We cannot deny that an embarrassingly large percentage of Americans are creationists. Public opinion polls constantly reveal this, and there’s no point in not acknowledging it as fact. (See New Gallup Poll on Creationism.)
Rather than regarding creationism as a weird aberration, we should recognize that intense religious fervor of one kind or another has always been a powerful force in American history, starting with some of the earliest colonial settlements. It was often those with the most strongly-held religious convictions who were motivated to leave their ancestral homelands and start over again in an untamed wilderness.
If you doubt the major role that religion has played in American history, this Wikipedia article on the Great Awakening describes four spiritual upheavals that are given that name, and we think they may have missed a few. Colonization itself could be considered the first such event. The emancipation movement may be another, and the temperance movement resulting in alcohol Prohibition may be yet another. The same can be said of the Civil Rights movement.
Therefore, depending on how one defines such things, there were (at least) seven or eight Great Awakenings in American history. Indeed, the entire American experience could be viewed as one long series of such events, with periods of relative quiescence between episodes of furious religious activity. And it occurs to us that the creationism movement can be considered to be still another phase of the same continuing phenomenon.
Okay, you’re thinking, perhaps that’s true. Maybe America really is one big cauldron of religious enthusiasm that periodically boils over and then briefly subsides — until the heat builds up again. That description seems to fit; but given that most Americans have British and European roots, why don’t people in the UK and Europe display the same behavior, and why don’t polls show them to be believers in creationism as much as Americans?
Good question. We can only guess, but one possibility is that this very different behavior on each side of the Atlantic is due to the appalling number of deaths suffered during the long and horrific wars of religion which ravaged Europe from (approximately) 1524 to 1648. During the Thirty Years’ War alone it’s estimated that between three million and eleven million died (see list of wars by death toll.). That got rid of a lot of fanaticism, and many of the remaining intensely religious people sailed to the New World. So Britain and Europe may have been largely purged of such people, and the remnant — so to speak — became Americans. We may be wrong, but that’s one way to explain things.
Well, given that history, why is it that America hasn’t been ripped apart and burned to the ground by now as a result of warfare among various sects? Actually, there were problems in the colonial period, but travel was difficult and merely surviving was probably enough of a challenge in the early days. Religious disturbances did occur, but they were local events, e.g.: Anne Hutchinson‘s exile from Massachusetts Bay Colony, and also the infamous Salem witch trials.
As for later, when religious warfare would have been easier to wage, the only reason we avoided that kind of madness is the Constitution and its absolutely brilliant separation of church and state — the very thing that the craziest of the creationists now want to change.
But that raises still another question: If we were populated by most of the remaining fanatics in the Old World, then how did we end up with a generation as wise as the Founders who led the Revolution and wrote the Constitution under which we have flourished?
We think it’s because some of the colonies were exceptions to the general experience of settlement by religious extremists. Virginia, for example, was heavily influenced by the First Families of Virginia. They were English gentry — second sons, typically — who were motivated by land hunger rather than spiritual urges. This isn’t to say that such people are inherently superior — often they’re not. Rather than having any special virtues because of their noble ancestry, we think it was something else entirely that made Virginia’s leaders different from the witch-hunters in Massachusetts.
Despite the conventional (and probably sincere) religious affiliations of Virginia’s leading families, their principal motivations in coming to America were secular. Thus, the intellectual climate in Virginia was especially congenial to the rationality of the Enlightenment. As a result, many of the most influential of the Founding Fathers were from that state. Anyway, regardless of the Virginia influence, it would seem that the Enlightenment arrived and the Revolution occurred during one of those fortunate lulls between the various Great Awakenings. That is why, when we wrote Is America a “Christian Nation”?, we could answer that question with a clear “No!”
So where are we now? If we’re correct, and the creationism movement is the latest manifestation of what has thus far been a recurrent feature of American history, what can be said about it? In our humble opinion, creationism is the least virtuous of all the preceding movements. It has no redeeming qualities whatsoever (see The Infinite Evil of Creationism). For that reason it will probably fail. Then what? We don’t know, of course, but as our title suggests, creationism may be the last Great Awakening in American history.
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