Faith in our future?

Michael Barone
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Posted: Apr 25, 2005 12:00 AM

If you read the headlines, you run the risk of thinking we are headed toward a theocracy.

  Alarmists note that George W. Bush invokes his religious faith in many speeches and that his positions on abortion, embryonic-stem-cell research and faith-based charities are informed by it. They decry the law Congress passed to provide federal judicial review in the Terri Schiavo case. Vocal American Catholics bewail the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI.

  Blogger Andrew Sullivan called it "a full-scale assault" on liberal Catholics. One of his correspondents called the new pope "this headstrong, self-assured, anti-democratic and egotistical little man." We all look abroad at the violence done by Islamist fanatics and wonder, without any clear way of being sure, how far such doctrines have taken hold among the world's 1.2 billion Muslims. We note, more reassuringly but perhaps with some wariness, that most Iraqi voters seem to have followed the lead of the country's most powerful cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

 But whether the United States is on its way to becoming a theocracy is actually a silly question. No religion is going to impose laws on an unwilling Congress or the people of this country. And we have long lived comfortably with a few trappings of religion in the public space, such as "In God We Trust" or "God save this honorable court." The real question is whether strong religious belief is on the rise in America and the world. Fifty years ago, secular liberals were confident that education, urbanization and science would lead people to renounce religion. That seems to have happened, if you confine your gaze to Europe, Canada and American university faculty clubs.

  But this movement has not been as benign as expected: The secular faiths of fascism and communism destroyed millions of lives before they were extinguished.

 America has not moved in the expected direction. In fact, just the opposite. Economist Robert Fogel's "The Fourth Great Awakening" argues that we've been in the midst of a religious revival since the 1950s, in which, as in previous revivals, "the evangelical churches represented the leading edge of an ideological and political response to accumulated technological and social changes that undermined the received culture."

 In the 2004 presidential exit poll, 74 percent of voters described themselves as churchgoers, 23 percent as said they were evangelical or born-again Protestants and 10 percent said they had no religion.

 This is in line with longer trends. Roger Finke and Rodney Stark in "The Churching of America 1776-1990" used careful quantitative analysis to show that in America's free marketplace of ideas, the religions and sects that have grown are those that make serious demands on members. Those that accommodate to secular critics and make few demands decline in numbers. The Roman Catholic Church continues to grow in America; the Assemblies of God and the Mormon Church grow even faster. But mainline Protestant denominations, which spend much effort ordaining gay bishops or urging disinvestment in Israel, lose members.

 Around the world, we see continuing secularism in Europe but healthy competition among faiths elsewhere. In Latin America, the competitors are Catholicism (even though shorn of liberation theology by John Paul II) and evangelical Protestantism. In Africa, competitors are Catholicism, Protestantism and Islam. In East Asia, Christianity has grown in Korea and, underground, in China. In South Asia, the competition for 500 years has been between Hinduism and Islam.

 Who inherits the future? In free societies, each generation makes its own religious choices, but people tend to follow the faith of their parents. Secular Europe, with below-replacement birthrates among non-Muslims, could be headed for a Muslim future, as historian Niall Ferguson suggests.

  In the United States, as pointed out by Phillip Longman in "The Empty Cradle" and Ben Wattenberg in "Fewer," birth rates are above replacement level largely because of immigrants. But, as Longman notes, religious people have more children than seculars. Those who believe in "family values" are more likely to have families.

 This doesn't mean we're headed to a theocracy: America is too diverse and freedom-loving for that. But it does mean that we're probably not headed to the predominantly secular society that liberals predicted half a century ago and that Europe has now embraced.