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November 17th, 2003

  The Last Christian Nation


Back in 1940 the publicly-funded City College of New York offered a professorship to the English philosopher, free-thinker and atheist Bertrand Russell. When news of the appointment got out, prominent local clergymen objected on the grounds that as a "propagandist against religion and morality" Russell would corrupt the youth of the city. (A charge very similar, as numerous people pointed out at the time, to the one leveled against Socrates 2,338 years previously.)

A row ensued, of a kind that seems very quaint nowadays, when the syllabus of the average college is stuffed with courses on (to take some actual examples) "Abandonment to the Body's Desire" and "Queer Pedagogy inLaw". Intellectuals mostly lined up with Russell — Einstein was a supporter — while churchmen whipped up the campaign against him. Russell lost at last and fled from the city. His parting shot was this: "Old York was the first place in the world where Christianity was the state religion. Let us hope that New York will be the last."

It was a clever remark, typically Russellian. However, as well as stretching ancient history — Constantine was indeed declared Emperor at York, but the Roman Empire did not turn officially Christian until 18 years later, long after he had left Britain — Russell of course wilfully misrepresented the place of religion in American life. New York, city or state, has no established religion, and the United States herself is forbidden by the Constitution from having one. Friends who understand the Constitution better than I do tell me that the 14th Amendment implies that states can't, either. Russell was not driven out by the power of the state, but by a populist campaign; and the basis of that campaign was the link between "religion and morality." Back then, there was a pretty widespread opinion that you could not have the second without the first.

Since the overwhelming majority of Americans in 1940 were Christians, we were in that sense a Christian nation. Even people who did not go to church were inclined to believe in a Deity who imposes moral order on the universe; to believe, in other words, that there is a certain way we are meant to live, and to that if we do not live that way, or at least give it our very best shot, we will suffer, in this world or the next. That moral order, most Americans further believed, was described in the Christian Bible.

Though there are many more Americans who do not go to church now, this is still a Christian nation in that same sense.**  It may be the last Christian nation, in that or any other sense. The November 8 issue of The Economist (you need a subscription) ran a long feature titled "A Nation Apart," about the widening differences between the USA and the rest of the Western world. Sample quote: "American exceptionalism is nothing new, but it is getting sharper." The most striking illustration of American exceptionalism is a bar chart of polled responses to the statement: "Religion plays a very important role in my life." Nearly 60 percent of Americans responded affirmatively. The corresponding figures for other nations were: Britain — 33; Italy — 27; Germany — 21; France — 11. Among postindustrial non-Moslem nations, and ignoring one or two outliers like Buddhist Thailand, we are probably the most religious people in the world.

Which explains a lot. For example, it goes some way to explaining the very noisy reception our President is going to get when he visits Britain next week — the first full-dress state visit by a U.S. President in the current monarch's reign. A lefty group calling itself the Stop the War Coalition plans to put 100,000 people on the streets of London next Thursday, and there are signs of panic in Prime Minister Blair's office. The customary ride to Buckingham Palace in an open car with the Queen has already been canceled. (When communist dictator Jiamg Zemin paid a state visit in 1999, the open-car ride went ahead without any trouble, a small scattering of Tibetan and pro-democracy protestors being easily clubbed into submission by the London police.)

It is, of course, as Queen Elizabeth the First remarked, important to distinguish between the clamor of a faction and the voice of the people. There are good reasons to think, though, that next Thursday's demonstrators will speak, or yell, for a huge number of Britons. Asked by pollsters a few days ago if America poses a threat to world peace, 55 percent of respondents in Britain replied "Yes." This was actually more than in France (52) or Germany (45). We have got into the way of thinking that the U.S. and Britain are together here, the rest of the Western world there. In anti-Bush sentiment, though, as well as on the matter of religious faith, it is increasingly the case that Britain is over there with the others, not over here with us. And the two things are connected. If you talk to Britons about Bush, not many words are spoken before you hear expressions like "cloying religiosity,"  "sanctimonious self-righteousness,"  "Bible Belt fundamentalist,"  and so on. The anti-war sentiment we shall see on display in London next week is fueled largely by the idea that Britain is being dragged along in a moralistic crusade led by a dimwitted religious nut bent on converting the heathen at sword point.

Peter Hitchens has suggested that Britain might soon become an Islamic nation. This is not at all far-fetched, though I think some kind of Christian revival is also possible. I am not going to try to argue the general proposition that a nation can't cope for very long without a widespread religious faith, but in the particular case of Britain, history suggests this is true. The British have gone through quite long spells of irreligion, but have always returned to faith. The sixth century seems, at any rate to judge from the complaints of monks like Gildas, to have been very irreligious, yet Christianity eventually re-asserted itself. The prosperity and social changes of the English Renaissance led to more backsliding; then came the Puritan revival, and Charles the Second's Britain was probably more religious than Elizabeth's had been. (Compare The Pilgrim's Progress with Shakespeare's plays.) The cynicism created by Anglican triumphalism in the early 18th century was dispelled by reformers like John Wesley. A hundred years later, the degradation and squalor of early industrialism was overcome by the Evangelical Movement.

The years since 1914 have seen a long and seemingly irreversible slide. The English people, wrote George Orwell in 1941, "have retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling, while almost forgetting the name of Christ." Sixty years further on, we see what happens to a once-Christian nation when that forgetting is complete. Britain is in a state of utter moral squalor. Yesterday, planning to write something about the royal family, I went browsing in the on-line versions of the British tabloids. It was a very depressing experience. Burning issues of the day: Is Prince Charles bisexual? Why did Britney Spears decline to discuss masturbation in a TV interview? Is Kylie Minogue's arse sexy or not? The entire atmosphere of these papers is one of infantile hedonism. Sure, I know we Yanks have our own supermarket tabloids, but this is something on a different scale: mass-circulation national daily newspapers filled with nothing — nothing! — but salacity and drivel. The New York tabloids — even the Daily News — are models of sobriety and intelligence by comparison.

The picture is not all monochrome, of course. There are pockets of traditional morality, even of Christianity, in Britain. The flap about Prince Charles and what he may or may not have done with one of his manservants illustrates that the destruction of old values is not yet quite complete. If it were, who would care what he did? The conditions made familiar to us by the writings of Theodore Dalrymple are not found everywhere. They are, though, increasingly representative of the British national psyche.

Conversely, infantile hedonism has a big following over here in the States. So does indifference or hostility to religion; so, of course, does Bush-hatred. Paul Krugman would be quite at home marching with the Stop the War Coalition next week. So would any number of other leading Americans.

The broad truth remains, though. Forget about Britain, forget about Europe. The United States is alone, as never before — alone with our values, alone with our patriotism (Economist poll: "Are you proud to be …?" American — 80 percent, British — 51, French — 35, German — 19), alone with our determination to take on evil lunatics in foreign parts, alone in our religious faith. I don't know how it came to this, and I don't know where it will end — nor even if it will last — but in the world of 2003, we are truly the exceptional nation.

** It is considered more polite to say "Judeo-Christian," and I am fine with that. Since only around 4 percent of the U.S. population identifies themselves as Jewish, though, and only some lesser number are actually religious Jews, "Christian" is a good first approximation, and more apt for the theme I am exploring. Outside the tiny circle of obsessive Derbophobes, and that strange cohort of people for whom the taking of offense forms their main purpose in life, I can't imagine that anyone would take offense at what I am saying here. Certainly no offense to anyone is intended.