e-mail us


U.S. religiosity in a self-imposed straightjacket


A recent international survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found six in 10 Americans agreeing that “religion plays an important role in their lives,” by far the highest of any modern industrial society investigated. This figure represents approximately twice as many self-proclaimed religious adherents as reside in Great Britain, Italy and Canada, and about five times more than in France, the Czech Republic and Japan.

The paradox of the Pew findings in the wealthy nations surveyed is that high religious affiliation is associated with low levels of equality across societal institutions and policies and vice versa. For example, a 2001 World Health Organization report of 191 countries found that the United States ranked 37th in overall health care services behind almost every European country as well as Morocco, Oman and Costa Rica. A just-released study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation concluded that nearly one in three non-elderly Americans (about 75 million people) did not have medical coverage for some period over the past two years. While many believers in the this country are apparently content with a medical system that excludes millions of their fellows, individuals in significantly less religious France and Italy have created health care systems ranked one and two in the world respectively.

We have the highest degree of economic inequality in the industrialized world. The Washington-based Economic Policy Institute notes that while the wealthiest 1 percent of stockholders account for just under 50 percent of all stocks by value, one of every six children lives below the official poverty line.

Full-time working women earn about 77 percent of what full-time employed men do in the United States. In Great Britain, Italy and France, these figures are 80, 82 and 88 percent respectively. Among modern industrial states, Japan alone lags substantially behind the United States in economic gender equity.

Only the United States continues to execute offenders -- including, on occasion, mentally retarded individuals -- despite recent findings that the criminal justice system is replete with errors, and that the capital punishment convictions of factually innocent defendants are hardly uncommon.

At a time when most prosperous nations have a system of compulsory military service, the United States maintains voluntary armed forces. Fighting and dying on the battlefield have become the plight of lower- and middle-class males, while sons of the wealthy stay home and enjoy the economic benefits of their privileged positions.

What is it about our religious beliefs or the relation between religion and other institutions that has prevented the weaving of the golden rule into the fabric of American society as it has in more secular nations? In other words, why do the religious convictions of so many Americans exist in a kind of schizophrenic detachment from their brethren in the wider social world?

To begin, we seem to be of two minds when it comes to social justice issues and the application of the “do unto others” dictum. As far as helping victims of tragedies such as the recent terrorist attacks and natural disasters, we Americans have always been generous with our time and money. However, as a nation we are unwilling to institutionalize our individual good will on issues such as universal health coverage, a livable minimum wage, and gender and racial equality. We are loath to help people designated as unworthy of societal generosity, as in the distinction between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor.

A partial explanation for the gap between religious beliefs and societal practice can be found in the nation’s intellectual history. English philosopher and pioneering sociologist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), whose Social Darwinism swept across the United States in the 1880s (the term “survival of the fittest” comes from Spencer, not Charles Darwin), gave a pronounced boost to a mindset of rugged individualism already entrenched in this country.

According to Spencer, wherever one found himself or herself in the system of inequality that’s where he or she deserved to be. Wealth was a natural outgrowth of intellectual and moral superiority, while poverty was a product of intellectual and moral inferiority. By definition, the wealthy were justly prosperous, the poor rightly impoverished. Yale professor William Graham Sumner (Spencer’s most prominent American disciple) wrote a 145- page treatise titled “What Social Classes Owe Each Other” that can be summarized in a single harsh phrase: nothing at all.

For all of our self-proclaimed piety and impressive rates of church attendance, it appears that the golden rule has been overwhelmed by Spencer’s legacy and smothered by the thick veneer of narcissistic materialism that is contemporary American culture. We strive to be the richest (“fittest”) in a culture where, as sociologist Richard Robbins notes, “virtually all of our everyday activities -- work, leisure, the fulfillment of social responsibilities -- take place in the context of commodities.”

Complete with rock bands and laser light shows, some forms of religious expression are more entertainment than devotion as spirituality is reduced to another commodity to be bought and sold in the marketplace. My guess is that for many of these adherents, “Jesus Christ Superstar” has the same impact on their lives as Mariah Carey superstar.

Finally, over the past 40 years there has been a shift in religious orientation on the part of many, emphasizing a “one-to-one” relation with God and redemption as a personal journey. This spiritual orientation separates people from concerns about, and participation in, the larger society. With the rise of “God Box” or television preachers, one need not leave the house to experience religious fulfillment.

To be sure, not all religious adherents and leaders have succumbed to lives wherein success is measured by material possessions and salvation is a solitary journey. The relentless struggle of Martin Luther King Jr. and others illustrates how people have made enormous sacrifices working collectively for social and economic justice. Unfortunately, these individuals are a minority of the population. The true religion of contemporary American society is consumption, as an excursion to our real houses of worship -- shopping malls -- will attest.

The United States appears to be the lone wealthy nation where an undercurrent of Social Darwinism intersects with crass materialism and an exclusionary, personal quest for salvation to yield a narrow interpretation of the golden rule. This is a rendition wherein individuals comfort family and friends but refrain from striving for equality and justice at the societal level.

A man of deep religious convictions, the 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard had nothing but disdain for what he called “Christendom,” the “herd” mentality of worshipers who weekly marched into churches as if attending a social function, then stomped out again, indifferent to the true message of their faith. For Kierkegaard, “Being a Christian in Christendom ... is as impossible as doing gymnastics in a straightjacket.” We have become a nation of religious adherents in self-imposed straightjackets, indifferent to much of the suffering and injustice in our midst.

George J. Bryjak is professor of sociology at the University of San Diego.

National Catholic Reporter, March 28, 2003