). On the other hand, many secular people apparently feel the same way. Shortly after John Kerry's defeat in the 2004 election, an e-mail made the rounds among disgruntled Democrats suggesting that the United States be divided into two nations: the liberal coasts (where the educated, open-minded people live) and "Jesusland" (where the zealots reside). The only way to halt the retreat of modernity, it appeared, was for the cosmopolitan blue states to secede from the increasingly intolerant white evangelical heartland.

One problem with this view is that a large number of evangelical Christians don't live in the Bible Belt. Another is that many of them aren't white. Some years ago, the Chilean-born photographer Camilo José Vergara began taking pictures of places like La Sinagoga, a Latino church located in a run-down neighborhood of junkyards and metal shops in Brooklyn, and Emmanuel Baptist Rescue Mission, which is situated on a corner of Skid Row, Los Angeles, where drug dealers ply their trade. The photographs in Vergara's richly documented, visually arresting book, How the Other Half Worships, illustrate how indelibly religious most poor minority communities in America are, not least because in many blighted urban neighborhoods churches are the only viable institutions around. Trekking through the back streets and barrios of twenty-one different cities, Vergara spots churches tucked away in former warehouses, nightclubs, five-and-dime stores, movie theaters, car dealerships, hotels and slaughterhouses. Some are sandwiched between crumbling buildings on desolate blocks. Others lack steeples, crosses, choir platforms, even bathrooms, yet nevertheless bring residents together in lively, often frenzied services where worshipers shake, dance, speak in tongues, sing, weep, wail, fall to their knees, and pray for deliverance and God's grace.

What draws inner-city blacks and Latinos to such places? The same thing that attracts people to religion in many down-and-out places--a hunger for meaning and transcendence in a world that can seem brutally harsh and unforgiving, a sense of community and fellowship that evidently goes unmet otherwise. At many of the churches Vergara visits, pastors speak of the Bible as the literal truth and of the universe's Creator as an omnipotent force with the power to heal the sick, rescue the damned and work miracles. Theologically, in other words, the places where the "other half" worships are a lot closer to the revival-friendly pockets of the Deep South than to Manhattan's Upper West Side. They are peopled by women like Queen Lucretia Smith, an African-American faith healer who was among the first female pastors in Chicago, and Lawrence Moore, a former dope dealer and petty thief who now ministers to the homeless in California and says, "Everything comes from God. There are some that He chooses to go through a life of hardship and pain, and there are others that go through a life of prosperity and riches."

Skeptics might dismiss such talk as the sort of faith-based pablum that members of the Bush Administration would appreciate. And the White House has indeed made no secret of its desire to build bridges to minority groups through inner-city churches, not least in the hope that ministers will drum home the message that poor people should look to God (rather than, say, government programs) for salvation. It's one more way religion might appear to play into the hands of the right, and the pastors quoted in Vergara's book do occasionally sound like Republicans. Some dismiss homosexuality as an "abomination." Others tell their congregations that wives must obey their husbands because this is what the Bible says. Surveys indicate that religiously observant African-American Protestants are only slightly less likely than their white counterparts to agree that sexual relations between two adults of the same gender are "always wrong."

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