Americans adapt religion to fit what we want to gain

July 2, 2011 in How do you explain 'America the Religious'?, Question of the Week, Spotlight Answers by Cole Huffman

As we prepare to celebrate July 4, studies show that the wealthier a country is, the less important religion is to that country. The ONE EXCEPTION is the United States of America.

Our question to you this week: Why?

Drawing on your life, your work and your time here in Memphis, how do you explain America the Religious?

Wasn’t it Abraham Lincoln who said something to the effect that Americans are God’s “almost covenant people”? And so most Americans indulge a seemingly innate reflex to thank God—however we define Him—for our wealth and means, believing ourselves to be as lucky as blessed; as if God must have one day blindfolded Himself in the primordial past, spun the world on its axis and decided to shower great material benefits on whichever plot of dry land He thrust His finger upon. And it was our land! The explorers and pilgrims couldn’t get here fast enough to really make something of this place to the glory of God and the credit of the Protestant work ethic.

I’m being a bit facetious. But I’ve traveled the world enough to know we are indeed an anomaly in the sociological interplay of religion and affluence. John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge give some reasons why in their 2009 book God Is Back, and I refer the reader to their work, particularly chapters two and three. No one forces Americans to be religious (the First Amendment recognizes the difference between coercion and persuasion), and more are than aren’t. As a pastor, though, I find myself less interested in why religion persists among us as it does, more interested in how it fares, especially the Protestantism I know best. And I have to say that our affluence too often has an inoculation effect on our faith—people get injected with just enough God-talk to almost ensure they’ll never really hear Jesus.

Religion still works in self-made American culture because we adapt it to fit what we want to gain from it. This is the American way. If Americans have proven ourselves adept at anything in our 235 years it is our resilient resourcefulness, our genius really, in making things useful to ourselves. We’re a nation of MacGyvers in choir robes. Our religion mostly accessorizes our entrepreneurship of life. Many who call themselves Christians function as practical atheists day-to-day, or are “lifestyle heretics” in John Michael Talbot’s memorable terminology. We are a blissfully religious country, yes, so long as religion doesn’t stifle anyone’s innovation and individualism.

Nonetheless, I am grateful to be an American citizen residing, in Flannery O’Connor’s words, in “the Christ-haunted South.” I understand what Lincoln was trying to say about us. But God does not have any covenantal obligation to bless the United States, though some of my evangelical friends persist to think so, speaking in terms that often conflate the nation and the church. This not only fails to recognize that American culture is pluralistic, it also lends to culture warring—in my opinion the worst thing evangelicals have done to our stewardship of the gospel.