In terms of participation in religion, the United States is not Europe -- at least not yet. Americans are much more likely than people on that continent, especially in western Europe, to be adherents of some form of religion, especially Christianity.
But as this piece in the April issue of The Atlantic notes, "Over the past two decades, that number (Christian church membership) has dropped to less than 50 percent, the sharpest recorded decline in American history. Meanwhile, the 'nones' — atheists, agnostics, and those claiming no religion — have grown rapidly and today represent a quarter of the population."
None of that is news. But the author of the piece, Shadi Hamid, a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, uses the data about declining religious participation to ask whether we're now seeking secular redemption in politics and, if so, whether that might that spell the doom of the American experiment.
Fair question. Hamid writes:
"As Christianity’s hold, in particular, has weakened, ideological intensity and fragmentation have risen. American faith, it turns out, is as fervent as ever; it’s just that what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief. Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations. This is what religion without religion looks like."
Perhaps you, too, have noticed that the number of people that Eric Hoffer once called "The True Believer" has increased among people who take politics seriously, whether from the far left, the far right or even the committed middle. We saw one group on that continuum storm the nation's Capitol in the 1/6 insurrectionist attacks. And we have seen another group at the other end of the spectrum in Antifa-inspired violence in our cities this past year (though it's inaccurate to equate those two examples of violence).
Hamid quotes Abraham Kuyper, whom he describes as "a theologian who served as the prime minister of the Netherlands at the dawn of the 20th century, when the nation was in the early throes of secularization." Kuyper maintained, says Hamid, that "all strongly held ideologies were effectively faith-based, and that no human being could survive long without some ultimate loyalty. If that loyalty didn’t derive from traditional religion, it would find expression through secular commitments, such as nationalism, socialism or liberalism."
I think Hamid is on to something. I'm just not sure how this finally plays out. Will it result in a state in which religion and secular political thinking both are respected and both have something like equal weight? Or will one inevitably dominate and maybe even destroy the other?
I don't know. What I do know is that it's time for the rational and creative voices representing all sides in this to speak clearly and to listen carefully. There are ways to manage this respectfully, but not if one side insists on it being a winner-take-all game.
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THE ATLANTA KILLER'S EXCUSE
Did you notice that the man arrested for the murder of eight women in Atlanta recently said he saw them as a "temptation" and that he was a sex addict? This excellent essay unpacks all of that in light of the teachings about women in some American Christian churches. Katelyn Beaty, a former managing editor of Christianity Today, writes that "in many Christian circles today, (the) New Testament gets twisted so that others — specifically women — are responsible for managing young men’s sexual desires — by not being an object of temptation, in what they wear or how they carry themselves." In other words, it's the woman's fault if the man behaves inappropriately. Isn't it way past time to change that destructive way of thinking? Isn't it time that men take responsibility for any sexually improper actions they commit?