Tuesday, December 26, 2006

American Exceptionalism II: Religion

Following up on American exceptionalism: on religion.

European Chrsitianity, whether Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Dutch/Swiss Reformed, all were aligned with the old order. All were fused with the state. When the imperial European order fell after World Wars I and II, Christianity died with it.

From the Revolution on, American Christianity was not aligned with the state so it when the old blue order gave way to the orange order, Christianity was able to adapt in North America in a way it was incapable of doing so in Europe. Or in a modified form in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, etc.

Another reason is the land. America is a very de-urbanized society. Especially in the "fly-over" country. Agricultural lifestyle is predominantly associated with traditional religious belief. Urban modern society is usually not. The parts of America that are headed more "Euro" are the urbanized coasts, particularly the West Coast, where religious attendance is lowest in the country.

But the key point is that American conservatism is always modern/quasi-modern in its outlook. It is radically different than traditional European conservatism. American's myth (blue meme) lies not in a traditional Great Chain cosmology-hierarchical social order as in Europe, but in the democratization "freedom" of the entire planet.

It is as I said before with the Founding Fathers "elite egalitarianism." It is a higher/deeper worldview that opens the possibility for wider embrace (worldcentric) but tends to destroy any hierarchy in the process.

So the Christian vision gets stripped of its cosmological roots and assumes a modernist, so-called flatland approach and focuses on so-called Judeo-Christian values. Everything gets reduced to morals and political outlook. It's still myth (blue) but stripped of large portions of its past structure.

Roman Catholicism which in other countries would have been the insitutition to attend if one was seeking insight into traditional cosmology or even more radically the mystical insights hidden in that stage, did not do so in America because it was a religion of immigrants and took on many of the Protestant facades of the country: social service, church building, legal appartuses to protect itself from litigation, etc.

Partly I think the strength throughout the last 100+ yrs of New Age thought, the explosion of Eastern forms of meditation, even occultism, is derived from this failure on the part of the Catholic Church.

So when American Protestant, Mormon, Jehovah's Witnesses missionaries are sent out around the world they teach this elite egalitarianism. Go anywhere in the developing world and you can immediately spot which locals have converted to Pentecostalism, Mormonism, or Seventh Day Adventism: they all look, dress, and act like American bourgeoise. Suits, sobriety, and a definite lack of a earthy sense of humor: i.e. the Protestant ethic.

Mainline Protestants--Methodists, Anglicans, even Baptists and progressive evangelicals have gotten much better at this and are starting to see that Christianity is not the same as being a Westerner culturally. But the other churches mentioned have unfortunately not caught on with that.

Particularly in Latin America this means being cut off from one's Roman Catholic-indio heritage (purple-blue): no Mary, no saints, no devotion. An elite egalitarianism. Egalitarian with the other like-minded members and it is well known that many of the converts are attracted by the wealth, business connections, and opportunity to "get out" of their situation that brings them on.
Brazil the rising power of South America has in its urban centers, near 50% Pentecostal faith. Within a decade or two it will cease to be a predominantly Roman Catholic country. Good old Protestant orange.

When the flatland card is pulled on Protestantism, particularly now American or American-missionized forms, it is not that the tradition does not make distinctions between better or worse, which it certainly does.

It is that those distinctions are predominantly exterior actions: moral, lifestyle choices, political and business dealilngs, etc. That is why the movement to "cure" gays, lesbians, and transgenders, has such force in those circles. Because you simply change the exterior behavior and poof, cure.

This has to do theologically with a tendency, particularly within Calvinism (in American Puritanism and Congregationalism/Baptists) that the interiors of the human are so totally vitiated that God must simply come from "above" or "outside", metaphorically, and redeem us.

It is sometimes calld the light switch theory of salvation--on/off tab that God just flips.

Because of this belief, Protestantism has an extremely poor track record of mystics and just basic depth in the interior at all. Even more so in American history. The tradition that kept depth and at least altered states was the African American tradition--from which Pentecostalism sprang.

Which explains why the first task among many very conservative such traditions is to strip the individual from their cultural-religious background. The Catholic model is transcend and include, which since Vatican II is having more effect on moderate/liberal Protestants but not yet the conservative branches.

America is a Protestant country in its formation. Not in the formal sense of a state-church but that just about everybody was Protestant. The dominant culture has always been Protestant of one form or another. In today's version that is evangelical, megachurch, and Pentecostal. In the 19th century it was Methodism.

Rick Warren calls the dis-establishment of a state church applying the free market to religion: may the best idea win. What that has done positively is allow for religions and denominations to get along in this country in a way nowhere else in the world. And not just get along but flourish. The recent furor over the first Muslim-American Congressman wanting to swear on oath on the Koran only proves the point--which all the ignorant conservative debate against it missed imo--its assimilated. Would a Euro Muslim legislator do the same thing? What country does everyone hold the Constitution in such high regard? He wants to bring the Quran into the stream of the US Constitution. He is not promoting the Quran as an alternate form of human social-political organization (Islamism).

Everytime a new religious group, say the Catholics, moved to enter that stream then immediately there was emotional prejudicial backlash, as with Muslims, but in the end the community wants to participate on the terms of the mainstream, with their own unique flavor no doubt, but on essentials, right down the line.

I saw it far less as cultural-religious narcissism as wanting to unite one's tradition with the mainstream. Which is exactly what conservatives in America say is the danger elsewhere around the world, and yet we have done that, I think, correctly in this country, and some, though by no means all and certainly not even a dominant majority from my perusing of the right-wing blogosphere (however representative that is [?]), and it gets blasted. I just didn't get that. To me, it is so stuck in a story about the past and doesn't see the tradition as a living breathing thing that is staying true to its roots and progressing forward.

That's a product of my own synthesis of progressive and traditional currents. As happened at the Second Vatican Council, true reform/revolution happens by first returning to the sources, freed from the dross of usual interpretations, and then re-applying those same essential insights to the current.

On the negative side, it is a country not just with a lot of religion, but a lot of bad religion. Or I guess I should immature religion--imo.

In other words, the problem I see with conservatives is not that they put too much faith in traditions. It is rather they don't put enough. When conservatism goes south it ceases to be able to recognize what the traditions that need to be conserved are from the form/container in which they historically have been kept.

The traditions have an essence that need to be stripped of the accretions that have built on so they are free to be placed within the next context. Liberalism goes south when it forgets the traditions have something worth conserving.

The Quran-Bible swearing in dispute a case in point. From this pov, the essence of the tradition is that religions that emphasize justice and morality (which the Quran does) can help the moral fiber of a pluralistic society which has no established church but is open to speaking of "divine providence."

That essence historically was, given the religious background of the country, mediated by the swearing of the oath on the Bible. But the Bible itself is not I would argue part of the essence. That is I am saying the essence could be re-contextualized with the Quran. And yes I do think eventually that could be a Gita or Sutra, if Buddhist or Hindu Americans are elected to office.

Again I see that as part of the strength of America and the European analogy vis a vis Islam is all backwards imo. American Muslims are well educated and connected economically in large part and are promoting some of the most progressive Islamic theology in the world. In Europe there are no job opportunities for Muslims, who are generally disconnected from mainstream society--is it any wonder then the dominant vision in European Islam is Islamism, i.e. installing a new non-secular order?

We say that Islam needs to enter the modern world and here is a Muslim who wants to--who runs and is elected to serve in public office the citizens of the United States--and apparently now modernity is not just modernity but Judeo-Christian modernity.

Which then opens up the question I've had all along of conservatives who are against Rep. Ellison (e.g. Dennis Prager, Rep. Goode)--many are not, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) is a good example--what do you actually want?

Do we really trust that our tradition of pluralism is too fragile the influx of Islam? That's what similar minds said about Catholicism when JFK ran for prez, against Mormons, against Quakers, on and on. And everytime our tradition has held strong. Why is it any different this time around? Why so little faith?


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