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.
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