On the (belated) Feast of St. Francis Xavier: American Religious Exceptionalism


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.


3 Responses to On the (belated) Feast of St. Francis Xavier: American Religious Exceptionalism

  1. Peter Wolczuk says:

    Reminds me of the part of the story of Gideon (Judges 6:31&32) where he earned the name, “Jerub-Baal”

  2. David Kontur says:

    This post raises a few very troubling issues –
    1. Is it the point of the author to advocate for such a strategy – if so, I find that very disturbing. While this may have been an effective strategy for St. Francis Xavier, I believe that is was so because the real intention was tied directly to the action in his particular attempt to bring the message of the Gospel to the people he met. The problem is that far more often in history the stated intention is only a mask for the real intention and when this is so, you end up with the logic of “the ends justifies any means.” When Christianity is co-opted by the nation or state, going to other lands to “bring the faith” has often been a front for very brutal actions to plunder other people’s resources (gold, etc) and bring them under the rule of the empire (fill in the blank for whatever empire you want… Rome, Spain, England, etc).

    2. In reference to my first point, this also happens with ideas, e.g., “spreading democracy”. This has often been a front for the United States to protect global economic and military dominance under the guise of “spreading democracy”, often times resulting in propping up some of the most undemocratic and brutal regimes in the world. And now it is even resulting in increasingly undemocratic and totalitarian leaning domestic policies for the purpose of “protecting democracy”.

    3. I agree with the author’s last points in the concluding paragraph, but would add an exception to these observations – “911”. What makes 911 so significant is that it was a direct attack on and “smashing of the statuary” of two very specific symbols of economic and military power (World Trade Center and Pentagon). As a result, we have ended up with a “Global War on Terrorism” (which has continued under both Republican and Democratic leadership) rather than a focused and strategic international response to bring those responsible to justice. I think that the response has been more about re-asserting global economic and military dominance than about bringing those actually responsible to justice (that has always been a secondary concern). This too has resulted in a logic of “the ends justifies any means.” As a result of the “Global War on Terror”, the number of people around the world that have lost their lives, most of whom had nothing to do with Al Qaeda, is exponentially higher than those lost in 911.


    • Aaron Pidel, SJ says:

      The point was not to advocate for such a strategy–hence the admission that Xavier’s actions raise “all sorts of theological and ethical questions” and the disclaimer that these would be bracketed. The point, I suppose, is manifold: to show that secularization isn’t a new process, though it takes a new form because of the uniquely modern configuration of the “social sacred,” to suggest that we are not so different from the poor Tamil fisherman whom Xavier encountered, and to give those something to ponder who tend to be a little self-congratulatory about America’s Christian strength. At least at the level of popular religion, this strength may reflect a lack of testing.

      One thing I didn’t bring out in the post is how the US might have played the role of Xavier. One might think of the Japanese Emperor’s renunciation of his divine status–an act which we forced by dropping two atom bombs in 1945–and the resulting “secularization” of Japan. We too are willing to play Xavier when the interests of national security are at stake (as opposed to those of religious truth).

      Finally, I would disagree that 9/11 represents the smashing of the American “statuary” in exactly the way I mean. If Taylor is right, then our sense of the “sacred” is much more diffuse than in traditional societies, bound up in the righteousness and prosperity of a whole nation. The destroyed towers were immediately understood to be “symbolic” of American influence, but only “symbolic.” This is a very different thing from the destruction of something that is itself the irreplaceable object of veneration or a source of religious strength (i.e., Hindu idols, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Japanese Emperor, Mecca). Since the 9/11 didn’t really cripple the American economy or convince anyone that God was not “on our side,” the blow to the American psyche was hardly comparable to, say, the destruction of the Temple for ancient Israel. I suspect songs like “God Bless America,” by contrast, would quickly lose their popularity if we were successfully invaded by the Chinese.

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