In 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.
The 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 Beliefnet.com 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?