American Religion: The Great Retreat

It’s never been easy to reconcile religion with politics. We know that not only from the bloody sectarian strife taking place today in Iraq but also from the passionate disputes we ourselves are having at the present time—though as yet we haven’t been bombing one another. From stem cell research to intelligent design, from prayer in the schools to the mention of God in the Pledge of Allegiance, issues of religion and politics bitterly divide Americans. While some think that the country has forgotten God and its Christian heritage, others fear that the government and the culture are being taken over by religious enthusiasts out to create a theocracy.

Inevitably, over the past decade or more the disputants on both sides have flooded the country with books on religion and government, each pushing their own positions, with most of them having much to say about what the Founders intended the role of religion to be. Indeed, showing that the Founders would have approved of the writer’s position seems to be essential to any argument over religion and government.

The two books under review are attempts to intervene in the current heated controversies. Both of them seek to reconcile national differences and bring Americans closer together by recounting the actual history of religion in America, especially at the founding of the nation. As both writers would agree, we Americans have a very unusual religious tradition. We are not born into our religion in the way we are born into citizenship. Religion is very much a voluntary affair, a matter of free choice. There is no religious establishment here and not much formal connection between religion and government; in fact, over the past generation there has been an almost obsessive concern to keep religion apart from the public culture and affairs of the state.

Yet this voluntarism and this separation of church and state have not led to religious indifference or religious apathy. Indeed, with the exception of Ireland, the United States is the most religious society in the Western world. Nearly 90 percent of Americans say they consider themselves religious believers of one sort or another, about 80 percent identify with some Christian faith, 79 percent believe in the Virgin Birth, 78 percent say Jesus physically rose from the dead, 48 percent claim to have had a “born again” Christian experience, and more than 40 percent of Americans say that they are weekly churchgoers, although those who actually attend church may be closer to 25 percent. At any rate there is an enormous number of different religious groups, over 1,500 by one count, with seventy-five different kinds of Baptists alone. Even in the face of the relentless “secularization” of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, religion in America still flourishes. And, except for being freed of tax, it flourishes without the support of the government or the state, without any of the traditional establishments that have maintained religions elsewhere in other nations. How did such an unusual religious culture develop? What historical…

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