“In God we trust”
To my surprise, God is an important entity to the citizens of the United States. Even to atheists!
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A few months ago I signed up to a “Religions” class for the semester. In this class, we study different religions, the way societies treat religion, and how it fits into culture. I live in Spain, a Catholic country by heritage. This week was the Holy Week, and today, Sunday, is the celebration of the resurrection of Christ in Catholicism. In one of the classes, a debate aroused over how much religion should be a public matter, a part of a society. But this paper isn’t about this controversy. Keep reading.
One of my classmates is an international student from the United States. It was interesting comparing the way religion is treated in general in the United States culture in comparison to the Spanish conception of religion in the public terrain. I will briefly explain the differences between the US context and the Spanish one, to point out that the participation of religious symbols and scope take a larger role than one would expect in the multicultural and multi-religious US culture, in comparison to the one in the Catholic Spanish tradition.
The controversy over religious participation in the public sphere in Spain has been going on since the Spanish transition to democracy in the 1970s, after dictator Franco’s regime (previously everyone was Catholic by law.) The decision taken between all the political parties and groups of influence at the time was to create a secular country. Still, the Catholic Church still has a big influence in politics and our culture. Part of the taxes go to the Church, for instance, but not to communities of religious minorities. The new status quo wasn’t enough to keep everyone happy then, and the subject is still open to debate. One of the most recent debates aroused over whether a public TV channel should or not stream a live missal on Sundays. Those in favor, argued that a large percentage of the population identify themselves as Catholic and is interested in watching such content (7% of the share, according to some sources.) Those against, argued that either a public institution should have nothing to do with a religious affiliation and therefore not stream the missal; or that it should represent more religions than just the Christian Catholic to pursue equal treatment. As you may perceive, religion is a touchy subject in the Spanish society. If you identify yourself as Catholic in Spain, people will have a different perception of who you are as opposed to the ‘standard’ atheist. In general, people identify ‘Catholic’ or ‘religious’ as conservative, and more right-oriented in politics and values. But differences don’t go much further than that: families usually have a mixture between religious and non religious members (in my experience religion is usually more important to the older members); and even in the ones in which no one identifies themselves as religious, Christmas is celebrated, as well as the First Communion (a big celebration of a Christian sacrament where children become protagonists around ages 8–10, it’s taken as a “growing up” feast for atheists or non practicing catholics) even if the kid never comes back to Church again. Traditions are maintained by Spanish atheists, although not necessarily linked to faith. To sum up, there aren’t big cultural differences between believers and atheists. In this scenario, that is why, in my opinion, when politicians address the subject of religion, they seek to take a stand into this ongoing debate and clarify or continue their mission in their ideological perspectives. No religious reference in politics, public symbolism or the media will come across unobserved.
The case of religion in the United States culture is very different. A fairly historically recent country, religion (or the lack of it) plays a much larger role in the identity of the United States citizen. In contrast to the Spanish context, where everyone more or less shares the same traditions, there is a wide religious diversity in which traditions (at least in my experience) are not shared: a Jew doesn’t celebrate Christmas (not even in a secular way) nor a Christian celebrates Hanukkah. Religion is a more important part of one’s identity in the US than in Spain because there are actual celebratory differences, in values, and in culture. The connotations of being a Jew, a Muslim or an Atheist in the US are important, in general, and affect the everyday life of believers and non believers.
That is precisely the interesting thing about religious social importance and connotation: in Spain, at an individual level, it’s not significant what you believe in because the traditions are the same; but rather take a huge importance in the social aspect. In the US, it is the opposite: it is more important (compared to the Spanish society) what you confess your faith (and hence culture) to be at an individual level, but doesn’t have as big of an impact at the social level. This is a big generalization, so I’m going to explain its meaning further through examples:
During this Thursday of the Holy Week in Spain (commemorative day of the ‘Last Supper’ in Catholic tradition), the Ministry of Defense has risen the flag at half-mast “to honor the death of Christ” until Holy Sunday (day of the resurrection of Christ). This is a clear evidence of the participation of religion in the public sphere of the Spanish society, as well as a representation of the current actual influence of the Catholic Church. As predictable as it was, controversy has aroused once again around the same subject. Although I think that if the Department of Defense were to do so in the United States it would not be tolerated, there are many symbols and indications of the influence of religion in the public sphere. For instance, a US president can “bless” the people of ‘America’ and ‘America’ itself, and it’s an accepted expression for a politician who, apparently, has no relation with any specific religion. Not only this, but also, the United States motto is “In God We Trust” adopted in 1956. It is printed in dollar bills, for everyone to recognize. In case it’s not clear enough, in the dollar bills there is also a pyramid drawn, with an eye over it. On top of the eye, it says the Latin motto “Annuit Coeptis” that translates to “Providence Has Favored Our Undertakings.” “Providence” means “the protective care of God or of nature as a spiritual power.” If any of these two things were to happen in Spain (the public “blessing” from a politician or the adoption of such motto), people would freak out.
But what does all that mystic symbolism in dollar bills and cultural public references to God in the US culture mean? My interpretation is the following: given the diversity of religion in the US and its multiculturalism, there is an identity that needs to be common and formed for all the community of the United States to have the feeling of siblinghood, of a country, a citizenship. In Spain, given the tradition, it’s very easy to achieve a sense of common identity (even if some Catalans want to secede) because mostly everyone has grown up within the same framework of values, even if not religious. On the contrary, in the US it would be very hard to achieve without a common framework. Because of this, a new identity was created: the identity of the ‘American,’ compatible in its spiritual sense with any other religion or lack of that citizens identify themselves with. Its genesis can be found in 1787, with the signing of the Constitution. The Constitution works in a ‘sacred text-fashion’ of the American spiritual identity, because it was written by the Founding Fathers, and that is why the Amendments are so important historically. It is not unreasonable to interpret the Constitution as the sacred text of this American identity because the men who wrote it an agreed on it also receive a traditionally holy denomination: the Founding Fathers, with caps. In the Islamic, Jewish and Christian traditions, “Father” is another name for “God.” In calling the American politicians who wrote and signed the Constitution “Founding Fathers,” it provides them with a special treatment of spiritual status: they are not only building a new country, but also a new identity that can solely be constructed through a common mystical belief that all citizens would share no matter their previous background; a bond beyond physical and cultural traits. The baton of the presidency has been passed from the Founding Fathers and on (just as Christians did in creating the figure of the Pope), which legitimates a US President to bless citizens. Let’s rethink now the motto of the US: “Providence has favored our undertakings.” According to the Merriam–Websters dictionnary, “Providence” means “God, conceived as the power sustaining and guiding human destiny.” So the motto means “God has favored our beginnings, or our endeavours; the endeavours of the Americans.” With this understanding, it has a parallelism to the ambitions of many religions as to take their followers (which historically belong to a certain ethnicity) as mystically superior with respect to the rest of people in the sense that God had favored their people; that they are the chosen people by deity. It is common not to one but to many religions. It’s a form of ethnocentrism, as qualified by anthropologists. By having a common God for Americans (and God understood in a very abstract and flexible way, accepted (or at least not questioned) even by atheist Americans), it is possible to bond the multiculturalism that the United States was born from.
When I explained this theory in front of the class (although with not as much detail of course,) I asked our international student colleague from the United States to tell me his point of view on the subject, of how religion actually takes a more important role in society than people are usually aware of. He replied that “yes, it is true that dollar bills have a religious reference to God, but that no one really thinks much about that symbolism. It’s just there.”
But symbols are never “just there.” Symbols serve purposes, like exhibiting power and collective identity. Symbols have a historic heritage. If we review history from this religious point of view of the Constitution being a Sacred Text and even the concept of having certain people to “fund” the country (Founding Fathers), we can tell symbolism is relevant:
No matter how well this structure developed to offer space and hold together a country of a multicultured society, we need to remember that the Founding Fathers were all old, rich, white, men from New England. All presidents have been male and, until a few years ago, all white. All these people (presidents) with the legitimacy to “bless,” were all old, rich, white, men. Power, delivered by “Providence” (God) to become Presidents of the United States is reserved to an elite, and that is no secret. Nevertheless, the way privilege applies in the United States through this mystical structure isn’t only for the high echelons: if we understand the Constitution to be a Sacred Text, and only those to whom it refers to in the Sacred Text are part of the collective to which the motto “providence has favored our undertakings” applies, then at the founding moment, no women, no black men were included in the privileges of the God of this religious structure. With the amendments and the achievement of rights to black people, to women, and to many other collectives, they are including these collectives into the concept of “chosen people.” Yet the differences between black and white, men and women, still play a role and are a source of conflict today.
As a conclusion, the differences in the treatment of religion in the public sphere vary in the Spanish context from the one in the US because of the historic causes. In Spain, religion is important at a social level because of the historic pulse over power between the secular state and the Church to take part in the decision making and influence in the country. On the other hand, the fact that there US background of religions is so diverse, there is no religion that can take over the influence of politics in as large of a way; but rather religions coexist and become materialized into one big abstract thing: GOD. “In God we trust,” is an expression that means something different but compatible to each American, even to atheist Americans; because it’s not talking about an specific God, but rather the American God as a bondage of Americans.
It would be interesting to find a similar article exploring the historic and social dimensions of religion in countries where, on the contrary to the US, the public role of religion is strictly and bluntly intertwined with politics, law and society itself. If you know of any, please be so kind to send them to me over email@example.com