Those Americans Are Really Weird

BBC’s Washington correspondent, Justin Webb, sends a dispatch from America, a strange place where most people–normal people, even–are religious: “Americans will talk of praying as if it were the most normal, rational thing to do.” The Elizabeth Smart case is an instance:
“During the last week a child who’d been missing for nine months has been found safe and well – the event was described routinely on the news media as a miracle.
“One broadcast had a caption reading ‘the power of prayer’.
“In fact the child had been abducted and her abductor was recognised and captured.”
The point of the story, of course, is the man in the White House: “The Bush administration hums to the sound of prayer. Prayer meetings take place day and night. It’s not uncommon to see White House functionaries hurrying down corridors carrying bibles.” Still, Webb’s take on American religion is not entirely negative: “the simple American faith – with heaven and hell, good and evil and right and wrong – appears rather better suited to wartime conditions.”
Notice how “right and wrong” are casually associated with “simple [religious] faith.” The first post-religious European generation had no thought of giving up the concepts of right and wrong. On the contrary, many secular philosophers have gone to great lengths to generate Judeo-Christian morality (more or less) from strictly non-religious foundations. Now, however, that pretense increasingly falls by the wayside. There is, perhaps, no solid non-religious ground from which to denounce (or, more important, topple) the Saddams of the world; nor is there any sound basis for opposition to such monsters other than a devotion to “good” in preference to “evil.”
Increasingly, Europeans and Americans view each other across a cultural divide, with religion–we have it, they don’t–as the main fault line. The BBC’s piece is titled “America’s deep Christian faith.” Fair enough, and I haven’t seen any data on this, but I’d bet that American Jews are, like American Christians, more likely to be religious than their European counterparts. Unfortunately the same trend cannot yet be discerned among European Muslims.

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