The United States had long been a holdout among Western democracies, uniquely and perhaps even suspiciously devout. From 1937 to 1998, church membership remained relatively constant, hovering at about 70 percent. Then something happened. Over the past two decades, that number 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.
But if secularists hoped that declining religiosity would make for more rational politics, drained of faith’s inflaming passions, they are likely disappointed. 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.
Not so long ago, I could comfort American audiences with a contrast: Whereas in the Middle East, politics is war by other means—and sometimes is literal war— politics in America was less existentially fraught. During the Arab Spring, in countries like Egypt and Tunisia, debates weren’t about health care or taxes—they were, with sometimes frightening intensity, about foundational questions: What does it mean to be a nation? What is the purpose of the state? What is the role of religion in public life? American politics in the Obama years had its moments of ferment— the Tea Party and tan suits—but was still relatively boring.
We didn’t realize how lucky we were. Since the end of the Obama era, debates over what it means to be American have become suffused with a fervor that would be unimaginable in debates over, say, Belgianness or the “meaning” of Sweden. It’s rare to hear someone accused of being un-Swedish or un-British—but un- American is a common slur, slung by both left and right against the other. Being called un- American is like being called “un- Christian” or “un-Islamic,” a charge akin to heresy.
This is because America itself is “almost a religion,” as the Catholic philosopher Michael Novak once put it, particularly for immigrants who come to their new identity with the zeal of the converted. The American civic religion has its own founding myth, its prophets and processions, as well as its scripture— the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and The Federalist Papers. In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King Jr. wished that “one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.” The very idea that a nation might have a creed— a word associated primarily with religion— illustrates the uniqueness of American identity as well as its predicament.
The notion that all deeply felt conviction is sublimated religion is not new. Abraham Kuyper, a theologian who served as the prime minister of the Nether lands at the dawn of the 20th century, when the nation was in the early throes of secularization, argued 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. The political theorist Samuel Goldman calls this “the law of the conservation of religion”: In any given society, there is a relatively constant and finite supply of religious conviction. What varies is how and where it is expressed.
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