Follow by Email

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Why are Americans So Religious? (Part Two)

Part Two: A different approach
            As I noted before, I have not been trained as a historian, sociologist, or other social scientists, my training has been in Christian ministry, theology and biblical studies. As such, I have a slightly different perspective on what constitutes religion than those who observe it as a social/psychological phenomenon. I recall from my college days hearing a debate that began over the notion of what constitutes religion. While the names Foucault and Durkheim were being bandied about with great excitement, I sat quietly remembering the words of the epistle of James, chapter one verse twenty-seven, “Pure religion and undefiled before the Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” What might the relative religiosity of Americans look like if it is measured by this standard?
Towards a biblical view of religion
            Of course, I understand the problems and perils of attempting to apply a first century definition of religion given in the context of a particular epistle that addressed people of another time, culture, and social situation; however, there is something to be said for the fact that the Christian scriptures provide such a straight forward definition. So let’s take a look at James 1.27, and see if we can find a way to apply the definition of religion it provides towards America’s religious situation. This definition will seek to address issues of belief in that belief influences action, and it will seek to find criteria for determining religiosity that do not depend on self-reported behavior. It will do this by focusing on what “true” religion claims to do (sorry, it’s the pragmatist in me)- because the degree to which the goals of “true” religion are being accomplished may help to provide an objective measurement of the degree of religiosity for a nation. In so doing I hope to provide a way to measure America’s religiosity that can be used for an apples to apples comparison with any other nation in the world- but this starts with the book of James. Lest the author be accused of taking this verse out of context, let’s start with an overview of the book of James and its teachings, as a whole, on the nature of religion.
On the Epistle of James      
The Epistle of James was written, according to tradition, by James the brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church. Though, it is difficult to determine the accuracy of this tradition. The theology of the letter is very straight forward, and its style makes it very difficult to place within a particular Christian tradition. It is addressed to “those of the twelve tribes”; this could either mean it was written to Jewish Christians, or that a high degree of importance was placed on the Jewish symbol world by the community to whom it was written. James has been a part of the Christian scriptures since the third century, and it has been in continual use by the entire Christian church since the canonization of the New Testament.
The primary concern of the Epistle of James is praxis- that is: religious thought put into practice. In the first chapter of James’ epistle, the author admonishes his readers to: joyfully endure trials, bless those who endure temptations, remember humility, to give freely, speak well of others, and to live in humility, freedom and peace.
The second chapter warns against the evils of materialism and showing partiality to one person over another because one has more money. It explains that faith without works is useless, in that it is not enough to wish the hungry fed, the homeless housed, and the naked clothed, but one must initiate concrete particular action to see to it that it is done.
The third chapter argues against boasting and cursing others and that one should eschew selfish ambition. The author admonishes his audience in 3.13 saying, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” This illustrates the epistles emphasis on practical action and its teaching that one’s inner religious life must lead to concrete particular actions. If these actions are not present in the life of the individual, regardless of their self-reported beliefs, the individual is not religious according to James. Or to put it in the author’s own words, “What good is it… if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? ... Just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead” (James 2.14, 20).
Chapter four of James’ epistle addresses the need for humility before God, and explains the foolishness of boasting, the wrongheadedness of judging others, and the problem of boasting about getting rich. This segues into the fifth and final chapter which warns in apocalyptic language against the injustice and the problems inherent in being rich, as well as unrighteousness and inequity in mistreating workers. It also addresses the need for patience in suffering, the need for compassion and mercy, the importance of not making vows, the place of communal prayer and ritual, and the need to accept those who left their Christian community and want to return.
James is, above all, an immensely pragmatic book whose preference for production over pondering, and results over rhetoric will help to provide a workable, quantifiable definition for “religious-ness” that can be used to measure the degree of religious adherence in the United States and elsewhere so we can finally answer our the question posed by this article.
Principles from James 1.27 and a standard for measuring religiosity
            It has been said once already but it bears repeating. James 1.27 tells us that, “Pure religion and undefiled before the Father is this. To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” Here the author provides two measurable values for our judging the relative “religious-ness” of an individual, group, or nation. Applied to a nation one may ask: How well do the people of the nation in question care for orphans and widows, and how well do they assert the priorities of “true religion” above those of the world (i.e. Do they care for others or for their own fiscal gain)?
            Combined with the lessons of James chapter one, we could also examine rates of charitable giving, humility, patience in national rhetoric and discourse when facing calamity (like economic down-turn). We could also examine how well the people of a nation promote peace globally (perhaps by examining the nation’s history of military aggression and the public perception of particular armed conflicts among its citizenry and the larger world).
When the lessons of chapter two are taken into consideration we could also examine a nations’ welfare spending, as well as the efficacy and stigmas related to its welfare programs as indicators of national “religious-ness”. Additionally, charitable giving (both in terms of quantity and percentage of individual earnings) could be used as a criterion for determining “religious-ness”. Further, equal access to resources like high quality schools, libraries, hospitals, and such the like could be examined, as James chapter two condemns disproportionate treatment based upon income.
Chapters three, four, and five add to our list questions of the tenor of national discourse and the need for humility therein as markers of “religious-ness”. The need for fair and equitable treatment of the poor and the working class is also a marker of “religious-ness”. Both of these can be gauged by examining minimum wage and worker’s rights in particular nations.
It becomes clear, if the criteria of the book of James are to be used as markers of religiosity and not self reported belief in God, or self-reported church attendance, that we could turn our attention to the national and domestic policies of a people in democratic nations, as well as personal charitable giving in order to determine the “religious-ness” of that nation’s people.

The standard applied and America’s “Religious-ness”
Domestic Policy: welfare and minimum wage
            The first statistic to be examined in order to determine American “religious-ness” is the amount of welfare spending in the United States. In 2000, the United States spent $434.3 billion on welfare programs to help the poor among the U.S. population[1] this amounts to a little over five percent of the U.S.’s annual GDP.[2] Compare this to the thirteen to thirty-three percent of GDP spent by member nations of the E.U. on social welfare programs each year and it becomes clear that the health and well being of the poor is not as great a national concern to the United States as it is to their European counterparts. If spending on the poor and less fortunate is an indicator of religiosity it would appear that when compared to their European counterparts, Americans are not particularly religious.
            James four and five show a preoccupation with the plight of workers and a concern that they are treated with justice and equity. The minimum wage in the United States was designed in 1938 to ensure that Americans had enough money to live.  The original calculation for this wage was based upon food costs. In 1938 one third of an individual’s income went to food, when food costs were calculated and multiplied by three a living wage (minimum wage) was arrived at; unfortunately presently food costs account for far less than they used to, and the minimum wage calculation has not been changed to reflect this. As a result, it is no longer possible in most places to live off of a minimum wage income in America.
            In Europe, however wages set by member states are at times drastically higher than those set in the U.S. and in most cases have greater buying power (see Figure 2).
As can be seen in the above figure eight European nations have a higher, and one a similar, minimum wage as the United States. Further, when one considers that many of the European nations listed above practice some form of socialized medicine, and as such do not require their minimum wage workers to purchase outside insurance, it is clear that the standard of living of most minimum wage workers is higher in many European countries than in the United States. If minimum wage and cost of healthcare are the markers of a nation’s religiosity it is clear that the United States is no more religious than about a third of European nations, and with healthcare costs factored in is less religious than most of the E.U..
Foreign Policy: International aid, war, peace and diplomacy
            James tells us that our care for our neighbor is an indicator of the authenticity of our “religious-ness”. Foreign aid, the monies allocated to disease prevention, to alleviate starvation, provide health care and other basic necessities, is a major way in which nations care for their neighbors.  As a group, the “EU's spending on foreign aid far surpasses the United States.”[4]
            When issues of war, peace and diplomacy are taken into consideration the picture becomes dimmer. The Bush doctrine, an unprecedented national security stance originally voiced in the 2002 “National Security Strategy of the United States of America” established the pre-emptive war doctrine, or “Bush Doctrine” as the rules by which the U.S. would engage perceived threats. This pre-emptive war doctrine has provided the justification for the United States to declare war on any nation or group they wish provided they perceive said nation or group to be a present or possible future threat. The E.U. has no corresponding doctrine in their European Security Strategy, and instead favors diplomacy, and cooperative action to solve military problems[5].  Judging by both the criteria of international spending on foreign aid and on stances towards war and international diplomacy, it is clear that while America is a nation, in this respect it is not particularly religious, or at least less so than its European counterpart.
Personal Action: Charitable giving
            Charitable giving is one area in which the U.S. demonstrates its “religious-ness”. In the U.S. more money is raised by individuals for the purposes of charitable giving than in any other nation in the world (see Figure 3) [6]. This includes individual E.U. member nations, and dwarfs the contribution given by the E.U. as a whole. In this regard, the argument could be made that America is “so
religious”. Though the combined rates of individual giving and national aid for the poor and foreign aid are still lower than many of their European counterparts.
            In conclusion, when one examines some of the definitions of religion set forth in this article and the one preceding it, and uses these to judge the relative “religious-ness” of the United States against that of Europe, one can see that the U.S. is not more religious than the E.U. but would rather be seated in the top third of E.U. member nations as regards “religious-ness”. Once the subjective criteria for determining religiosity are abandoned (i.e.: self-reported behavior about the existence of God and self-reported attendance rates at religious services) in favor of more objective criteria that focus on the function of religion, one finds that Americans are perhaps less religious than their European counterparts (with the notable exception of individual charitable giving rates). Though to listen to the national discourse and the condemnation of “godless Europe” in some circles in contrast to America as a “Christian Nation” it appears that in one half to one third of cases, the opposite is true… I wonder what James might say about that?

[4] Schweiss, Christina. "Challenging US Hegemony: The European Union's Comparative Advantage in Nation-Building and Democratization" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association, Le Centre Sheraton Hotel, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, Mar 01, 2004
[6] International Comparisons of Charitable Giving November 2006 found at, accessed 12/07/08.

No comments:

Post a Comment