American Christianity II

I stopped posting in March of 2019, when covid-19 became a grim fact of life that dictated a spell — whose length was unknown — of confinement at home. I took advantage of it to complete a project that had been on my mind for years: a sort of memoir telling my story of, among other things, surviving ghettos in Poland and concentration camps in Germany. I finally did so at the end of last year, and self-published the book through Amazon Kindle. It as available as an e-book here, and as a paperback here.

Despite several relaxations of the isolation imposed by the pandemic, we’re not really out if it, especially since omicron became the most cited Greek-letter name. So I’m back to blogging, and I would like to start by continuing a post on American Christianity that I published on November 14, 2018.

Aside from the chemistry grad student that I wrote about, I knew of only one other student in my days at Caltech who was a committed Christian, a classmate of mine who was a fellow civil-engineering major (there were not many of us). I didn’t live on campus, so I didn’t know the Sunday-morning habits of the students — they might have been attending some of the Pasadena’s many conventional churches, including one where the Los Angeles Rams’ star “Deacon” Dan Towler served as pastor — but it wasn’t something that was talked about on campus.

Based on my life in postwar Germany until 1950, my life in America after that and my visits back to Europe starting in 1958, my impression was that in the 50s and 60s the United States was not significantly more religious than Europe, and considerably less so than such (at the time) ultra-Christian countries as Ireland, Italy, Spain and Greece. (The last two were, along with Portugal, right-wing dictatorships in which the Church played along with the regime). True, in 1954 “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, and in 1956 “In God We Trust” was made the national motto, but then Britain had (and still has) Dieu et mon droit as its royal motto, and Denmark has Gud, konge og fædreland as its national one.

But drastic changes began to happen in Western societies in the 1960s, and intensified in the 1970s. There was the abolition of the death penalty (temporary in the US, permanent elsewhere). There was the liberalization of private, especially sexual, conduct — the legalization of abortion and homosexuality, the destigmatization of extramarital cohabitation and childbirth. There was civil-rights legislation — the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the US, the Race Relations Act of 1968 in the UK, and so on. There was a relaxation of blue laws in the US and some European countries.

These changes were, by and large, embraced by most of the countries’ populations. In Europe they led to further changes: the overthrow of the three remaining dictatorship in southern Europe, and a gradual turning away from religion. The Quiet Revolution in Quebec led the way for similar changes in Canada.

In the US this acceptance was largely confined to the larger metropolitan areas, while they were viewed with hostility elsewhere, especially in rural areas. And because some of these changes, especially the loosening of strictures on sexual behavior, ran counter to traditional church teachings, many of those opposed to them took refuge in “conservative” religion as a shield.

It must be pointed out that the rural-urban divide plays out differently in the US and Europe. European rural folk, for the most part, live in villages, but these are clustered densely around a smaller or larger city that serves as a district capital, and in Europe relatively small cities (with a population range of, say 10,000 to 25,000) are distinctively more urban than their counterparts in the US. Often such a city has a history as a feudal or ecclesiastical center, with a castle, cathedral, abbey or the like, and has a dense urban core that differs only in size from one in a large city, with a main square (often the site of a market) and surrounding business streets that are home to varied stores, restaurants, banks, professional offices and the like. It also serves as a focal point for many activities for the surrounding villages, with it is typically connected by public transport: it’s where the secondary (and possibly post-secondary) schools are located, as well as sports clubs (for both participatory and spectator sports), police headquarters, and so on. (Those who watch Midsomer Murders may recognize the fictitious Causton — represented on television by the real towns of Thame and Wallingford, both with populations around 12,000 — as just such a city.) Village dwellers may work in the city, or else they visit it frequently.  As a result of this contact, the cultural divide between rural and urban people is blurred. Far more important than such a divide are the cultural differences among regions, as well as socioeconomic differences between the “provinces” (which may include fully urbanized areas) and the large metropolitan areas, as may be gleaned from the gilets jaunes movement in France.

By contrast, a “rural” American typically lives in or near a typical American small town, represented in fiction by Sinclair Lewis’s Gopher Prairie and Elk Mills, Thornton Wilder’s Grover’s Corners or Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, and in reality by thousands of actual places. The main characteristic distinguishing such a town from a European village is its self-sufficiency. Even a fairly small town, with a population not much over a thousand or two, is likely to have its own high school and library, its own police force if it is incorporated (or a sheriff’s department if it is a county seat, which many such places are), a limited set of its own businesses (typically located on a short stretch of Main Street) and industrial establishments, and a full complement of churches appealing to numerous denominations, some of them invariably of an evangelical nature.

It is this last feature that, for the inhabitants of such a town, becomes an identifying symbol distinguishing them from people they think of as urban, often decried as liberal Godless urban elites (or some combination of these epithets). I am not aware of any indication that the practice of Christian virtues — chastity, temperance, kindness and the like — is any more widespread in rural towns than in cities, and the massive embrace of a figure like Donald Trump by rural America shows that such virtues are not really considered as important as the use of Christianity as an identity marker.

To be continued.

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