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Is Religion Tearing Us Apart?
Last uploaded : Sunday 18th Jan 2004 at 19:49
Contributed by : The Editor


On the eve of the Iowa Caucus, the symbolic overture to the 2004 Presidential campaign, one?s mind is drawn to the subject of religion. American television networks have been covering the visit by Democratic candidate Dr Howard Dean to former President Jimmy Carter?s home state of Georgia. Dean is not known to be deeply religious but Carter is devoted to church and to Christian teachings. Although the Dean campaign has stressed that his invitation from the former President came many months ago -- Dean?s absence from Iowa on the day before the crucial Caucus having been perceived as odd -- it could be said that he is trying to show some degree of Sunday devotion in the Deep South.

This takes me to an even odder subject: a piece entitled ?In God They Trust? in ?Ha?aretz? this weekend about the way Americans pray.


Although much of what the report says has some truth in it (Americans are much more religious than the populations of any other Western nation ) it suggests that Americans cannot get ahead unless they are religious. It is possible that I am misreading the article and therefore not understanding its point, but the idea that secular Americans have a tougher time is a tenuous one. Going through my list of great-to-legendary Americans I see very few people one would find davening in shul. Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Miller and Oscar Hammerstein are likely to have been secular Jews. What about Ernest Hemingway, William Styron and Tennessee Williams? I doubt they were, or are hamstrung by less-than regular appearances in church.

There is no doubt that my American friends who visit London always ask me where the nearest church is; they will be very specific and ask for a Presbyterian, Methodist or Episcopal congregation and some of these visitors are college professors and musicians. They will not socialise on Sunday morning. I find this charming and endearing.

What troubles me about the Ha?aretz article is that it tries to connote some sinister trend in American life. Yes, the Bush Administration, led by the President himself and Attorney General John Ashcroft, has evinced an unprecedented level of religious zeal. This has contributed to a wave of conservatism that is anti-abortion and anti-gay, further fuelled by the confirmation of Revd Gene Robinson as the first openly gay Episcopalian bishop. This move has caused a rift within the Protestant movement in Great Britain and the United States, but is not causing a major international incident.

What the ?Ha?aretz? article seems to wish to convey is the danger of overly enthusiastic religious activity in a large and influential nation. ?Americans can lead their lives any way they want to and can wear whatever they want, if the basic assumption is that they believe in God. Those who deny God's existence are ostracized,? says the journalist Yuval ben Ami. I do wonder how long Yuval has lived in the United States. I was born there and lived the first twenty-odd years of my life there. My parents were born there. They were more likely to have been ostracised or denied promotion because they were Jewish than whether or not they were religious. In recent years anti-Semitism has been on the decline in the United States but a complicated issue arises here: evangelical Christians provide a huge support base for Israel but their ulterior motive can be seen as the preservation of the Holy Land by the Jews for the Second Coming when, of course, the Jews will all convert.

It is difficult to imagine an IBM executive in Philadelphia being ostracised for being a sometime-churchgoer, although the Midwest and Deep South is, without question, a deeply Christian culture. Even so, the Ha?aretz article left me feeling uncomfortable: after all, the two most notorious anti-religionists of the last century were Stalin and Hitler.

Here in the UK one is often ostracised for being a regular shulgoer. If friends and colleagues are all secular they tend to feel religious observance is a form of aberration. Every week, the reading of the Torah portion, followed by a brilliant sermon by one of our eloquent Liberal rabbis, enhances the week and gives one a perspective on the week?s news. I have to admit that my rabbis are the exception: they take current events by the kischkahs and tear them apart, and their sermons often appear in The Times. My secular friends must think we daven and leave. In fact, most British synagogues are places of intense political discussion. At the small shul I attend on occasion, one of our rabbis, Dr Julia Neuberger, has just been made a Dame by Her Majesty the Queen for her contributions to the national heath dialogue and for her charitable work and writings. One often wonders that if Israel had had a Progressive synagogue culture as developed and influential as that in Britain and the United States they would have become as polarised a society as they are today.

Yes, it will be important to a majority of Americans if their next President is a churchgoer. What is troubling about British society is the high level of crime, child molesting and aggression in the streets -- a development that has grown since World War II in direct correlation to the decline in church attendance. British papers have made fun of Tony Blair?s poodle-like devotion to George Bush, and much of this mirth emanates from the Christian commitment expressed by both leaders. In the meantime, radical clerics preach hatred and death in London?s streets, and a BBC commentator is dismissed for criticising them. One could say, ?So what good has religious fervour done America with its violent culture of gun crime?? Good question. However, only since living in Great Britain have I been called a ?c? word by a man dressed in a suit in a car and verbally abused countless times by females and males who might have shot me dead had they had a gun.( Road rage is a terrible problem in the UK and many joke that if guns were legal here we would surpass America in homicides.)

Religion may be a pain in the neck to millions but it is not about to go away. Prayer and faith have always been a major factor in the average American home; nowhere in the world is there a nationally-observed holiday like Thanksgiving , an observance with Christian harvest festival roots.

Personally, I love it, and next year perhaps I will invite Yuval ben-Ami to have some turkey after we say Grace.

Your comments on religion in America are invited.



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