I heard something very irritating on the BBC World Service on the radio early this morning as I was bumbling around in waking-up mode. In beginning a feature on the religious avowals being made by all nine Democratic presidential candidates, the reporter said ‘The United States is a deeply devout country…’ I gave a kind of mental yowl of disgust and rage. It is not! It does have a lot of religious believers in it, to be sure, but the figure is not 100% yet! And it is possible to ignore the stuff most of the time. Really it is. People who’ve never been here will hear that kind of thing and imagine that every other building is a church, priests and nuns lock up pregnant women and keep them imprisoned for years on end, contraceptives and divorce are unavailable, the streets are clogged with people crossing themselves or shoving bibles in your face…It’s not that bad yet! There is an enormous amount of religious nonsense flying around, especially in political rhetoric, but there are also huge swaths of the public realm that are entirely free of it. You can go to the supermarket and buy some pasta sauce and oranges without getting a sermon at the checkout counter. You can go to the post office and get stamps without being asked to pray with the clerk. There are no muezzins yelling into the air five times a day. Hey, supermarkets are even open on Sunday – in that way we’re far more secular than the UK is.
The fact is, the degree of our ‘devoutness’ gets badly exaggerated. I don’t even know any devout people. Of course I only know about three people, so that doesn’t prove much, but still – those three people don’t know any devout people either, and none of their friends do, and and –
No but seriously. It is exaggerated. I don’t know why – it’s probably partly the usual maddening way that Democrats fall all over themselves to imitate Republicans. Bush II is a religious zealot and some people like and approve of that, so instead of offering us an actual alternative to that way of doing things, the Democrats do their level best to give us more of the same. Well why bother having two parties then? Why not just drop the pretense and have one?
But why entities like the Beeb feel compelled to help them is beyond me. ‘Deeply devout’ indeed – two hurrah words when they could have been two neutral or even two boo words. ‘Devout’ – that makes it sound so nice, doesn’t it. Humble, loyal, grateful, all those good things. But there are other ways of looking at it, other adjectives that could have been used.
Those nice people at Socialism in an Age of Waiting cited one of my blasts at religion recently. They do say the sweetest things.
On this very subject see also Ophelia Benson’s comment “Theological Education” in the Notes and Comment section of Butterflies and Wheels (also in sidebar –>). As always Ophelia skewers some very well-known knowns that, in our more patient and optimistic moods, we’d like to think didn’t need spelling out any more.
You just can’t get much better than that. Not only do I skewer, but I do it always. My lifelong ambition has been realized.