Friday, April 16, 2010

Canto and Jacinta ponder Simon Schama's take on religion in the USA

Canto: In The Future of America: A history, Simon Schama, a self-confessed secular humanist and an Ashkenazi Jew, who has spent a large part of his life in the USA, offers some speculation on why the yanks are, by and large, so religious, and on the costs and benefits of such religiosity.
Jacinta: Yes, Schama's book, published on the eve of the election that swept Barak Obama to the presidency, and full of a sense of the momentousness of that possibility, commandingly sweeps through American history to examine past views of the nation's future, a retrospective intended to inform us of the issues at stake for the likes of Obama. For example, by fleshing out for us the figure of Montgomery Meigs, architect, organiser supreme, and energetic and principled quartermaster-general for the Union during the civil war, he examines the arguments between North and South, such as centralist federalism versus states rights, and, of course, half-hidden in the depths of southern resentment, the slavery issue. He also, albeit more briefly, looks at imperialist versus anti-imperialist visions at the beginning of the twentieth century, through the clash between Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain on the US treatment of the Phillipines.
Canto: Yes, and he skilfully explores other clashes and splits in the American psyche through dominant if little-known [at least to me] protagonists in, for example, the issue of proper treatment of the indigenous population, most notably the Cherokee, and in 'right' relations with Mexico, going back to the battle over Texas. All of this makes for a lively, dynamic work by a writer who cares most of all for the two things I most care about, language and human character.
Jacinta: And narrative, don't forget narrative.
Canto: Well, narrative, that goes without saying I hope, it combines those interests in the most dynamic form. But I want to focus on the role he finds for religion in the shaping of America's past and future. The African-American community of course has utilized the dignified fervency and the rhetorical tricks of the preacher from the earliest slave days through the civil rights movement to the present day. Right from the ante-bellum years the black church was a force in the land, a force almost unknown to the city-bound whites. Schama quotes at length from the writings of the indefatigable Jarena Lee, one of the country's first female black preachers, who so conspicuously contributed to the energetic spirit of black southern baptism at its outset. Schama thus builds a case, not through direct argument, but through the eloquence of historical personages and writings, that without the moralizing and communitarian force of black Christianity and churchdom, the path from slavery through civil rights to the advent of Obama could not have been carved out.
Jacinta: So much for our hopes for an atheist prez - but there was Jefferson, there was Washington, maybe Lincoln...
Canto: As we know, Jefferson was no atheist, but he was accused of being one, and John Adams was happy to smear him as one during the presidential campaign of 1800, producing flyers like 'God, or Jefferson and no God!'...
Jacinta: Today of course, you'll be unlikely to see anything like that. Nobody would believe a godless individual would run for president.
Canto: Oh ye of little faith. The times are a-changing.
Jacinta: So the absolutist fervour of Christianity lent its force to the abolitionist movement. But the US bible belt more or less corresponds to the ante-bellum slave-owning region. How do you explain that?
Canto: It can only be explained, really, by steeping yourself in American history and feeling how it expresses itself in a diverse religiosity. The Ku Klux Klan experienced a revival in the early twentieth century largely due to the hugely popular novel The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon Jr, a baptist minister.
Jacinta: From which came the D W Griffiths movie The Birth of a Nation.
Canto: Right. The story involved a Presbyterian preacher who whipped up Klan support to protect Christian white civilisation from black savagery. America's white supremacist movement and its black freedom movement were both driven by a protestant fervour unknown in Europe since the Thirty Years War.
Jacinta: But they had no Catholics to fight against, only differently striped protestants.
Canto: Differently forged protestants. The only thing they had in common was a sense of being disenfranchised and beleaguered. Schama finds that the history of the emancipation movement is thoroughly inspired by preachers. Nat Turner, leader of a ferocious slave rebellion in 1831, was known as 'the Prophet'. He dreamed of the great struggle to come between Christ and Anti-Christ, and was intensely pious. Denmark Vesey, a less successful rebel leader in 1822, was a founder of the African Episcopal Methodist Church. David Walker, black author of the 1829 revolutionary tract 'One Universal Cry', charged America with the heinous crime of being godless and unchristian. Others include Beriah Green, Charles Grandison Finney, John Rankin, Theodore Weld, James Dickey, William Lloyd Garrison and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, all of them righteous preachers against the sin of slavery, just as Martin Luther King, Jeremiah Wright and Raphael Warnock, in more recent times up to the present, have religiously railed against racism.
Jacinta: So are we meant to admire the power of American evangelism? Is the god question ever really addressed?
Canto: No, not really, and Schama is perhaps a little defensive about it all, but he's simply pointing out that you can't avoid the religious cast of American striving and struggle, and that to ignore it would be intellectually dishonest. We cringe at the God Bless America stuff, and wouldn't accept it from our politicians, But Americans are different, though of course also diverse - with plenty of them quite militantly against the 'under God' message.
Jacinta: I was reading those passages from the journal of Jarena Lee, and it seemed so ringingly clear to me that her god, her Jesus, these characters were personifications of what Freud called the superego, and what others have called conscience, or the moral principle that resides in us all, though it's a slightly different moral principle in each of us, like fingerprints or our DNA signature - recognisably human but also recognisably unique. If only we could get people to realize this, to proudly own their consciences and moral ruminations instead of attributing them to some fantasised external voice, to whom they choose to be grovelling but proud servants...
Canto: Is it choice, though? Lee's description of moral voices and dreams from her god are in fact the products of social pressure, she has surely cast her moral understandings in a way that will be acceptable but also impressive to her peers, all of whom appear to take heavenly messages as a given, and wouldn't accept any merely Socratically analysed moral conceptualisation as having anywhere near the same value. And so you have a snowball effect, in which everyone's moral understanding comes directly and personally as a message from their god [who of course is the same god for all of them].But to return to Schama's treatment - he seems to want not only to justify but to vindicate American religiosity, and in doing so, becomes almost incoherent.
Jacinta: I suspect American religiosity is itself incoherent, but large. And its largeness is like a whale, you can't help but deal with it respectfully. You even feel awed by it, against your better judgment.
Canto: Well let's not get carried away. Schama is first and foremost keen to point out that 'America's institutions are designed to protect citizens from religious coercion rather than enable it'. He's referring in particular to the first amendment of the US constitution which begins: 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free expression thereof' [these two clauses are known as the establishment clause and the free exercise clause]. This is all fine in terms of keeping the state separate from religion, but the free exercise clause leaves things wide open for every dog and her cult.
Jacinta: And what if free expression involves coercion - which it so often does where religion is concerned?
Canto: Schama writes of the 'donnish bafflement' of secular Europe when confronted with this religiosity, which I think goes a bit far, especially when you consider the robust secularism of this country, Australia, which is hardly donnish, and then he tries to suggest that there's a double standard operating when these 'dons' consider Islamic ayatollahs as 'misunderstood traditionalists'. Somehow, I don't think Pat Condell would agree...
Jacinta: Yes, I don't think he gets that right at all, all of us are appalled at religious states and want to keep religious organisations or denominations as far from political power as possible.
Canto: Here are his concluding remarks about the subject anyway, and I might ask you to make some final comments about them yourself Jacinta:
It's elsewhere in the world that dogma chokes on pluralism - the co-existence of conflicting versions of the best way to redemption - and uses state power to wipe it out. In the United States the Founding Fathers believed instead that religious truth would best be served by keeping the state out of the business of its propagation; that the power of religious engagement would not just survive freedom of conscience, but be its noblest consequence. It was a daring bet: that faith and freedom were mutually nourishing. But it paid off and it has made America uniquely qualified to fight the only battle that matters, not General Boykin's quixotic re-enactment of the true god against the false idol, but the war of toleration against conformity; the war of a faith that commands obedience against a faith that promises liberty. That, actually, turns out to be the big American story.

Jacinta: I certainly agree that those two opening clauses of the first amendment are admirable and positive, though the phrase 'one nation under God' in the pledge of allegiance tends to dilute the much-vaunted pluralism more than a bit.
Canto: The 'under God' bit was added only in 1954. What were they thinking?
Jacinta: Still when Schama claims that due to state non-interference, the dogma is, in some sense, broken up by pluralism, he fails to recognize that a pluralism of dogmas or faiths may not add up to much. It's of course true that a single dogma with state political power, as in Iran, or in the non-religious USSR, or when the RCC ran roughshod over most of Europe, is generally horrific, while a plurality of relatively powerless dogmas is merely irritating...
Canto: More than irritating... or, rather, 'merely irritating' from a whole-of-state perspective, but sometimes devastating for individuals trapped in or victimised by those dogmas.
Jacinta: Quite right Canto, but where everyone seems caught up in some dogma or other, best to have a faith that promotes freedom. In any case, Schama only partly acknowledges that the American constitution was a post-Enlightenment document, heavily influenced by the citizen's rights euphoria that had begun to grip Europe, and from which established churches throughout the west have never really recovered. In defending American religiosity from his European and secularized colleagues, he points to Europe's bloody religious past, which doesn't go very far in explaining America's belligerent if not quite so bloody religious present.
Canto: Perhaps we're too impatient. Perhaps in fifty or a hundred years time, America will be seen to be travelling a clear path towards secularization of the population, regardless of the state.
Jacinta: I won't make predictions about that, but it's interesting that, without going into the philosophical implications of belief and non-belief, Schama suggests that the real issue is why Europeans have stopped believing, not why so many Americans continue to believe. In this he agrees with Lois Lee, founder-director of the Non-Religion and Secularity Research Network, who believes research into the minority [but growing] phenomenon of atheism is essential and overdue.
Since the eighteenth century, most western countries have dealt pretty well with the issue - still ongoing, as attempts to disestablish the Anglican church in Britain indicate - of separating church and state, and keeping the major religions and denominations muzzled politically. But I don't think the state's institutions have had much effect on the nature or intensity of religious belief, unless you consider liberal education a state institution.  Maybe the real issue isn't so much why people are or are not religious, but what the costs and benefits are for religious belief in a rapidly evolving society. Evolution again. That's for the future though, which is perhaps why such questions don't seem to concern Schama, who's a historian after all.

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