Up the Hudson River by train

During my first trip to NYC, I wanted to spend some time outside the city and in New York State. I chose a trip on the Metro-North Hudson Line and certainly wasn’t disappointed.

On boarding the train at the iconic Grand Central Terminal, the passenger is soon transported through the urban landscape of Harlem and the Bronx and, after a mere 11 miles, the line then follows the Hudson River all the way to Poughkeepsie. The 73.5 mile journey takes passengers along the river through Westchester County and on into Putnam and Dutchess counties and the beautiful Hudson Highlands.

After a 1 hour 46 minute journey, the Metro-North train terminates at Poughkeepsie, ‘The Queen City of the Hudson’.

From the station, it is only a short walk to the Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park. The Walkway is a formerly disused rail bridge which once carried freight trains high over Poughkeepsie and across the Hudson to Highland in Ulster County. The impressive bridge has now had its track removed and been converted into the world’s longest pedestrian bridge, providing a 1.28 mile walk which offers views up and down the Hudson River, as well as the sight of freight trains making their way along the CSX River Subdivision.

Having arrived at the Highland end of the bridge, a short walk down wooded back roads leads to the waterfront and views across to Poughkeepsie, prior to making the journey back.

NYC

Memories of my first trip to the great New York City, May 2014.

All photos and video © Edmund Standing 2014

The Theology of Americanism

The Declaration of Independence famously asserts:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

This statement summarises the philosophy upon which American values were built and underpins the ‘American Dream‘: ‘that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement’.

American religion – and the American approach to religion – as envisaged by the Founders bore no relation to the kind of fire-and-brimstone fundamentalism which is often erroneously seen as being the majority belief system in the United States.

Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, who famously lived by the maxim ‘God helps those who help themselves’, is an archetype of the American Dream, being a self-made man with a rags-to-riches story. In his autobiography, he describes his religious views as follows:

I had been religiously educated as a Presbyterian; and though some of the dogmas of that persuasion, such as the eternal decrees of God, election, reprobation, etc., appeared to me unintelligible, others doubtful, and I early absented myself from the public assemblies of the sect, Sunday being my studying day, I never was without some religious principles. I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the Deity; that he made the world, and govern’d it by his Providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished, and virtue rewarded, either here or hereafter. These I esteem’d the essentials of every religion; and, being to be found in all the religions we had in our country, I respected them all, tho’ with different degrees of respect, as I found them more or less mix’d with other articles, which, without any tendency to inspire, promote, or confirm morality, serv’d principally to divide us, and make us unfriendly to one another.

Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father, principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and the third President of the United States, said the following in his First Inaugural Address:

Let us, then, with courage and confidence pursue our own Federal and Republican principles, our attachment to union and representative government. Kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; too high-minded to endure the degradations of the others; possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation; entertaining a due sense of our equal right to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisitions of our own industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow-citizens, resulting not from birth, but from our actions and their sense of them; enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter…

Despite the vocal nature of America’s Christian Right, a look at the values and beliefs held by Americans today shows a striking continuity between America’s foundational principles and its contemporary outlook.

AMERICAN VALUES

In an oft-cited article, L. Robert Kohls, Director of Training for the U.S. Information Agency and Executive Director of The Washington International Center, listed the following as ‘The Values Americans Live By':

  • Personal control over the environment
  • Change
  • Time and its control
  • Equality/Egalitarianism
  • Individualism and privacy
  • Self-help concept
  • Competition and free enterprise
  • Future orientation
  • Action/Work orientation
  • Informality
  • Directness, openness, and honesty
  • Practicality and efficiency
  • Materialism and acquisitiveness

Charles H. Tidwell, Professor of English, Communication, International Business at Andrews University, offers the following as ‘10 Core American Values‘:

  • Individualism
  • Equality
  • Materialism
  • Science and technology
  • Progress and change
  • Work and leisure
  • Competition
  • Mobility
  • Volunteerism
  • Action and achievement oriented

The family also remains a core American value, with recent surveys showing that 78% of American adults rate marriage as important to society and that 77% say a two parent home is very important for children. Indeed, 79% of American adults ‘view the harmonious balance of career and family as being the ultimate success in America, over power, possessions or prestige’.

Patriotism continues to be a core American value. 88% of Americans completely agree (52%) or mostly agree (36%) with the statement ‘I am very patriotic’. 32% consider themselves ‘extremely patriotic’.

AMERICANS’ RELIGIOUS BELIEFS

While the results of polls and surveys can vary significantly, and fluctuate regularly, they nonetheless provide a useful insight into the beliefs of everyday Americans. The following statistics from recent polls of American adults give an indication of America’s true religious outlook:

  • 76% identify themselves as Christians (50% identify as Protestants) and about 6% of Americans identify with a non-Christian religion.
  • 74% state a belief in God.
  • 64% believe in the survival of the soul after death.
  • Most American Christians do not believe that Satan or the Holy Spirit exist.
  • More than half (53%) of Americans in 2014 reported attending religious services at least monthly, including 41% who attended weekly or almost every week.
  • The Bible continues to be named as America’s most popular book and 88% of households own a Bible. 50% of all adults agree that ‘the Bible contains everything a person needs to know to live a meaningful life’, although only 37% of US adults read the Bible once a week or more.
  • Only 28% of Americans profess the fundamentalist belief that ‘the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word’, and a mere 9% give assent to six core fundamentalist Christian doctrines (even among ‘born again Christians’, less than one in five held such beliefs).
  • Less than half (43%) were able to name the first five books of the Bible.
  • 82% believe ‘God helps those who help themselves’ is a Bible verse and a majority of adults think the Bible teaches that the most important purpose in life is taking care of one’s family.
  • 60% believe God wants people to be wealthy.

From 2001 to 2005, sociologists Christian Smith and Melina Lundquist Denton carried out a research project on the religious and spiritual lives of American adolescents, the results of which were published in their book Soul Searching. When all the data had been analysed, Smith and Denton concluded that a belief system they termed ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ is the predominant religious viewpoint held by American teenagers of a variety of religious backgrounds. The basic beliefs of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism are said to be the following:

  • A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  • God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.

In an article summarising the findings, Smith writes of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism:

It believes that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person. That means being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, and responsible; working on self-improvement; taking care of one’s health; and doing one’s best to be successful […] It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people.

Smith and Denton found that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is not a belief system solely of those with a Christian background. In fact, it is more simply an American belief system:

This religion generally does not and cannot stand on its own. So its adherents must be Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, Jewish Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, Mormon Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, and even Nonreligious Moralistic Therapeutic Deists […] In effect, these believers get to enjoy whatever particulars of their own faith heritages appeal to them, while also reaping the benefits of this shared, harmonizing, interfaith religion. This helps to explain the noticeable lack of religious conflict between teenagers of apparently different faiths. For, in fact, we suggest that many of them actually share the same deeper religious faith: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. What is there to have conflict about?

Despite Smith and Denton’s study being focused on American teenagers, they do not believe that this is merely a belief system followed by adolescents:

[W]e are not suggesting that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a religious faith limited to teenage adherents in the United States. To the contrary, it seems that it is also a widespread, popular faith among very many U.S. adults. Our religiously conventional adolescents seem to be merely absorbing and reflecting religiously what the adult world is routinely modeling for and inculcating in its youth.

Looking at American Christianity, this is arguably the case.

THE AMERICAN GOSPEL

Joel Osteen is the Senior Pastor of Lakewood Church, America’s largest Protestant megachurch. The Houston Business Journal reports that Lakewood has a weekly congregation of 45,000 attendees and that Osteen’s sermons, delivered in a 16,000 seat former sports stadium, also reach a television audience of 10 million Americans each week. Osteen is the author of five books, each of them a number one bestseller. Worldwide, they have sold 10 million copies.

Osteen, alongside his wife Victoria, preaches a positive, upbeat message of the transformative power of faith in everyday life:

I preach that anybody can improve their lives. I think God wants us to be prosperous. I think he wants us to be happy. To me, you need to have money to pay your bills. I think God wants us to send our kids to college. I think he wants us to be a blessing to other people.

It’s time to use our words to declare good things! Speak blessings over your life and your family. Throughout the day, say things such as, “I have the favor of God. I am strong and healthy. I’m well able to do what I need to do.” … Friend, if you’ll do your part and speak words of victory, God will pour out His favor in exciting, fresh ways in your life, and you will live the abundant life He has in store for you.

Instead of focusing on the human as fallen and sinful, Osteen highlights human potential:

There is a winner in you. You were created to be successful, to accomplish your goals, to leave your mark on this generation. You have greatness in you… Put your shoulders back. Hold your head up high. Walk with confidence. Winning is in your DNA, and it’s about to come out in a greater way.

Winning is in your DNA. The most high God breathed His life into you. You’ve got what it takes. This is your time. This is your moment. Shake off doubts, shake off fear and insecurity, and get ready for favor, get ready for increase, get ready for the fullness of your destiny. You can, you will!

Osteen’s first book, Your Best Life Now, looks at how to:

  • Enlarge your vision
  • Develop a healthy self-image
  • Discover the power of your thoughts and words
  • Let go of the past
  • Find strength through adversity
  • Live to give
  • Choose to be happy

The basic message is that God created humans with the intention that they should thrive, prosper, and enjoy life. As such, the Osteens’ preaching focuses on getting the most out of life in the here and now, rather than dwelling on what happens after death. What matters in the preaching of the Osteens, as in the lives of most people, are matters such as realising your full potential and having a happy marriage and family life. Victoria Osteen writes:

In many relationships, after time, people neglect to walk in love. One day, they realize that their hearts have changed. You hear it all the time: “We just grew apart.” Joel and I remind ourselves often that God brought us together. He’s got a good plan for our marriage. You need to remind yourself that God has put that person in your life, and He’s got good things in store. If you will do your part by being kind, respecting one another, treating each other the way you want to be treated, God will do His part, and you can live in love!

The Osteens are far from alone in preaching such a message. Joyce Meyer, for example, a hugely successful televangelist and author, argues:

Who would want to get in on something where you’re miserable, poor, broke and ugly and you just have to muddle through until you get to heaven? I believe God wants to give us nice things.

In Look Great, Feel Great, she writes:

God has a great future planned for you and you need to be ready for it! You need to look great and feel great, ready to do whatever God asks of you.

God cares most that you go forth clothed in righteousness. But righteousness plus a nice outfit never hurt anyone. If people see that you respect yourself, they’ll respect you too.

Such a message is uniquely American, and its claim to being ‘Christian’ at all is unsurprisingly widely questioned.

The Osteen and Meyer style of Christianity is not, as some might assume, relatively marginal. Historian Kate Bowler argues that the message of such preachers ‘has consecrated America’s culture of optimism’ and ‘become the foremost Christian theology of modern living’. Conservative Christian commentator Matt Walsh agrees, stating that ‘the Osteens do not represent the theological fringe. They are as mainstream and common as can be’.

On the question of whether this theology is Christian at all, Michael Horton writes:

I offer statistics supporting the remarkable conclusion that those who are raised in ‘Bible-believing’ churches know as little of the Bible’s actual content as their unchurched neighbors. Christ is ubiquitous in this subculture, but more as an adjective (Christian) than as a proper name. While we swim in a sea of ‘Christian’ things, Christ is increasingly reduced to a mascot or symbol of a subculture and the industries that feed it. Just as you don’t really need Jesus Christ in order to have T-shirts and coffee mugs, it is unclear to me why he is necessary for most of the things I hear a lot of pastors and Christians talking about in church these days.

Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, argues:

The Osteen message does not differentiate between believers and unbelievers — certainly not in terms of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In their sermons, writings, and media appearances, the Osteens insist that God is well-disposed to all people and wills that all flourish, but there is virtually no mention of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. No reference to sin as the fundamental issue. No explanation of atonement and resurrection as God’s saving acts; no clarity of any sort on the need for faith in Christ and repentance of sin. Instead, they focus on happiness and God’s “immeasurable favor” to be poured out on all people, if they will only correct their thinking.

Jason Byassee, pastor of Shady Grove United Methodist Church, states of Joel Osteen:

One doesn’t doubt that his counsel helps people to have better marriages, careers, families and lives. Salespeople, whom Osteen often addresses, will indeed perform better with more upbeat, self-confident attitudes. These claims are true, as far as they go. But that doesn’t make them Christian.

In an article for Charisma News, Joseph Mattera contrasts American and Biblical Christianity:

Much of the preaching in American churches regarding faith has to do with using faith so we can have a nice car, home, job, financial security and comfort. The biblical focus on faith is on risking our physical health and material goods to promote God’s Kingdom […] Americans shop for a church today based on what meets their personal and family needs the best. It is almost like a supermarket mentality of one-stop shopping. While it is good if churches attempt to meet the practical needs of families and communities, the focus should be upon equipping the saints for the work of the ministry.

Christian Smith argues:

[W]e have come with some confidence to believe that a significant part of ‘Christianity’ in the United States is actually only tenuously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition, but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity’s misbegotten step-cousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This has happened in the minds and hearts of many individual believers and, it also appears, within the structures of at least some Christian organizations and institutions. The language—and therefore experience—of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, Eucharist, and heaven and hell appear … to be being supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward.

Succeeding in life, having good marriages, families, and careers, living comfortably, having a positive outlook, being thankful for blessings, being kind and respectful to others: these are the things that lie at the heart of the message of a major and very successful brand of Christianity in America. All of those things are good, and all are a part of the American Dream and fit into the American value system, but none of them are specifically or uniquely Christian or Biblical. In reality, much of what comes dressed as Christianity in America is nothing of the sort, and is, rather, a uniquely American religion; a religion arguably rooted in the foundational principles of the United States.

AMERICAN CIVIL THEOLOGY

A comparison of the religious views of Founding Fathers Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson with those of so-called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism demonstrates striking similarities. There is arguably a strong philosophical continuity between their ‘benign religion’ and what Smith calls the ‘alternative religious vision of divinely underwritten personal happiness and interpersonal niceness’ of contemporary Americans.

Benjamin Franklin:

  • A Deity exists, who made the world and governs it by his Providence.
  • The most acceptable service of God is doing good to others.
  • Our souls are immortal, and all crime will be punished, and virtue rewarded, either here or hereafter.

Thomas Jefferson:

  • There is an overruling Providence, which delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter.
  • Religion should inculcate honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of others.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism:

  • A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  • God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.

Jefferson stated that America was:

enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter…

Of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, Smith argues that it:

mirrors and may very well interface with American civil religion at the highest level by providing the nation’s inhabitants a parallel and complementary common, unifying, functional faith that operates at a more apolitical, private, and interpersonal level of human life.

Franklin said of his stripped down version of religion:

These I esteem’d the essentials of every religion; and, being to be found in all the religions we had in our country, I respected them all, tho’ with different degrees of respect, as I found them more or less mix’d with other articles, which, without any tendency to inspire, promote, or confirm morality, serv’d principally to divide us, and make us unfriendly to one another.

Smith notes, of those who live by Moralistic Therapeutic Deism:

In effect, these believers get to enjoy whatever particulars of their own faith heritages appeal to them, while also reaping the benefits of this shared, harmonizing, interfaith religion. This helps to explain the noticeable lack of religious conflict between teenagers of apparently different faiths.

Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, towering figures in the foundation of modern America and its philosophy on life, would surely be pleased to see that so many Americans today continue to share and promote ideas on religion which so closely mirror their own. The religion scornfully dubbed ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ by Smith and Denton is not, as they contend from their traditional Christian perspective, ‘pathetic’, but is, rather, a truly American religion.

THE THEOLOGY OF AMERICANISM

America – or Americanism – can be seen to be underpinned by, and sustained through, a unique theological conception, based partly on biblical visions of a promised land, partly on the values of the Enlightenment, and partly on an ideology of living free, working hard and enjoying the fruits of one’s labours. This theology presents a God who is largely concerned with this world and this life, and who calls the American people forward to ever greater things. This vision of God is of a God who has filled humans with the potential for success and wills that they should prosper and seek enjoyment in life, and do so in a state of freedom. This is the God of a proud people, filled with the conviction that theirs is the greatest nation on earth and convinced that their values offer hope for a better, freer, more prosperous and peaceful world. While, for many, Christian fundamentalism and the Religious Right are seen as the ‘public face’ of American religiosity, the actual theological basis of Americanism has very little in common with the worldview of the New Testament and arguably constitutes a theology birthed in modernity.

European-American Folk Traditions

When settlers from the British Isles and Germany arrived on the shores of North America, they brought with them not only Christianity, but also a variety of folk beliefs and practices related to every aspect of life and death.

To Appalachia was brought a belief in signs and omens, numerous proverbs, and folk healing practices centred on ‘Granny Women‘. Three fascinating posts on Appalachian folk magic can be read here, here, and here.

To the Ozarks came a form of folk magic very firmly grounded in Protestant Christianity, while holding much in common with other folk religious and magical systems. A helpful glossary of Ozark folk magic can be found here.

Meanwhile, the ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ brought from Germany a magico-religious systemknown as brauche, or ‘powwowing’. Powwowing is rooted in German esoteric traditions and makes use of both the Bible and material derived from European grimoires. Even today, the practice persists, albeit often still under a veil of secrecy. A good website providing information on the Pennsylvania Dutch traditions can be found here.