Though many lament the growing “secularization” of American culture, it remains true that, at least relative to other nations of the affluent West, American Christianity enjoys a rather prominent public role. It’s not only the fact that Americans go to Church more, though this is not insignificant. It’s also that the “place” of religion in the broader civic order seems more prominent. It still seems “more American” to go to Church on Sunday, to pray the Lord’s prayer at high school ball games, and to salt political speeches with biblical rhetoric. It seems very un-European, by contrast, to do any of these things. And while it is easy for American Christians to be self-congratulatory about this difference, the success of one of St. Francis Xavier’s more indelicate evangelization strategies suggests that America’s comparative religious vitality may be more circumstantial than we care to admit.
The particular evangelization strategy that I have in mind is the violation of shrines. As I pointed out in another post (and my return to the theme might indicate an obsession), St. Francis had little-known penchant for toppling Hindu statuary. This tactic raises, of course, all sorts of theological and ethical questions. Bracketing these for a moment, however, we can still ask a question that few nowadays ask. Were these acts effective? Did they effectively distance Hindus from their religious commitments? And if so, what do tell us about contemporary secularization dynamics?
Direct evidence of the effect of these temple raids is scant, of course, but St. Francis’ 50,000 baptisms suggest that he didn’t entirely misread the indigenous psychology. Moreover, as Taylor points out in A Secular Age, history teaches that such aggressions have actually been quite effective at “secularizing” communities with a highly localized sense of the sacred:
For those who believed in the influences and forces residing in certain places and certain things, the very fact that they could be destroyed without terrible retribution seemed to indicate that their power had fled… When St. Boniface felled the sacred oak groves of the pagan Germans, just this demonstration effect was what was intended. And the missionaries who followed the Conquistadores in Mexico hastened to destroy the temples and cults of the natives, with the same intention, and similar results (441).
Minus the expectation of divine retribution, the association between intactness and divine presence remains quite alive in the Catholic imagination. Just think how the “indestructability” of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe (which has survived, without notable wear, both a bomb blast and 450 years of exposure to the elements) serves to authenticate the apparition. By the same token, if the tilma were suddenly to disintegrate, we would probably see a notable decline in religious expression among Mexicans, the objects of popular veneration not being simply interchangeable.
How does this relate to contemporary religious sensibilities in Europe and America? Connecting the dots requires accepting Taylor’s contention that we also have a “social sacred,” though of a distinct and typically modern variety. According to Taylor, the modern sensibility differs from the pre-modern in that the presence of God has become more diffuse and nationalized. The pre-modern instinct was to see a society’s access to divine blessing and supernatural assistance as mediated, passing through certain sacred times, places, and people. If one wants a prosperous crop, for instance, one plants on Good Friday (as they often did in Medieval England); if forgiveness, then one makes a pilgrimage to a shrine like Canterbury; if success in war, then one follows an anointed King to battle.
The modern instinct, by contrast, reflects the leveling tendencies of the Protestant Reformers, for whom the strong “localization” of God’s presence appeared an idolatrous limitation on His sovereignty. Even here, however, God’s presence and favor are not without signs. But they are different. The sign now takes the form of a providential mission shared by a whole people; a nation is blessed, in other words, if “it is His design around which society is organized” (455). Both sides of the Atlantic used to share this modern vision: think of 19th-century England’s gallant acceptance of the “white man’s burden,” Germany’s WWI slogan Gott mit uns (“God with us”), or America’s ongoing mission to promote global democracy. In this modern configuration of the “social sacred,” the equivalent of shattering sacred statuary becomes shattering a whole nation’s sense of purpose and election.
And here may lie the key difference between European and American experience. Whereas Europe has suffered catastrophes aplenty and is already well past its prime in terms of economic and political influence, America has sustained relatively little challenge to its sense of “chosenness”: she has never endured massive foreign occupation, nor turned over an overseas “empire,” nor yielded political and economically dominance. No one, in short, has ever stripped the U.S. of its marks of “election.” No one has ever entered into its sacred precincts and smashed its statuary. As Taylor puts it, “It is easier to be unreservedly confident in your own rightness when you are the hegemonic power” (528).
Could this be why secularization has proceeded more slowly in the U.S.? Why we are more comfortable than our European contemporaries invoking God in the public square? Why we go to Church in greater numbers, and expect our presidents to do the same? The explanation is obviously simplistic and neglects the whole mystery of grace. But there may be something to it. It might at least be worth pondering on the (belated) feast of St. Francis Xavier.