“Americans are geniuses at transforming originally grim religious doctrines and practices into something more optimistic, making the insertion of the ‘pursuit of happiness’ clause into the Declaration of Independence inadvertently prophetic.
“During the first Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards offered salvation to all comers at revival meetings, an invitation that stood in considerable tension with the carnivorous Calvinism to which he still adhered.
“Edwardsʼ ‘angry God’ became progressively more user-friendly through the ensuing centuries, culminating with Billy Graham, who could play amicable gold with people whom earlier revivalists would have threatened with fire and brimstone. Another Protestant stream led all the way to Norman Vincent Peale and his smiling God (though the denomination to which Peale belonged derives from the movement in the Dutch Reformation that rejected strict Calvinism).
“There are non-Protestant analogues. Psychoanalysis, a doctrine rooted in profound Viennese pessimism, morphed in America into a variety of cheerfully optimistic therapies of self-improvement and self-esteem.
“Buddhism (estimated to have 800,000 converts in the U.S.; and the fastest growing faith in the UK in the 1990s with over 500 Buddhist centres and meditation sites today) underwent a similarly benign transformation. Its historical roots are in the peculiarly Indian horror of reincarnation—misnamed the ‘wheel of life’ but better called the ‘wheel of death’—from which Buddha sought release. Lo and behold, for many Americans (and Brits) reincarnation is now understood as the cheering prospect of another chance.
“American culture has indeed been a drama of the pursuit of happiness, and American religion has been part of this drama. This cheerful way of looking at the world, which is part of the very structure of American culture, can be seen in the experience of all newcomers to the country of what the soiologist John Murray Cuddihy has aptly called the ‘ordeal of civility.’ Immigrants to American had to learn to be more mellow, less aggressive in their beliefs and values. It was characteristic of an America that was a remarkably open society [with more flexible class boundaries, a greater variety of beliefs, etc.].”
Source: Peter L. Berger, “Americaʼs Smiling God,” First Things, April 2012 [ed., ETB]
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