Thursday, August 19, 2010

How misunderstood: America and Australia

We've had a week now of our MA course on American Protestantism. We haven't actually covered that much temporally, a lot of work understanding the founding fathers, puritans, the 1st and 2nd Great Awakenings, early American Methodism, and a final lecture on Abraham Lincoln and American Civil Religion.

I think it was this last lecture that really brought home the major and remarkable differences between Australia and America. The idea that many Americans sincerely believe in America's exceptionalism, and a mission of sharing the blessing of democracy of the world, alongside a historical period where virtually the whole (European) population was evangelical, are things very, very strange to us. The whole cult of American civil religion, of public discourse about the relationship between 'God' (however vague) and the nation, and the trappings of ritual, of pledges of allegiance and flag-reverence, are entirely foreign to Australians. We regard them with incredulity, cynicism, and fail to understand that Americans take these things seriously.

As to a sense of national identity and shared national destiny, we have little. Australia has few historical defining moments, except perhaps for the mythologising of Gallipoli, and little in the way of shared national cultural values. That underlies some of our ongoing and endless debates about what Australia stands for. Our political discourse cannot sustain anything like the self-assured bombast of Bush or the optimistic high-flying rhetoric of an Obama. Politicians here all lack the integrity to pull it off, and we are too cynical to believe them anyway. That's why our current election is dominated by 'the economy', the only transcendent we can generate (except for the growing and competitive worship of 'the environment'). Most Australians avoid the big questions of life, have little sense of eternity, and when those questions arise our culture encourages suppression of reflection in favour of binge-drinking.

If I sound down on our nation, by no means think that I've come to some new found admiration of America! A new found appreciation for your history, perhaps, but my own cynicism of politics runs deep, and your civil religion dances dangerously with nationalism, fascism, and an idolatry of the state.

Our nations are further apart than many superficial similarities would suggest.

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