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What Makes America Different? 

by James Hitchcock
January 3, 2004

Years ago I heard that a group of American publishers, playing a little game over lunch, asked each other to name a book with a worthy subject which would be guaranteed to sell poorly. The winning suggestion was Canada, Our Good Neighbor to the North.

If the book really would have been a worst-seller, I suspect it was because most Americans assumed that Canada was much like the United States and that they had little to learn about it. Until recently that might have been true. But apparently it is no longer, and the differences between the two countries are a fascinating example of what is occuring everywhere in the West.

A recent news story offered vignettes of how the two cultures are now different -- Canadian Premier Jean Chretien boasting that he uses marijuana, a majority of Canadians accepting homosexual "marriage", church attendance steadily declining north of the border. Two societies once so similar are now moving apart.

Canada is by no means unique in this regard, however. Rather it seems to be getting more Europeanized, manifesting the same secular, morally relativistic spirit that has been characteristic of Western Europe for decades. What needs explaining is not why Canada is the way it is but why the United States is not.

Before Americans become self-righteous, it is of course necessary to acknowledge the moral corruption of American life. Americans too are self-indulgent and hedonistic, and our list of sins is very long. But most Americans still profess belief in the idea of sin. They acknowledge a moral law higher than themselves, even if they often violate it. Thus they retain at least the possibility of repentance, whereas in most other Western countries a genuine sense of morality has been replaced by trendy pseudo-moralities, which quickly come and go -- feminism, environmentalism, multiculturalism, homosexual liberation, animal rights, whatever next manages to attract the attention of the media.

The phenomenon called The Sixties, which actually lasted from about 1966 to 1973, was a revolution in manners and morals that deeply affected the entire Western world, and what is now manifest in Canada and Western Europe is the inevitable working out of that revolution. It did of course affect the United States as well; perhaps it even began here. But American culture also generated powerful and successful counter-forces.

There is such a thing as "American exceptionalism" -- the claim that there is something unique about the United States. The idea that America might be specially favored by God is indeed a dangerous one. But from a historical point of view it is simply true that America is distinctive among the nations of the West in its moral traditionalism, at least in terms of what people believe.

The key to understanding this lies in not treating religious practice as one among a number of cultural differences between the United States and other countries but in recognizing that religion underlies all the others. However shallow it may seem, Americans far exceed all other Western people in their professed belief in religious doctrines and in their religious activity. In some European countries virtually nobody goes to church.

Why this should be so is not clear. One possible factor is that almost alone we have never had a state church, so that religion has always been something freely chosen and political liberty did not entail rejecting religion.

The dominant American religiosity is now evangelical, meaning a strong personal response to the Gospel and a palpable sense of God's presence in the lives of believers. It is a style of religion with deep roots in American culture. On the other hand, the secularization of Western Europe, and the moral weakening of those cultures, has been due to the decline of churches which are not evangelical in style -- Catholicism, Anglicanism, Lutheranism, some forms of Calvinism.

As our own critics never tire of reminding us, the United States is now unpopular in the world, even among our erstwhile allies in Western Europe, and some Canadians boast that their country is a haven for Americans who do not feel comfortable on the other side of the border. There are various reasons for this, but it would be naive and short-sighted not to realize that people who think they have freed themselves from the burdens of their Christian past now look askance at the fact that the most powerful and materially advanced nation in the world to a considerable extent still embraces those supposedly outmoded beliefs.

James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. His two-volume book on religion and the Supreme Court has just been published by Princeton University Press. E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock

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