Faith thrives when a society frays
Faith thrives when a society frays
Religion is the elephant in the room at election time and beyond, writes Guy Rundle. The Age - 1/27/2008 - 0riginal
WITH the voices of the Methodist choir swelling and filling the building, the whole place moving and swaying and clapping, actress Kerry Washington announces "Barack Obama" and the place goes crazy.

We're in Orangeburg, South Carolina, the state that pretty much started the Civil War, in an auditorium named for three men killed by police during a desegregation campaign in 1968. When Senator Obama speaks, he speaks of change and hope, quotes Martin Luther King on "the fierce urgency of now" and bringing the change you want in the world.

Somewhere else in the South, maverick candidate Mike Huckabee is talking about changing the Constitution to recognise the Ten Commandments a move which would effectively reverse the assumption on which the American republic is based. Huckabee is gaining up to 30% of Republican support. And his rival, Mitt Romney, recently told a crowd that there is no freedom without religion, something that would be news to Thomas Jefferson.

Religion is the issue that will not go away, the dimension of life that throws America into paroxysms of contradiction. As Americans are invited to see the semi-theocracy of Iran as their natural enemy, they could hardly avoid noticing that it is the one of the few societies in the world that can match the US for literal belief in the holy writ. Yet the US was the first and most durable society founded on official non-belief, a place where it is illegal to say a prayer in schools.

The most pressing issue for most American voters is the utter precariousness of their lives perched above an abyss of debt, one major illness or mortgage crunch away from destitution so how is it that religion has rushed into the heart of a nation founded on the principles of the agnostic enlightenment?

In a way the question is the answer. When a society bases its life on an abstract principle religious freedom, rather than on a concrete religious tradition it sets itself a big challenge. Religious traditions give a nation the necessary illusion that its values and beliefs are eternal and unchanging, rather than something that will rise, fall and pass away. That illusion helps make the day-to-day trivia of life feel meaningful, where it would otherwise feel empty.

The "religion effect" occurs even, or especially, when people are not particularly religious. Religion, as the sociologist Emile Durkheim argued, is society worshipping itself, through the medium of the supernatural.

America's founders fought long and hard over whether a stable society could exist without an official religion. Those who prevailed anticipated civil life itself would become a sort of secular faith and that its objects the flag, the Declaration of Independence would become sacred artefacts. They worried whether a moral society could be founded on secular principles. What they never anticipated was that the "civil religion" of America would not generate enough meaning to satisfy people's deepest spiritual needs.

For a long time it could when Americans felt they were connected to each other, in work, life, neighbourhoods, towns. Since the 1960s, the fabric of society, of strong interconnection, has disappeared as cities have emptied, jobs have gone, and "society" dissolved into a tangle of freeways and cable TV. When the fabric of social life disappears, civic religion collapses, and people reach for the most concrete and mythical form of life, whether that be a black gospel church, a creationist school, kabbalah, Buddhist computer programmers and the like.

That would be easy to admit in the old world. To admit it here would be to suggest the American project had failed, which cannot be done. So in every corner of a civic life that has no official place for it, religion sneaks back in, in a way that it never would in a more ostensibly religious place such as, say, Italy.

In a sports auditorium suddenly transformed by the lilting refrains of a gospel choir, as Senator Obama, the "voice of hope", floats in on it, you can appreciate its commanding power. But the challenge for Americans is how to have a national conversation that is not mediated through the consoling majesty of religion, destiny, etc; how to have a health system that is merely inefficient, rather than a murderous disgrace, and how to rebuild the foundations of a society that years of neglect have started to wear away.

Guy Rundle will write regularly on the US elections for The Sunday Age.