What's Still Great

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The state of the American soul this July 4.

By 7.3.13

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As the nation celebrates Independence Day, there's no surprise that a new survey shows religious Americans are more patriotic than the non-religious.

Two thirds of Evangelicals are "extremely" proud to be American, compared to 56 percent of white Mainline Protestants, 49 percent of minority Christians, 48 percent of Catholics, and 39 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans.  (Theologically, Christians probably aren't supposed to be "proud" but grateful.)  The survey comes from  the Public Religion Research Institute and Religion News Service (RNS). 

Evidently the survey didn't factor in amount of church going, but Evangelicals typically are among the most church going, and likely data for church-going Catholics and Mainline Protestants would show their patriotic levels nearly as high.

Eighty-four percent of Evangelicals believe God has "granted the U.S. a special role in history," versus 40 of the religiously unaffiliated.  About three-quarters of Evangelicals and Catholics (76%) believe that the world "would be better off if more countries adopted America’s values and way of life."  Only half of the religiously unaffiliated agree.

RNS quoted popular Evangelical author Eric Metaxas explaining that his fellow Evangelicals are not "tribalistic, nationalistic, [in a] jingoistic sense."  But they are "pro-America because they believe that the ideas of the Founders — religious liberty at the head of them — have been a huge blessing to those on our shores —and to those beyond them.”  They "see America as being blessed by God to be a blessing to others, to be a ‘city on a hill.’ And to the extent that that’s true, they celebrate that.”

No doubt very true, not just for Evangelicals but also for other faith groups in America to only a slightly less extent.  Even a large plurality of religiously unaffiliated espouse a providential American exceptionalism, because such belief remains in the DNA of American culture.

Explaining the levels of religious difference in patriotic ardor, other surveys have indicated religious practitioners tend to be more communal, attached to institutions, and idealistic than the religiously unaffiliated, who can be more cynical and averse to wider social attachments.

About 30 percent of overall respondents said they've been ashamed of America, with a plurality of them citing wars in Vietnam and Iraq.  Many also cited treatment of minorities.  The question arguably had a liberal bias because it didn't really offer responses appealing to conservatives, except "American culture," and Obama's election. Shame over abortion or same sex marriage was not an option.

Nor did this survey explore if religious conservatives might lose their enthusiastic patriotism if American culture becomes more socially liberal. This topic was raised in a recent First Things commentary by conservative Protestant theologian Peter Leithart, who wrote thus week about the latest Supreme Court marriage rulings:

This will force a major adjustment in conservative Christian stance toward America. We’ve fooled ourselves for decades into believing that Christian America was derailed recently and by a small elite. It’s tough medicine to realize that principles inimical to traditional Christian morals are now deeply embedded in our laws, institutions and culture. The only America that actually exists is one in which "marriage” includes same-sex couples and women have a Constitutional right to kill their babies. To be faithful, Christian witness must be witness against America.

Will more religious traditionalists "witness against America”?  In a sense, they always have.  For most of the last 40 years, religious conservatives have inveighed against court-mandated abortion on demand and other collapses in public and private morality.  There is a long tradition of religious jeremiad in American history dating to the Puritan divines of old New England.  They and every subsequent generation of revivalists have seen America has incorrigibly sinful yet providentially blessed by the capacity for spiritual and moral reformation.  Like ancient Israel, religious enthusiasts have seen America as often lost, needing prophets and divine correction, yet still in God 's protective hand. 

What serious religionists believe about America is commonly contorted by ostensibly more sophisticated secular critics, who portray Evangelicals especially as mindlessly nationalistic, facilitating aggressive wars and global economic exploitation.  Some Evangelical elites overreact to this chronic stereotype by embracing social causes of the left, hoping for a better public image.  It rarely works.

Leithart raises a serious question about the correct attitude for the religiously serious toward their always sinful nation.   Courts today overturn traditional marriage although thankfully stepping back from some of their earlier abortion rights absolutism.  Not long ago courts upheld racial segregation.  A court ruling that declared black people were not citizens helped spark the Civil War.  The Constitution had permitted millions to be owned and treated as chattel.

America was never as pious or moral in the past as some imagine.  The 18th and 19th centuries were less church going than our own.  And the Temperance and Prohibition movements of the 19th and 20th centuries were not just about booze but also wider alarms about an uncontrolled saloon culture that bred prostitution, gambling, indigence, profligacy, pornography, family collapse, and endemic political corruption. 

"The Battle Hymn of the Republic," popular at Independence Day, based on a Methodist revival song, with lyrics by a Unitarian social reformer, is the nation's primary civic hymn.  It envisions a wicked nation purged of its sins by the Savior's glorious return.  Like most religious patriots across the century, Julia Ward Howe did not witness against America but foresaw its redemption.

Working and waiting for national redemption amid current battles in defense of family, vulnerable human life and religious liberty is a long term task for the spiritually patient, who should remember these struggles are not particularly new to our own time. 

Meanwhile, religious Americans, and most Americans, are right this July 4 to be grateful for where Providence has placed us.  Being American is and always has been both challenge and sacred opportunity.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.