Lost in the Secular World

Why Americans love faith institutions

However much it may disgruntle the devoutly secular, all culture is steeped in institutional faith. Easy to forget sometimes, especially in the Bay Area and on the west coast in general, but most of the country and world is deeply influenced by religion. To work intelligently we have to acknowledge that reality and let it influence our own actions. Once we get to know faith institutions better, it’s possible to explore another question: what strategies are desirable for secular, politically left radicals, knowing what institutional faith offers people?

People join faith communities for many reasons. The first European settlements in the U.S. were so religiously homogenous that it was dangerous to not participate. Non-churchgoers were seen as witches and devil-possessed, and were castigated from the struggling towns to survive on their own. Religion in relation to society doesn’t overtly carry the same weight today. Instead, people seek out faith communities seemingly of their free will. The social and geographic context encourages us, however, to pledge allegiance to one or another religious organization. There has always been a strong rhetoric advocating secularism in the U.S. Separation of Church and State is written into the Constitution but all the presidents and powerful positions were filled by Protestant men for over half this country’s history; a majority of them still are. Church and State remain essentially joined, as the top political individuals belong to only a few, very similar, institutions of faith.

Breaking out of religion became more possible when geographic communities became culturally more diverse. People from all over the world, with their own religious practices, found themselves living up next to each other in the explosion of urban industrial America in the 19th century. In an unofficially Protestant nation, there were two potential results. Either there would be explicit repression and the rise of a religious state, or government would have to extract itself from the influence of religion. It did some of both.

Living as we do several generations after religious tensions tested this country so overtly (remember that the very first confrontation was with the American indigenous, and that was resolved through genocide), new forces have driven people back to religion, and in particular, religiously informed politics. In North America we have the unique distinction of living in places that were built to break up walkable communities. Much of present urban America was shaped in the 1960s or after, when living, working, and playing in one place became passé. In rural areas, cities, and neighborhoods that orbit around cars, a vacuum of isolation now bars us from strong community connections. Those connections would provide a sense of self, social identity, and political purpose. In the absence of cultural (i.e. immigrant and ethnic) or geographic (i.e. neighborhood) community, most people go searching for a placebo. They frequently land on churches, mosques, synagogues and the like. This is not random.

Faith communities or more accurately, faith institutions, replicate hierarchy and patriarchy, maintaining the existing order of society. They offer guidance in overwhelming, chaotic surroundings, often in the form of authoritarian orders. Unlike in secular society, however, they are presented in a paternal manner that feels familial (based on the patriarchal model children learn at home). Folded into teachings of love, justice, and morality (concepts open to wide interpretation), the rituals and tenets of faith almost always replicate leadership from above and dominance by male figures. The paternal hierarchy of religious order answers a strong yearning for close knit community. Even though hierarchy, patriarchy, and capitalism threaten and destabilize us, many people associate them with the need for safety and comfort. This is pure reflex. We were all raised amidst these oppressive structures. We know what to expect and how to respond. On a certain level, we respond positively to these systems. Realizing this can inform the culture of radical propaganda and groups. We’re good at critiquing hierarchy, patriarchy, and capitalism. We might go further, and start to acknowledge and compensate for how appealing these institutions are, because they are etched deeply on our psyches. The simple fact of feeling familiar draws millions of people to prefer this social arrangement to anything different.

As radicals of social, anarchist, non-hierarchical, feminist inclinations, it’s vital to recognize this genuine human need for feeling comfortable, oriented, and safe. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, these impulses rank directly under physical demands of food, water, warmth, and rest. Political struggle is much less urgent to our survival instinct.

Many people would rather be told what to do because it’s familiar than endure the struggles of learning new, less oppressive, ways of existing. The lessons that faith institutions teach are very puzzling. They contradict themselves. Despite the teachings of all the holy books, which command (or suggest as morally imperative) sharing with others and living through acts of compassion and love toward humanity, the deeply ingrained dream of independence, bootstraps, and superhero I-did-it-all-by-myself success perseveres. While preaching compassion, community, and generosity, faith institutions frequently act out individuality, criticism, and disregard for the social welfare of humanity. Why don’t people want a community that allows them to decide what they believe, who they love, what they do with their bodies and whether or not their children die in crusades? Why do they prefer the insularity of a conformist “in” group to compassion for everyone? An inclusive perspective of who deserves survival and justice allows people the freedom to be different from one another. The “in” group (which radical communities also easily replicate) demands unnecessary and repressive conformity.

Why do people go for this? Often it’s a question of family. In the words of a radical who was raised in an Apostolic Christian church, “How could you quit it? It’s the only thing you have.” She recalls being told that people outside the church were “morally inept.” There was no way to know any different because everybody she knew was in the church. It was a community in isolation. She explains that “people dropped it, but [they] came back because they wanted their families,” who completely rejected individuals who left the church.

A radical leftist movement can’t replicate right wing institutions that harbor one’s entire childhood community and family. But maybe it can compete. Some radical communities are doing this quite well. People recreate family, build new structures of support, safety, and familiarity. They do it consciously, well aware that we need these elements in our lives, more than we need to develop sharp political analyses and win campaigns (though they don’t need to be mutually exclusive).

Another thing that faith communities offer people, which nothing else in U.S. culture does, is the permission to be ethical or moral in the world. Ethics is a formal, deductively logical system of deciding right and wrong; morality is a set of codes based on cultural agreement of a people, for determining the same. In a nation where intellectual discussion of politics is shunned and religion is dogmatically if artificially banned, there is little room for ethics or morality to play an overt role. (However, if you want to sway people to totalitarian or capitalist policy, you can use the façade of morality as propaganda.) This is an important lesson for lefty radicals. Humans want to incorporate their intuitive sense of right and wrong into their intellectual grasp of politics and social vision. Again, it’s up to us to string the words together that do this. We certainly have examples from our history. Emma Goldman swayed crowds with her passionate claims for anti-war and anarchist beliefs on the basis of ethics. In Living My Life, she recounts a hostile audience in England, which she turns to her favor. On the topic of war, she deplores: “Who is there who would supinely sit by when what is best and highest in a people is being throttled before his very eyes?” More recently, the decentralized model of acting and speaking not as a leader but as a participant of radical social movements has yielded many anonymous voices that dissolve hierarchy and patriarchy and result in a less oppressed society. Madjiguène Cissé of the Sans-Papiers (a grassroots organization of African immigrants living in France) writes in We Are Everywhere (Verso 2004), “If we had not taken our autonomy, we would not be here today…Many organizations [told] us we could never win…We had to learn democracy…women have played an extremely important role in this struggle.”

Faith communities also possess the strength of longevity. Show up at city hall with your synagogue and people won’t say, “Jews? Never heard of ‘em.” To hook up with a faith community is to tap into a several century, even multi-millennial, history that works as credibility—or to a lesser degree, notoriety—in the broader world. Faith communities have a reputation for being honest and moral, despite the historical record. In reality some people are and some people aren’t honest and moral, as everywhere in societies. But the perception makes it easier accomplish things, as faith institutions can solicit broad support based on general trust.

In other times and places in history, revolutionary, secular movements were able to gain broad popularity (early 20th century Spain, currently in Afghanistan). Those movements were popular as a result of the complete control and overt repression of the faith institutions (Catholicism and fundamental Islam, in those cases). We do not live in such a place and time. Religion has a heavy influence on society around the globe, but here in the U.S. we aren’t living under its total control. And if we don’t want to wait around for the “moral majority” to create such blatant disaster, we need to understand where our own radical communities fall short and that faith communities fill some of those gaps. The opposite is also true; faith communities often obstruct revolutionary change. But what they do provide is a little higher on the hierarchy of needs, so we need to cultivate those same phenomena with our social and political critiques.