Religion In America Scares The Hell Out Of Me

An Italian’s Confession

Lifestyle & Identity

Research shows that American society is progressively cutting ties with religion, but the America I see on my recurring grocery runs is suspiciously devout. 

It takes 30 minutes on foot, two Churches, and two groups handing out countless religious flyers to reach the USC Village from my Los Angeles apartment. If I’m too lazy to walk, the price to pay is a 15-minute chant for repentance, courtesy of a fellow bus rider. On campus, I brace myself to politely decline invitations to join bible study groups. By the time I finish this pilgrimage and step into Target, I’m spiritually worn out.

As a native Italian, religion in the U.S. gives me culture shock. I thought that, at the very least, I would know what Catholicism is about: I was baptized as a Catholic, took my first Communion, went to Catechism – even became the teacher’s assistant – and confirmed my baptism at age 16 through the Sacrament of Confirmation. It didn’t happen because of a heavenly calling: like many people in culturally Christian countries, I was educated in the ways of the Bible because of my heritage, and stopped going to Mass as soon as my family allowed it. 

To me, it seemed natural that other Church members didn’t judge or reject me for staining my reputation as a regular Churchgoer. After this cardinal sin, my brother and I kept playing for Church-affiliated sports teams; my father and I continued to visit the Church’s theater two evenings a month. In my mind, it was obvious that such community spaces don’t intimidate, shame, or ostracize non-believers, even if they exist because of people who get together and celebrate God.

As long as you uphold Christian values –kindness, honesty, forgiveness, integrity and so on– you can enjoy the play and enroll your kid in a sports team: the priest will not question your religious involvement, but rather lend an ear if you feel like it. Growing up in this spiritually relaxed environment, I struggle to recognize my former faith in the methods of religious groups in America. 

Religious recruitment feels fishy in the Land Of The Free. A popular explanation for the assertive recruitment approach is that America is officially areligious, but this claim is questionable. Think of U.S. paper money or the Pledge of Allegiance: these two domestic jewels were blessed with the word “God” thanks to President Eisenhower, who believed that Americans and Russian Communists could and should be distinguished by faith. The U.S. is not incapable of using religion as a political instrument. Knowing this, I feel like a sitting duck for the overzealous recruitment and conversion attempts of its residents.   

From an Italian’s perspective, another uncanny feature of religious groups in America is the physical, social, and aesthetic dedication of its members, especially Catholic youths. Bible study, church camp, and Sunday Mass leave little room for people practicing “casual Catholicism.” It’s almost ironic how, in the land of constant multi-million dollar influencer partnerships, God can rest easy knowing that his logo lives on the necks and Instagram bios of his young followers, and that he’ll get a free shoutout in their public life updates without ever having to check his emails. The spiritual energy radiating from these kids is unmatched in Italians under 65.

Still, I find God’s omnipresence in young, trendy circles easy to ignore, compared to the generously dispensed threat of Hellfire stressed in American religious communication. The country’s love for a moral framework has historical roots: while America was turning into a nation, Christians were working tirelessly to win a power struggle against the Age of Enlightenment using similar arguments. A few centuries later, cognitive and psychological scientists Kahneman and Tversky theorized that humans are more sensitive to losses than gains, proving that it’s smart for religious proponents to emphasize that a godless life leads to an atrocious afterlife. 

Ironically, it is the way in which different religious representatives in America have pressured me to grow closer to any God that feels amoral. It’s not right for their pitch to continue after several polite rejections. It’s condescending of them to act like “they can show me “the truth,” which I evidently failed to see on my own. I vaguely worried about gun violence and physical safety before moving to the U.S., but I didn’t expect to have to mentally protect myself –especially not from confession and conversion attempts, or the temptation to invite my religious interlocutor as a guest lecturer on persuasion at USC Annenberg.  

It's not like I don’t understand the benefits of organized religion, and I do know religious people in America that don’t scare me to death. Maybe I’m even jealous of them, since they clearly have a social and spiritual haven for their identity. Still, the fact that religious gatherings in the U.S. are often tailored to people of a specific national or ethnic background feels counterintuitive when they share a Lord of unity and harmony.  

Faith can connect people, but relationship-building is also a way to enforce homogeneity and emphasize Otherness. Given its widespread colonial use, it’s unsurprising that non-White American residents are more likely to be fervent believers, and fervent White believers are more likely to be republicans, compared to their ethnic and political counterparts. The American take on religion reminds me how easy it is to shift the focus of worship from God to subjectively perceivable power asymmetries and social realities. 

I can’t say if I’ll overcome my strong feelings about religious groups in America, nor if I’ll ever go back to my unassuming religious roots in Italy. It will be easy to do some fieldwork, given that I live within walking distance of a church in both countries. But for now, I know which church building I’d step into.