In a series of essays I am exploring the sociological reasons that the prosperous democracies with high levels of religiosity – the conservative and creationist USA most of all -- tend to have high levels of social dysfunction. In previous essays we looked at specific subjects such as youth sex, marriage and divorce, and child rearing. It is time to start looking at the broader picture. In order to do that we have to first look at some factors that do not adequately explain the situation America finds itself in.
That the United States is performing so poorly, often outrageously so, in so many measures of societal health and dysfunction compared to the other prosperous democracies (see my previous OEN posts for the grim details) should be a matter of serious concern to all citizens. In a logical world it would be a major issue in the presidential campaign. That it is not is evidence of the nation’s chronic provincial ignorance and arrogance, a rejection of reality so deep that many still consider America to be a “Shining City on a Hill” to the rest of the world. Some still parrot ridiculously false specific claims, such as the USA having the best health care system in the world.
The failings of the USA are all the more astonishing and troubling considering its economically privileged position. With less than five percent of the global population America generates and possess a quarter of humanity’s wealth, and with the apparent (its hard to precisely measure these things) exceptions of newly hi-tech Ireland and oil flush Norway has the highest per capita income among significant 1st world nations. America also benefits from high rates of employment, and has high levels of both worker productivity and work hours. But, despite being the wealthiest nation on the planet, the USA is the only advanced 1st world nation that retains 2nd and 3rd world rates of of social dysfunction. America is also easily the least efficient western nation when it comes to converting its wealth and resources into good conditions for its citizens, and that is another characteristic of 2nd/3rd world nations. Nor can the nation’s troubles be attributed to a recent decline from a previously superior ability to cope with social problems in the past, the U. S. has always exhibited disturbingly high levels of societal dysfunction. Even in the 1950s levels of homicide were not far below current levels, and greatly exceeded those present in Europe at the same time. STD infections have been a chronic and serious problem going back to colonial times. America’s exceptionally high levels of religiosity also go way back, De Tocqueville noted the church going ways of Americans vis-à-vis the comparatively secular Europeans in the early 1800s.
The great wealth of the USA makes it difficult to, as many attempt to do, excuse the nation’s failings by attributing them to uncontrollable factors such as immigration. A large portion of the Republican right has targeted newcomers as a major source of the country’s ills. But many western nations opened their borders in the post WW II era of declining xenophobia, with a number actively encouraging immigration to fill land or undesirable jobs. In some secularized democracies whose societal conditions are superior to ours the percentage of the foreign born is only a little short of the U. S. where nearly 12% are nonnatives. In Canada, New Zealand and Australia 18 to 23% are foreigners. The lack of a correlation between the number of recent immigrants and societal dysfunction is not all that surprising. Because immigrants often move into a new country in order to seek better conditions and opportunities, the great majority are much more interested in being positive contributors to their new societies than in causing trouble. Further complicating the argument that immigration creates social problems in a manner that does not involve popular religiosity is an awkward fact; immigrants tend to be more religious than the resident populations of the 1st world nations they are moving in to.
What about ethnic and racial diversity and cultural heterogeneity? Shouldn’t a country with a homogeneous population be less socially dysfunctional than one divided by racial, ethnic and cultural differences? This is plausible, but it is difficult to document the effect. For example, is the minority population of Great Britain limited to nonEuropean whites, or does it include the large number of Welsh who have long been the victims of discrimination from the English majority? In any case this explanation cannot account for more than a portion of the American problem because our white population is often afflicted by abnormally high rates of social ills. Although America’s high rates of syphilis infection are centered in the black population, and although the difference in gonorrhea infections is less between white Americans and Europeans as whole, the latter disease is still epidemic among whites in the USA, while it is not among Europeans of any ethnic category to close to the same extent as it is here. A similar situation exists regarding homicide -- the disparity in rates of murder is significantly less between white Americans and Europeans as a whole, but a large gap remains. The homicide gap is even wider when white Americans are compared to native Europeans, and the same is true when minority Americans are compared to nonEuropean communities on the continent. In any case, the high religiosity typical of minority populations again complicates their use to explain away the American problem without resorting to popular levels of religion.
A popular fiction holds that America is so violent today because of its notorious frontier heritage, unlike Europeans who are not burdened by a similar past. Why is this a fiction? Because Canada, Australia and New Zealand also have frontiers, yet they kill one another at much lesser rates. While the Canadian frontier experience of the 1800s was relatively pacific, those of Australia and New Zealand were intensely lethal as the colonists strove to exterminate the natives. And Canada and Australia still have open frontiers in their arctic and outback respectively, unlike American where the entire west has been settled.
Modern American media has presented unprecedented levels of fictional and actual violence to the public, leading to a large set of studies that conclude that media carnage is a significant contributor to high levels of actual violence. The problem with this idea is American style media has spread across the western world, yet homicide levels in western nations aside from the USA have not risen significantly over the last few decades. For that matter, homicide dropped a large amount in the USA over the last two decades as media violence remained level or even ratcheted up. One way or another the secular democracies have proven better able to cope with high levels of faux mayhem than has the USA.
Even if some of the above nonreligious issues have a degree of impact upon overall societal conditions, numerous studies agree they are not strong enough to explain more than a modest portion of the very high level of social distress present in the U. S. compared to the much more socially successful, yet generally less wealthy, secular countries. It therefore appears that religion is in some manner or other involved in the problem. Assume, for example, that dysfunctional economic conditions such as inadequate welfare and income disparity are contributing to the high rate of social ills in Christian America. The question remains why such a godly, prosperous nation is suffering from such deeply inferior socio-economic circumstances relative to more successful secular countries in the first place. Likewise, why is church going, creationist America alone among western nations operating an incarceration gulag that matches the scale of those seen under totalitarian police states? Why is Christian America the only advanced nation not providing health care to every child – and suffering scandalously high levels of juvenile mortality as a consequence? If the nation’s problems with lethal violence can be attributed to an exceptional level of media violence, then why are the entertainment industry and their audience of a highly religious nation so interested in fictional violence? Or, if American media content is not exceptionally violent then why are its largely God fearing citizens more prone to murdering one another than those of less pious democracies? If religion is part of the problem, is conservative or liberal Christian doctrine more responsible for the adverse situation? And why are there no nations in which religion is both thriving and liberal? What roles are creationism and evolutionary science playing in this cultural stew? The next essay will tackle these big questions with some big answers.
Further reading --
This essay is a follow on to the below series.“Why is Secular European Society Doing So Much Better Than God-Fearing America? Raising the Kids”
“Why is Secular European Society Doing so Much Better Than God-Fearing America? Lets Start With Sex.” www.opednews.com/articles/opedne_gregory__080131_why_is_secular_europ.htm and “Why the Claim that Progressive Secular Values and Policies Are Bad For Societies is a Great Big Lie,” www.opednews.com/articles/opedne_gregory__080118_why_the_claim_that_p.htm N.
Marks and company at the New Economics Foundation document the economic and resource inefficiency of America with the “The Happy Planet Index” at www.happyplanetindex.org, as do D. Rosnick and M. Weisbrot in “Are Shorter Work Hours Good for the Environment?” Center for Economic and Policy Research. www.repr.net/documents/publications/energy_2006_12.pdf
John Tomlinson’s Cultural Imperialism (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991) explains the extent to which American media has pervaded all western cultures.