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How Is America Different?
by James Hitchcock
January 13, 2003
Pundits debate the question of "American exceptionalism" -- the claim that there is something unique and remarkable about the United States, as compared to the other nations of the world. It is a question with religious implications, since there have always been people who see the United States as specially favored by God.
Such a claim arouses reactions, and for very good reasons. There is probably no surer way to slide into infidelity than through a sense of one's own righteousness. The idea that America might be specially favored by God also seems absurd when we look at the realities of American life. Americans are certainly among the leading fleshpots of the world; our culture is in many ways corrupt.
But from a purely empirical, or sociological, point of view, there is something to this claim. Whether or not America is especially favored by God, whether or not Americans are unusually faithful to His commands, it is simply true that in America religion is taken more seriously than it is in any other Western country. When people start ticking off examples of our corruption, I always respond, "You are absolutely right, and it is much worse in Europe."
The moral corruption of American life seems to be an inevitable product of a successful consumer society. It cannot be stressed often enough that what is wrong with capitalism is not that it doesn't work, making promises it cannot fulfill, but that it works too well and that some of the things which make it work also tend to make people self-indulgent and hedonistic.
That being the case, the corruption from which we suffer is endemic to all advanced modern societies, which is why things are worse in Europe, particularly in the Netherlands and Scandinavia, although no country can feel complacent. (Ireland and other Catholic countries are coming up fast!)
America is unique among the nations of the West in the way in which religious faith is common and even respectable. As far as I can see, there is no other country in the Western world where politicians, entertainers, athletes, and others are so willing to testify to their faith and to the difference it has made in their lives. Americans far exceed all other Western people in their professed belief in religious doctrines and in their rate of church attendance. In some European countries virtually nobody goes to church.
Is all this hypocritical, shallow, or distorted? To a degree, yes. But often people whose beliefs seem that way nonetheless hold them deeply and sincerely. Religion does seem to make a difference in the lives of many Americans.
Why this should be so is not clear. We need to be sceptical of any claim that we are uniquely blessed by God. Divine grace always works in conjunction with human elements, and I think the religiosity of the United States can be understood historically. (One factor -- only one -- is that the absence of any state church in America motivated the various churches to be exceptionally aggressive in evangelization.) I like to say that in America religion is like petroleum -- it is everywhere under the ground and gushes forth again just when the experts have announced that the well has finally run dry.
At this moment American uniqueness is manifest to the world in a particularly striking way -- the Bush administration is opposing, in the United Nations and elsewhere, all attempts by public agencies to promote abortion. It is of course a controversial position even in America, and in Western Europe it is regarded as almost bizarre that the most advanced nation in the world should take this "reactionary" position. But in this respect at least America is in a position to exercise not only the political and economic, but also the moral, leadership of the Western world.
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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