When “American” means Christian

As an atheist in the United States, I’m surrounded by messages that I am a second-class citizen. Not only are atheists the demographic least trusted in elections, a frighteningly large number of states specifically (and unconstitutionally) prohibit atheists from holding public office. The military, presumed to be all but the definition of what American heroes and role models should look like, goes out of its way to curate its members’ “spiritual” well-being and implies that soldiers who are nonreligious are less than fit for duty. I’m sure you remember the plethora of stories from the 2008 election about conservative politicians’ remarks on the nature of “real Americans,” in particular that they’re people who have faith in (the Christian) God.

These “real Americans” have a bunch of other important traits, of course. They hail from little towns in the “heartland,” not big cities. They like driving trucks and shooting guns. They don’t need your fancy-pants university education, because they do real, honest work (read: unskilled or low-skilled, manual labor). If you value gun control, fuel economy, or higher education — or if you work a white-collar job, or if you live in a city — you might not be redneck real American. (Apologies to Jeff Foxworthy.) There’s a reason why the term “liberal” works as a slur. Worst of all, though, is a “godless liberal.”

Don’t look at me — I didn’t make this up. It’s a deeply entrenched and popular meme. Here’s singer-songwriter Brad Paisley performing his single, “This Is Country Music,” at the CMA Awards last November (where he won Entertainer of the Year). Listen to that applause….

Oh, those lyrics! Of course, the part that made me stop my radio dial and actually listen to an entire song on the country music station was that early line, “And tellin’ folks that Jesus is the answer can rub ’em wrong.” And I knew I had to turn it into a blog post at the point when the chorus went, “This is real, this is your life in a song.” It’s sure not my life, but then, I guess I’m not a “real” American anyway.

Here’s what I can’t wrap my head around. On the one hand, Christians make up over three quarters of the US population. Every politician seems to end their speeches saying, “God bless America.” Christianity has insinuated itself into our currency and our national pledge. (Sure, maybe these are just generic deities being mentioned. But every Christian Right-ist claims them as evidence that the US is a Christian nation.) And time and time again we are told that “real,” patriotic Americans are the ones who love Jesus.

But on the other hand, Christians (including Brad Paisley) claim, “folks” don’t seem to like it when you tell them that Christianity is true. I’m perpetually hearing and reading Christians go on about how hard but noble it is to be open about their religious beliefs, bemoaning how it just isn’t cool in this day and age, and challenging each other to be brave enough to do it. There’s also apparently the perception that many of the other traits ascribed to “real Americans” are rare as well; for example, in the song above, it says, “And if there’s anyone that still has pride and [maybe “in”] the memory of those that died defending the old red, white, and blue,” as though almost no one respects the military and the sacrifices made by soldiers and their families. I don’t know where anyone got any of these ideas. However, it is a fact that 80% of the US population lives in urban areas, not in small towns.

Here’s the thing, Christians. You can’t bask in the privilege of being a supermajority and at the same time lick your wounds and beg for the sympathy we’d offer an oppressed minority. You have to pick one or the other. Should we be framing the Ten Commandments in our courtrooms, because the country is so obviously founded on the Bible and everyone’s a Christian anyway? Or are you actually going to start keeping your religion to yourselves for fear of offending and upsetting anyone?

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  1. I imagine Paisley’s griping comes from the fact that while “three quarters” of the US population may be Christian, only a much smaller percentage is seriously so. A very large chunk of the Christian population is not really all that committed to the religion itself.

    This is why a guy in Chicago can say “I’m a Catholic” and “I don’t believe in God” in the same breath and not feel even a twinge cognitive dissonance.

    This isn’t to say that Paisley still isn’t whining about imaginary wrongs. But I wouldn’t paint the US population as overwhelmingly Christian as your post seems to indicate.

    Just curious, are those anti-atheist laws even enforced today? Or are they kind of like the equivalent of those outdated laws on the books that never got removed?

    Like “it is unlawful for a man to wrestle a bear with his bare hands to impress a woman” (true law, by the way).

  2. Questioning

     /  April 7, 2011 at 10:39 am

    In my experience, Christians are indoctrinated to believe that they are being persecuted. Nevermind that in other countries, Christians truly are being persecuted–as in killed or imprisoned for their beliefs–something I think is wrong, even if Christianity is wrong. But because the Bible says things about persecution, and that the world will hate Christians, they automatically take any criticism as “persecution,” and in America at least, blow it way out of proportion. Sometimes I want to say, “You’re not being persecuted because of what you believe–no one likes you because you’re being a jerk!”

    Long before I began to question my belief, I began to question the American brand of Christianity. As much as Christianity as we know it has been bad for America (in my opinion at least), America has been bad for Christianity. American Christians live in a distinctly American bubble. A majority of them seem to believe that not only being an American = being a Christian, but being a Christian = being an American. If you look at American missionaries in foreign countries, they not only teach their converts what to believe, but very often try to turn them into “civilized” Americans.

    They forget that their faith was founded centuries ago in the middle east. That there was no such thing as a democratic vote in the Bible, and therefore, no “biblical” way to vote. Most of them have NO idea how new and distinctly American some of their doctrines are (i.e. “Walk down the aisle and ask Jesus into your heart.” This was unheard of until a couple hundred years ago, and was invented by an American preacher. But because that’s what they already believe, they read that into the Bible).

    Didn’t mean to take over your comment section. I still have a couple of toes dipped in the baptismal waters, so to speak, and this is something I feel so strongly about. Putting aside all the intellectual/philosophical challenges to Christianity, American Christianity is largely anti-biblical. The Bible says that Jesus gave up his rights to be a servant to others. American Christians demand that their rights be upheld. Many of Jesus’ disciples were looking for a political savior to overthrow the oppressive Roman government, but the Bible says that Jesus was introducing them to the kingdom of God–a kingdom that transcends all national boundaries. American Christians feel it is their duty to run the government in this “Christian” nation. With all their talk of morality, and conservative politics, and the red white and blue, they ignore Jesus’ message. It completely disgusts me, because even though I don’t really believe anymore, I think Jesus had a lot of really good things to say, and if more people followed his teachings (or most of them–there’s some odd ones in there!), I think it would be a good thing.

  3. @Seth: To any one Christian denomination, most self-professed Christians aren’t “real Christians.” I don’t really know what to tell you about that. How seriously does one have to take Christianity in order to count? The only way I know how to solve this problem is to let people self-identify. And if 75% of the country claims a Christian identity, all of these issues still apply — Christianity is still seen as the norm, the default belief (the way that “flesh”-colored crayons are the color of Caucasian skin).

    I found out about these anti-atheist state laws when Cecil Bothwell was elected to the Asheville, NC city council and controversy ensued. It’s very difficult for a politician to be openly atheist in the first place, so it’s not an issue we become aware of often. My guess is that anti-atheist sentiment in the electorate is a more powerful force than these state constitutions, but at the very least it’s a deterrent against being openly atheist in the event that someone felt daring enough to do so.

    @Questioning: I completely agree. The example that sprang immediately to my mind when reading your comment was Conservapedia’s Bible retranslation project where they set about removing all the “liberal bias.” For me, the fact that so many different interpretations of what it means to be a Christian exist — and seem to be completely divorced from what the Bible may or may not say — is a big part of why I distrust Christianity in the first place. (If even devout Christians can’t figure it out, how could an outsider like me begin to choose between them?)

  4. Aristarchus

     /  April 7, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    I think the real problem with the persecution complex is that a lot of people are mis-labeling their complaint. If someone goes to some bastion of liberal elitism (Harvard Yard, City Hall in NYC, or whatever) and mentions that they’re Christian, including that they believe in God and Jesus and the basics of Christian dogma, no one is going to bat an eye. In fact, most of the people there are going to agree with them.

    However, if they go and mention that they don’t believe in evolution or think the world is 6000 years old, or think the apocalypse could come any day now, some people are going to have to try hard to hide their scorn. Now, I think that’s totally reasonable. I think those beliefs are no more respectable than believing the world is flat, though I guess we could debate that.

    But then what happens is that they, having been taught that those things are what Christianity teaches, report this experience as “No one has any respect for Christians.” In doing so they transform a true statement into an obviously silly one and further demonstrate the extremely limited world view that was looked down on in the first place.

    To make it worse, they then continue to conflate “Christianity” with “my brand of Christianity” and use the large number of Christians and Christianity’s history and so forth to argue for things like prayer and creationism in public schools.

  5. I imagine Paisley’s griping comes from the fact that while “three quarters” of the US population may be Christian, only a much smaller percentage is seriously so. A very large chunk of the Christian population is not really all that committed to the religion itself.

    I’d agree with that, but that isn’t the same thing as saying that the American majority is opposed to Christianity. A huge group of people, even if they’re not really practicing Christians themselves, still consider Christianity to be a positive influence and an important, even essential, source of moral guidance.

    Just look at the millions of people who lie about attending church each week: clearly, these people think of religious belief as a noble ideal to aspire to, even if they fall short in practice. And the corollary is that, whether they’re knowledgeable, committed believers or not, such people are likely to believe and perpetuate anti-atheist prejudice.

  6. Seth R.

     /  April 7, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    I disagree with Paisley’s gripes. So I’m purely playing devil’s advocate here.

    But I would note that most of the campaigns of persecution in human history have not been perpetrated by a majority in society. Rather, they are perpetrated by a vocal and aggressive minority, while the majority of society apathetically sits back and watches passively.

    So really, all Paisley needs is perhaps 25% of the population (or pick whatever number you want) to be aggressively anti-Christian, while most of his fellow Christians sit by not caring much. Then he and his small 25% of the population who identify as Christians who actually care about it can feel suitably besieged.

    Like I said, I don’t see it myself. But I’m just saying you do NOT need a majority to have a campaign of persecution.

  7. Another mislabeling of complaints has to do with politics. Someone whose conservative political sensibilities are offended may interpret the attack as the work of a godless liberal, even if it was a Christian liberal.

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