How Religion Became One Of America’s Greatest Cultural Exports

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It is the most successful cultural export concocted in the Land of the Free and, paradoxically traditional one that doesn’t receive proper attention.

From mega-churches to new religions and even the increasing influence of evangelicals on third-country’s politics, the world is rapidly embracing faith, American style. People don’t see America as an expansionist religious country that pushes religion around the world, but it is.

Where did It All Come From?

Paradoxically, America is a secular country with a strong religious component.

No matter the importance of individualism to the American ideology, God is omnipresent: on bills, coins, and stickers that drivers proudly display at the back of their cars. In the media, televangelists have their own channel and since 1988, faith was elevated with National Prayer Day.

This unique status is the result of America’s history, a country that was founded both on the search for profit and on the basis of a religious mission. This was the ideal of the Boston pilgrims, who wanted to build a ‘city in the hill’, a religious model supposed to grant redemption to an old, corrupt world. The majority of sociologists today content that this actually dates back to the separation of church and state.

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The First Pilgrims-Image Source: michaeltoora

The First Amendment generated a competitive religious marketplace in which scores of sects competed with one another: That’s Capitalism 1.0.1. – except that it considers churches and clergymen as businesses and entrepreneurs.

The argument holds when you consider that Europe clung to the old model. There, State-run Churches exemplifies what happens to monopolies: They eventually become overly complacent and die. Meanwhile, separation of the Church and State made possible the democratization of American religion, a form of religious life in which every possible religious inclination found niche. 

America has always been the ground of religious effervescence, and American competition and profit driven-mentality meant that denominations multiplied, religious entrepreneurs flourished, immigrants imported traditions, uneducated clergy attracted uneducated followers, educated clergy attracted educated followers, and radio preachers and televangelists bought up the airwaves.

The model has also been built on complete rejection from European norms, perhaps a factor that has contributed to the rise of endogenous faith-based doctrines as early as colons settled to America. That it would succeed in the motherland and beyond, however, is a complete surprise – and a very poetic irony, as it appears.

Religious Revival in the U.S.: Immigrants Embracing ‘American’ Religions 

Evangelicals

Established religions are regressing among U.S.-born citizens, yet not all religions are declining at the same rate. Evangelical Protestants have managed to add so many new believers to its ranks that it has actually grown, rising from roughly 60 million to about 62 million from 2007-2014.

One big reason is that they are able to gain new converts – yes, you guessed right, immigrants, mainly Hispanics who were not raised in the faith. Hispanics are the largest group among non-white evangelicals in the U.S. today.

Like their U.S. born counterparts, Hispanic evangelical groups, evangélicos as they call themselves, gather into Hispanic Evangelical Congregations, the most important being the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, a group of 40,200 affiliated congregations led by Rev. Samuel Rodriguez.

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Samuel Rodriguez with Jeb Bush-Image Source: jns.org

The U.S. census does not include questions about religion, but a 2014 Pew study estimates that they represent about 16 % of the nation’s 35.4 million Latino adults, or about 5 to 6 million voting-aged worshippers. 

Rev. Rodriguez estimates that the number is even higher, and that there would be 16 million evangélicos in the U.S.  – one in five Latino.  

Jehova’s Witnesses

More and more immigrants living in the U.S. are embracing American new religions as well. Immigrants now make up a quarter of Jehovah’s Witnesses believers in the U.S and 7% of members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints. Jehovah’s Witnesses are the most popular U.S.-made religious organization among Hispanics, the majority of whom were raised outside the faith and as Catholic (43%), Protestant (10%) or unaffiliated (18%) .

The appeal of the faith on Latinos throughout the country is undeniable and has necessitated the construction of more Spanish-speaking congregations over the last couple of years:  24% Hispanics self-identified as Jehovah’s in 2007. That number rose to 32% in 2014.

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A Revival of Exalted Worship: American Christian Music is A Hit Outside the U.S.

Jesus culture songs using hyper allegorized, romantic language are not new and not an American invention. They date back to the 18th C, when John Wesley came back from a trip to Europe inspired by Moravians hymnology , a very evangelistic protestant group from Central Europe.

Gospel

In modern history, it is American Christian Music genres that are contributing most to the revival of exalted worship. Gospel Music is probably the most unique but successful one. No foreign Gospel groups? But American Gospel bands are exporting well abroad.  According to the Gospel Music Association, membership grew by 23% in a year. The 2014 GMA Dove Awards, an ‘event honoring the outstanding achievements and excellence in Christian and Gospel music’ was streamed in over 40 countries via Hearitfirst.com and had over 50,000, a 50% increase of the last year.

Incidentally, the cultural aspect of Gospel Music, rooted in African-American history, has enabled the U.S. Department of State to be involved in initiatives promoting Gospel, a musical genre that promotes and celebrates the ‘Word of God’ through music.

Every year, 10 bands from various American music styles are selected to promote American culture through music via the American Music Abroad program, a cultural tour co-sponsored between the U.S. Department and American Voices, a non profit, to further the exposure of multiple American musical genres to 40 countries in the world.

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Oscar Williams and the Band of life-Image Source: Amvoices

In 2013, Gospel group Oscar Williams and the Band of Life embarked on the tour. They have traveled extensively to South America, Europe and parts of Asia. 

But Gospel isn’t the only Christian music coming from America that is exporting well. Christian rock, too, is impacting the culture of Christ worldwide. Fostered by the success of rock and the anti-establishment, hippie lifestyle of 1960s, Christian rock Jesus culture was established as a profitable industry with the creation of music labels. Unlike Gospel, a genre that is difficult to master given the importance of vocals, Christian Rock is getting a life on its own outside the U.S. Inspired by American success stories, more and more foreign bands are coming to existence.

Even Christian country music is taking hold abroad. Irish artist James Kilbane, who took part in the Eurovision contest, Europe’s largest broadcast singing competition, collaborated with Nashville writer Thom Shephard on some of his songs.

The impact of neo-Christian Music, an American invention, is undeniable, and is one of the elements that have contributed to the success of American Evangelicalism abroad.

How Evangelicals Are Taking Ground Abroad

Perhaps no area is more receptive to the faith than South America – a phenomenon that mirrors what is taking place with Hispanics immigrants in the U.S. In Brazil alone, there are 30 million Evangelicals.

Missionary Organizations based in the U.S. such as Teen Missions, an interdenominational camp for youth whose leadership, staff and members come from a range Evangelical denomination established 40 years ago.

In that time, they have sent over 40,000 youngsters to places like the Amazon rainforest, Belize, Uganda and Malawi as part of evangelizing effort, doing such volunteer work as providing assistance to Aids orphans or expand existing mission buildings. 

Entirely backed by its members’ fundraising activities (kids raise their own funds for their mission trips, which includes building costs, plane tickets, housing, and food) the program is so successful that it now boasts over 40 teams that travel to 30 some countries each year.

More surprising however is that Evangelicalism is also increasingly appealing to industrialized countries, where religion is on the decline. In France, where religion has dramatically decreased with the introduction of the Republican ideology and secularity, Evangelicalism is doing so well that a new church is opened every ten day! 

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Evangelical Church in Lyons, France-Image Source: Originalivestream

Since 1970, 1,415 additional evangelical churches are being built in France  – not bad considering that Catholic churches are doing so poorly the Vatican, who owns them, has been putting them on the market. 

According to Le Monde , there are now 700,000 evangelicals in France, a 30-fold increase in half a century!

Evangelicals account for a third of all Protestants in France, and the number keeps growing. More aggressive in its recruiting than the Catholics, more and more French are brought to the faith by other evangelicals, and are attracted by its modernity and sociability.

Unlike the Catholic Church in France, evangelicals are very transparent about their finances, disclose the amount of their donations and budget; they are interactive and allow believers to speak – and be listened; worshipers, organized in a general assembly, votes for its pastor and budget.

In France, the Evangelical Church is especially popular with young adults – and what draws them to the faith isn’t Jesus, but the music. The Church is open about its expansion goals: build 1 Church for every 10,000 inhabitants, better than the current ratio of 1 in 30,000 inhabitants today. Training schools are being built to recruit more ‘propagandist pastors’.

Evangelicalism and War on Terror: Religion, A Tool to Take Control of Strategic Zones

This process hasn’t taken place as naturally or slowly in other parts of the world – in areas that have been historically resistant to the gospel of Christ and where it converting to Christianity is still illegal in many countries. But in the Middle East, evangelicalism is nothing less than a geopolitical weapon.

Introduced a century and a half ago by the Arabian mission of the Reformed Church in America, the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the United Presbyterian Church, the U.S. intensified its efforts recently in the context of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, evangelicalism is part of the U.S. strategy to curb the rise of Islamic radicals and increase the American influence in the region.

The evangelization blueprint in the Middle East is organized and selective, relying on a network of pastors, ambassadors, and humanitarian associations, U.S. financing, and on the development of an evangelical message adapted to the Koranic culture.

Their efforts are relayed by numerous radio and television stations supported the US, including Congress and the CIA: CNA-channel North Africa, Arabvision, Life-TV, Miracle Channel, and American propaganda channel Al Hurra Arabic.

To maximize chances of success, stakeholders focus on Christians and Muslim splinter groups – communities whose ethnic origins make them likely to participate in anti-Arab and secessionist projects, including the Kurdish minorities of Iraq and Syria, but also the Kabyle Berbers in the Maghreb.

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Christians women in Iraqi Church-Image Source: Daiysignal

According to Charles St Prot’s article where he quoted the Algerian daily Al Watan, about three quarters of people converting to Evangelicalism do it for the perks: 2000 dinars (about $20) for their conversion, better health care, and the promise of a visa abroad. European countries, for instance, grant visa entry to any Algerian applicant who claims to be the victim of a Christian persecution more easily. 

Charles Saint-Prot, Director of the Institute of geopolitical studies located in France, said that the same could be observed in Lebanon. Groups of youths would organize concerts, festivals and meetings on beaches before going into more specific meetings to try to convince young Christians, mainly Maronites, to join the evangelical church offering to pay for their studies and visas to travel to the United States.

The evangelical propaganda is also a component of the Global Internet Policy Initiative, an Internet Development project initiated by the US State Department, as part of the Partnership Initiative for the Middle East, which already affects Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen and Palestine. 

The exact number of churches and supporters are unknown. However, unlike France, U.S. evangelism doesn’t seem to take hold in the Middle East. It was estimated that the number of Christians in Iraq had dropped to less than 450,000 by 2013, down from a total before the 2003 war of about 1.5 million according to the Economist. Other observers think as few as 200,000 may be left. This is partially due to the persecution, killings of many Christians by ISIS and other terror groups, and subsequent migrations mainly towards Europe. 

Also, the lack of sincere religious motivation behind these initiatives has contributed to raising suspicions with the locals, who see in it nothing more than a different form of American expansionism.

Across the Middle East, governments are growing wary of American evangelists. In Algeria, the government is accusing them of taking advantage of the population’s weakening situation to convert them to Christianity. Suspicious that they may upset the regime, it has decided to crack down on evangelist churches and outlaw proselytism.

What the future holds for Evangelical Churches is unsure, and while it is undeniable that some of their actions are good and contribute to the betterment of depressed communities around the world, it is hard not to see in it yet another kind of colonialism. Religion, as they say, is the ‘opium of the people’.


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