Book #31: The American Religion

This review has been a long, long time in coming. I’ve been distracted by too many things, and I kick myself now noting that the research of the subject has itself proved to be a distraction from the project which launched it — the drafting of a novel set in a future American cold war — but in any case, I felt in September that I needed more background on the intersection of religion and politics in America, and the book has served as inspiration in some ways, frustrating as it has been in others.

Bloom’s text is not so much a survey of American religion, or a “criticism” of extant religions in America, as it is his own project of “religious criticism” in a vein comparable to literary criticism of literary texts.

The long and the short of Bloom’s view is that The American Religion is not truly Christianity of any type, but a kind of Gnostic religion that masquerades as Christianity.

… the American Religion, which is so prevalent among us, masks itself as Protestant Christianity yet has ceased to be Christian. It has kept the figure of Jesus, a very solitary and personal American Jesus, who is also the resurrected Jesus rather than the crucified Jesus or the Jesus who ascended again to the Father. I do not think that the Christian God has been retained by us, though he is invoked endlessly by our leaders, and by our flag-waving President [Bush Sr.] in particularm with especial fervor in the context of war. But this invoked force appears to be the American destiny, the God of our national faith. The most Gnostic element in the American Religion is an astonishing reversal of ancient Gnosticism: we worship the Demiurge as God, more often than not under the name of manifest Necessity. As for the alien God of the Gnostics, he has vanished, except for his fragments or sparks scattered among our few elitists of the spirit, or for his shadow in the solitary figure of the American Jesus.

On the face of it, this is a strange assertion, but the closer he looks at certain religions in America — especially the Mormons and the Southern Baptists — the more convinced I am that he is actually onto something interesting. I’m not sure that American Religion is actually as Gnostic as Bloom, a self-professed Gnostic, thinks; however, he’s certainly onto something in his assertion that some of the very essential aspects of Christianity have been gutted in the practice of religion in America. American Religion is very surely different from anything that was practiced back in Europe, and it’s also true what Bloom notes about America being not only a more fervent, but also a more successful exporter of religion than Europe.

I suppose his sympathy for, and interest in, the Mormons is understandable given Bloom’s own self-distancing from all of the various versions of The American Religion discussed in his book… but on some level, I couldn’t quite grasp what made him devote so very much of the text to the Mormons, and so very little to major movements like the Southern Baptists, African-American religion, and Californian New Age. Certainly, viewed through Bloom’s own criticism, the Mormons took on — and this is the best thing I can say about the religion — a kind of fascinating air of being not just zany, but some kind of authentic return to a theomorphic, ancient cultic style of worship. But in reality, I cannot see Mormonism as anything but outright insane, and I have to wonder whether the insanity of it was not part of the attraction for Bloom. Then again, the burgeoning numbers of the religion which he mentions time and time again, and the relationship between the Mormons and various branches of American government also seem to be his own explicit justifications, along of course with his very close interest in the “religious imagination” of Joseph Smith and other founders of Mormonism.

Still, the extended discussion of the Mormons and the very weak coverage assigned to far more interesting groups like African-American Baptists, New Agers, and even Southern Baptists are certainly the major flaws of this text, which seems more than anything like a warm-up exercise for a longer discussion by Bloom of subterranean Gnosticism in American culture in general.

The strengths of the book seem to me to be in the way Bloom takes cross-sections of American religion and philosophy and subjects them to scrutiny from a variety of angles. He’s astute enough to note not only the rising relationship between religion and politics, but the direct link from this relationship to wars, especially wars on foreign soil. One cannot help but sense an eerie, dark premonition of George W. Bush’s time, still a decade away at the time when Bloom wrote this book, when one reads a passage like this:

If Woodrow Wilson was right and [America was] intended to be a spirit among the nations of the world, then the twenty-first century will mark a full-scale return to the wars of religion.

While the text has not turned out to be as useful for my novelistic researches as I had hoped — and some use, of course, it has been, in bringing the continually swelling ranks and growing political power of the Mormons and the bewildering mess of the Southern Baptist Convention to my range of vision — I have also gained a rather significantly transformed sense of American nineteenth-century life as a kind of hotbed of wild religious diversification. This, in turn, has suggested to me many things of interest, which I had previously not taken into account, in my reading of American literature of the time. That this truly was the birthing time of Theosophy, of the Christian Scientists and the Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, means a great deal. That Emerson and Transcendantalism mattered so much not just in the countryside but among the educated in the cities of America, means a great deal to the literature of the age. I daresay it even impacts upon how I read Ezra Pound, now.

In any case, if you are looking for history, you’ll find interesting tidbits such as the descriptions of Cane Ridge, but you’d be better off looking for a more grounded historical survey. If you want to know more about the American peculiarities of more mainstream European-based religions, such as Episcopalian and Catholic and Lutheran Churches, and in the American practice (or non-practice) of Judaism, you will find almost nothing about them here. If you are interested in Black Muslim, Indigenous American, and other religious, I cannot warn you away from this book more strongly.

But if you are willing to take the book for what it is, a rather curious exploration of American religion by a man with a deeply unorthodox, and rather idiosyncratic view, a man willing to make audacious pronouncements whilst engaged in the study of other audacious pronouncements, you will enjoy it, and gain a kind of peculiar set of insights which, as far off as they may well be from reality, are nonetheless quite thoroughly fascinating.

10 thoughts on “Book #31: The American Religion

  1. I read the book when it first came out and remember having the sense that while he made many interesting (and often true) pronouncements, he didn’t quite get to the heart of any of the religions/denominations he covered.

    Or at least so it seemed to me, when I read the section on Seventh-day Adventists (which is how the name is written, by the way). People on the outside looking in have a different view than those on the inside. Those who are half in and half out have yet another view. I, of course, tend to judge such views as an insider. Sometimes descriptions ring true, and sometimes they ring false.

    All the same, Adventists can be pretty whacked out sometimes.

  2. Cuccu,

    Well, I don’t think he was necessarily interested in actually getting at “the heart of” the religions he was discussing. It’s not like he is an adherent to any religion beyond a kind of vague Gnosticism, or at least that’s my impression from the book.

    As for insiders and outsiders having different views, that’s inevitable. I think what’s more useful, though, is a description of behaviours sponsored by a religion, attitudes that suffuse its ostensible adherents. Bloom isn’t always so interested in that. For example, he’s very interested in Early Mormonism, but not anything contemporary. This isn’t as useful as his analysis of Southern Baptist Convention.

    In what ways are Seventh-day Adventists whacked out sometimes? I know so little about them that I usually conflate them with the Jehovah’s Witnesses in my mind… something I believe you’ve called me on here in the past.

  3. The Adventism of my childhood isn’t quite the same as the Adventism of today, but since some of the same people are still around, w[h?]ackiness continues.

    SDAs often exhibit excessive attention to tradition (they don’t always call it that; sometimes it’s called “the truth”). Because SDAs don’t drink, they think Jesus didn’t either (never mind about changing water to wine…they say it can’t have been fermented wine). Because many SDAs are vegetarian, Jesus was, too (never mind that he was Jewish and being Jewish meant eating meat more than once a year). Being a “peculiar” people, SDAs are often insular and may prefer to live in their own enclaves (people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw too many stones…I happen to live in one of them. I’d be just as happy somewhere else). Sometimes this means they don’t relate well to people who are not SDA. Sometimes the pursuit of perfection leads people to extremes of relational behavior.

    It’s late, and I could add more under better mental circumstances (these are examples from my recent past). And undoubtedly, these kinds of things are not restricted to SDAs. They can be seen in any insulated religious organization. And they certainly don’t apply to all members.

    JWs and SDAs share some characteristics (and theology as well), but SDAs do tend to be more open than JWs.

  4. Yeah, my dad had some nicer things to say about SDAs, while he had only had to say about JWs.

    The notion of not drinking being Christian is ridiculous but widespread in Korea, too. I don’t get why the miracle happened, or how the people would say it was the best wine if it was not fermented. That’s just nuts. But I’ve met plenty of non-SDAs who claim the same thing. I have noticed they conflate “drinking alcohol” with “drinking until drunk.”

  5. Yes, but they don’t write and sell books that attempt to prove that the wine wasn’t fermented (if they do, I haven’t seen them).

    I love my SDA friends and relatives, but sometimes I just have to bite my tongue: I’ve already scandalized my carpooling cousin. I’m as weak as the next person, but I still have Romans 14 rolling around in my head.

  6. One way to synthesize the soul-sucking-worst of Adventism is to say that in speech and practice, rules and tasks have often been more important than people.

    I already have a natural bent towards that sort of thing, so I feel fortunate to be married to someone who is less so.

  7. You’re right. I’ve seen some bizarre things they’ve done — made college campuses “dry”, to the point where a student in his dorm room can’t sip a beer after a long day without some kind of worry about the risk of being caught; convinced thousands of Korean (and other) youth that “drinking” equals drunk, and that drink puts one in Satan’s clutches — but I haven’t seen a mainline Protestant group claim that the wine wasn’t fermented.

    Though, by the way, the wine was very likely to be lower in alcohol content. A friend of mine read about Hannibal’s march through the Pyrenees and how the wine that the soldiers carried froze in the coldest spots, and experimented with trying to make wine popsicles — an endeavour that failed because, as he deduced, the alcohol content in ancient wine must have been lower than in the modern stuff. (Which raises interesting questions about the Bacchanales, though of course military issue wine might have been relatively cheap stuff, while religious orgy wine might have been more potent, and perhaps laced with something else.)

    But the notion that the wedding attendees at Cana would declare, “They saved the best for last!” about grape juice is a pretty silly notion, based on willful misreading.

    That willfulness is the first thing I would expect from any organization where “in speech and practice, rules and tasks have often been more important than people”.

    This is what I personally struggle with in my work. We have a program set up, and in our recent discussions of the program, a lot of discussion has turned to pragmatics, which are in fact realistic but also false-pragmatics of working in an environment where the organization’s prime focus is its power dynamics and not the benefit of the students.

    My experience, though, is that such experiences are generally soul-destroying over the long run. It’s ironic to find this in a church… but, none to surprising for me, of course. (I found the same in my experience as a young Catholic, especially in a Catholic high school in which the environment was less tolerant, less openminded, more violent, and less genuinely civilized than the public school down the road — by the accounts of close friends and bandmates, anyway.)

  8. I knew a teacher at an SDA language institute in Korea who got canned for drinking. Not the drunk sort at all, but a fellow teacher reported smelling alcohol on her breath.

    It was an especially bad experience for her, being Korean-American and having to deal with the family ramifications. It wasn’t so good for me, either, having to watch her experience it. I knew the teacher who reported her. I hadn’t thought much of her before. There wasn’t anything left after.

  9. All SDA insitutions are dry, except for the students who aren’t. I was, with a couple of small exceptions (I’ve never been drunk). Even the non-Adventist branch of my family weren’t big drinkers, as they seem to be able to take it or leave it at will. I think that, combined with my early conditioning, makes it unlikely that I’ll ever incorporate alcohol into my social life. Not impossible, just unlikely.

    Soul-destroying institutions are all the same, except for their names. They’re not always religious, and they’re rarely completely bad.

    I’m the only member of my immediate family who’s still in. The rest left at different times and for different reasons. Although I have no current plans, I’ll probably leave someday, too.

    I have been experiencing some issues with my host. I hope that they will be resolved soon.

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