Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

What do Americans worship?

posted by Rod Dreher

David Rieff asks:

As a thought experiment, pretend you are a complete innocent, knowing nothing about this society (I am talking here about the developed world as a whole–not just the Golden Calf that conservatives and liberals alike have made out of the United States of America, worshipping–what?–themselves? their demographic and historical good luck?–as they dance about singing its praises). After observing this society, what would you say its values are? It seems to me the first and last thing you would say would be money, and, more broadly, the refusal to believe in limits of any kind. After that, you would probably say health–that is, the refusal of mortality. And finally, you would presumably say pleasure.
Money, health, pleasure. Fine things all (I am emphatically not being ironic; they are indeed fine things). But as a basis for a civilization, for a values system? It is one thing to be selfish; it may well be hard wired into us. But stupidity isn’t, so at least we should not be stupid.

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posted March 10, 2010 at 2:42 pm

I certainly agree with the broad-brush assessment made by Rieff. I’ll be provocative here and raise the issue of soteriology – especially Protestant soteriology – which strikes me as part of that “selfish” orientation that permeates our modern world.

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Grumpy Old Man

posted March 10, 2010 at 2:58 pm

The Maya centered their communities around pyramids. The Greeks and Romans centered theirs on public buildings and temples. In the Christian era, it was churches (Agia Sophia, Chartres, St. Peter’s).
Nowadays office towers mark our cities. So what we worship is bureaucracies, who live in the towers.
Thomas Merton once observed that a medieval person transported to New York would say it was built by very large and powerful devils. Perhaps so.

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Knez Dan

posted March 10, 2010 at 3:03 pm

I once worked with a man who referred to shopping malls as “cathedrals to the consumptive society.” And there you have it! As concerns Protestant sotierology, the whole “me and Jesus” thing strikes me as very selfish. I remember running into a friend who recently got “saved” in a large Charismatic Evangelical gathering. She couldn’t stop talking about her experience and “waht the Lord did for ME” and how the “Lord was blessing ME.” Every other word was ME. But, I digress…

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posted March 10, 2010 at 3:08 pm

I’m not familiar with your writings. Can it be you don’t realize that the United States of America was created out of a prayerful request to God for a system of government that would be pleasing to Him and effective for it’s people?
Americans are not worshipping themselves when they are filled with gratitude for our nation.
Nor are we worshipping our leaders or our system of government.
We ARE worshipping our merciful Creator, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who inspired wise men to form a “more perfect union”.
If you don’t understand that, you are a very naive young man.

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posted March 10, 2010 at 3:25 pm

If a Martian were to read chapter 18 of St. John’s Revelation, I’m afraid he might notice some remarkable similarities between 21st century America and 1st century Rome.
” ‘Alas, alas that great city Babylon, that mighty city! for in one hour is thy judgment come.’ And the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her; for no man buyeth their merchandise any more: The merchandise of gold, and silver, and precious stones, and of pearls, and fine linen, and purple, and silk, and scarlet, and all thyine wood, and all manner vessels of ivory, and all manner vessels of most precious wood, and of brass, and iron, and marble,
And cinnamon, and odours, and ointments, and frankincense, and wine, and oil, and fine flour, and wheat, and beasts, and sheep, and horses, and chariots, and slaves, and souls of men. And the fruits that thy soul lusted after are departed from thee, and all things which were dainty and goodly are departed from thee, and thou shalt find them no more at all.
As the Bishop of Durham, Fr. N. T. Wright, has put it, America worships Girls, Guns, and Gold.

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Rick the Road Ranger

posted March 10, 2010 at 3:40 pm

This is an easy one! In my humble opinion, America’s primary and dominant “religion” is the “Good Life”!!! We worship long life, lots of comforts and conveniences, as much pleasure as possible, and avoid any kind of significant sacrifice or suffering. Our belief in “God” is similar to a term life insurance policy. That is, we what to be “sure” pf being “saved”, but only paying for it with a minimum of time, talent and treasure! And we generally feel that we are “saved” because we are “nice” or “good” people and we try to help out those with some obvious problems (a burned home for a family and/or a disaster like the earthquaker in Haiti). But please don’t ask most of us to make any substantial, sustained contributions of time or money. We have too many other important things to do, like take another cruise or spend the winters in the sunny South!!!
Forgive me if I sound cynical, but cultural Christians are a noticeable segment of my own congregation. One man is willing to attend services with some regularity, just so long as there are a good number of people there. His attitude? It must be a good thing to do because so many people are doing it!!! Or worse yet, a superintendent of schools I once knew who candidly admitted that he didn’t believe any of that “religious nonsense”. However, people in the school district expected him to attend church regularly, so he did. Sad but true. And I am not really cynical, just experienced!!

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Rick the Road Ranger

posted March 10, 2010 at 3:45 pm

America’s real religion is “The Good Life”. That is a long, happy life with plenty of creature comforts and conveniences. But no substanial, sustained sacrifices or suffering. And our rather common beliefs in God is basically a term life insurance, i.e., buying eternal life with a minimum of time and money.

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posted March 10, 2010 at 4:54 pm

C’mon, these have always been the real drivers, and I’m including Rome and prior. People have always wanted health, money, and power. I think it would be more instructive to compare STATED values – in other words, you can learn about a society by examining its publicly stated virtues. ACTUAL behavior and the things driving it don’t change much, so you can’t learn much by studying them.

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Mark Gordon

posted March 10, 2010 at 5:15 pm

It’s not clear (to me, anyway) whether Maggie’s comment is a send-up, but in my entire life I have never read a better example of nationalist idolatry. Americans worship themselves, including their wealth, their privilege, their righteousness, their history, Constitution and flag.

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Don the libertarian Democrat

posted March 10, 2010 at 5:46 pm

I think the film Starman dealt with this question:
[Starman is driving the car, and speeds across a recently turned red light, causing crashes for the other motorists]
Starman: Okay?
Jenny Hayden: Okay? Are you crazy? You almost got us killed! You said you watched me, you said you knew the rules!
Starman: I do know the rules.
Jenny Hayden: Oh, for your information pal, that was a *yellow* light back there!
Starman: I watched you very carefully. Red light stop, green light go, yellow light go very fast.

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Your Name

posted March 10, 2010 at 6:36 pm

From metroplex to rural countyseat, the most overbuilt and prominent buildings in post-20th century American are almost always the BANK and the HOSPITAL. Architecture proclaims the truth about cult America. I believe that would add votes in the money and health columns of the survey.

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posted March 10, 2010 at 6:43 pm

Re: As the Bishop of Durham, Fr. N. T. Wright, has put it, America worships Girls, Guns, and Gold.
Isn’t that pretty much true of every culture in every era, assuming guns=power, gold=wealth and girls=sex?

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Mark Gordon

posted March 10, 2010 at 7:26 pm

Isn’t that pretty much true of every culture in every era, assuming guns=power, gold=wealth and girls=sex?
The lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life.

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posted March 10, 2010 at 7:49 pm

Depends on what you read and for whom it was aimed. There’s a place for rah rah and there’s a place for thoughtful analysis. Sometimes people forget that. Funnily enough, there probably isn’t a correlation between the “my country right or wrong folks” and the “my kid can do no wrong” folks. And I say that as someone who loves the U.S. and am glad I’m an American. It’s just that men (and women) make up and lead a nation and they’re human. So they make mistakes but also do some things well. So nations make mistakes and do some things well. Yeah, it’s nice to hear people chant “USA” sometimes. But it’s also nice to be able to debate candidly about what we’re doing and what we’ve done in the past. They couldn’t do that Back in the USSR.
Why people apply standards of publicly stated perfection to a country that they probably wouldn’t apply to their family members and which wouldn’t serve them well in business, I’ll never know. I mean, can you imagine living with a spouse and children whom you never can criticize and constantly have to praise, boost and cheerlead about? Or working in an office where you can’t say “the emperor has no clothes” about the most powerful people or criticize a flawed design or plan or product? That’s not to say the glass half empty folks who only harp on what’s wrong don’t become irritating after a while. But so do the ones who shush anyone who tries to say, “wait a minute, that wasn’t our finest hour, might as well face up to that.”
I worship our freedom of speech and right to disagree amongst ourselves and dissent, more than anything else. But depending on what you read and whose side people are on, that can get lost in the din sometimes. So yeah, one could get the impression we value conformity more than we do.

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Anti Dhimmi

posted March 10, 2010 at 11:36 pm

If we were to be able to walk into the house of a Roman through the Republic and into most of the Empire, we’d find prominently displayed a shrine to the house god(s). Walk into any ancient or not so ancient Chinese house prior to the 20th century, and we’d find something similar (a house Buddha, a shrine to ancestors, etc.). Walk into any pious Christian home throughout most of the last two millenia, and we’d find a crucifix, cross, maybe some icons or other images.
Walk into a modern American home. What is at the center of attention, in generally the biggest room of the house, that grabs the eye? What do Americans spend hours contemplating? Clearly it’s the house god.
A lot of Americans worship Oprah, or someone a lot like her.

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non-metaphysical stephen

posted March 10, 2010 at 11:39 pm

Golden Calf is right — or as I call it, “Americolatry”. Political life always tries to appropriate religious life for its own purposes. We have our sacred holidays, our national saints (Washington, Lincoln), and our civic scriptures: The Declaration, The Constitution, and The Wealth of Nations.
Would that more U.S. Christians focused more attention on the Kingdom of God and less on the USA!

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Antonius Magnus

posted March 11, 2010 at 8:55 am

Americans worship a lot of things; it is interesting that one of the more popular TV shows is called, “American Idol”. Here in Kentucky, the idol is UK basketball. If a “big game” is scheduled on a Sunday, churches will actually cancel or change the time services are held to accommodate those who want to watch it. My wife, who used to be a youth minister, suffered no end of frustrations when she tried to have events that clashed with UK games–parents simply chose basketball over their religion. People here would not admit this, but it is an epidemic.

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Franklin Evans

posted March 11, 2010 at 9:45 am

I’m sitting here wallowing in iron. A modern Pagan (me) is flabbergasted over the cognitive disconnect between spirit (worship) and flesh (materialism, etc.)
Consider two hunters. Both have equal skill in their craft. One sees his prey as items to be acquired, to trade with other less skilled than he and perhaps profit therefrom and acquire from other craftspeople conveniences and luxuries. The other meditates on the living animals he is about to kill, consciously ponders the connection between their deaths and his and his family’s lives, and in keeping with his spiritual beliefs offers a worshipful chant or prayer before beginning his hunt.
The first hunter is not engaged in worship. Neither is the second hunter. For me, the disctinction is each hunter’s awareness (or lack) of his place in his world and his connections to entities both living and inanimate.

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Franklin Evans

posted March 11, 2010 at 9:48 am

In short, in the context of this thread and its initial questions, the answer to “What do Americans worship?” is…
Sorry for the double post. I must learn to complete my thoughts before racing Captcha to the finish line.

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Steven Donegal

posted March 11, 2010 at 12:03 pm

Where Rieff goes wrong in his analysis is the supposition that humans aren’t hardwired for stupidity. It is difficult to retrace human history and see humanity making the same catastrophic mistakes over and over again and not at least question whether we are ultimately stupid.

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posted March 11, 2010 at 1:19 pm

In the USA – the United Sources of Addictions – Americans obviously worship their addictions. So there are status/ambition junkies, excitement/stimulation junkies, gluttony junkies, you name it and someone will turn it into an obessive-complusive fetish.
This while the High Priest apologists, enablers, and exhorters chant the mantra: freedom & liberty.
So really the main distinction of the American Religion is a quantitative one: namely more time, more money, and more license (for more average folks) than most other places.

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Rick Road Ranger

posted March 11, 2010 at 7:59 pm

So, is America just a facade? A farce? A fabulous “Potemkin village”?

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Joseph D'Hippolito

posted March 12, 2010 at 2:46 pm

As someone who was baptized as an infant and raised as a Catholic, let me defend Protestant soteriology.
First, Christ redeems individuals, not groups. Even those whose first experience of Christ is in a church setting must come to him as individuals, not merely as members of a body. Otherwise, faith is nothing but pseudo-spiritual osmosis for which nobody is responsible.
Second, Protestant soteriology emphacizes personal responsibility; Catholic soteriology emphacizes collective responsibility. Don’t believe that? Listen to the differences in the sermons.
Third, so many people have been ignored by their churches than when the come to an evangelical Protestant church, they experience a sense of personal worth — and, more importantly, worth in God’s eyes — that they haven’t experienced previously. The woman whom another commenter mocked for saying that “Jesus loves ME” probably was one of those ignored by her church, or by society as a whole.
I wish some of you who criticize the “selfish” emphasis in Protestantism would take a look at yourselves. By mocking others who don’t believe as you do, you’re actually the selfish ones, because you are making your ideas — and, by extention, yourselves — paramount over the power of the living God to redeem the broken.

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Joseph D'Hippolito

posted March 12, 2010 at 2:50 pm

And now, for something completely different…
While you are all wonder what America worships, let me tell you what I think Institutionalized Christianity (across the board) worships: power, prestige, political influence, material wealth, power, a little sex on the side, intellectual fashion, power, groupthink and power.
Don’t believe me? Read Ezekiel 34 and Matthew 23. Times have changed but human nature hasn’t.

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posted March 12, 2010 at 3:05 pm

It’s power. Money, pleasure and health are all a means to this in our society. Unfortunately, so is sex quite often. At the heart of all of these is the worship of power and control.
Contrast this with following the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is largely about giving up power, depending utterly on Jesus, and even being “living sacrifices”, and you can see where a lot of the conflict comes in. In contrast to frequent the scriptural command to “fear not” and to love your neighbor, the false god of power depends in large part on fear and on getting one up on one’s neighbor.

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