Michael Gerson

And the European present is not as secular as church attendance numbers would indicate. Spiritual beliefs broadly persist, even in the absence of formal religious associations.

But the swift decline of European religious institutions is not a small thing. Institutions codify and transmit faith, producing the Perpendicular Gothic and the Book of Common Prayer. They can also discredit faith, especially when too closely tied to the established order -- seeking its favor, implicated in its power games, justifying its scandals. The aid of various Richards throughout the ages comes with a price.

Contrast this to American religion, involving less heraldry and more vitality. The whole pageant is well described in "American Grace," by Robert Putnam and David Campbell. They depict a "highly religious people," divided by contentious social issues but generally tolerant of other religious traditions. Immigration, conversion and intermarriage produce a churn of belief that undermines settled prejudices. American religious congregations cultivate civic engagement, creating citizens who are generous, active and trusting.

All this liveliness comes with some disturbingly American characteristics -- a general theological ignorance, a tendency toward the anodyne, turning a creed into a hobby. But the general impression left by "American Grace" is of a fluid marketplace of faith that is favorable to faith itself.

There are many reasons for this American achievement, but foremost is a commitment to religious freedom -- which originated in the struggles of English Protestants, but was applied in a way the world had not seen before. There would be no Church of America, because Christian belief was compromised by secular alliances, and because true fidelity to God could not be forced. By creating this system, the Founders proved that secularism is not essential to political liberalism. Pluralism will suffice.

The decline in the standing of many religious institutions is undeniable. But this cannot be extrapolated to the end of belief. Institutions grow gray and gouty. Faith, in freedom, is ever new.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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