Thou know’st how poor a trifling thing man is,
And learn’st thus much by our Anatomy,
The heart being perish’d, no part can be free,
And that except thou feed, not banquet, on
The supernatural food, religion,
Thy better growth grows withered and scant
Be more than man, or thou’rt less than an ant.
I was raised in a religious Christian household, and so – as you would presume – I began reading Nietzsche at the age of 14 and became militantly atheist before I had the chance to consider what such a stand would mean.
These days, although I wouldn’t say I was religious, I do have deep regrets for the phenomenon of modern atheism of which I was once so much in favor.
The case for religion, I realise now, does not lie exclusively with its truth or falsity, but also with its effect. Christianity in the evangelical style is in my view plainly a good thing.
Perhaps bizarrely, I came to these conclusions when researching the so-called US ‘bible-belt’ ; that much-maligned chain of Southern American states running from Texas across to the Eastern seaboard. Traditionally, we (Europeans) are supposed to view this cultural bloc as something worthy of ridicule, and many still do. People imagine the area to be something physically along the lines of the old West. A desolate hot, sandy expanse – except now updated with tarmac, hat-wearing republicans, a ‘truck stop’, churches preaching hellfire and anti-homosexuality and a Wal-Mart just outside of town. Unimpressive in other words. No better than an ASDA town in the English North, or a market town in the South West.
But having looked a bit deeper into this region, reading of its habits, customs and beliefs and also comparing its rates of crime, divorce, and happiness against those of other American states, I am now, far from laughing at the belt, possessed of a desire to move there.
In America high religious observance is a matter of national pride. In Britain low religious observance is a matter of national pride. In the latter case this is because of the opinions of a xenophobic and jealous elite which have come to be the opinions of the dull masses in the same casual, unthinking way in which a rumour catches fire. The working classes of England still feel (wrongly) that the London elite are part of the same cultural body as them and so when London comedians or Oxford professors make the point that ‘we’ English look down on Americans for their religious enthusiasm, then the working classes, (identifying as they would like to with a distinguished elite), nod along as if the sentiments were their own thoughts in the first place.
But would these people feel the same if they could experience that dreaded American Christian fundamentalism for themselves? I doubt it.
American evangelical faith – real, sincere, dynamic, youthful belief – could do wonders for the most deprived areas of this broken country. Belief of the American kind gentrifies the lower stratas of society and creates a charming and hopeful community spirit around which all can warm themselves, and into which those who fall short in life can be embraced.
Working class American towns and particularly those in religious areas, are brimming with self-confidence. From the figures I have read, people are happier and report greater contentment. Children are healthier, more positive and live longer. People overwhelmingly live in old-fashioned family units. Houses are warm, welcoming places. Language is spoken in clean, positive sentences. People root for each other. And they are far from rich.
To experience this kind of living, with this kind of health, vibrancy and positivity here in England, one would have to move to a very plush area indeed. To see streets as clean as these and teeth as white, and children as happy and hear language as positive as this, one would have to move into the fantasy town of a John Lewis advert. And yet there it is, all for free…. Why?
Why are Americans, even the poorest White Americans, healthier, happier, more positive than Brits of all classes? Libertarians will tell you it is because of the free market and the absence of a welfare state. European snobs will tell you it is due to media-brainwashing and the infantilism of sugar-coated American culture. Leftists will garble something about the abuse and pillaging of third-world countries and suchlike. Others will say Americans are just plain smug ‘that way’.
But surely the most convincing answer is religion. Not religion like that found in English churches, but a distinctly American religion.
And the distinction between religion and American religion is essential. I don’t have any special affection for the Church of England style of worship in which I was raised. I still remember the cold grey pillars, the long services, ugly-looking hymn books and tedious sermons. I remember the sexless women who chastened me in Sunday school and who were a photograph of unhappiness. It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that pews are emptying at the pace they are, that congregations are falling away, and churches are closing.
If for American fundamentalism English people imagine this sort of church but taken seriously, then I can readily appreciate their disdain. But I feel this is not what they imagine. They imagine raving lunatics, literal bible-thumpers. Fat-necked preachers pulling semi-crippled women from borrowed wheelchairs. And why would anyone take that seriously?
But American fundamentalism is not about, or at least not centred around this kind of thing either. Homosexuality in Christian societies and church policy on the topic are as well-known as they need to be. Dogma of this kind is marginal and irrelevant for our purposes. As is the stance taken by born-again churches on stem cells, evolution, and whatever else peeves off the London elite but has no strong reason to annoy an ordinary English working-class observer.
Instead a working class observer should be advised to imagine why American churches attract so many fresh, young faces and inspire such enthusiasm in the first place. The answer to this is surely more interesting and has little to do with bigotry, as the London elite would have them believe. Surely what more people would like to understand is what makes Fort Worth different to Stoke-on-Trent? What makes Falmouth, Kentucky a better place to be than Falmouth, England? Why are people better off emotionally, and in terms of their job and relationship prospects in Lynchburg than in Manchester?
The difference is the transformative power of a well-rooted culture – a living culture with the guts to have pride in itself. This is the distinction. American Christianity is distinct from British Christianity in that the first is a living, believed in religion while the second is merely dust and ceremony.
And the effects of such belief can be tremendous. Christians who sincerely believe are hardly likely to become the saturday night terrors we see in English market towns.
Belief gentrifies. It also cheers people up. It makes them positive, assertive, and even fearless. It gives them a legacy-orientated attitude. It builds community and makes strangers familiar to one another. As the comedian Ricky Gervais said derisively – it also inspires people to behave who might not do if they thought nobody could see them. Belief rescues people from their nature – and given that it springs up strongest in the most volatile parts of American society, this has proven central to America’s historic success as a nation
The fact that I have only read exhaustively about these places and have yet to visit them (or the US generally), may disqualify my opinions for some, including those metro types who are frightened of agreeing with them. But as European urban zones like London begin to look more and more like Karachi, and large towns like Luton head the same way, don’t be surprised if such snobs are eventually forced to re-assess the logic of the American south.