(Blogger’s note: My article below is published in the May 2020 edition of the nontheist British periodical Secular World and is reprinted here with permission of the editor. View the May edition here.)
When I was working at a petrochemical company in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in the mid-1980s, I interacted with quite a few Brits who had traveled there on business. Many of them asked me the same incredulous question: “Why are you Americans so bloody religious?”
It wasn’t a dumb question. In fact, as an atheist since my early teens I’d been asking myself that same question most of my life, and I was in my 30s at the time. Why, indeed.
Americans’ fervent, ubiquitous religiosity still perplexed me decades later into my early 60s (I’m now 69) — so much so that I then spent several years researching the topic and ended up writing a book about what I learned (“Holy Smoke: How Christianity Smothered the American Dream,” which published this February on Amazon and elsewhere).
The answer, it turns out, is as complicated as it is simple.
It’s complicated in that understanding the phenomenon of American Christianity requires wading into a tsunami of genetic, psycho-social and historical factual realities that ultimately have led Americans to behave as Americans do in the 21st century. And it’s simple in that, considering all these determinative factors, it’s hard to see how we Yanks could have turned out even one iota differently as a distinct people.
In a fundamental sense, it all began with the Roman Emperor Constantine, who ruled as his once-monolithic and nearly all-powerful empire was slowly imploding (some historians place the end in the year 476). Most people don’t know who Constantine was, because he’s not as famous as, say, Julius Caesar or Henry VIII, but what he did more than 15 centuries ago would have enormous consequences for Americans today.
What Constantine did was sanction then-fledgling Christianity as an official religious faith throughout his empire, which ended brutal, legally authorized discrimination against Christians, who were viewed by pagan Roman at the time as dangerous, fringe cultists. This imperial nod gave Christianity critical breathing room to spread its faith far and wide in the empire and beyond.
Then, when Constantine later decreed that Christianity was the empire’s official faith, the die was cast for the religion’s ultimate iteration as the dominant temporal and spiritual power in what is now Europe in the Middle Ages. Although kings and popes jockeyed for medieval power, popes routinely seized all church-state power for a time.
And eventually, after German anti-papal firebrand Martin Luther jump-started the Protestant Reformation by tacking his 95 Theses on a that church-house door in Wittenberg early in the 16th century, Protestants and Christians were subsequently at each other’s throats over the next few centuries.
Yet, despite the internecine conflict and even all-out religious warfare, ultimate European power still often resided with Christian leaders — Protestant or Catholic — and even if rule was not ecclesiastic, the faith’s spiritual power still ruled the European mind.
A century or so after Columbus bumped into what is now the Caribbean island of Jamaica and later beheld the mainland of the “New World,” the first step in future American religiosity was taken as immigrants, mainly devout European Protestant Christians, stepped off their respective boats and began to colonize the new land. Catholics, now the dominant Christian sect in the U.S. (but not by much), were slower to get going in America early on, which gave Protestants a huge advantage in shaping the national ethos.
Contrary to popular notions of America as a land of religious freedom, it didn’t exactly start out that way. For example, when the first big waves of Protestant Puritans began washing ashore on the east coast of North American the 1700s, they had zero intention of being tolerant of any Christian denomination other than their own within their colonial areas. In fact, even when fellow local Puritans showed the slightest doubt or backsliding in Puritan doctrines, they were summarily banished.
This trend continued for centuries, with various Christian sects colonizing different, religiously homogenous regions, where “others” weren’t welcome. Except for a preacher named Roger Williams, who founded a colony (Rhode Island) based on the idea of complete religious freedom (of any sect) and — and this is important — separation of church and local government authority. Most everyone else thought that was crackpot at the time, but you know how it turned out in the end.
When America’s Founding Fathers — Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, et al. — began drafting the United States Constitution, they, like Williams, sought complete separation of religion — any religion — from American government. And that’s how the Constitution and the preceding Declaration of Independence (from Great Britain) were written. Not a personal, Christian God in sight in those documents, only occasionally the deist “God of nature.” After all, these were science-loving, evidence-based Enlightenment men, not clerics, and they sought to create something completely different in the world, a secular republic where all faiths were welcome and equal but kept far from government deliberations.
Unfortunately, starting soon after those seminal documents were finalized (if not before), evangelical Christians began a relentless, unceasing program to interweave their faith as deeply as possible into the fabric of American society as it developed. The faithful have never really understood or bought into the idea of church-state separation anyway. Even today, they still insist America is a “Christian nation,” and scoff at the idea of a necessary “wall of separation” (Jefferson’s phrase) between faith and state as “invented.”
So here we are in 2020. Our current U.S. president aggressively courts the Christian Right, God is exalted on the walls of our schools and our money, and our attorney general is calling for a theocracy. Almost incomprehensibly, eight American states still retain antiquated statues — however constitutionally unenforceable — specifically prohibiting atheists from holding any public office or trust, and two of them also ban nonbelievers even from serving as witnesses in court.
How did we get to this sad place? Very, very slowly. But, had you been alive when Constantine did the momentous deed, it would soon have been very clear where Western civilization was likely heading.
“Erudite yet readable … very illuminating”
— Richard Dawkins, author of “The God Delusion,” in praise of “Holy Smoke”
Buy either book on Amazon, here (paperback or ebook editions)