America, in God (or gods) we trust

bart n godBefore I dash into classes today, I wanted to make a brief comment on the “Losing my religion?” survey that came out yesterday from Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion.

And here is what I want to say. Yes, I am going to hit you with the tmatt trio again.

All together now — if you want to know where people who say that they are Christian believers fall on a left-to-right theological spectrum, just ask these questions:

(1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?

This Baylor survey is all over the place today in the mainstream media, but if you want the biggest splash of the actual data, head to veteran Godbeat reporter Cathy Lynn Grossman’s package on page one of USA Today. She nails the key issue right right up front:

The United States calls itself one nation under God, but Americans don’t all have the same image of the Almighty in mind. A new survey of religion in the USA finds four very different images of God — from a wrathful deity thundering at sinful humanity to a distant power uninvolved in mankind’s affairs.

Forget denominational brands or doctrines or even once-salient terms like “Religious Right.” Even the oft-used “Evangelical” appears to be losing ground. Believers just don’t see themselves the way the media and politicians — or even their pastors — do, according to the national survey of 1,721 Americans, by far the most comprehensive national religion survey to date.

What everyone will be talking about today is this survey’s attempt to clump Americans into one of four different camps when it comes to definitions of God. This is very strange stuff, in part because the four definitions overlap so much.

Most of all, the survey’s authors are trying to capture the dynamic that, in an age in which organized religion is spinning off into do-it-yourself movements and independent congregations, people are trying to find a way to enjoy spirituality and faith without tying themselves to doctrine and discipline.

Yes, this does remind me of sociologist James Davison Hunter and his Culture Wars thesis that the major division in religion today is between the “camp of the orthodox,” who believe in the power of eternal, unchanging, absolute, revealed truths, and the “camp of the progressives,” who believe truth is evolving and personal. I still think this issue is the fault line.

Meanwhile, here are clips from Grossman’s coverage of these four American views of God:

• The Authoritarian God (31.4% of Americans overall, 43.3% in the South) is angry at humanity’s sins and engaged in every creature’s life and world affairs. He is ready to throw the thunderbolt of judgment down on “the unfaithful or ungodly.” . . .

• The Benevolent God (23% overall, 28.7% in the Midwest) still sets absolute standards for mankind in the Bible. More than half (54.8%) want the government to advocate Christian values. But this group, which draws more from mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews, sees primarily a forgiving God, more like the father who embraces his repentant prodigal son in the Bible. …

• The Critical God (16% overall, 21.3% in the East) has his judgmental eye on the world, but he’s not going to intervene, either to punish or to comfort. … Those who picture a critical God are significantly less likely to draw absolute moral lines on hot-button issues such as abortion, gay marriage or embryonic stem cell research. …

• The Distant God (24.4% overall, 30.3% in the West) is “no bearded old man in the sky raining down his opinions on us.” … Followers of this God see a cosmic force that launched the world, then left it spinning on its own. This has strongest appeal for Catholics, mainline Protestants and Jews. It’s also strong among “moral relativists,” those least likely to say any moral choice is always wrong, and among those who don’t attend church. …

bushgodConfused? Me too.

It still seems to me that you end up having to ask basic questions about moral issues and doctrines and that you will end up with that pattern that we see so often — about 20 percent strongly conservative, about 20 percent strongly liberal and the muddled “Oprah America” in the middle.

Note what happens, for example, when Grossman offers a sidebar on a crucial question: Who is going to heaven? Yes, that is a variation on one of the tmatt trio questions, about the role of Jesus in salvation.

And the answer? Welcome to the post-denominational heaven, and America is — surprise, surprise — split just about down the middle on the crucial question.

Americans clearly believe in heaven and salvation — they just don’t agree on who’s eligible. The Baylor Religion Survey finds that most Americans (58.3%) agree with the statement “many religions lead to salvation.”

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Yo, Baltimore Sun, look in your own town

int1Since I live in Baltimore, in a neighborhood where we are not allowed the option of taking The Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun is my main newspaper at breakfast.

Thus, I was interested to notice a very nice feature this morning in the Baltimore newpaper that had a Washington dateline. The story was written by Liz F. Kay and the double-deck headline read: “Strengthening distant bonds through faith — A Washington church brings Lebanese Christians together through prayer, good works.”

Once again, let me stress that this was a good story and a valid story. I am not saying The Sun should not have covered this story.

Kay’s report focused on the lives of Christians from Lebanon who worship at Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Catholic Church (left), a 400-family Eastern Rite parish in northwest Washington. About 40 percent of Lebanon’s population is Christian. Thus, we read:

Our Lady of Lebanon’s parishioners, like other U.S. Maronites, have donated to groups such as the Catholic Schools of Lebanon and Caritas Lebanon, the main local partner of Catholic Relief Services, the Baltimore-based international aid organization that just expanded its efforts there. The groups are helping Muslims, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Eastern Catholics such as the Maronites who are struggling to reconstruct their villages after a cease-fire agreement ended major fighting a few weeks ago.

It is also clear that The Sun realizes there is another reason this is a regional, Washington-Baltimore story.

Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Seminary opened in 1961, and the parish was formed a year later. The church opened its modern white building in May. The parish offers two Sunday Masses — one in Arabic and another in English, although the celebrant gives his homily in both languages at each service. Syriac, a version of the Aramaic spoken during biblical times, is also used at some points.

Parishioners, who live within a 60-mile radius of the church, including Virginia and Maryland, recited the rosary in Arabic before the Arabic service began.

Like I said, this is a good story and there is a decent — not ironclad, but decent — hook between this Washington community and Baltimore.

8 23 06 photo2But as I read the story, I thought to myself: “Oh my, I wonder how this story makes the Lebanese Christians feel at St. Mary’s Antiochian Orthodox Church in Hunt Valley?”

Hunt Valley is, after all, a major Baltimore suburb. In fact, the people of St. Mary’s recently hosted — at the peak of the Hexbollah rocket attacks and Israeli counterattacks — a service gathering Orthodox Christians from parishes all across the Baltimore area to pray for peace in Lebanon.

Of course, the service also tried to raise awareness of relief efforts for Lebanon, relief efforts organized by the International Orthodox Christian Charities — an organization that is located at “110 West Road, Suite 360, Baltimore, Maryland 21204. Phone: 410-243-9820; E-mail:” At least that is the listing in The Sun‘s reference pages.

Oh well, I am sure that those relief efforts continue and that the need is urgent. The second photo with this post shows an early truckload of goods arriving in Lebanon from this Baltimore-based project. The Baltimore Sun might want to do a Baltimore-based follow-up story for its Baltimore readers.

However, it is sad that yesterday — Sept. 7 — was the actual feast day for the St. Mary’s parishioners, a festive time that featured a visit by their bishop, an American of Arab heritage. Click here for pictures from his visit there last year. That feast day would have been a nice news hook for a story in the local newspaper, if it was looking for a story about local people from Lebanon who are trying to help people in Lebabon.

Yes, I must confess that I know all of this because Bishop Thomas will be at my own parish this Sunday, in Linthicum, which is an old suburb of Baltimore.

My question: Did The Sun look for a local story? Does anyone there know that there are Arab-heritage parishes and ministries — with strong ties to Lebanon — in Baltimore itself? Just asking.

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Virtual silence on the Vatican front

fall04 nextwave1 p24Well, I have some good news and some bad news.

The bad news is that we know almost nothing concrete about what happened during the discussions between Pope Benedict XVI and his former students this past weekend — those talks about evolution and philosophy. We have clips and snips from here and there, with the spin being that Intelligent Design was not on the agenda. What was on the agenda? Well, precisely the kinds of philosophical concerns that are at the heart of the ongoing debates inside the Vatican about clashing evolutionary theories (plural).

The good news is that the “minutes” of the meeting will be released. I assume that minutes do not equal a transcript. Here is a typical report, from The Register. Note the rejection of ID, while ID is defined with a phrase that sounds a lot like statements by the late John Paul II:

The Vatican will publish the minutes of the Pope’s recent meeting with his former doctoral students in which he discussed the Catholic Church’s position on the origins of life, evolution, and creationism.

The meeting was called, aides say, not to align the Catholic Church with the Intelligent Design camp from the US, but to revive a public discussion of faith and reason. Intelligent Design is presented as a counter to the theory of evolution, suggesting that life is too complex to have evolved without a designer, usually understood to be God. Proponents want it taught in science classes, alongside Darwin’s theory.

Father Joseph Fessio, provost of Ave Maria University in Florida, told Reuters that described the session as “a meeting of friends with some scholars to discuss an interesting theme”. Fessio explained that the conclusion that God created the world is not a scientific position, but a philosophical one. This, he said, is where the Catholic Church differs from the creationist movement in the US.

He told the news service: “There’s a controversy in the United States because there is a lack of awareness of a thing called philosophy. Evangelicals and creationists generally lack it and Catholics have it.”

Pope Benedict has also argued that some scientists go too far in their interpretation of the theory of evolution, and make claims for it that are based on ideology, rather than science.

Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn said that the minutes would probably be published in November.

Click here for a longer version of, basically, the same information.

Do we trust the paraphrases of the quotes from Fessio? I do not, because Fessio knows that the arguments over science education are rooted in philosophy and the interpretation of data. Fessio also knows that several of the key critics of the “unguided,” “random” definitions of evolution are either (a) Catholic or (b) scholars with Cambridge University-level doctorates in the philosophy of science.

So the news here is that the statements of John Paul II and Benedict remain on the record. We’ll have to wait for public documents to be released — while the storm inside the Vatican rages. Like I keep saying — stay tuned. We don’t know anything new yet.

P.S. Please try to focus the comments on press coverage. I will strive, again, to kill comments that turn into shouting matches between fundamentalists on both sides.

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Pope Benedict XVI, dumb creationist?

Sistine God 712871You can tell that key journalists in the mainstream media are watching Pope Benedict XVI like a hawk right now. Everyone is waiting to see what he is going to say about the controversial question of whether God had anything specific to do with the creation of the world and, in particular, humanity.

Yes, that is a slanted way of stating the issues that are out there at the moment.

However, this is one way of looking at this German theology professor’s current private seminar with some of his former students, the subject of a report in today’s New York Times by correspondent Ian “Crow’s Ear” Fisher.

Most of us will, I am sure, watch the coverage as it unfolds. Let me, as always, state that I have close friends involved in this debate and, thus, I will simply try to underline one or two issues and then ask you to read the news for yourself.

My main concern is, of course, language. It is very important how journalists describe the people who are involved in these complicated debates about science, research, philosophy, theology and free speech. The most commonly used words divide the debate into two camps — the “creationism” camp for religious people and the “evolution” camp for scientists. However, there are signs that this simplistic way of describing these debates is beginning to change.

Why is the lingo changing? The Vatican — which contains some smart people — has been forcing a change. That’s why the mainstream media are focused so hard on what this pope is saying, like when he called creation an “intelligent project.” And then there was that sermon in the Mass marking the inauguration of his pontificate:

“The purpose of our lives is to reveal God to men,” he said, in St. Peter’s Square. “And only where God is seen does life truly begin. … We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.”

So what is the pope concerned about? What is the Vatican trying to do?

Here is the crunch section of Fisher’s report, a place where all kinds of undefined words and, in one case, a serious oversimplification create a bit of a mess. Does the reporter realize it?

… (The) church has moved from neutrality to something like acceptance of evolutionary theory, though drawing a thick bottom line that God is the ultimate creator. In 1996, Pope John Paul declared evolution “more than a hypothesis,” and in 2004 as Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict endorsed the scientific view that the earth is roughly four billion years old and that species changed through evolution. Indeed, there has been no credible scientific challenge to the idea that evolution, the foundation of modern biology, explains the diversity of life on earth.

Given that history, scientists and church experts say they cannot imagine the study session ending with any alignment of the pope or the church with intelligent design or American-style creationism, which often posits that Earth is only about 6,000 years old.

Once again, there is that infamous quote from the late Pope John Paul II, the quote that totally misses the point of this debate — when seen from the point of view of Rome. Clearly, the Vatican accepts many ideas associated with the mechanisms of evolution, but, at the very least, the pope rejects the unprovable Darwinian doctrine that creation is the result of random and unguided changes. How would someone in a lab prove that changes are random? How could someone in a lab prove — absolutely — that they were guided and by whom?

200px John Paul II and Benedict XVIAt some point, research must be interpreted. This is where science becomes philosophy and that is precisely where the Vatican debate is focused. You can tell that by reading what John Paul II actually said. Here is a section of a column I wrote on this topic for Scripps Howard News Service. I would bet the moon and the stars that this is the issue being discussed right now by the current pope and his students.

Part of the problem is the 1996 papal address (by John Paul II) to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, with its familiar quotation that “new knowledge leads us to recognize that the theory of evolution is more than a hypothesis.”

The question is whether John Paul said “theory” or “theories.” According to official translations, the pope said: “Rather than the theory of evolution, we should speak of several theories of evolution. On the one hand, this plurality has to do with the different explanations advanced for the mechanism of evolution, and on the other, with the various philosophies on which it is based.”

The pope then rejected all theories arguing that humanity is the product of a random, unguided process of creation. Thus, he said that “theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man.”

At the time John Paul II spoke these words, the National Association of Biology Teachers had officially defined evolution as an “unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process … that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.” Critics said this definition veered beyond science into theological speculation. Thus, in 1997 the association’s board reversed itself and removed the words “unsupervised” and “impersonal.”

This is where the debate must focus. It all comes back to that quite religious, doctrinaire statement by George Gaylord Simpson in the famous The Meaning of Evolution. That faith-based statement of naturalism is: “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.”

Pope John Paul II disagreed. It appears that Benedict XVI does, too. Does that make this pope a stupid creationist? Does this put him “on the wrong side of science”?

Stay tuned.

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Saved by the bell

sonoma bellSome unnamed Associated Press reporter in Oregon did a phenomenal job of working the phone to pull together a rather comprehensive survey of churches in the Beaver State that have or peal bells.

The reporter managed to find a bunch of examples across Christian denominations from the larger Klamath Falls area, and spoke with laity and clergy about the existence and status of their belltowers. And this is notable considering that Oregon is one of the two least religious states in the union:

For generations, church bells here have called worshippers to service, joyfully announced weddings, noted the noonhour or pealed in sadness at a death. But they’re largely silent these days.

. . . Sacred Heart Catholic Church has two in its 100-foot tower to let the faithful know it’s time for Mass . . . sometimes.

. . . Klamath Lutheran, according to member Barbara Mann, stopped ringing its chimes after a complaint from a neighbor who worked nights.

The carillon at First Presbyterian Church hasn’t worked for a year.

In its early days the bell at the United Methodist Church was in the church tower of the building taken down in 1926.

St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Lakeview has a bell but uses it rarely.

The Tulelake Community Presbyterian Church has one but uses it just to mark the noonhour.

I love the idea for the story, and reading it brought back all sorts of memories from my childhood church in central California. Bells were rung to notify farmers of the impending services and to notify the community when there was a death. I remember my friends pausing from our playtime to count the age of the deceased — one peal per year. And because of this story, I thought about the changing role and nature of church bells. We still chime bells at my church to mark the beginning and end of services.

It was a good thing I was able to reminisce about my experiences and reflect on the larger spiritual issues at play, because the reporter rather glossed over those issues.

At the end, particularly after some confusing analysis from church-bell manufacturers and salespeople in Ohio, I was left asking, “So what?” The story managed to be one of the least religious stories about a religious issue I’ve read. The article showed a lot of promise, but I was left wondering what the demise of the bells meant. The reporter made some light claims about traditional vs. Baby Boomer-style worhsip. That’s a start.

But what about the tendency among Americans to worship in a consumer-oriented fashion? What about what this means for neighborhood churches?

In the farming community where I grew up, the bells served a vital purpose — at least into the 1980s when I left. They notified folks within walking distance that church was about to start. They distributed news about death in a very effective fashion. Now, I worship in a different town than where I live. Many of my fellow congregants drive much further than I do to get there. Relatively few of our parishioners can now afford to live within walking distance of the church. Does the bells’ demise mirror these sociological and theological shifts? Perhaps reporters could investigate those issues in more detail.

Photo via Madhu on Flickr.

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What would Jesus wear?

Sunday Best 2I really liked this Peggy Fletcher Stack piece in the Salt Lake Tribune. It’s not groundbreaking, but it nicely surveys a variety of churches in the Salt Lake region about an issue that’s somewhat universal.

It happens every summer. A Catholic priest stands at the pulpit and laments the arrival of tank tops, flip-flops and shorts. Modesty and respect are on the decline, he moans. This is God’s house and you are dressing for the golf course or, worse, the beach. Then comes the retort: God doesn’t care a fig about suits and skirts. He sees only the heart.

The what-not-to-wear-to-church debate divides old and young, rich and poor, clergy and lay members, black and white, Americans and others. Like all such divisions, it can cause tension even among those who share a common theology.

Where Christians end up reflects cultural biases about what God expects from human worship. Is God a king to be worshipped and revered or an everyday presence who is with us in the ordinariness of our lives?

Fletcher Stack says the question of how to dress in church first arose in the 1960s. Ah, the 1960s.

One Utah Catholic priest in the 1970s posted a sign in his church’s vestibule: “Must wear shoes, no shorts, no bare shoulders.”

This may seem like a trivial subject to cover, but I learned recently how important it is. At my church, we all dress up and nobody seems to have a problem with it. But when I told some of my friends and family that I have to cover my shoulders at my wedding, many of them flipped out. Apparently the most important thing at a wedding is that the bride be dressed sexily.

Fletcher Stack talks to women who wear hats to church and reports that Mormons have an unwritten rule against women wearing pants.

I thought this was an interesting exchange, too:

Catholic educator Dan John was getting ready for church on a recent Sunday and put on a pair of sandals.

One of his teenage daughters at first queried, “Sandals at church, Dad?” and then answered her own question: “Well, Jesus wore sandals.”

Dan John then put his tunic and rope belt on and walked to the local church.

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Pew gaps about the pew gap

WDobsonIt’s time for another round of “Name That Newspaper.”

Our friends at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life have released another large chunk of their annual blast of data about the state of religion and public life. In newspapers this translates into religion and politics and, this close to an election, that translates into headlines about who is headed up, with God, and who is headed down.

In that spirit, GetReligion readers are asked to guess which of the following two headlines and leads come from The New York Times and which comes from The Washington Times.

Brace yourselves, because this will be really hard.

Few see Democrats as friendly to religion

Liberal or progressive Christians, who make up 34 percent of the population, are disunified on key issues, and only one out of four Americans considers the Democratic Party friendly to religion, a Pew poll shows.

And now, here is our second lead covering the same study:

In Poll, G.O.P. Slips as a Friend of Religion

A new poll shows that fewer Americans view the Republican Party as “friendly to religion” than a year ago, with the decline particularly steep among Catholics and white evangelical Protestants — constituencies at the core of the Republicans’ conservative Christian voting bloc.

And there you have it. If you could not figure out that story No. 1 comes from The Washington Times and that story No. 2 is from The New York Times then, honestly, I don’t know what we can do for you.

But please let me stress that I do not intend this exercise as a criticism of either Julia Duin or Laurie Goodstein, the veteran Godbeat reporters who wrote these news stories. After a quick glance at some of the survey materials, it seems to me that both of these stories are accurate and, frankly, both are pretty obvious to anyone who follows the news or this weblog.

Yes, there are quite a few conservative religious believers in quite a few conservative pews who are not very happy with the Republican Party at the moment.

Meanwhile, the “religious left” has been getting lots and lots of ink in recent months — as well it should. There is quite a bit of evidence that the Democratic Party is, in large part, led by a coalition of people who are either secular or very active in liberal denominations that are defined, in large part, by their opposition to the traditional religious views of believers on the traditional side of the aisle.

kerry communionHowever, the “religious left” itself is rather small when it comes to real people sitting in real pews. It tends to hail from religious groups that are aging and shrinking. Click here for a controversial essay in the Los Angeles Times on that topic.

So, it is one thing to say that the GOP has reason to fear that people in pews may not be all that fired up. It is something else to say this means these core voters will switch to the other side of the social-issues aisle. And, as always, this means that voters in Catholic pews are the great swing factor — as they have been for ages and ages. Amen.

This leads me back to another Pew study that was released a few weeks ago that focused on how Americans feel about social issues. The big lead on this story was that Americans are confused and/or diverse on social issues and, thus, it is wrong to talk about “culture wars.” However, the numbers had not changed that much. Click here to go to that study and, if you wish, click here for the Scripps Howard News Service column that I wrote about it.

Once again, it isn’t all that shocking to find out what core Republican voters believe about issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. What I found interesting in that previous Pew report was the information about my fellow Democrats, especially those of us who are opposed to abortion. Here is part of my column, drawing on an interview with veteran pollster John C. Green. These are some wild numbers.

As expected, Republicans were more conservative than Democrats. Nevertheless, 10 percent of “liberal” Democrats chose the most anti-abortion option and 13 percent said abortion should be illegal, except in cases of rape, incest or to save a mother’s life. Then, 14 percent said abortion rights should be restricted with new laws, which Green said might include a “partial-birth” abortion ban, parental-notification laws, mandatory waiting periods and even a ban on late-term abortions.

“Many of those liberals are black Democrats who are frequent church goers,” said Green. “But those Democrats are still out there.”

Meanwhile, 12 percent of “moderate” and “conservative” Democrats backed a complete abortion ban, while another 39 percent said abortion should be “illegal, with few exceptions,” the choice that Green called a “modern pro-life stance.” Another 20 percent backed legalized abortion, with more restrictions. Once again, church attendance seemed to influence these views.

In all, 37 percent of liberals and 71 percent of centrist Democrats said they supported policies that would not be allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court under current interpretations of Roe v. Wade and other decisions defining abortion rights.

But this does not mean that all of those Democrats are going to vote Republican. The poll numbers are more complex than that.

So if you are really interested in these topics, it pays to read several different reports about the same research and, if you have the time, scan the poll numbers for yourself. These days, it will almost always be available with a few clicks of a mouse.

UPDATE: Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher has a lengthy post up at Beliefnet on this new Pew poll. Check it out.

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The Sun sees an obvious light

TimeisgoddeadI am sure that I have written this before at GetReligion and I am sure that, before long, I will write it again. However, there is some truth in the old Godbeat saying that for most American newsrooms, the formula for a page-one religion story is “three anecdotes, a poll and a quote from Martin Marty.”

But there is a reason that Marty (click here for more info) has become a brand name in religion news. Actually, there are several good reasons. One is that his knowledge base is very broad, which often happens with historians who have written 50-plus books. Second, he can speak ordinary English about complicated subjects (and often be witty at the same time). Third, he is famous for answering his own telephone. Fourth, he writes about 2,000 words a day and all of them are published — somewhere.

Finally, the man is often two or three beats ahead when it comes to seeing the obvious and then putting a spotlight on it.

Thus, I would like to note that the Baltimore Sun just published a very fine essay titled “Religion’s flame burns brighter than ever: What happened to the world’s transition to secularism?” It was written by Timothy Samuel Shah of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and Monica Duffy Toft of the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

But I would also like to note that Marty voiced the major theme of this essay — in very blunt terms — back in a 2002 lecture that I heard him give to students, journalists and ministers at the University of Nebraska. He has also been saying the same thing for a decade or two, only now more people are noticing because of the march of world events.

So what is Marty’s big idea? Here’s how I stated his thesis in a 2002 Scripps Howard column:

Truth is, most Western leaders have long believed that religion would inevitably fade, he said. Thus, the West has been dominated by two big ideas.

“One idea was that every time you looked out your window, there was going to be less religion around than there was before,” said Marty. … “The other idea was that whatever leftover religion you find, it was going to be tolerant, concessive, mushy and so on. Instead, there has been an increase in religion and the prospering religions are all extremely intense. The versions of Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism that are prospering tend to be among people who care very much about what their faith is about.”

Countless despots have learned that faith cannot be killed with force. This is especially true outside what Marty called the “spiritual ice belt” that extends across Western Europe and North America. …

In the mid-1990s, Marty directed a massive project to study the “militant religious fundamentalisms” on the rise worldwide. It concluded that the leaders of many such groups would resort to military action, when they failed to achieve victory through constitutional means. And if military might was not enough, Marty noted that the study warned that “they may very well take no prisoners, allow no compromises, have no borders and they might resort to terrorism.”

This brings us to the essay by Shah and Toft, which states many obvious facts in a place where the rarely appear — the pages of a solidly left-wing American newspaper. Here’s a large chunk of the heart of this story:

Global politics is increasingly marked by what could be called “prophetic politics.” Voices claiming transcendent authority are filling public spaces and winning key political contests. These movements come in very different forms and employ widely varying tools. But whether the field of battle is democratic elections or the more inchoate struggle for global public opinion, religious groups are increasingly competitive. In contest after contest, when people are given a choice between the sacred and the secular, faith prevails.

God is on a winning streak. It was reflected in the 1979 Iranian revolution, the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Shia revival and religious strife in postwar Iraq, and Hamas’s recent victory in Palestine and Israel’s struggle with Hezbollah in Lebanon. But not all the thunderbolts have been hurled by Allah.

The struggle against apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s and early 1990s was strengthened by prominent Christian leaders such as Archbishop Desmond K. Tutu. Hindu nationalists in India stunned the international community when they unseated India’s ruling party in 1998 and then tested nuclear weapons.

American evangelicals continue to surprise the U.S. foreign-policy establishment with their activism and influence on issues such as religious freedom, sex trafficking, Sudan and AIDS in Africa. Indeed, evangelicals have emerged as such a powerful force that religion was a stronger predictor of vote choice in the 2004 U.S. presidential election than was gender, age, or class.

Much has changed, admit the authors, since the infamous Time cover in 1966 that asked “Is God Dead?” That was a logical question for people in elite academia. The question never made sense in Middle America. It is a question sure to be pinned on bulletin boards in the headquarters of Islamists, for obvious reasons.

The article shoots down other myths. Education does not make people less religious. Prosperity does not do the trick, either. Vague, muddy faiths keep fading, while traditional forms of faith appeal to young and old.

There is much that can be debated in this piece. But the central question echoes what Marty has been saying for years. Feel free to send the URLs for these pieces to your local newspaper editors and ask them how this reality is reflected in their newsrooms and in their future plans for their news pages.

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