[ Some notes based on a book I'm reading. I want to see how much any of this makes sense, and writing it out might help. ]
In America, belonging to a religion—a community of worship, defined by individual faith commitments—is the only acceptable way to be different.
We have, especially in the past, been eager to look for racial differences, but we have also seen race as a matter of inferiority and superiority. We pretend class does not exist. We tend to think of gender differences as natural or God-given.
We are usually suspicious of ethnic differences. People should assimilate. We do not like deeper forms of political difference. American politics provides a notoriously narrow range of options. In public and business life, we want a dependable sort of sameness we expect from our strip malls and chain restaurants. We enforce sameness with “diversity” policies—we “celebrate difference” and congratulate ourselves for allowing everyone to do the same sort of jobs in the same sort of cubicles, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity.
Religion is the one area of life where we are supposed to be able to make an individual choice of faith, to be Jewish or Protestant or Catholic or Muslim or Hindu or whatever. We can have vestiges of community allegiances, as long as it’s all fake. After all, all large-scale religions in the US become versions of Protestant Christianity. Rabbis and mullahs become pastors, not judges and interpreters of divine law. Catholicism becomes acceptable by acting like another denomination. Buddhists form Buddhist churches.
To the extent that all this is true, I don’t entirely mind it. By and large, I’m against tight-knit communities. But it could also mean that religion is too important a component of the way we lie to ourselves to lose vitality any time soon. It’s too socially useful, even in an ultramodern, thoroughly marketized society such as the United States.