Religion is a very sturdy creature. For two centuries, various atheist regimes have tried to eliminate religious practice in their societies and, without exception, have ended up restoring the forms of the old worship, but with newer and far lamer excuses. The French revolutionaries who tried to free their subjects from the curse of Christianity created an ersatz New Age religion with the feast of the Supreme Being before giving in wholeheartedly to a messianic belief in the Great Nation and its mystical personification in the Emperor Napoleon. Still more sweeping were the dechristianizing efforts of the Soviets, who massacred countless priests and religious and secularized or destroyed places of worship. Yet for half a century, all the public rituals of that society took place under icons of Lenin, whose venerated remains served as the supreme relic and justification of the communist order. As G.K. Chesterton remarked, when people abandon the belief in God, it is not true that they believe in nothing, but rather that they will believe in anything and everything, however ludicrous or lethal.
These precedents may seem singularly inappropriate for the United States, where religious belief and practice are not only perfectly legal, but also flourish to a degree unique among the advanced nations. As has often been noted, however, American religion in the 20th century became increasingly polarized along class lines, so that the nation’s elites either discounted matters of faith or else viewed them as a subset of liberal political ideology. For the better-off and educated Americans, at least, we can speak in the famous terms of Matthew Arnold, who observed how the sea of faith “was once at the full, and round earth’s shore / lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled / But now I only hear its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar / retreating.” Or to be more exact, instead of a melancholy roar, we hear today a perpetual nagging whine against any form of religious expression which does not conform to liberal tenets, which must be dismissed as a form of fundamentalism, fanaticism, bigotry, or any other characteristics attributed to the “religious right.”
For all intents and purposes, American elites are thoroughly secularized, and yet, like the atheist rulers of past societies, they hold passionately to systems of belief which are in fact profoundly religious. To a striking degree, moreover, these ideologies are, horresco referens, substantially Christian. This continuity from past beliefs need not surprise us too greatly: Centuries of cultural conditioning arc not abandoned overnight, and certainly not unless some very powerful rival ideology is substituted. Yet the adherents of some widely held secular philosophies would be thoroughly surprised and appalled if they ever explored the underlying roots of their beliefs.
Many of our modern non-religions grow out of the psychoanalytical tradition. Psychoanalysis was created by that old cabalistic shaman Sigmund Freud, who navigated the dream quests of his hapless followers. The movement was cultivated by the amazing Carl Gustav Jung, who operated unabashedly on the classic model of a cult leader, complete with solar rituals and the language of secret brotherhoods: Anyone wishing to understand the thoroughly mystical and charismatic roots of psychoanalysis should begin with two eye-opening books by Richard Noll, The Jung Cult (Princeton University Press, 1994) and The Aryan Christ (Random House, 1997).
Through much of the 20th century, psychoanalysis was a cult wonderland of competing gurus each offering the only true religion. Writing in the American Sociological Review in 1936, the famous sociologist Read Bain described the movement purely in terms of pathological religious cults. Like the worst cults, psychoanalysis had
a revered, almost sacred, leader-symbol; it contains mystical elements which provide escape-mechanisms for many of its followers; its proponents and adherents often show delusions of persecution and grandeur; its opponents indulge in heresy-hunting and vitriolic condemnation; there are numerous bitter feuds and fanatic factions within the fold; symbolism, ritualism and logical confusion abound; it flourishes upon dogmatic denial of the ordinary postulates and methods of natural science.
Every word of this analysis applies forcefully to the therapeutic movements of the present day, the assumptions of which have so profoundly pervaded every aspect of popular culture.
Therapy, like Christianity, is deeply interested in the question of lost innocence and the means by which sin came into the world. Over the last two decades, this therapeutic obsession has been particularly apparent from the topic of sexual abuse, a subject which has come to be seen as the origin of every possible social ill and individual evil. Belief in the ubiquitous nature of abuse, whether in the form of incest, molestation, or rape, has given rise to the recovery movement, which can best be interpreted as a modern-day religious revival.
Thousands of therapists devote themselves to the lucrative business of inducing patients (usually female) to believe that they were victims of sexual abuse, despite a lack of corroborating evidence beyond some ill-defined symptoms which others might identify as accidental personality traits. As we are told in the bible of the modern recovery movement, The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, “If you are unable to remember any specific instances . . . but still have a feeling that something abusive happened to you, it probably did. . . . If you think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, then you were.” Evidence from dreams was certainly valid testimony. Once identified as incest survivors, patients could confront their problems and begin a process of healing their “inner child,” usually through self-help groups of comparable survivors. As skepticism was utterly discouraged in such a setting, it is scarcely surprising that the dreams and fantasies to which patients confessed were soon elaborated into lunatic tales of ritual abuse which implied that satanic cults were running rampant across modern America.
Though expressed in psychological terms of self-help, the recovery movement owed its strength and resilience to its pervasive religious qualify. The treatment of incest survivors implies archaic themes like the loss of primal innocence through sexual sin and the recovery of an untarnished childlike state. Also recalling religious systems is die emphasis on faith, of belief in die testimony of others, even if it directly contradicts common sense: The children must be believed at all costs, as with am religion, survivorship implies a total worldview impervious to disproof or even challenge by conventional standards of evidence or rationality.
Equally familiar to the evangelical tradition, the restoration of innocence occurs in a sudden emotional moment of realization, which is essentially a conversion experience: Could such an ideology have been formulated anywhere but in post-Christian America? “I once was lost, but now am found / was blind, but now I see.” The analogy is not perfect, since the survivor is realizing not her own lost and sinful state but the evil inflicted by a victimizer, but the underlying structure of loss, regeneration, and redemption is accurate. The difference is that evangelical conversion is followed by a lifelong sense of one’s own sinful state, while incest recovery is founded on the power to east unlimited blame on those other people believed responsible for the offense. Personal sin is thus replaced by the concept of victimization, individual sin by’ structural injustice, contrition by self-assertion. The recovery movement offers a staggeringly wrongheaded version of “Amazing Grace” which throughout substitutes the word “pride” for “grace”: “it’s pride has brought me safe dins far / and pride will lead me home.” (Please, let nobody tell this to John Newton.) Christian it certainly is not, but the underlying substructure is incomprehensible unless seen in an evangelical context.
Incest recovery groups are one segment of a much more substantial phenomenon which has become a mainstay of the American scene since mid-century, namely the small-group movement, which ultimately owes its origin to Alcoholics Anonymous. No one can deny the immense good which AA has done for probably millions of individuals, but equally beyond contest is the thoroughly religious complexion of this movement. Curious as it may seem to the vast majority of AA participants, the movement’s roots lie primarily in the Moral Rearmament movement of the 1930’s and 1940’s, the so-called Oxford Group, from which AA took no less than ten of its celebrated 12 steps.
By modern standards, the Oxford Group was a bizarre cult which utilized high-pressure gatherings culminating in intense outpourings of communal confession. These intrusive tactics foreshadowed the psychological methods for which cults and therapy sects would become notorious in later years. As most of the material confessed tended to be sexual in nature, critics were horrified at the image of young and well-to-do women publicly parading their most intimate secrets and fantasies. By the 1930’s, the group’s absolutist leader, Frank Buchman, was publicly advocating “a God-controlled fascist dictatorship.” Whatever its later achievements, AA grows out of a cult movement. With this in mind, it is perhaps not surprising to see the whole small-group ideology’ becoming an alternative religion. For many of its adherents, the recovery movement supplants their original faith traditions, so that concepts like “resurrection” hold power only insofar as they symbolize the individual’s reawakening from past misbehaviors.
With the slightest probing, we usually find that Americans who claim not to be religious do in fact hold a wide if contradictory range of religious beliefs, usually with firm roots in the Christian or Jewish traditions. The charismatic power of revered or sacred individuals became obvious a decade or so back in the aftermath of the film The Last Temptation of Christ, which many felt to be a blasphemous portrayal of Jesus’s life. The controversy broke along predictable lines—religious conservatives versus liberal defenders of artistic freedom—until someone raised the telling question of what would happen if the media offered a demeaning picture of someone who was universally agreed to be a holy person, beyond taint or criticism. Jesus, clearly, did not fall into this category, nor did the arch-patriarchal nemesis John Paul II (and who cares about him anyway, except for a billion or so poor people?). The example most commonly offered for this role, the consensus choice for ultimate sanctity, was Martin Luther King, Jr., crucified for our sins in Memphis.
Though on nothing like the same messianic scale as King, a liberal hagiography has also emerged around numerous lesser figures. These arc often associated with the civil-rights movement of the 1960’s, but as recollections of that era fade for even the gravest of the baby boomers, a new generation of martyrs has emerged. In 1998, we witnessed the astonishingly potent cult surrounding Matthew Shepard, the young homosexual murdered in Wyoming. The crime was portrayed strictly in terms of martyrdom and Calvary, complete with the grotesque image of crucifixion on barbed wire. The rhetorical implications were hammered home repeatedly and unsubtly: We are all guilty for his death, we must purge such sins from ourselves and our communities, how thoroughly our whole culture is permeated by sin and ungodliness (sorry, I meant to say “by hate and homophobia”). The language came close to the apocalyptic warnings of national doom invoked by Abolitionists in the years before the Civil War: Woe unto us, miserable bigots that we are. Anyone who doubts that Americans retain a strong and even fanatical notion of blasphemy can be easily enlightened by making a slighting reference to the Shepard ease in any liberal gathering, or by questioning whether Shepard’s homosexuality was a factor in provoking the crime: Expect to encounter physical violence, or at least ostracism.
Americans believe in saints, martyrs, and Christ figures (if not Christ). They accept the notion of original sin, albeit in the perverse form of original abuse, and they hope for redemption through therapy: Recall the country lyric, “Looking for love in all the wrong places.” In however warped a form, traditional Christian and particularly Protestant assumptions still have a very powerful resonance for Americans. This is important enough in understanding our social ideologies, but the idea is also crucial if we are to understand the kinds of political rhetoric which are going to appeal to an audience which mistakenly thinks of itself as secular but is actually imbued with biblical and apocalyptic assumptions. Only this can explain why secular liberals are so overwhelmed by King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which should properly be viewed as one of the great monuments of evangelical, and specifically Baptist, preaching.
And it also explains what so many find an impenetrable mystery: why Bill Clinton has gotten away with every blunder, crime, and mishap through both his seemingly unending terms as President. Has anyone ever succeeded so thoroughly in presenting such demagogic ideas, such improbable defenses, such contorted ideology, in the unctuous tones of secularized sermonizing? Witness his speech after the Oklahoma City bombing, a rhetorical masterpiece of its kind. Witness his language of crusades against hate and victimization, his constant harping on the idea of innocent children, his invocation of martyr figures. His continued survival shows that he knows his audience very well indeed.