The Manipulation of ‘Morality’: How Religion Co-Opts American Identity Nicole Scott Free Inquiry

More often than not, scripture is seen as a “moral” text that is central to another myth, the “American way of life.” The wholly spurious interpretation of this historically important text has been manipulated by those in power, and by those who seek it, so successfully that to preface any claim (however preposterous or contrary to democratic principles) with “The Bible tells us that …” is to accept that claim unquestioningly. This manipulation, not demonizing Christians or their religion per se, is what this article will be discussing.

I use the term myth here because to attempt to identify a way of life that can be thought of as specifically American suggests that there is consensus among Americans on the existence of a set of behaviors, attitudes, and interpretations of the world and other people that are all in some way uniquely American. Moreover, this agreement has been arrived at by Americans of their own accord.

We are familiar with the rhetoric in which this transparent nonsense is formulated: This is what America stands for, and perhaps most ludicrous of all, America is all about freedom. On the other hand, confronted by the latest in an apparently endless succession of hypocrisies or acts of the most cynical corruption by our leaders, we hear the handwringing lamentation, This is not who we are. Well, it obviously is who we are, or there would not be so frequent recurrences of the kind of acts we are talking about. It is much more accurate to speak of what at first glance may appear to be consensus in terms of it being what internationally respected American thinkers such as Noam Chomsky recognize as “manufactured consent”: the sustained manipulation of public opinion by those who actually run the United States and the other so-called “capitalist democracies”—the heads of corporations together with their attorneys and (in the United States at least) their lobbyists—with the aim of ensuring their continued enrichment. And of course this occurs with the enthusiastic compliance of most members of Congress.

The mechanism that enables this control of opinion is unsubtle but highly effective, and it relies on two fundamental aspects of human instinct: greed and fear. It is at this point important to understand that, precisely by means of the manipulation I am discussing here, these two have become so closely related as to be inseparable. This immediately becomes clear when we remember that a capitalist economy can continue to exist only for as long as it can successfully persuade people that they want what they do not need and, crucially, that to strive to obtain it is always an exercise of free will. This mechanism has a name: it is called marketing, which in effect is just another word for propaganda. In fact, modern marketing has a lot to thank old-fashioned Cold War–style propaganda for, because what that era’s propaganda achieved was the creation in public consciousness of the idea of a unified people who all want the same thing and who all hate the same thing. It could not have done this (after all, we are talking here about segregation-era America, which can hardly be held up as a shining example of unity) without selling the idea of the wrongness of opposing systems. In this example, the Soviet brand of Communism denied people freedom of choice, was oppressive generally, and so on. Above all, the Soviet Union was godless and therefore immoral. Also, America could point to failures in agricultural production and distribution in the Soviet Union and to the resulting shortages that caused much suffering.

In this way, a facile “four-legs good, two legs bad” view of ideological differences could be formulated that associated relative material wealth and a skewed interpretation of morality with a largely spurious idea of the United States and what it stood for. The legacy of this artificial association is a kind of parody of logic that seeks to persuade us that all of the blatant social injustices entailed in the “American way of life”—the systemic racism, the grinding poverty and wage-slavery of millions of Americans, the economy based on usury and gambling euphemized as credit and investment, the mindless consumerism sold under the name of personal freedoms, the doctrine that the immediate gratification of appetite is equivalent to happiness—are morally justified because they are “rights.”

This belief is profoundly religious in character; it requires unquestioning faith in an idea that even a minimal exercise of reason shows is untenable. It professes to be catholic, in the sense of “all-embracing,” while condemning as wicked or immoral—as “un-American”—those who reject it. It also sustains itself by playing on the fear shared by its devotees that, should their faith lapse or should they veer from orthodoxy, they will in some way be excluded from those eligible to receive the promised rewards of pleasure and appetitive freedom. It will be clear that if “morality” is divorced from all of this, the edifice of manipulated consumerism that defines America will be on much shakier ground. Without it, it would be much more difficult to claim that the rightness of American consumerism is self-evident.

We should beware of underestimating the wider effects on society, indeed on civilization, of adopting the precepts of what is so pernicious a (Christian) “morality.” One of the dangers was illuminated by Sigmund Freud in his short work Civilization and Its Discontents, in which, discussing the commandment “Love thy neighbor as thyself” in the context of its supposed value as a defense against human aggressiveness, he said the following:

The commandment is impossible to fulfill; such an enormous inflation of love can only lower its value, not get rid of the difficulty. … Anyone who follows such a precept in present-day civilization only puts himself at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the person who disregards it. What a potent obstacle to civilization aggressiveness must be, if the defense against it can cause as much unhappiness as aggressiveness himself! “Natural” ethics, as it is called, has nothing to offer here except the narcissistic satisfaction of being able to think oneself better than others. At this point the ethics based on religion introduces its promises of a better afterlife. But so long as virtue is not rewarded here on earth, ethics will, I fancy, preach in vain. I too think it quite certain that a real change in the relations of human beings to possessions would be of more help in this direction than any ethical commands.1

 That last sentence is important because it clarifies Freud’s earlier comment that a person seeking to follow the precept that we should love our neighbors as ourselves is automatically at a disadvantage when dealing with those who do not. He does not of course mean that we should therefore give up on the idea of treating others justly and with compassion. Rather he means those who do treat others justly and compassionately will inevitably, sooner or later, find themselves being in some way exploited by those for whom justice and compassion are evidently of scant consequence. Also noteworthy is his mention of human aggressiveness and the connection he makes with our attitude toward possessions. Freud was no Socialist, and though he acknowledges that the ownership of private wealth brings its owner power, “and with it the temptation to ill-treat his neighbor,” and even goes so far as to suggest that if private property were to be abolished, “ill-will and hostility would disappear among men,” he also points out that “the psychological premises on which the [communist] system is based are an untenable illusion,” namely, that humans are fundamentally good but have been corrupted by the institution of private property, whereas in fact, he claims, humans are naturally inclined toward aggression, and the aspiration to private wealth is one of its instruments.2

We do not have to agree with Freud’s assessment of human nature (or for that matter of communism) to know that aggression and property, or possession generally, go hand in hand or that in “capitalist democracies” the desire to acquire possessions is necessarily extolled as a virtue. In the United States especially, the understanding by those in power that acquisitiveness and aggression are aspects of the normal human psyche has enabled them to successfully manipulate the population into an unquestioning conviction that those psychological attributes are in some way inherent to what America means. Certainly both are immediately evident in American everyday life. Merely witness the unquestioning and unbridled consumerism to which the people are constantly enjoined, the state-sanctioned brutality of the police force, and the general readiness to defend markets and trade by engaging in armed conflict with other countries.

The idea that morality, however nebulous and imperfectly formulated, is somehow part and parcel of national identity has become so tightly woven into the fabric of American society as to make it possible for politicians seeking to shore up their power and wealth to whip up mass hysteria against whomever, or against whatever institution, they see as a threat. In this way, religion (in particular the Christian Protestant sects and to a lesser extent Catholicism) is perceived by a large section of society as something that belongs to “being American,” and consequently any rejection of religion invites the damning epithet “un-American.” Atheists are “un-American” in the same way that people protesting against police brutality and criminality are “thugs” and “anarchists” and, perhaps most ludicrously, Democrats are all “socialists” or “communists,” which in the minds of the poorly educated on the political Right are of course perceived as one and the same. All of these, of course, “hate America” and are working together to achieve the country’s collapse. And again, there remains the example of the former Soviet Union, which politicians are still fond of referring to and whose official state atheism makes possible in the minds of the masses associations that hardly need to be elucidated.

Obviously, the last thing those in power want is the genuine separation of church from state. This is especially so when those in power are corrupt populists who are in fact apolitical and whose only ideology is the furthering of their personal interests. The religious, also eager to further their own interests, sell themselves to the highest bidder, and the consequences for democracy are catastrophic. The irony is that there is nothing more religious than faith in the mythical America touted by those who are always ready to prey on the gullible and the uninformed to secure power.

The influence of religion on society as a whole is thus doubly pernicious. On the one hand there is the continued stultification of many of our children. Instead of educating them to become decent human beings in their own right with a healthy respect for their own selves, a passion for innate human dignity, and a love of the truth, misguided parents fill them with sick and irrational fear, an insidious sense of guilt for crimes they have not committed, a maudlin “I-am-not-worthy” approach to a god who forces them to hate many of their natural instincts, and the notion that to love is to obey. This arguably amounts to child abuse that should be punishable by law. Of course it will not be, because of the political manipulability of the devoutly religious, which seriously undermines the democratic process.

But we have to acknowledge the futility of expecting religious belief to disappear once its irrationality has been pointed out. The number of people who have been convinced by logical arguments to abandon faith for atheism must be practically zero; faith after all requires no arguments to justify and maintain it. There is also the support that some people feel they need, and feel they receive, from their faith the need for something incomprehensible and mysterious and above all powerful. That this power should be ultimately unfathomable is essential to believers because unfathomability allows for hope: if I pray enough, and correctly, if I make the right propitiations and follow the rules—and above all if I have unshakeable faith—then at some point my prayers will be answered. If they are not, I can at least look forward to my faith being rewarded in an afterlife. Without any doubt, some who call themselves religious believe this. Some are without any doubt decent people who perform acts of charity and kindness precisely because they think this is their religious duty. In all likelihood, of course, they would perform the same acts of charity and kindness if they were atheists, but there is no point in reading these people lectures on epistemology. These are not the people we are talking about here, and the arguments in this article are not directed against them. One powerful reason well-known atheists have failed to persuade anyone is that they have consistently ridiculed these people’s hopes and in this way taken away from them that which they felt gave their lives meaning. This is not something to be proud of. It is certainly not witty or clever. In fact, it is rather boorish and stupid and, to agree with David Hume, arrogant. Above all, it achieves nothing whatsoever. Nobody was ever persuaded of anything at all by being insulted or shouted at. It is easy to invite like-minded people to laugh at the credulity of others; it is rather more difficult to come up with constructive suggestions as to how to ensure that religion plays no part in the public sphere. This must be the role of the atheist today.

The position of the atheist today is that he or she can certainly claim moral and scientific justification for the rejection of God and religion—any religion—but at the same time must allow that these things have a place, whether we like it or not, in the private lives of millions of people. This is not going to change. It is when the religious seek to impose their beliefs on the rest of the world, and above all when those who are either in power or attempting to achieve it proclaim that to be religious is to be moral and that to be moral is to be “American”—it is then that the atheist must vociferously engage. This is happening now.

In the context of the United States, one of the difficulties faced by atheists is that a relationship between religion and politics is in fact recognized by lawmakers: Robert Neely Bellah used the term civil religion to describe it when in his discussion of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech he noted that “the separation of church and state has not denied the political realm a religious dimension.”3 And Robert Wood claimed enthusiastically that the United States is characterized by a “remarkable religiosity” not apparent in other industrialized states.4 These two comments demonstrate that for some at least it is perfectly acceptable for religion to have a role to play in political life. This is dangerous not least because that role is not clearly defined in the law and is therefore dependent for its interpretation on the religious views of individual judges and politicians. That religious considerations should influence political decisions—or judicial decisions for that matter—at all is intolerable given the obvious potential, often realized, for corruption. Most recently we have seen how women’s rights have been politicized by making abortion, without any scriptural authority whatsoever, a religious issue. We also know about the shameful attacks against the rights of those people of sexual orientations other than heterosexual—shopkeepers refusing to serve gay couples, for example, because of their “consciences.” This raises the question of what “freedom of conscience” even means. What it must not be allowed to mean is the freedom to discriminate against certain groups or seek to forbid certain private behaviors because of a collection of texts compiled during a period in human history characterized by fear, superstition, and—as the texts themselves make clear—appalling savagery. It ought to be obvious that there is a difference between someone saying, “I disagree with abortion” and someone saying, “Nobody should be allowed to have an abortion because my religion doesn’t hold with it.” Nobody can take issue with the first statement; the second is an invitation to political manipulation, as well as an example of abysmal stupidity. If today it is trite to point out that religion is a means of controlling people, we must also acknowledge the astuteness of the religious Right in turning the tables in such a way as to make politicians feel it necessary to pander to them in hopes of securing their votes.

One of the Mohammed cartoons, published in the Free Inquiry April/May 2006 issue, originally drawn for the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten.

Conscience, Socrates’s daimon, is not dependent on religious conviction; it is innate, evolved, one of the attributes that make us fully human. It is one of the attributes that separates most of us from brute animals and from those who equate success with the acquisition of wealth at whatever cost to their fellow human beings. It is what makes us charitable, makes us unable to walk past a homeless person in the street without a feeling of guilt or discomfort. It is that which, though it may not always prevent us from behaving dishonestly or corruptly, does always make us feel bad about ourselves when we do so. Conscience makes it impossible for us to lie to ourselves about who we are, and this does not derive from any religious creed. On the contrary, Christianity demands of us that we see ourselves precisely as we are not—as created sick, inheritors of a “sin” committed by mythical ancestors, incapable of being truly moral without religious faith. At worst, “freedom of conscience” is a phrase used to enable the religious Right to exercise their accustomed greed, misogyny, and homophobia with impunity in the name of morality.

Religion is not going to disappear simply because there are so many people who want to believe, but it can and must be kept completely separate from the public sphere. There must be no public funding of religious schools or other institutions. In public schools, should religion not be taught in any way other than historically? Furthermore, legislation concerning the rights of the individual—the right of women to have abortions for example—must not be allowed to have anything to do with religious sentiment; the law must be absolutely secular. The same goes for legislation concerning the freedom of the press. An example of what occurs when offending religious sensibilities becomes a consideration is the shameful behavior of the world’s press following the publication of a Danish cartoon satirizing the prophet Mohammed5 and the ensuing hysteria and despicable acts of violence by religious fanatics. It must be made clear to the religious of whatever denomination that in a modern, civilized society, the only right attached to their faith is the right to practice it privately—and then only insofar as practicing it does not encroach on the rights of others. It is this right, not their religion, that other people can be expected to respect.

[1] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents. New York, NY: Norton, 2010, p. 146.

[2] Civilization and Its Discontents, p. 97.

[3] Robert Neelly Bellah, “Civil Religion in America.” Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Winter 1967, Vol. 96, No. 1: 1–21.

[4] Molly Farmer, “U.S. Is a Model of How Variety of Religions Can Flourish,” Deseret News, June 2015.

[5] Free Inquiry was pulled from Borders and Waldenbooks after publishing four of these cartoons in the April/May 2006 issue.

More often than not, scripture is seen as a “moral” text that is central to another myth, the “American way of life.” The wholly spurious interpretation of this historically important text has been manipulated by those in power, and by those who seek it, so successfully that to preface any claim (however preposterous or contrary …