And now, speaking for God …

americanflagcrossjpgIn the wake of EEE’s post on the latest nonNewsweek sermon from the Rt. Rev. Jon Meacham, please allow me to jump in with a comment or two on the Wall Street Journal counter-statement — before several dozen readers send me the URL.

Like the nonNewsweek piece, this is an example of pure advocacy journalism. However, the topic is so crucial to this blog that we will keep trying to talk about it, especially in light of the major (or once major) publications in which these essays are appearing.

The op-ed essay in the WSJ is written by Economist editor John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, who leads the newspaper’s Washington bureau. The are the authors of a book entitled “God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World,” so you would imagine that they do not think much of Meacham’s sermon.

But please note that the headline on this piece, “God Still Isn’t Dead — The decline of religion in America has been predicted again and again” does not actually address Meacham’s central point (yes, I just wrote a partial defense of something in nonNewsweek). Near the top of the essay we read this:

With Easter week upon us, Newsweek‘s April 13 cover proclaims “The Decline and Fall of Christian America.” The new American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) shows that the proportion of Americans who claim to have no religion has increased to 15% today from 8.2% in 1990. The Christian right has lost yet another battle, this time in the heartland state of Iowa, with its Supreme Court voting unanimously to legalize gay marriage. The proportion of Americans who think that religion “can answer all or most of today’s problems” is now at a historic low of 48%.

America has long stood out among developed countries for its religiosity. This has less to do with innate godliness than with the free market created by the First Amendment. Pre-Revolutionary America was not that religious, because the original Puritans were swamped by less wholesome adventurers — in Salem, Mass., the setting for “The Crucible,” 83% of taxpayers by 1683 confessed to no religious identification.

America became religious after the Constitution separated church from state, thus ensuring that religious denominations could only survive if they got souls into pews. While state-sponsored religion withered in Europe, American faith has been a hive of activity: from the Methodists, who converted close to an eighth of the country in the half century after the Revolution, to the modern megachurches.

Meacham would not disagree, of course. When it comes to religion, America is getting more pluralistic. Duh. Yet religious faith remains one of the most powerful forces in American life, especially if you factor in the actions of people who are primarily defining their lives in terms of heated opposition to religion. Duh.

Here’s another crucial point at the end of the WSJ offering about religion and the marketplace:

Looked at from a celestial perspective, the American model of religion, far from retreating, is going global. Pastorpreneurs are taking their message around the world. In Latin America, Pentecostalism has disrupted the Catholic Church’s monopoly. Already five of the world’s 10 biggest churches are in South Korea: Yoido Full Gospel Church, which has 800,000 members, is a rival in terms of organization for anything Messrs. Warren and Hybels can offer. China is the latest great convert. There are probably close to 100 million Christians in China, most of them following a very individualistic American-style faith. Already more people attend church each Sunday than are members of the Communist Party. China will soon be the world’s biggest Christian country and also possibly its biggest Muslim one.

The Christian right has certainly stirred up an angry reaction to its attempt to marry religion to political power. But it would be a mistake to regard this reaction as evidence that America is losing its religion.

The global point is crucial. Ask the Anglicans. Meanwhile, speaking of Episcopalians, did Meacham say anything about American losing its religion, in any major statistical sense of that word? Not really.

Primarily, he was saying that the bad guys — religious traditionalists and those who now avoid nonNewsweek — are losing some clout and, in fact, there is some evidence of that, which will be no surprise to anyone who has ever read a word that evangelical pollster George Barna has been saying for a decade or two. You can see the same trend in GetReligion posts on the struggle to define the word “evangelical.”

Meacham’s other point is that the number of people who say — to one degree or another — that they are secular or nonreligious is on the rise. This is true, too.

Books Winfrey TolleThe actual story here is that America now has two strongly motivated religious armies, each making up about 20 percent of the population — with religious traditionalists on one side and an emerging coalition of secularists and religious liberals on the other. What holds this second group together? I still think the guys at City University of New York are close to the mark when they call them the “anti-fundamentalist voters.”

Meanwhile, the middle is what I call OprahAmerica, a great mass of people defined by a vague quilt of beliefs and emotions. If you want to understand this vague center, then by all means read the work of sociologist James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia — especially one of his least read works, “The Death of Character.”

Or start with the Atlantic Monthly classic defining “The Twelve Tribes of American Politics,” by the omnipresent pollster John C. Green and czar Steven Waldman. The actual name of the original piece is “Tribal Relations: How Americans really sort out on cultural and religious issues — and what it means for our politics.” Then you can click here to follow how Green and Waldman have continued to apply their typology to new data.

So is “Christian America” dying? Better question: Did it ever exist, in terms of practice, let alone politics?

Is the power of traditional forms of religious faith fading in American public life? Good question. It does appear that Iraq and the charismatic rise of President Barack Obama has cut into that coalition’s numbers and, thus, threatened its ability to fight the coalition on the left in the most important arena in American life — the courts.

Is America getting less religious? Better question: Is American religion getting more and more vague, personal and private, while remaining remarkably alive in comparison with, oh, Europe? Even better question: Is this trend leading America in the direction of Europe, or are there cultural differences — think the vitality of non-state-endorsed religion — that would prevent this from happening?

Final questions: Should people who care about religion news take vows to avoid reading national magazine cover stories in the final weeks before Christmas and Easter?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Darel

    By a good sociological definition of religion — the collective virtues and practices of an ecclesial community — religion is indeed on the marked decline in the United States. Only by an ideologically liberal definition of religion — a body of doctrines and beliefs held by individuals — can we say otherwise.

    Brad Wilcox had a very interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks back in which he argued that a growing state undermines religious belief and practice. He clearly has the first, sociological, definition in mind.

    Thus when Micklethwait and Woolridge argue that the First Amendment makes for a robust religious America, I think they are not on as nearly solid ground as they believe. The social democratic (in US parlance, “liberal”) state undermines religion because it continually seeks to undermine all organizations and institutions which come between it and the individual. No surprise that as ecclesial communities disappear, “religious” virtues and practices disappear. We are left with “spirituality” and/or “secularism” (i.e. practical atheism), neither of which are very interesting or even worth thinking about from the perspective of the social democratic state — unless, of course, they are needed as an alternative to religion.

  • Jerry

    There are other stories that are worth reading that are not in the “national magazine cover story” class. For example my local paper today had a charming story about dressing up for church. Shockingly enough, there are even references to the Bible in that story.

  • Ivan Wolfe

    No. Yes. No and Yes. Yes.

  • Steve Walker

    People who care about religious news should stop reading Newsweek and Time both. If you must read a news weekly go North to Canada or overseas, (i.e The Economist, etc.). Time and Newsweek have long since left quality journalism behind and are no better than People or US magazine. And while you’re at – don’t waste your time with the Washington Post’s ON FAITH. What a joke!

  • Dave G.

    Question. Do Micklethwait and Wooldridge, anywhere, mention the Great Awakening? From the article I read, it seems as if America was a place where people didn’t care a rip about God once the pilgrims had passed, then suddenly the Constitution was ratified, everyone understood it to mean a separation between church and state (even before Jefferson’s famous letter I guess), and then it was revival after revival. If there was a part of the article gave a better history of the period, I must have missed something – which is entirely possible.

  • Marshall Hahn

    Most commentators tend to see what they want to see in polls such as the ARIS survey. If you look at it in detail, I believe the two most significant facts are these: 1) The increase in “non-reliegious” respondents occurred in the 1990′s. The numbers from 2008 are essentially the same as those from 2001. The increase has not continued since then. 2) The real change from 2001 to 2008 is the decline in “mainline churches” – Episcopalian, Methodist, Lutheran, United Church of Christ, and Presbyterian.
    A more helpful analysis would look more closely at these details of the survey and attempt to understand what has been taking place. Using this survey as grist for someone’s preconceived notion of the “end of religion” only tells something about the commentator.

  • Dave

    There is no decline in religion. Everyone has a religion — that which binds him or her, at the deepest level, to the wider universe of which he or she is a part. (Some people have religions that require them to declare that they have no religion.) What we have here is a modest decline in the influence of churches, a different matter altogether.

  • Darel

    Dave, from a political-sociological perspective (which I take both Meacham and tmatt to be working within), your statement is meaningless. What you describe is a “worldview”, not a “religion”.

    A decline in “churches” in an historically Christian country IS a decline in religion. Religion is, as I said above, the collective virtues and practices of an ecclesial community. Anything less is just “spirituality”.

  • Dave

    Darel, I am not describing a mere worldview. Please note the phrase “at the deepest level.” Your definitions of “real” religion are biased toward institutions, howsoever they may be dressed up in academic sanctity. A decline in Christian churches (hard to square with the megachurch movement) is not a decline in religion if other religions such as Islam and Paganism are on the rise at the same time.

    Interestingly enough, a similiar discussion is taking place at Jason Pitzl-Waters’s Pagan blog, The Wild Hunt. I’ll repeat here an observation I made there: As long as public officials still take their oaths of office on a Bible despite the lack of any constitutional requirement to do so, and the merest suggestion that they might use some other scripture such as the Qu’ran is met with tizzies by other elected officials, Christian America is still with us.

  • E.E. Evans

    “In other words, the forces that made America such a uniquely religious country, competition and choice, are working as powerfully as ever.”

    I find the capitalist, supply and demand analysis (is this de rigeur for the WSJ?) intriguing. The whole relationship between capitalism and American religious vitality is fascinating–but I’m not prone to take what they say about it at face value. Conflating the freedom conferred by the First Amendment and competition among denominations and churches for believers seems perilously close to making faith purely transactional.

  • Jerry

    Conflating the freedom conferred by the First Amendment and competition among denominations and churches for believers seems perilously close to making faith purely transactional.

    Methinks that the WSJ’s religion is capitalism and they see the world through that lens. I could as easily assert that God prepared the American continent as a place where liberty would grow and develop: religious, economic and political liberty.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    One should be wary of combining RELIGION with generalities. It would be interesting to carefully analyze some generalities given here as they apply to Islamic cultures. Also, Catholicism seems to thrive under some very anti-Catholic governments such as Ireland under the British and Poland under the Communists. And, actually, as long as the Catholic Church in this country doesn’t jettison her values and traditions as so many mainstream Protestant churches have here, the Catholic Church may be stronger in the future as the Obama administration and the courts even go after Catholics in the realm of conscience on sacredness of life issues and her very traditional stance on sex and family issues. Already the Catholic Church in Mass. is being treated as if it were in one of the soviet republics as it has been forced to abandon one of the oldest of Christian charities–caring for orphans– unless the Church bends her kneee to gay activism.

  • Dave

    Elizabeth and Jerry, it’s hard not to be struck by the contrast between America, under the First Amendment, and Western Europe, under established churches. We see an American cradle of religion and a European graveyard of religion.

    One need not take the Wall Street Journal’s capitalistic approach to suspect that the freedom to follow one’s own religious impulses and, if it proves possible, to found a religious institution upon them, is what has made religion, per se, and religions, plural, flourish in the US while it languishes across the Pond.

  • Dave

    Deacon, the most amazing thing in Maggie Gallagher’s 2006 Weekly Standard article on Catholic Charities of Boston, which she did not comment upon, was how not one single Massachsetts state legislator could be found to sponsor a conscience-clause exemption after both the Archbishop and the Governor requested it. Not one — in the Catholic capital of the United States! I read into this a stunning loss of prestige over the pedophilia scandals.

  • Darel

    If one is interested in how the “Catholic capital of the United States” became the capital of secular America (assuming that Boston is the ‘capital’ of New England, the most irreligious section of the country), one might consult Philip Lawler’s 2008 book The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture.

    Per the dust jacket blurb, “Lawler brings an insider’s knowledge and a journalist’s sense of drama to show that the sex-abuse scandal was neither the cause nor the beginning of Catholicism’s decline in Boston. In fact, the scandal was itself a symptom of corruption that was already well advanced.”

  • E.E. Evans

    Dave, believe it or not, I agree with you ;-)

  • IC

    I read that piece and thought…hmm, thoughtful…but sounds ***exactly*** like a sermon from a liberal Protestant divinity school. I should know, I went to one. An informed (although I think flawed) sermon. Not a news story after the first half.

    And in Get Religion fashion, I question–where are the Catholics and Orthodox? OOOHHHHHH–liberal Protestants are the only ones who count as American Christians, I forgot. There is a case for focusing on Protestants here, since our civic religion (if we had one?) was more Protestant-influenced than not, but still, an explanation of that would be in order for the general public (I think).

  • IC

    Last question: absolutely yes!

  • Larry the Grump Rasczak

    Final questions: Should people who care about religion news take vows to avoid reading national magazine cover stories in the final weeks before Christmas and Easter?

    I took that vow about a decade ago and have been very happy with the result.

    To be honest though, I can’t recall the last time I read a “national magazine” in a non-doctors office setting. For people with a functional cerebral cortex “national magazines” are pretty much irrelevant.

    I say this because the last time I read a “national magazine” was yesterday. While at the doctors I came across an August 2008 copy of THE NEW YORKER. Apparently they A) Love Obama, B) Don’t think McCain is running a good campaign, don’t like him very much, and consider him to be the “hey you kids get off of my lawn” candidate, and C) Think that allowing open homosexual conduct in the military is a fine idea. Gee…how’s that for a trio of shockers? I mean once again THE NEW YORKER exemplifies the sort of cutting edge, investigative journalisim that keeps America’s magazine readers on the absolute cutting edge of late 1970s social thought! How could one NOT consider that subscription money well spent?

    The interesting thing about Newsweek’s semi-annual Christmas/Easter attack on Christianity is not that it is unexpected (it became a tradition because it always generates “buzz”) but in how it played out this time around.

    I found out about it this time because I heard a conservative talk radio host discussing it while I drove home yesterday. My first reaction was “Oh, I guess they ARE still in publication.” As it has been a while since I saw a copy, even at the doctors.

    While this is certianly an example of the “buzz generation” that Newsweek was going for, it struck me how totally irrelevant Newsweek, and magazines in general have become. When one hears about them only through talk radio, or the web, you have to admit that is more than a little ironic.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Like the nonNewsweek piece, this is an example of pure advocacy journalism. However, the topic is so crucial to this blog that we will keep trying to talk about it, especially in light of the major (or once major) publications in which these essays are appearing.

    It’s your blog, Terry, but this seems like a double standard. As a consumer, I couldn’t care less what Newsweek used to be. I care what it is now.

  • Karen Vaughan

    You know, they said that America was no longer “a Christian nation”, not that it wasn’t predominantly Christian, nor religious, nor that Christianity isn’t strong and vital. They even pointed out that the evangelical wing of Christianity was the strongest.

    I don’t see why you are considering this controversial. They state that the number of unaffiliated Americans is increasing. This is not disputed. They say that fewer, although a majority of Americans consider themselves Christian. And they say that there are more people of other religions. No surprise there.

    Basically Micklethwait and Woolridge are commenting on the relationship of religion to state identification, and find that there is less identification of that sort. Fine with me, I don’t want us to replicate Europe.

    As to Darel’s contention that big government reduces religious practice, well government expanded under the last 8 years of Republican rule in an unprecedented way, and religious affiliation declined. So you may be right, although I suspect that ruthless political expediency on the part of those who claimed religiousity might have more to do with it, but you can’t blame it on the liberals.

  • Julia

    I got the same sense of the article as Karen Vaughan.

    Perhaps if you are in the middle of it, you don’t see it.

    The American civic religion is the reason Catholic schools were started – so Catholic children would no longer have to use Protestant bibles for reading and spelling lessons and have to say Protestant prayers at the start of the day, etc. etc. etc. A generic Protestant Christianity was normative and felt like the way things should be to those who were also Protestant Christians. I guess as the Protestant churches started diversifying into the more and the less orthodox, this civic religion becomes more apparent to those who had formerly taken this pervasive generic Protestantism for granted.

    I know that my town had a service billed as “ecumenical” after 9/11 and it was very obvious that the people who put it on considered the event to be for different kinds of Protestants. The Catholics and Jews were made to feel like outsiders. And no Muslims were invited at all.

    Like Karen, I think the authors meant the religion-state relationship. It wasn’t too long ago that there was a big stink about a Catholic priest being appointed the chaplain for the US House of Representatives. Somehow it was OK for Catholics to put up with a Protestant chaplain, but not vice versa. And now some people think there shouldn’t even be a chaplain. More people are sensing that this presumed civic religion, and who is considered a legitimate part of it, is fading away and doesn’t have the consensus it once had. It’s not gone yet – Obama’s Inauguration is proof of that.

  • norris hall

    Last month , for the first time in 40 years , I attended an evangelical Christian church to attend the funeral of a neighbor.
    Boy, was I in for a shock.
    The church was laid out like a theater. There was a rock band, a multimedia setup with two cameras, even a coffee shop and a book store.
    After the service, I commented to my wife that if Jesus Christ were to set foot in the church today… in tattered robes and leather sandals…he might feel a bit uncomfortable in the ultra plush, ultra modern setting.
    Especially with people sleeping in their cars and on the streets in American…and many going without food in 3rd world countries.
    From the sermon, it appears that the new Christians are more concerned with “getting people saved” than “ending world hunger and suffering”
    It’s hard for me to grasp this concept since I’ve always been under the impression that “faith based” organizations like churches are better equipped to tend to the needs of the poor and suffering than the government.
    After I attended church…I’m not so sure.

  • Stephen A.

    norris hall: Amen to that. Those are reasons why I don’t darken the doors of christian churches anymore, other than to attend a secular function being held there.

    As others have said here, the decline in “religion” is actually the decline of Christianity, and for norris’s reasons and many, many others that are going unexplored by reporters.

    The astounding “body count/no rules to follow” shallowness of many evangelical churches’ polity and theology is a dry rot that is hollowing out the entire faith. It remains, for the most part, unexamined.