I don’t remember when it was, but it was years ago, before religion had become such a prominent factor in American politics. Perhaps it was during my graduate school years, the mid-to-late 1970s. Whenever, it came as a shock to learn that America was more religious than Europe. It’s not so much that I had thought the reverse. I rather doubt that I’d thought much about it one way or another. The shock, I suppose, was simply that America was such a religions nation.
Religion has been much more visible in American politics of the last two decades and America remains more religious than Europe. This would come as no surprise to readers of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, but I hadn’t read it and, to be honest, still haven’t (though I’d read The Ancient Regime and the Revolution years ago). I have, however, read The Fourth Great Awakening & the Future of Egalitarianism, by the economic historian and Nobel Laureate Robert William Fogel. Fogel argues that American society and culture has been driven by cycles of religious revival. The first three cycles, starting in roughly 1730, 1800, and 1890, have been recognized in standard religious history, while the Fogel himself has proposed the fourth, dating it to the 1960s. He characterizes it as a “return to sensuous religion and reassertion of experiential content of the Bible; rapid growth of the enthusiastic religions; reassertion of concept of personal sin; stress on an ethic of individual responsibility, hard work, a simple life, and dedication to family.”
I rather doubt that either Tocqueville or Fogel would have predicted that one day the United States Capitol Building would be stormed in the names of a recently defeated President, Donald Trump, and God, with many of the belligerents believing Trump to be God’s instrument. They would have found that shocking. I did, as did many other Americans.
To put the question in its starkest form: How is it, then, that religious belief can be both foundational to American democracy and a profound threat to it? Read more »