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America is in a religious madness | Opinions

She is everywhere. Whether at the graduation ceremony of a middle school in the borough of Brooklyn, the American Olympic qualifications in the state of Oregon or during the favorite pastime – baseball – across the country. The US national anthem rings out thousands of times every day. Between speeches and the handover of the diploma, during the award ceremony or before the game. Singing fervently, the audience, mostly standing, pays homage to the national flag and what the country stands for with the “Star Spangled Banner”. America agrees on that. But not much more. This was recently shown by Gwen Berry.

The shot putt, who got the ticket for Tokyo with third place in the Olympic qualification, did not look at the flag during the anthem, as is usual, but lowered her gaze and had a T-shirt printed with “Activist Athlete” on her head draped. She used the shop window to draw attention to racism, like the kneeling football quarterback Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers in 2016 or the sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos stretching their fists in 1968 at the Olympic Games in Mexico.

Although anything but new, Berry made headlines. Conservatives like the Republican Congressman Dan Crenshaw from Texas demanded that the US athlete be thrown from the Olympic team because her behavior was disrespectful and “un-American”. The liberal “Washington Post” commented that this demand itself was “un-American”, as free expression is guaranteed in the first amendment to the constitution. This also includes criticism of one’s own country. A debate that one or two Americans will also deal with when, on July 4th, the sausages sizzling on the grill with a cool beer in hand, waiting for the fireworks to celebrate independence.

In God we trust – or do we?

The controversy over the American flag is hardly surprising. The country is divided and is drifting further and further apart. However, the level of hostility is worrying. “We Americans don’t just disagree; we have different values, narratives and perceptions of the truth. We see each other as a moral threat, incompatible with everything we think is good, and we fantasize about a country where these threats no longer exist, ”says George Packer, award-winning author of“ The Last Best Hope: On the State of the United States »opposite the magazine« The Atlantic ».

On the one hand there is the rather young, multicultural, immigrant America from the urban centers. With the demand for social, economic and legal justice, the representatives of this view want to keep the promise of the founding fathers. The constitution says that «all human beings are equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness.” Truths that were “taken for granted” in the eyes of the founding fathers.

For the representatives of the other side, this promise has already been kept. For them there is no need for radical adjustments in America. Most of the mostly white representatives of this point of view live in rural areas. For them it is good the way it is and would be even better the way it used to be. There is no need to come to terms with the past, or to critically analyze the economic consequences of slavery for African Americans. In their eyes, minorities are already given preferential treatment. These two manifestations reached their preliminary climax with the Black Lives Matter protests last year and the storming of the Capitol on January 6th.

The vehemence of the dispute is reminiscent of the blind fanaticism that is otherwise associated with religious conflicts. That is not by accident. America has a lot in common with a religion. Above all, the founding myth. In the eyes of the British philosopher and enlightener John Locke, “in the beginning the whole world was America”; “A Garden of Eden, a land in its natural state before laws and governments were created,” as historian Jill Lepore writes. This land was then settled by the pilgrims and led to freedom by the founding fathers in 1776. In addition to the myth, the founding fathers added the prophets, the founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the holy scriptures, and the rituals when the national anthem was raised and the oath of allegiance to the American flag was recited.

The USA was not founded as a Christian nation, but Protestant Christianity is a dominant element in its self-image; after all, the state motto is “In God we trust”. In addition, the USA has long been an extraordinarily pious country for Western democracies. In the post-war period up to the turn of the millennium, church membership was constant at around 70%, but this proportion has since fallen to below 50%.

The binding element is missing

Shadi Hamid, political scientist at the Washington think tank Brookings Institution, sees a direct connection between the decline of the churches and the increase in religious fanaticism outside the organized denomination: “Without the brackets of Christianity, Americans – conservatives and liberals – no longer have a common culture, they can fall back on, ”he writes in the“ Atlantic ”, “The American faith is as fervent as ever.” But what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief, according to Hamid. “Political debates about what America should mean have taken on the character of theological disputes. This is what religion looks like without religion. ” No longer explicitly rooted in the white Protestant dominance, the conceptions of the American creed have become richer and more diverse – but also more torn. Each side tries to assert exclusivity claims against the other.

It goes with the fact that the former President Donald Trump was and still is viewed by his voters as a savior despite countless misconduct. The Redeemer who would lead the land back to white, conservative, self-sufficient roots. Trump often presents himself as a martyr fighting the corrupt system. Conspiracy theories from the QAnon canon played a major role. For Trump, less important than accepting the truth and admitting defeat to Joe Biden was the erroneous belief that the election was faked and that he would still prevail.

But there are also religious manifestations on the other side. Hamid refers, among other things, to the original sin of slavery. The 1619 project by the journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, which dealt with the history and economic consequences of slavery, even questioned the founding myth of the USA with the arrival of the first slaves in 1619. Added to this are the atonements, rituals and excommunications triggered by the “wokeness” debate.

That is not very optimistic for the future of the country. Packer considers a violent civil war unlikely, but not a “cold” one, “one that further undermines democracy, makes every election seem existential and prevents us from solving our big problems and leads to long-term decline.” Perhaps America shouldn’t worry too much about what the country stands for on Independence Day after all.

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