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February 24, 2004

Causes and Christianity

In follow-up on godless' post on the religious Right, a few quick thoughts....

As some readers have implied, he might have switched "Christianity" with a more qualified statement. I think a big point to note is that congregationally oriented Christianity (ie; the more "radical" Protestant sects) have played an outsized role in American history. The top Protestant sect in the United States, the Southern Baptists, are part of the radical wing of the Protestant Reformation, broadly speaking. Two of the major high status "liberal" churches, the Presbyterians & Congregationalists, are also from the radical tradition (the Methodists can also be argued as part of the radical tradition, though they are more complicated). And we all know about the Puritans (who were the direct ancestors of the Congregationalists and the uncles & aunts of the Presbyterians).

Some readers have pointed out that Russia was a Christian nation before the revolution. I think what must be noted is that the structure of its Christianity was very different than that of the United States, from what I can see the Church was subordinate to the state. When the state turned against it the Church had less of a populist base to fall back on, and in any case, Russia had been a top-down society in many ways throughout its whole history. Interestingly, China was also traditionally a top-down society, with the place of the Czar taken by the Emperor, and the nobles by the mandarinate. These are the two large nations where Communism was victorious from within (as opposed to the eastern European nations or North Korea, where the help of the larger powers aided Communism. Also, I believe that the Russian Communists had placed their bets on the Chinese Nationalists, not the Communists, initially).

In contrast, the United States, has at least the mythology of broad-based grass-roots politics. A coup by Communists that beheaded the national government in D.C. would likely have been faced with a far greater national resistance than the White Russians put up against the Bolsheviks. Whether congregational Christianity was the cause or a correlated variable I will not explore any further.

But, I would like to point out that secular/anti-religious/anti-clerical governing elites (the three are not identical) have had a long history in the modern West. You can see this beginning during the rise of Cromwell's New Model Army when religious radicals like the Levellers were given shelter by his power-in a nation that was still predominantly Anglo-Catholic or moderate Calvinist. Later on, we all know the history of the French Revolution, turning against the Church, and eventually the faith of the Church with the "Cult of Reason." A generation before Frederick the Great of Prussia was an openly irreligious and heathen autocrat (though he came from a Calvinist family who ruled a Lutheran land). Mexican readers will know of the anti-clericalism of the elite revolutionaries like Carranza which can still be found echoing in modern day politics south of the border (in contrast to the pious populism of Zapata). Similarly, many Latin American leaders, from Simone Bolivar, to the Emperor of Brazil, to the modern day president of Chile, did not share the religious faith of those who they ruled. In Europe the anti-clericalism of Garibaldi or the Spanish Republic is well known. In India, the founder of the modern nation, Nehru, was an agnostic who did not want a Hindu funeral (they gave him one anyhow).

I list all these to point out that in top-down societies anti-religious views can be espoused by the elite. My friend Zack Ajmal points out that atheism is popular among the Pakistani elite. But it is somehow different in the United States. I think it is important to note that the most anti-clerical public figures in the United States who rose to political prominence all seem to cluster early on in the history of the nation. Though evangelicals dispute it, men like Jefferson, Adams and Madison had views that would not be at variance with the skepticism or heterodoxy of their European counter-parts. Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine were two founding fathers who were even more explicit about their anti-Christianity. But after the period of Andrew Jackson, the rise of universal (male white that is) sufferage, this sort of attitude seems to disappear (Abe Lincoln was publically pious for all his personal heterodoxy). I can't help but think that the participation of the masses in the political process caused the religion of the masses to percolate up.

Did congregational Christianity result in the populism that characterizes the American republic? Some would argue so. I am not so sure, though I think it might be possible. Some would argue that the high home-ownership rated mentioned by Vinod is just as plausible a cause (and that this also fostered congregational Christianity-or perhaps congergational Christianity fostered economic development which fostered home ownership which fostered populism which fostered anti-Communism, etc.). But I do think its genuine populism blocked any "take over" of a Communist elite. Instead, you had the quasi-socialism of the New Deal espoused by a leader who was popular in the religious south (which was opposed by atheist intellectuals like H.L. Mencken and initially blocked by the Supreme Court-the representatives of the elite).

Update: Please note Roosevelt's consistent super-majorities in the deep South. New England, and to a lesser extent the Midwest and Mountain/West seem to be the major Republican strongholds (yes, I know there are historical reasons for this, nonetheless, after 1932 when Roosevelt had dealt his hand, the south remained Democratic, probably because of programs like the WPA and TVA).

Update II: Amusing historical anecdote: the Socialists were the second biggest vote getters in Texas from 1912-1914.

Addendum: New readers might find my old post, The Germanization of the liberal idea, interesting as it relates to this topic.

Posted by razib at 12:28 PM