This article was last modified on August 29, 2005.

A Government of Swedes

What is the religious makeup of America? Are we a fundamentally religious people or are we slouching towards Gomorrah? And what of our leaders? Are they nothing more than atheists or practitioners of a secular religion based on flag and country? Some, inlcluding Chuck Colson [1], would say so.

Colson has pushed the argument of our country being sheep herded by goats for some time now, and repeated this statement again as recently as August 14, 2005 at an event called “Justice Sunday II.” As far back as January 1993, he was quoted as saying, “It is no wonder that Peter Berger, professor of sociology at Boston University, says that if you look around the world you will find that the most religious country in the world is India, and the most irreligious country is Sweden – and that America is an interesting combination of Indians who are governed by Swedes.”

Are we really all that religious anymore? I would argue that while some religious sentiment exists in America, this spirit is fading all the time and even the faith that exists now is more for show than actual spiritual devotion. At the same time, I hardly belief our leaders are any less religiosu than the people they govern. But I will elaborate on these points and we can all decide for ourselves.

A Nation of Indians?

Let us first assert the fact that Colson’s opinion is purely figurative. America cannot be compared directly to India, of course. If India is the most religious, than America cannot share that distinction. So, the point is that America is allegedly very religious and his phrasing only exaggerates this opinion. And to compare a Hindu country with a Judeo-Christian one only further muddles the metaphor. Regardless, I feel his opinion is wrong.

America does have a rich history of religion. The Pilgrims came to America searching for religious freedom, and many other persecuted groups from Europe arrived in America hoping to establish traditions here that were not acceptable at home. From this point of view, America could be seen as a smorgasbord of religious strongholds, though these groups have almost completely melted together over the past few centuries.

And we cannot deny that religion is still a strong force in America today. We have the Catholic Church, which is believed to be the largest landowner in Chicago. We have television stations devoted to religion. And unlike other countries (with a few exceptions), we have religious figures who are international celebrities. So clearly religion is a powerful force in America.

And yes, there is a strong religious base throughout America. A Gallup poll claims that in America, 42 percent of Americans regularly attend some form of church gathering. Compare this to France (15%) and England (10%). Even Israel, a true religious state in every sense, only claims an attendance rating of 25 percent. So this is not a matter of dispute.

What we must also realize, though, is that America is heading the way of Europe – not the direction of India. Traditional Christianity is on a decline and non-traditional religions are on the rise (religions I doubt Colson would accept as real faiths). Each year the numbers of Christians decrease. And even among the Christians who remain, their faith and devotion to a denomination dims.

The Census Bureau in 1990 reported that 88.3% of Americans considered themselves Christian in some sense of the word (regardless of church attendance). By 2001, the number had dropped to 79.8% – almost a ten percent drop in ten years! And this did not happen to just one Christian group (for example, Catholics). Every Christian denomination, with the exception of “non-denominational Christians” lost supporters. The Jewish faith also lost support. So where did these people go?

The religions that grew between 1990 and 2001 were ones of a non-traditional nature. In fact, the largest growing group were the atheists and agnostics – almost doubling from 8.4 to 15 percent. Even such fringe groups as Wicca and Scientology saw a notable rise in membership. Even if we say the majority of America is Christian in some sense, can Colson deny the growing surge in atheism leaving a shadow over this country?

Another factor is the growth of what I call “watered-down” religion. Some of this is well documented, such as the increase in non-denominational Christians as noted above. But other factors are observable empirically. Sundays are not as sacred as they once were. Prayers at dinnertime are less common these days. Church attendance, while still higher than Europe, is still down. Marriages are more and more often in chapels or courthouses rather than cathedrals. Of all the people who say they’re Christian, how many practice what they claim or even know the difference between their faith and the other faiths they stand against?

Some churches even embrace this watered-down approach. Rather than having set tenets, they ask simply for a belief in God and build their sermons around real life issues and focus more on singing or performing skits. While this has the advantage of attracting more people and being more comfortable, what it also does is cherry-pick the Bible to the point of no longer being Christian in any real sense.

And you see this watering down as a growing feature in America and Christianity in general. Yet, Islam appears to be as strong as ever and may even be growing. Unlike their other Western counterparts, Muslims tend to be as careful as possible to observe their religious holidays, pray five times a day and follow the dietary requirements of their faith. And the average Muslim is probably more likely to be familiar with the Koran than the average Christian would be with the Bible.

An interesting thought is that the strong religious fervor Colson praises may not necessarily be good. The so-called terrorists or Islamic fundamentalists are far more religious than Americans will ever be, and this has done nothing positive for the world. Fundamentalism in general is a problem – just this week America saw Pat Robertson call for the assassination of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. My point? Where traditional religion does grow, it seems to have as many negative consequences as good.

A Government of Swedes?

I have no reason to believe that the leaders of this country are any more or less religious than those they serve. After all, the leaders are included in the overall demographic of America. They are elected from a pool of these so-called Indians. The only difference between the people and their leaders is that the leaders tend to be wealthier and more educated, though even these simply indicators are variable.

There are many policies that could be called non-Christian or against God, depending on a particular individual’s point of view. If Colson is referring to the policies rather than the people themselves, he could be considered right. Abortion is legal, the death penalty is legal. Welfare is not as strong as it could be, health care lags behind the “atheist” countries of Europe. Christianity could be summed up in the Golden Rule, or in the gospel message that “whatsoever you do to the lowest of men, that you do unto me.” All these attempts to lower the quality of life for others is most certainly unchristian. Even war, no matter how justified, is in some sense against Christ. Though I suspect Colson would not take the issue so far.

But even if we accept that many policies and laws exist that are contrary to Christ’s message, this does not mean that the politicians themselves are atheists or “Swedes” in double-breasted suits. According to the biographies submitted my the politicians, there are no atheist senators in the United States today. A handful of Jewish senators exist, but by and large everyone claims to be Christian in some sense of the word. In fact, there is no reason to believe that any atheist senator ever served in the United States Senate.

Of interest to the topic at hand though, is the existence of one President who never claimed any belief in God. This President was none other than Abraham Lincoln. He attended his wife’s church services, but never cared for them himself. His speeches, unlike those of most presidents, were devoid of references to God and Jesus. And his closest friends have written he had no desire to worship the Christian god. By comparison, the modern leaders could hardly be called Swedes.

But how can we have so many non-Christian policies if we have a nation run by peopel claiming to be Christian? Three simple ways.

First, insincerity. Not everyone who claims to be Christian can practice what they preach. We have the men who are clean-cut on Sunday mornings who were out the night before until the early hours at exotic dancing clubs with an eightball and a hooker. Certainly with so many politicians involved in fraud, the sincerity of these men must come into question. And the level of adultery is certainly no lower in the government offices than in the general population.

Second, the ambiguity of Christianity. Christianity varies from denomination to denomination and even from person to person. While abortion is generally seen as bad, other issues can be viewed in two or more ways. Capital punishment is seen by some as “eye for an eye” while others see it as “playing God” and destroying life. Welfare, which seems to many as a Christian ideal (helping the poor) can be viewed by others as only bringing these same peopel down rather than lifting them up. Not all Christians march to the same drum.

And third, the desire of leaders to separate belief and service through the First Amendment. The First Amendment guarantees a freedom of religion, and as such many politicians base their votes off of what is logically best for the people regardless of their personal faith. Again, abortion is an important issue in this way. Many of the people in this country who are pro-choice are also Christian. John Kerry, a Roman Catholic, personally opposes abortion but will vote in favor of it because he understands others do not share such a religious conviction. Simply because abortion is legal does not mean his fellow Catholics are obligated to practice it.

Surprisingly, Colson does not even acknowledge the members of his own Republican party – the “compassionate conservatives”, those same men who wear God on their sleeves. Does he think even these men are godless underneath their Bible-thumping exterior? If so, there are many who would agree with him.

Where We Will Go From Here

Things will not change any time soon. Although the decline in religion is likely to continue in America (we tend to follow the trends of Europe), there is less chance that any atheist leaders will come to power any time soon. The majority (Christians) would never allow it (for much the same reason that minorities and women are second-class citizens).

But are we really a nation of Indians? Less so all the time. Are we a government of Swedes? Certainly not. Colson can have his catchy and clever rhetoric, but whatever point he is trying to make will only fall short.


[1] Chuck Colson was the chief counsel for President Richard Nixon from 1969-1973 (and served prison time for his involvement in Watergate). He is the founder and director of Prison Fellowship Ministries, the recipient of the 1993 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Alliance for Faith and Renewal.

Also try another article under Political, Religious
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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