Thursday, May 05, 2011

An idea about why Christianity is so strange in the U.S.: a Brazilian parallel

There's an excellent book about folk religion in Brazil entitled "The Devil in the land of the Holy Cross", by Laura de Mello e Souza, put out by the University of Texas press. The opening chapters paint a picture of early Brazilian life as being influenced more by folk religion than by actual stringent Catholic doctrine, with the central authority of the Church being far away. In fact, according to Souza there really wasn't any sort of group accounting for theological clarity in Brazil for over a century after its initial colonization. What developed popularly was and is a mix of traditions that include many that don't actually have any official sanction, aren't in the Bible, but are instead derived from informal traditions that have been handed down. In Brazil, this has lead to some interesting developments, however, I would argue that a similar process happened in the U.S., but that the results have been nowhere as near as colorful.

Look at it this way: you have protestant groups that inherently have an objection to central authority, let loose on a continent where western migration further out into the country, further out into the wilderness, became the norm. These groups may have started out somewhat close to 'mainline' denominations, as the 'mainline' denominations like to refer to themselves as, but over time split, reconstituted, and became the dominant ethos in relatively isolated communities in the Midwest, the West, and the South. The South was an integral part of the frontier in the antebellum days, with homesteading coexisting with and making use of slavery. Without mass media and modern communications, places were free to develop without much interference from the outside world. Take the process further down the line and you come up with worldviews that support the Creation Science History Museum, that proudly portrays dinosaurs going on Noah's Ark, and the supposed several thousand year age of the universe. You get the bizarre ideas present in the Texas school board's recent curriculum revisions, that present the United States as created by Christianity and for Christian ideals.

And there are plenty of interlinking, mutually supporting, institutions like Bible Colleges and parochial schools that ensure that the 'unique' worldview indulged in by these sects gets perpetuated.

No wonder that there's constant paranoia in very Christian communities about the kids getting exposed to 'the world', coming under the influence of worldly mass media and fashions, going off to 'liberal' colleges, on top of the constant paranoia about books being taught in schools and stocked in libraries. These people have a charming mindset, much like the Amish do, and they want to maintain their way of life.

The problem comes when they try to convince the rest of the country that they're not batshit crazy but are instead the 'real americans' whose rights are being trampled on by godless heathens, who think that the world is as old as, say, some of the Lascaux cave paintings that at 17,300 years old must have been made over 11,000 years before the creation of the earth occurred.

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