There is a set of academic literature that suggests there is a negative relationship between existential security and religiosity. As security increases, we become less religious as a society. This is demonstrated across societies. More secure societies in Europe are distinctly less religious than less secure societies in, say, Sub Saharan Africa. The threat of death is a compelling religious motivator, and if you are guaranteed limited salvation from death by the society, then salvation by the church is a cogent alternative. But there is one intriguing outlier: the United States.
The US ranks high on both existential security and religiosity. This disparity between what we expect and what we see—in terms of the US—has always fascinated me. How do we as a society hold onto religious superstitions when every other highly sophisticated society has shaken off such beliefs? Outside of my usual work this problem has always sat on the back burner. But maybe we can answer the question using a philosophical framework, one previously set forth for us by Walter Russell Mead in his piece in The National Interest (Winter 1999/2000) titled “The Jacksonian Tradition: And American Foreign Policy.”
The Jacksonian Tradition
Mead’s “Jacksonian Tradition” explains American foreign policy by framing it in a populist structure. Essentially, America is a “warrior culture” because the people—not generals, political scientists, or political elites—know best. And they want a warrior culture, damnit!
Populism is the idea that representative democracies only work if the representatives have connections with the people. Think of our democracy as a form of mobocracy. We disregard expert testimony. We are skeptical of elites. We feel there is something wrong with the country when we are disconnected from the policymakers. We are stubborn against advice or instruction (no senator is going to tell us what we should do). We value normal people like Joe the Plumber. And we believe Washington is a huge conspiracy against the American people (well, not I, but the average voter).
Populism gives us a sense of identity, of authenticity. Our identity is mired in the values of John Wayne; June, Ward, and Beaver Cleaver; and Andy Griffith. These are the true Americans, the pioneers. The characters had both feet on the ground, and they had values everyone believes in. And their television shows never necessitated fancy, complicated explanations. They were simple to digest, and they left you feeling fulfilled.
Mead underscores American Jacksonian values of self-reliance, equality, individualism, honor, and courage. Self-reliance is the legacy of the frontier movement, a you-gotta-take-care-of-yourself mentality, and the government’s job is to get out of the way. Equality is the aforementioned don’t-tell-me-what-to-do outlook. Elites and the working class are equal, despite outward appearances. Individualism means every American has the right and the duty to seek self-fulfillment. Our honor is one of financial esprit, rejection of government help, and resistance to social welfare (more on honor in a bit). And courage means we stand up for what we believe, and we’re willing to lay down our lives if necessary to protect our kinship, family, and the common morality. And Americans are indeed, as Mead points out, quick to settle scores with violence.
Outside of these values is darkness. And war is a necessary evil in an evil world. And so we go to war regularly—not just war, but all out war. The greatest tragedy of the Gulf War, populists would say, is that we turned around at Baghdad instead of ousting Saddam Hussein. But we also fight wars clean, and we expect the “empires of evil” to fight clean wars as well. Honor means showing your enemy respect, a la WWII German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. If you fight a clean war, we’ll fight a clean war. If you take the gloves off, we feel justified in committing mass-scale civilian slaughter.
Implications on US Religiosity
The United States presently sits at the top of a hierarchy of states in terms of power. And as Robert Kagan would say, power compels the US to violence. We must protect our values, but that leaves us vulnerable. Our power is wielded in an evil world where our values are overshadowed by the darkness of an anarchical, chaotic jungle. Our values are constantly challenged by the encroachment of Communism during the Cold War; of European pacifism, socialism, and cooperation; of Islamic terror regimes with no Code of Honor. Being at the top, surrounded by darkness, and facing a barrage of attacks against our values undermines our existential security. If our values are our identity, and our identity is all we have, then an attack against our identity is an affront to our very existence.
If we are our values, and our values face constant threat, then salvation comes not from the state—which, as mentioned earlier, populists believe is a mass conspiracy against America (just ask any Trump supporter)—then salvation must come from the pulpit.
In America we have low infant mortality, high life expectancy, fairly decent healthcare, a large GDP, a robust middle class, and enough amenities to make Jay Gatsby blush. We work hard, but we value our downtime. Leisurely entertainment dominates the economy—Hollywood cinema, NFL games, Lady Gaga, and entire sectors set up to prepare the outside of your home for the annual arrival of Santa Claus. By this, one should expect our society to resemble Estonia or Sweden in terms of religiosity, not South Africa or Palestine.
I argue that our Jacksonian values wed us to our faiths, due in part to our position as a global hegemon that wields considerable raw power. The threat of death is everywhere, not only literally, but also ontologically. We face attacks by terrorists and threats by Vladimir Putin, and we also face a global market of counter-values that ostentatiously challenge our identity as honorable Americans. How do we protect our physical and spiritual being? The church certainly guarantees they can do both.