Pioneer magazine

Church and Secular Society in the USA

2011aprilcoverIt is often said that the contemporary world is increasingly secular and non-religious. When one looks at Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan and several other countries, this generalisation seems roughly accurate. The USA seems different.

Sociologists used to hold that a society’s becoming wealthier, better educated, and oriented to science and technology would cause religious belief and practice to decline. Not so in the USA. From the time of the American War of Independence (1776-83), the rate of religious practice has continually increased in every generation. In recent times, sociologists have acknowledged this fact, as well as religious stirrings in other parts of the world, and become more wary of easy generalisations about secularism and religion.

Christian faith of one denomination or another is still by far the largest religious bloc in the USA. There is a wide range of Protestant churches, which can be roughly grouped into two: the ‘main—line’ Protestant churches, including Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Lutherans, and the more ‘fundamentalist` and evangelical churches, particularly Baptists of one type or another.

The ‘main-line` Protestant churches are liberal or left-wing in matters theological and political supporting abortion rights, gay marriage, women`s ordination, and likely to vote liberal Democrat. Their membership comes from middle-to-upper income groups, and is sharply declining.

The evangelicals and fundamentalists tend in the opposite direction on most of these issues, vote Republican (if they are white), come from the poorer classes, and are increasing in number.

The Catholic Church is somewhere in the middle, with an aging liberal wing and a younger more conservative wing. On issues such as abortion and gay marriage, a wary tactical alliance has grown between Catholics and evangelicals. The personal style of Pope john Paul II made a significant impression on evangelicals, since to their ears he often sounded awfully like an evangelical.

lt is possible that a country can be both secular and religious at the same time. It was said some decades ago that the USA was ‘a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes`, taking India as most religious and Sweden as most secular. There is some truth in that aphorism. For many Americans, particularly among the younger generations, religion tends to be therapeutic, providing solace, comfort and hope in a challenging and competitive world.

That may sound like a criticism, suggesting a picture of religion as something soft and unchallenging, a private devotion cocooned away from the public zone. Yet religions of all kinds do have a therapeutic dimension, so it can hardly be something to which one could reasonably object. Nor need it be something without social impact, since American Christians are generous in donating to charity and in volunteering good works of various kinds. Catholic Charities is still probably the largest charity in the USA, and philanthropy among the super-rich in the USA is much more common than among the super-rich of the EU.

Marxism today is dead, as is news to nobody. It arouses little emotional response nowadays. By contrast, religion, no matter how marginalised it appears to be, still is capable of generating a strong response. In the case of the USA, it could be argued that the Democrats have become more secular and the Republicans more religious. (European media tend to highlight the latter and ignore the former — possibly because they do not recognise their own bias.) In the last twenty years, Vatican diplomats at the UN have found that co-operation from US diplomats at the UN depends a great deal on whether there is a Republican or a Democrat in the White House.

This development was tacitly acknowledged by former President Bill Clinton when he remarked, following George W Bush`s winning a second term in 2004:‘Democrats will continue to lose as long as they come across as being against faith and family.` ln that presidential election, practicing Catholics preferred the committed Methodist Bush to the nominal Catholic Kerry.

Catholic loyalties may be shifting slowly in the USA. Catholics hang on to old loyalties, but the passing of older generations will change that. Catholics` social conscience and their affinity with the large Hispanic community makes them reluctant to embrace the Republicans. But the attitude of the Democrat party in general (with some regional exceptions) on issues like abortion and gay marriage is alienating a significant number of Christian voters.

Future developments will be interesting to watch. To some extent, the process described above is a politically healthy development, in that it means that the religious voice is being heard within the debates and the give-and-take of modern pluralist democracy.
By contrast, the European scene looks less healthy.

Parties founded to be the vehicle of religious opinion are unlikely to get far, whether in the USA, the EU, or indeed, in most of the world. India may be the one contemporary exception to that rule. In Europe, the one successful political tradition with significant Christian input has been Christian Democracy. The two European countries defeated in World War II, Germany and Italy, were very successfully rebuilt by Christian Democrat parties, whose philosophy was based heavily on Catholic social thought. However that era is now over, and contemporary Christian political thought is largely voiceless in Europe.

Mainstream European political parties today are also increasingly prepared to exclude the Christian voice in a way that would be unthinkable in the US. Two ministers in the current Irish government recently stated on separate occasions that Church leaders had no right to voice opinions on matters of public policy, simply because their opinions were religious and hence could have no role in the modern political arena. One could not imagine President Obama (much less President Bush) saying such a thing in the US.

The US political culture, with all its flaws, may be healthier in another way: it is characterised by a much stronger suspicion of the over-mighty state than is the case in the EU. To put that in Catholic terminology, its culture embodies the principle of subsidiarity more than does European political culture.

In an era of increasingly secularised states and political parties, and with a largely hostile secular media, the churches, and the Catholic Church in particular, may find interesting lessons to learn from the ongoing US political experiment.


Seamus Murphy, SJ