Anyone seeking to compare religion in the United States and Western Europe begins with the alleged contrast between the most religious democratic country and the more secular countries on the other side of the Atlantic. Of course things turn out to be more complicated the closer one looks—America is less religious than it first seems, Europe less secular. Yet, roughly speaking, the contrast holds up. Perhaps the easiest way to get at this is to observe that America has something that Europe significantly has not—a wide swath of territory known as the Bible Belt, with a socially and politically important subculture, the Evangelical community. That community includes over 26 percent of the American population, ahead of mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics—and significantly more than 80 percent of this community voted for Donald Trump. Of course, in a population that large, there are different groupings that cut across what the entire subculture has in common—an openness to the supernatural, a belief in the necessity of having an intense religious experience (being born again) in order to be a Christian, a strong belief in the authority of the Bible, a strong moral code (much of it preoccupied with sexuality). It is useful to understand that from its beginnings in the First Great Awakening (1730s and 1740s) Evangelicalism had a gloomy and a cheerful version. The gloom comes, I think, from the deeply pessimistic Calvinism of early New England Puritanism, its best-known text the terrible sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” preached by the famed theologian Jonathan Edwards in Northampton in 1741, presumably (literally) scaring his audience to hell with the message that most of humanity is predestined for eternal damnation. But a more optimistic note crept into his preaching despite its ultra-pessimistic assumptions: After all, the Great Awakening was an appeal to sinners to be saved from hell by an act of faith! Other famous preachers of the early period maintained a better balance between a gloomy theology of pervasive sinfulness and the promise of salvation to all who answer the call from the altar—especially preachers coming from Methodist and Baptist churches. This continued all the way to Billy Graham in the 20th century, whose basically gloomy theology did not keep him from playing amicable golf with Richard Nixon.
The Evangelicals have imposed a ritual on American life that goes far beyond its properly religious enactment—a ritual of (possibly stern) moral judgment, repentance, forgiveness, and reinstatement in the company of the saints. That ritual dominates the American moral imagination and is reiterated many times in matrimonial affairs, politics, business, and even in the practice of criminal justice. America has long been the land of second chances. It appears even in the gloomier versions of Evangelicalism, where the old Calvinism still lingers on, and is periodically revived in the broad smile of Methodist reconciliation. Where the latter prevails, the promise of atonement is the center of the message. But one should not be surprised that the Evangelical subculture resonates with political calls for law and order, harsh legislation, and even favorable attitudes toward the death penalty. Also, it is understandable why Evangelicals are friendly to the military—I don’t think Trump lost much Evangelical support by dropping the “mother of all bombs” on Islamists in Afghanistan.
One particularly interesting development is that the military chaplaincy, in its Protestant group, is increasingly filled with Evangelicals, who feel more at home in the military than among largely liberal mainline clergy, whose concerns over gender and multiculturalism Evangelicals don’t resonate with. Some years ago I presided over a seminar dealing with whatever issues members of the seminar were concerned about. One of the seminar students was an Evangelical Air Force chaplain. This was the issue she wanted to think through: She served on a small base in the Arctic where she was the only Protestant chaplain. Of course she was not expected to perform religious services that did not agree with her own beliefs. But she was expected to facilitate services for any group of Air Force personnel. A group of Air Force women wanted to perform the rituals of Wicca, which defines itself as a modernized version of the old witches’ Sabbath. How, she asked, could she help organize a worship service of the devil without betraying the core of her Christian faith? I tried to convince her that the devil part was not to be taken seriously, that Wicca was a rather harmless form of nature worship—dancing naked in the moonlight and showing respect for menstrual blood. She said that the way I spoke about this showed I did not take the religious beliefs of this group seriously. I’m afraid she was quite right. In the end she had no choice unless she wanted to resign from the chaplaincy—so the would-be witches did their thing as facilitated by a nonsectarian Evangelical minister. (Religious freedom bears strange fruit, including the struggle of conscience of an Evangelical pastor ordered to go against her conscience by her commanding officer.)
Around April 2017 my restless meandering in both religious and mainstream media led me to a rich trove of Evangelical news items from Alabama. I rather doubt whether Evangelical residents of that state are more prone to produce scandalous news than their coreligionists in neighboring states. Probably just a coincidence, unless the anonymous hero of country music “who came from Alabama with a banjo on his knee” seeks occasional incarnations in the flesh. We may as well begin at the top, in the Governor’s mansion. After a painful and very visible process of public disclosures, Robert Bentley, a medical doctor described as “grandfatherly,” was a popular Governor with particular ties to the Evangelical community. He was forced to resign because of an “inappropriate relationship” with a state official serving under him. There were also other “improprieties” associated with the libidinous scandal. Bentley was accused of having used state funds to subsidize his affair while it lasted and of having asked others to help terminate it when the lady in question clung on. Perhaps H.L. Mencken was right when he observed in a similar case that breaking the central sexual taboo is so wrenching that afterward anything is possible. There were some other financial scandals in Alabama at the time, apparently unrelated to the favorite Evangelical sin, the one that occurs south of the navel.
Another interesting episode, which attracted the attention of even the New York Times, was the passage of an Alabama law authorizing the large Briarwood Presbyterian Church near Birmingham to set up its own police force, with all the rights of, say, the police force of a college. The American Civil Liberties Union promptly challenged this project for violating the constitutional separation of church and state. (Imagine that: “I arrest you for inappropriate behavior on land belonging to Briarwood Presbyterian Church. You are sentenced to four weeks of Sunday morning attendance at Briarwood Church.” Apparently some delinquents chose the option of five weeks in the county jail.)
Then there is one news item that accords with the darkest versions of the Evangelical spirit. The state of Alabama had suspended carrying out death sentences for some months, because it had run out of a medication that was supposed to prevent severe pain while a death sentence is being carried out. Death row was filling up with people lining up to be executed (a practice which, I suspect, continues to be approved of by Alabama Evangelicals committed to law and order). Then the supply of the medication was replenished or a substitute was found. The state wanted to empty out death row as speedily as possible and scheduled a lot of executions within a short time span. Some courts, at the behest of defense lawyers, declared that this project falls under the constitutional prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment” (I don’t know where this matter stands now). No thanks to advocates of the death penalty, the practice in most states has become increasingly “unusual”—prosecutors and juries increasingly favor lesser penalties. It has not yet penetrated the minds of law-and-order ideologues that it is impossible to kill people without “cruelty” (it has been tried repeatedly, ever since the guillotine was invented to express the kindness of the French Republic—perhaps rightly so compared to being tortured to death under the jurisprudence of the ancien régime).
But perhaps I should end on a lighter note (Methodist rather than Puritan). I distrust the use of survey methods in the study of religion (with the exception of the religious demography of Todd Johnson and Brian Grim and of the Pew Research Center, who practice this methodology very cautiously and with a keen sense of its limits). But too much depends on the way questions are formulated. (I’d always have a hard time choosing between “none—no religious affiliation,” “relatively conservative Lutheran,” and “agnostic.” In the words of the great Islamic philosopher Ibn al-Arabi, “deliver me, oh Allah, from the sea of names.”) But once in a while one comes upon survey data that are unexpected and suggest interesting interpretations. A few years ago there was a survey that showed Evangelical wives saying they were “very satisfied” with sex in their marriage, compared with less-exuberant grades given by non-Evangelical women. How could this be? Secrets of the harem practiced under cover (literally) of Puritan rectitude? Then I ran into a young man, a confessing born-again Christian—perpetually depressed, uneasy around women, socially awkward. Then, one day, he introduced an attractive young woman—bouncy, jolly, constantly all over him—as “since last week his fiancée.” The man was transformed—obviously happy, gregarious, full of jokes. Then it hit me: What must it be like, after years of sexual repression, to enjoy a more than customarily broad understanding of what it means to “be engaged to be married”—probably a minority position among Evangelicals, but not too unusual. From “nothing permitted” to, suddenly, “everything permitted.” No wonder that here was a very happy couple! Super-Christmas!