Predicting the End of Faith in America

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Mr. Mathewes and Mr. Nichols are co-editors of Prophesies of Godlessness: Predictions of America’s Imminent Secularization from the Puritans to the Present Day (Oxford University Press). Mr. Mathewes is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. Mr. Nichols is Postdoctoral Fellow in U.S. History at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

The end of religion in America is near. As Easter approached the cover of Newsweek read, “The Decline and Fall of Christian America.” Jon Meacham, the magazine's editor, set the tone quickly inside: Recent national polls indicate that the percentage of Americans declaring “no religion” is at roughly 15% of the population--an all-time high, and a remarkable increase from the 1990 percentage of 8.2%. The seeming liberalization of social values, strikingly evident in polls of the younger generation under 30 (even among evangelicals), combined with the fracturing of any politically cohesive Christian conservative coalition have given rise to the latest proclamations that religion’s hold on Americans is abating. Surely God is, at last--as Time predicted 43 years ago, in 1966--about to be "dead." 

            Not so, say The Economist editors John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, who have just penned God is Back; for them, religion in America is going as strong as ever; relative to other developed nations, America is still a holy-roller.  And demographic trends suggest to them that worldwide, the future lies in the hands, and the wombs, of the faithful.

            The fight between these sides is likely to be loud. It will likely produce more heat than light. And in any event, we've seen it all before.           

            At every critical juncture in American history, anxieties about the nation's future godlessness and godliness have appeared. The Civil War was seen as a struggle between godliness on one side and godlessness on the other — for the Secessionists, a godless Northern materialism; and for the Abolitionists, a godless slave culture that debased both master and slave.  The 1929 stock market crash was cast as the nation's just deserts for the ungodly hunt for mammon during the Roaring Twenties.

            More recently, after the 9/11 attacks, many Americans interpreted events in terms of America's present religious and moral situation. Rev. Jerry Falwell, in a televised conversation with Rev. Pat Robertson on Sept. 13, 2001, said: “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle… all of them who have tried to secularize America — … I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.' ”

            Today is no different: Buffeted by a painful economic recession, engaged in two wars abroad, overawed by a massive national debt, looming ecological crises, and manifold other ills, the future is alarming. It is times like these that provoke predictions of American godlessness.

            Still, this society, always apparently teetering on the brink of becoming a godless, secular nation, has neither collapsed nor become less religious in the past three centuries. Indeed, many scholars argue that, in terms of church membership numbers, the United States is a more religious country now than it was in 1776.  How can we reconcile a nation predicting godlessness and yet seemingly becoming both more and less godless at the same time?

            One answer is that this tenuous state seems to be elemental to the character of American belief. Thomas Jefferson, that vaunted Founding Father and child of the Enlightenment, believed all Americans would become Unitarians. Many progressives in the early 20th century understood religion to be a declining force in people's lives, requiring a new philosophical basis as for what Walter Lippmann termed a "preface to morals." Most twentieth-century social scientists believed that secularization was an unstoppable force—like suburbanization—that it was an Americanizing power, replacing immigrants' traditions with much-needed pragmatism and materialism. Even the Religious Right’s emergence in the 1970s was provoked by fearful predictions by the movement's leaders of an encroaching "godlessness" that believers must resist.

            All that is to say, every generation--from the nation's colonial past to its postmodern present—has given rise to new predictions of "godlessness" in American society. At moments of anxiety, we will always reach for the forms of fear that are most familiar to us. In America's case, the fear tends to be theological and existential: the very survival of "America," as an ideal and a reality, always seems to hang on the character of America's relation to God.  For secularists, the two terms — God and America — necessarily must remain separate; for members of the Religious Right, they must stay inextricably joined. Prophesies of godlessness are as American as American godliness itself.

            If this were harmless, it would merely be amusing. But in their most zealous and alarmist forms, these predictions, and the yea/nay/boo/hooray fracases they provoke, diminish democratic dialogue and hinder religious understanding. They distort pressing political issues even as they seek popular unity to ward off feared moral and religious decline. And they obscure genuine and fundamental changes in the nature of religion in America.

            Consider these most recent rounds. In his theatricalized hand-wringing about the future of Christianity (always a topic that sells magazines, particularly important in this down market), Meacham passes over the plentiful evidence of the persistent vitality of American religiosity, and ignores the way that not just Christianity but Protestantism shapes every American religion--so that, for example, Muslim and Buddhist religious organizations in America must still conform, even legally, to the institutional structures of those most Protestant of social realities, the local "church" and the national "denomination."  On the other hand, in their tub-thumping triumphalism, Micklethwait and Wooldridge slip easily by the recognition that religious attitudes in the U.S. seem to be "polarizing," with more aggressively conservative churches growing and more aggressively anti-religious populations expanding.

            These latest declarations highlight the fluid nature and also the strikingly consistent rhetorical patterns of such predictions. From the time of the Puritans to today, Americans have been devout believers who are deeply anxious about their believing. Religious and moral predictions, for and against godlessness, are as ingrained, continuous, and contentious in American society as they have ever been. And they are as commonplace, and seemingly as necessary to living, as the shared belief that the sun must rise tomorrow. But that doesn't mean that we have to go on repeating the hysteria.

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    More Comments:

    Evan Shawn Powell - 4/16/2009

    "Don't count those numbers 15% as being "GODLESS" or atheist either."

    Of course the distinction that you make is not one that is held by adherents to the many flavors of religion. Being non-denominational or of the "wrong" (anything other than what I am) denomination is the equivalent of Godless. We are all apostates, infidels, heretics and Godless to someone.

    Randll Reese Besch - 4/13/2009

    I mean our DNA and expressing in how our brain works. Genetic variability is necessary for a species to survive. Those like myself who have no interest in gods or heros (their related) which is in the minority of our species. Don't count those numbers 15% as being "GODLESS" or atheist either. They may just not be of any denomination.

    Robert Arthur Landbeck - 4/13/2009

    According to a new interpretation of the moral teaching of Christ spreading on the web, loosing that 'faith' Americans have been holding to may be no bad thing. But the turn won't be towards a secular future but something more profound than the existing theological counterfeit!

    It is often stated that extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence and rightly so. Here then is the first ever viable religious conception capable of leading reason, by faith, to observable consequences which can be tested and judged. This new teaching delivers the first ever religious claim of insight into the human condition, that meets the Enlightenment criteria of verifiable, evidence based truth embodied in action. For the first time in history, a moral tenet exists, offering access by faith, to absolute proof for its belief.

    Using a synthesis of scriptural material from the Old and New Testaments, the Apocrypha , The Dead Sea Scrolls, The Nag Hammadi Library, and some of the worlds great poetry, it describes and teaches a single moral LAW, a single moral principle offering the promise of its own proof; one in which the reality of God responds to an act of perfect faith with a direct, individual intervention into the natural world; correcting human nature by a change in natural law, altering biology, consciousness and human ethical perception beyond all natural evolutionary boundaries. Intended to be understood metaphorically, where 'death' is ignorance and 'Life' is knowledge, this experience, personal encounter and liberation by transcendent power and moral purpose is the 'Resurrection' ,the justification of faith and foundation of righteousness.

    Revolutionary stuff. Check it at:

    En Em - 4/13/2009

    "The end of religion in America is near". If by "religion" you mean the mindless prancing around and the circus atmosphere prevalent at New World churches, then it darn well should be.

    "....the cover of Newsweek read, “The Decline and Fall of Christian America.” The US is the only country which rightly professes that being "American" is a State of Mind. So tell me, where does "Christian America" fit into that definition? Does it mean that all other faiths should be superseded by Christianity? And if so, then what about Zoroastrianism from which Christianity, Islam and Judaism borrowed their entire belief systems? Shouldn't it supersede Christianity?

    "...the fracturing of any politically cohesive Christian conservative coalition have given rise to the latest proclamations that religion’s hold on Americans is abating". Why should organized religion interfere and/or intervene in the governing of ANY country? If we are to be ruled by the Old Testament, then why do we have a Constitution? Religion, of any hue, belongs in churches and should remain there. The days of Holy Crusades in the name of God and the meddling of the church in political arenas are over and done with. And so are, hopefully the days of Jihad. If people have to unite to support a cause, any cause, be it political or otherwise, then let them do so by sheer power of objective philosophy.