From Liberty Street: Religion Drenched America?

John Turner

America has a reputation of being a more religious country than any other developed nation. In particular, U.S. foreign policy is thought to be heavily influenced by fundamentalist Christian eschatology which posits some sort of final battle between good and evil, generally called Armageddon. This frightens many Europeans and causes them to think that America is too crazy to assume an important position in world leadership.

The Economist for September 16th points out that critics who take this stance are generally making two serious errors. First, they tend to lump all religious Americans together. And second, they repeatedly quote the wackiest people they can find to demonstrate the nature of American belief.

Both are valid arguments and deserve more attention than they usually get. But there are other errors which creep into talk about American religion which are probably more influential even than these. The notion that it is avidly secular, European types who are responsible for tacking a label of fanaticism on America is overdrawn. Secularists -- whoever they are -- may have some part in it, but the main reason religion and foreign policy are linked so strongly is that the connection offers a sensational topic for the American media. Why is it that when news programs present discussions of the political influence of religion, the religious spokesmen they feature are precisely the wacky voices the Economist mentions? Can anyone believe that journalists are so ignorant of the range of religious thought in America they actually think Jerry Falwell, or Franklin Graham, or Pat Robertson represents the dominant ideas of their fellow citizens? Isn't it more likely they're aware that the bizarre statements these men make will grab headlines?

The most serious distortion, however, with respect to the actual influence of religion on politics comes from polls. Pollsters go out and ask people what they think about this or that doctrine and then report that an astounding percentage of the American people espouse insanely superstitious notions. From there it's an easy step to assume that people who believe such things are disposed to fall upon the rest of the world in a religious frenzy, that Americans are eager to launch wars in an attempt to rid the world of those who annoy God. It's true that the American government lately has been far too ready to employ military force, but the argument that it has been done out of religious fervor is more than exaggerated.

Journalists run off the track when they interpret the influence of beliefs expressed to pollsters. When people are asked whether they believe in God, or Satan, or eternal damnation, or divine intervention in the affairs of nations, most of them answer in accordance with what they suppose to be convention without thinking very hard about what they mean. Truth is, they scarcely mean anything at all. It's unlikely that people whose religion is constituted by the husks of words are really motivated by faith. Honest faith that has the power to drive action is a far rarer thing in this country than you would suppose from reading newspapers or watching TV.

The idea that the American people are mesmerized by a God-inspired call to rid the world of evil is not only far-fetched, it's fantastic. The American people aren't sure what kind of foreign policy they want but it's, for sure, not based on that vein of religion.

Critics can argue, of course, that any sort of religion is composed of squishy concepts and that if you try to find anything precise in it you're reaching for pie in the sky. But whether you allow the maundering of people answering polls to be religion or not, it shouldn't be taken as a valid source of foreign policy.

I, myself, would prefer to reserve the word "religion" for significant stands on ultimate matters. Yet, whether we can achieve that degree of linguistic discipline or not, we should step away from the idea that substantial religious faith bolsters our militaristic response to foreign challenge. It pulls our thoughts -- and the thoughts of the world -- away from the incentives that actually send armies storming over the earth. Those purposes continue to be what they have always been, money and power. It's the lust for these rather than any desire to serve God that explains the reckless policy decisions of our government over the past several decades.

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Harvard Square Commentary, September 18, 2006