A 2014 Pew Research Center survey found that 63 percent of Americans profess absolute belief in God (with Evangelical Protestants at 88 percent, edged out of the lead only by Historically Black Protestants at 89 percent). In 2015 Pew found a modest decline among Americans who profess belief in God, pray daily and attend church regularly, observing that “the majority of Americans without a religious affiliation say they believe in God.” Despite the glut of such polling results, Americans are profoundly confused about religion and politics. Just as most people have no idea what they even mean when they use the word “God,” so the majority of Americans are equally in the dark when it comes to the meaning of politics, political action, and freedom. Whether rightly or wrongly, most Americans distrust or despise all forms of religion, regardless of its particular flavor, brand, or creed. On some level perhaps all Americans reject religion─especially “organized” religion─for being dogmatic. Our deep-seated perplexity about all these matters stems from what historian Perry Miller called “the complexity we now endure” and is a direct inheritance of a cultural conflagration that consumed this nation during the first six decades of the nineteenth century, when romanticism, religion, and law, applied science and commercial interests fused in an irresistible synergism. Our catastrophic Civil War established conditions permitting the contagion to spread rapidly, infusing the remaining four decades, as a desensitized people plunged toward “a new and as yet unknown age,” as Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition called the modern world, which “was born with the first atomic explosions.”
Our present confusion, like the arc of our history, has hoary antecedents beginning with the seventeenth century and the New England Puritans who put a permanent stamp on the cultural dynamic of the people and institutions of what would become the United States of America, from the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s banishing Separatist Roger Williams through the eighteenth-century battle between Jonathan Edwards and the entrepreneurial and clerical establishment, to Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France, launching the United States on its course of empire. Napoleon Bonaparte suffered “buyer’s remorse” and tried to renege on the deal, an irony only compounded by a democratic icon like Jefferson being cast in a role so instrumental to the course of empire.
Overwhelmed by new technologies of steam, electricity, and wireless telegraphy and a science that enshrined quantitative analysis expressed in mathematical equations as the elite and exclusive model of knowledge, America abandoned its heritage of revolutionary freedom through genuine political action at the local community level. Opinion was degraded then sent to a “Phantom Zone” of irrelevance (“Without Data, It’s Just Another Opinion”). Abandoned: all traditional disciplinary knowledge, truth, and wisdom of the humanities, religion, and literature. They couldn’t compete with the knowledge that promised a “boundless prospect” of Progress, endless creature comforts, and a spurious belief in man’s omnipotent control of the universe. In 1811, Thomas Cooper held Carlisle College’s new chemistry chair, put a fresh gloss on Francis Bacon’s motto “knowledge is power,” wrote the foremost historian of American national identity,
making it mean that now we can compel every object around us to contribute “to our pleasure, to our profit, to our comfort, or to our convenience.” In a very short time, this sense of an onrushing technology became explicitly equated with the national destiny.
(Perry Miller, The Life of the Mind in America From the Revolution to the Civil War, 311-12)
Opinion, not knowledge, is necessary for genuine politics and political action. America abandoned all of that, too.