This week we take a look at religion and church-going in our host countries:
It is a well-known irony that, in Britain—where they have an official religion and the monarch is also the head of the church—that religion is barely noticeable, whereas in the US—a rabidly church and state separated nation—religion thrums constantly in the background.
The household I grew up in was not particularly religious, yet at various times of my life I have been a Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed and a disciple of a charismatic, fundamentalist cult. In addition to those active memberships, I have attended Baptist, Jehovah's Witness, Mormon, Catholic, Episcopalian and Unitarian services; just think where I'd be if my family had been religious.
While visiting the States, my wife, who maintains a British view of religion, was quite alarmed when friends spontaneously began praying over us—asking God to give us a safe trip home—in a pub. And I, myself, am surprised at the number of people who, when we visit, say grace over the meal.
England and America treat their religion like their patriotism, which is why it is bold and brash and ready to give you a great big, bear-hug in the States, and is sort of quiet and apologetic here in Britain (unless, of course, you happen to be a Catholic who wanders into a Protestant neighborhood in Belfast).
I don't mean to portray the British as non-religious. After all, they were responsible for our Puritan forefathers and enthusiastically burned, beheaded and otherwise made life unpleasant for whichever religion didn't happen to be in power at the time. It's just that, as with much about their lives, they simply prefer to keep it to themselves. (Besides, since the outlawing of overt persecution and public executions, religion just isn't as much fun as it used to be.)
It is, however, an established fact that church attendance is falling off, and I have yet to encounter anyone standing on a street corner trying to save my soul, so I think it's safe to say that, religion-wise, the US wins hands down, or hands up, depending on what sort of church you belong to.
Personally, I prefer it this way. As a comedian pointed out on the telly not long ago, "Religion is like a big dog; when it's yours, it a comfort and a companion, but when it's someone else's, it's frightening." But most of all, it eases my mind to know I don't have to worry about people impulsively praying over me in the pub.
Any British expat here will probably agree that the USA is a far “holier” place than the UK. Not that we’re surrounded by saintly people, but a large percentage of the population go to church. On a regular basis. And do more than stand at the back and mumble along with the service.
I was raised Catholic, but we won’t go into that since I’m now what you’d call “lapsed”. When I first moved to the States I lived in Dallas, which can generally be regarded as part of the “deep south” when we’re talking religion. Large families saying Grace before meals at the local International House of Pancakes was commonplace, and more than a few parties started with a group prayer, holding hands with complete strangers and asking the Lord to ensure we had a good time. And there are some fairly extreme forms of religion, such as not touching alcohol, (extreme in my books anyway), speaking in tongues and snake-handling, which is done mainly in the south eastern states. I have to emphasize that they are not mainline church groups and are generally looked on as crazy by most people here too. In fact, since 75 people have been killed by snakes in the last 80 years, most states have banned or restricted snake-handling, except West Virginia.
The other thing that surprised me about Americans is that they talk openly about their church. Not that it was a huge secret when I grew up, just that we didn’t mention church really. At my Catholic school, obviously everyone went to church but we didn’t really talk about it. Had any member of my family suggested grace before meals, I would have first assumed it was a joke, and then promptly died of embarrassment, even though we said it every day at school.
The thing that bugs me slightly in the US is the “separation of Church and State” stipulation, and the fact that it’s pretty much ignored. I resent being told, say in North Carolina, that I can’t have a beer or a glass of wine with my meal just because it’s Sunday; it annoys me that in states like Colorado and Utah (or large parts thereof) you can only buy alcohol at the state rune liquor stores, and that in my local supermarket I can't buy wine till 11am on Sundays. Are they hoping that more people will hang out in churches until the wine aisle opens? (I know there are restrictions in the UK, but nobody’s pretending that it’s not a church-based country. The Queen is the titular Head of the Church of England too.)
If anyone moved here genuinely thinking, as in the olden days, that they would be free of religious persecution, they’ll be somewhat taken aback. Not that anyone’s going to throw big heavy stones at them, but there are a lot of laws that are unabashedly based solidly on religion.
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