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Friday, August 6, 2021

America Without God

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The last time I came back to the United States after being abroad, the customs officer at Dulles airport, in Virginia, glanced at my passport, looked at me, and said, “Welcome home.” For my customs officer, it went without saying that the United States was my home.

In In the Light of What We Know, a novel by the British Bangladeshi author Zia Haider Rahman, the protagonist, an enigmatic and troubled British citizen named Zafar, is envious of the narrator, who is American. “If an immigration officer at Heathrow had ever said ‘Welcome home’ to me,” Zafar says, “I would have given my life for England, for my country, there and then. I could kill for an England like that.” The narrator reflects later that this was “a bitter plea”:

Embedded in his remark, there was a longing for being a part of something. The force of the statement came from the juxtaposition of two apparent extremes: what Zafar was prepared to sacrifice, on the one hand, and, on the other, what he would have sacrificed it for—the casual remark of an immigration official.

When Americans have expressed disgust with their country, they have tended to frame it as fulfillment of a patriotic duty rather than its negation. As James Baldwin, the rare American who did leave for good, put it: “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Americans who dislike America seem to dislike leaving it even more (witness all those liberals not leaving the country every time a Republican wins the presidency, despite their promises to do so). And Americans who do leave still find a way, like Baldwin, to love it. This is the good news of America’s creedal nature, and may provide at least some hope for the future. But is love enough?

Conflicting narratives are more likely to coexist uneasily than to resolve themselves; the threat of disintegration will always lurk nearby.

On January 6, the threat became all too real when insurrectionary violence came to the Capitol. What was once in the realm of “dreampolitik now had physical force. What can “unity” possibly mean after that?

Can religiosity be effectively channeled into political belief without the structures of actual religion to temper and postpone judgment? There is little sign, so far, that it can. If matters of good and evil are not to be resolved by an omniscient God in the future, then Americans will judge and render punishment now. We are a nation of believers. If only Americans could begin believing in politics less fervently, realizing instead that life is elsewhere. But this would come at a cost—because to believe in politics also means believing we can, and probably should, be better.

In History Has Begun, the author, Bruno Maçães—Portugal’s former Europe minister—marvels that “perhaps alone among all contemporary civilizations, America regards reality as an enemy to be defeated.” This can obviously be a bad thing (consider our ineffectual fight against the coronavirus), but it can also be an engine of rejuvenation and creativity; it may not always be a good idea to accept the world as it is. Fantasy, like belief, is something that humans desire and need. A distinctive American innovation is to insist on believing even as our fantasies and dreams drift further out of reach.

This may mean that the United States will remain unique, torn between this world and the alternative worlds that secular and religious Americans alike seem to long for. If America is a creed, then as long as enough citizens say they believe, the civic faith can survive. Like all other faiths, America’s will continue to fragment and divide. Still, the American creed remains worth believing in, and that may be enough. If it isn’t, then the only hope might be to get down on our knees and pray.

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