Three of the top ten books in a recent New York Times nonfiction paperback best sellers list included the word "heaven" in the title: "Proof of Heaven", "Waking Up in Heaven" and "Heaven is for Real." Combine that fact with the 2011 survey result that more than three in four Americans believe in angels and you have a troubling insight into what ails modern America.
Despite volumes of hard evidence pointing to an ever-increasing divide between rich and poor and notwithstanding glaringly obvious signs that many Americans have been suckered by the financial elites, the average citizen chooses instead to believe in things supported at best by scant and flimsy anecdotal evidence.
What exactly is going on here? How can a nation that has succeeded beyond any other in modern history be populated by so many credulous dunces? What possible explanation is there for such success in the face of apparent widespread gullibility?
The answer seems to lie in America's religious underpinnings. Despite having been birthed by leaders more versed in the Enlightenment than in religious flimflam, America's true roots are found in the Puritans and their essentially fundamentalist outlook on life.
Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin and their peers were nominal Christians at best. However, their predecessors were true fire-and-brimstone-breathing believers in heaven, hell, angels, devils and all manner of religious nonsense.
The Puritans of the 17th century were ultraconservative zealots whose spiritual beliefs were a matter of necessity rather than choice. Living in a harsh, primitive environment, they needed something to motivate their members to work hard and follow the rules without question.
That something was the promise of everlasting life in an angel-populated heaven. But only some were destined for that divine destination. The Puritans' neat trick was that no one knew if they were chosen or not but, even if destined, they had to live a pure life of hard work and dedication to God and community in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. That theological twist ensured that everyone toed the line.
It seems that almost four hundred years later, that same philosophy remains essential to the American ethic. Most Americans still buy into the myth of the self-made man: the belief that if you simply buckle down and work hard enough, you, too, can make it both in this world and presumably the next. The fact that only a handful of citizens actually succeed in this quest has not dimmed the faith of the millions who continue to pursue the elusive dream.
It is this unquestioning faith in the path to secular and religious salvation that binds America even in the face of the blatant exploitation of the population by the financial elites. The average American would sooner believe that he is chosen for secular and ultimately otherworldly riches than face the not-so-pleasant reality that his odds of reaching the top rung in the ladder of success are roughly equivalent to his chances of entering the kingdom of heaven on the wings of an angel.
Thus, most Americans will unquestioningly work hard and long in hopes of achieving success. They don't see the necessity of joining together in mutual support, such as through trade unions, to better their current lives. Since they believe they are ultimately destined to succeed either here on earth on in the great beyond, individualism is the national credo. If you don't make it, it's your own fault.
This ongoing national myopic mythology is, of course, ripe for exploitation. If everyone is a potential heaven-bound billionaire, who would want to put legislative and regulatory roadblocks in his path? Your hard work will likely ensure your entry into the kingdoms of wealth and everlasting life; protecting the basic needs of others will only hamper your destined path.
It is surprising that most of the inhabitants of the richest nation on earth would still cling to essentially medieval concepts. However, it appears that faith once again trumps reality in the American pursuit of happiness.
Sadly, as the yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots widens further, that pursuit is doomed to failure for most. Only when Americans remove the religious scales from their eyes will they see the harsh reality that faces them and finally take the necessary steps to remedy it.