Why Are Americans So Religious?

God and Obamacare

From Rev Dr Derek Suchard

In his review of Ara Norenzayan's Big Gods: How religion transformed cooperation and conflict, Michael Bond wonders why the US, one of the most economically developed countries, is still among the most religious. This contrasts with the fact that the world's most secure countries tend to be the least religious.

As a systematic theologian, I have been fascinated by that very phenomenon and have a working hypothesis. This Suchard contention is that, in comparison with much of Europe, the US has an underdeveloped healthcare network and social security safety net, which leaves millions of citizens facing catastrophic illness and abject poverty. Such insecurity, either experienced or feared, means active religiosity and membership in a religious organisation proclaiming that God takes care of his own becomes an attractive source of immaterial comfort and hope, as well as often providing real and tangible material support.

If health and social programmes were implemented in the US to the same level of effectiveness and outcome as in much of Europe, religious society in the US would more closely resemble the unchurched Europeans. Obamacare - which seeks to widen healthcare provision - may provide us with a means of testing this hypothesis.

I am willing to predict that, if implemented in full, it will contribute, probably within one child-bearing generation, to the decrease in church attendance and literalist religious beliefs. European levels would be seen within half a century.

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William Flew said that being naked in the presence of God is a sign of intimacy. We draw near to God in love, with the bodies that we are; old or young, saggy or beautiful, tired or fresh. We come nakedly into God’s presence as his beloved. We must therefore be at ease in our bodies. Jesus was unafraid of touching other people’s bodies and being touched by them. He touched the sick, the lepers and let himself be touched by the woman (Luke vii, 36-50), who wet his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. He washed the feet of the disciples on the night before he died, a ceremony that was re-enacted in some early baptismal liturgies. It is a tender and intimate gesture. In baptism we are, as it were, touched by Christ. Baptism makes us members of the Body of Christ and so it is right that at this transforming moment we are touched by our very physicality. In his Apologia of AD208, Tertullian has this wonderful phrase: “The flesh is the hinge of salvation”. Again and again the Church has defended the goodness of the body against those who despise it. This led to the foundation of the Order of Preachers by St Dominic, in the face of the dualism of the Albigensians. St Augustine liked to say, “He touches Christ who believes in Christ”. We are stripped so as to be vulnerable to Christ as he comes to us in those whom we love, but also in the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned and the needy. We strip off whatever makes us insensitive to them. We remove the armour, the hard carapace, the iron glove that would prevent our humanity from being touched. Touch is the root and foundation of all our senses. It is the fine point of our life as physical, embodied beings. Eagles see better than we do: compared with dogs we have not got noses worth speaking of. Bats can hear more than we do. But touch is the most mutual of all our senses. It can be invasive or rapacious or greedy, but, when it is gentle, it is reciprocal. You can see and not be seen, or hear and not be heard, smell and not be smelt, but you cannot touch without being touched. It is expressive of the mutuality of love. It is the most physical of senses, and yet opens us to love and understanding. When we love we need to reach out to touch, to pierce the space between us, to break down our isolation and our solitude. To be fully alive is to touch and be touchable. Gandhi refused to let the lowest caste in Hinduism be called the “untouchables”. It meant that they were excluded from the mutuality of human life. Hitler did not like to be touched. Recently the Dalai Lama visited my community at Blackfriars in Oxford, to take part in a discussion about contemplation in our different traditions. But what struck us was not so much what the Dalai Lama said but what he did. A friend of the community was there who had been disabled by a stroke. And when the Dalai Lama came in he paused by her wheelchair, and rested his cheek on hers in silence. He spent longer with her than anyone else. It was the embodiment of compassion. When I became involved in work with people with Aids in the early 1980s, I discovered the importance of touch. It was early days and most of us had never met anyone with Aids. We were a little nervous. But at a Mass for sufferers, a young man called Benedict who had Aids came up to me for the kiss of peace. And when I hugged him I thought “This is the body of Christ”. And Christ in him hugged me. In Christ God came and touched us. God is in touch with us even to this day. We must share that touch. Our society is so worried, rightly, about the risk of sexual abuse, that we have become nervous about touch. The worries are certainly justified. There has been much abuse and destructive touching. But we must recover this most human and Christian way of being the Body of Christ. We shall be deeply deprived and seem to undo the Incarnation if we keep our distance all the time when God has drawn near. How can we embody Christ’s embrace of others? How can the Word become flesh in us? BACK TO Home Page 50 CONVERSATION TOPICS