The state of America's political discourse is such that the president has felt it necessary to declare that unbelievers can be good Americans. In last week's prime-time news conference, he said: "If you choose not to worship, you're equally as patriotic as somebody who does worship."
So Mark Twain, Oliver Wendell Holmes and a long, luminous list of other skeptics can be spared the posthumous ignominy of being stricken from the rolls of exemplary Americans. And almost 30 million living Americans welcomed that presidential benediction.
According to the American Religious Identification Survey, Americans who answer "none" when asked to identify their religion numbered 29.4 million in 2001, more than double the 14.3 million in 1990. If unbelievers had their own state -- the state of None -- its population would be more than twice that of New England's six states, and None would be the nation's second-largest state:
California, 34.5 million.
None, 29.4 million.
Texas, 21.3 million.
The president, whose political instincts, at least, are no longer so misunderestimated by his despisers, may have hoped his remarks about unbelievers would undo some of the damage done by the Terri Schiavo case. During that Florida controversy, he made a late-night flight from his Texas ranch to Washington to dramatize his signing of imprudent legislation that his party was primarily responsible for passing. He and his party seemed to have subcontracted governance to certain especially fervid religious supporters.
And last Sunday Pat Robertson, who is fervid but also shrewd, seemed to understand that religious conservatives should be a bit more meek if they want to inherit the Earth. Robertson was asked on ABC's "This Week" whether religious conservatives would be seriously disaffected if in 2008 the Republicans' presidential nominee were to be someone like Rudy Giuliani.
Although Giuliani's eight years as New York's mayor, measured by such achievements as reduction of crime and welfare rolls, constitute perhaps America's most transformative conservative governance in the past half-century, he supports abortion rights, gay rights and gun control. Still, Robertson's relaxed reply to the question was, essentially: What's a little heresy among friends? "Rudy's a very good friend of mine and he did a super job running the city of New York and I think he'd make a good president."
Some Christians should practice the magnanimity of the strong rather than cultivate the grievances of the weak. But many Christians are joining today's scramble for the status of victims. There is much lamentation about various "assaults" on "people of faith." Christians are indeed experiencing some petty insults and indignities concerning things such as restrictions on school Christmas observances. But their persecution complex is unbecoming because it is unrealistic.
In just 15 months, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" has become one of the 10 highest-grossing movies in history, and it almost certainly will become the most-seen movie in history. The television networks, which can read election returns and the sales figures of "The Da Vinci Code," are getting religion, of sorts. The Associated Press reports that NBC is developing a show called "The Book of Daniel" about a minister who abuses prescription drugs and is visited by a "cool, contemporary Jesus." Fox is working on a pilot about "a priest teaming with a neurologist to examine unexplained events."
Christian book sales are booming. "The Rising" by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, the 13th in the astonishing 10-year sequence of Christian novels in the "Left Behind" series, was published two months ago and rocketed to the top of Amazon.com's bestseller list. Three years ago LaHaye and Jenkins, whose first dozen volumes have sold a combined 62 million copies, joined Tom Clancy, John Grisham and J.K. Rowling as the only authors whose novels have first printings of 2 million, partly because they are being sold in huge volumes in stores such as Wal-Mart and Costco. Today LaHaye and Jenkins are leaving Clancy, Grisham, et al. in the dust.
Religion is today banished from the public square? John Kennedy finished his first report to the nation on the Soviet missiles in Cuba with these words: "Thank you and good night." It would be a rash president who today did not conclude a major address by saying, as President Ronald Reagan began the custom of doing, something very like "God bless America."
Unbelievers should not cavil about this acknowledgment of majority sensibilities. But Republicans should not seem to require, de facto, what the Constitution forbids, de jure: "No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust."