‘The British, I have discovered, assume that Americans are more religious than they are. That presumption seems justified in the light of Ed Miliband’s declared atheism. As yet no one running for high political office in the US has been willing so to identify themselves. Indeed, it seems to be a requirement of political office in America that you believe in God. Americans seem to think those who rule us must believe in God because, if they do not, they cannot be “moral”– which means they will cheat on their spouses, thus destroying the family, which will bring civilisation to an end.
Yet I remain unconvinced that the difference between Britain and the US, when it comes to religion, can be determined by the faith or lack of it of those in public office. In fact, I am not convinced that the US is more religious than Britain. Even if more people go to church in America, I think the US is a much more secular country than Britain. In Britain, when someone says they do not believe in God, they stop going to church. In the US, many who may have doubts about Christian orthodoxy may continue to go to church. They do so because they assume that a vague god vaguely prayed to is the god that is needed to support family and nation.
Americans do not have to believe in God, because they believe that it is a good thing simply to believe: all they need is a general belief in belief. That is why we have never been able to produce interesting atheists in the US. The god most Americans say they believe in is not interesting enough to deny, because it is only the god that has given them a country that ensures that they have the right to choose to believe in the god of their choosing, Accordingly, the only kind of atheism that counts in the US is that which calls into question the proposition that everyone has a right to life, liberty, and happiness.
America is the exemplification of what I call the project of modernity. That project is the attempt to produce a people that believes it should have no story except the story it chose when it had no story. That is what Americans mean by freedom.
The problem with that story is its central paradox: you did not choose the story that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story. Americans, however, are unable to acknowledge that they have been fated to be “free”, which makes them all the more adamant that they have a right to choose the god that underwrites their “freedom.”
A people so constituted will ask questions such as “Why does a good god let bad things happen to good people?” It is as if the Psalms never existed. The story that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story produces a people who say: “I believe that Jesus is Lord – but that is just my personal opinion.”
I hope that makes it understandable that Americans expect their presidents to believe in god. They do so because they are confident that the god presidents believe in is not a god that can call into question the American project. This is why President Obama had to leave his church when his pastor suggested that God might stand in judgment on the US.
Of course George W Bush was and is a sincere Christian. But that is just an indication of how little being a Christian has to do with sincerity. That is why I find Miliband’s atheism more interesting than the “faith” of the American presidents’.
– Stanley Hauerwas, ‘How real is America’s faith?’ Guardian, 16 October 2010, 45.