Religion Digs in Its Heels

Posted: Nov 08, 2006 7:58 AM
Religion Digs in Its Heels

In one of the more interesting election campaigns of the year, a hard-core leftist embraced religion, came out firmly against abortion and openly campaigned as if God were on his side. Election results weren't official at the time of this writing, but victory seemed a foregone conclusion. Harold Ford in Tennessee? Nope. Hillary Clinton in New York? Nope. I'm talking about Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. Ortega, the former leader of the Soviet-backed Communist Sandinista regime, is now a card-carrying Catholic (metaphorically speaking, unless Catholics actually do carry cards).

Ortega's critics say he played the religion card to get elected. (He had lost two previous bids to regain the presidency that he lost in 1990.) Whether or not the new pro-life Ortega is sincere is an interesting question, but it's irrelevant to a more interesting phenomenon: the resurgence of religion across the globe, including America.

For decades, students of modernization subscribed to an overriding assumption that, to paraphrase sociologist Peter Berger, more modernity means less religion. In the 1960s (and 1930s and 1890s), liberals were convinced that religion was dying out thanks to the new religion of progress. But as Berger recently detailed in an illuminating discussion on public radio's "Speaking of Faith," this nigh-upon universal assumption among scholars of social development has been smashed to smithereens by reality. Only Europe stands outside the worldwide religious revival. This is a challenge for some American leftist intellectuals who consider Europe the (START ITALICS) fons et origo (END ITALICS) of all enlightenment but who also believe that condescending to Third Worlders is the very definition of tolerant multiculturalism. They often square this circle by refraining from denouncing religion per se, but pooh-poohing Christianity as some sort of Western conspiracy.

This may be an inconvenient approach since Christianity is spreading rapidly around the globe, often in tandem with modernization (unlike Christianity's biggest competitor, Islam). In South Korea, for example, modernization has gone hand in hand with Christianization. Today, the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul has a quarter million parishioners show up on any given Sunday. In China, underground churches are spreading like kudzu. And in South and Central America, where Pentecostalism is exploding, Protestantism is so popular, Berger jokes that his research projects should be subtitled "Max Weber is alive and well and living in Guatemala." Indeed, Guatemala has the largest share of new Protestants in the world. And just as Max Weber, author of "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism," would have predicted, this spiritual transformation is having profound cultural and economic effects on Guatemalan society. It may do more for modernization than the World Bank ever could.

America is not immune to this global trend, much to the consternation of people still convinced that secularism is the wave of the future. A slew of authors have looked upon the supposedly unprecedented rise in American religiosity and seen damnation. Books like Michelle Goldberg's "Kingdom Coming," Andrew Sullivan's "The Conservative Soul" and Kevin Phillips' "American Theocracy" seem to work on the assumption that religion, at least of the orthodox variety, runs against the grain of progress.

One of the great ironies to this view is that religion and progressivism were joined at the hip. Woodrow Wilson was far more of a "Christianist" than George W. Bush could ever be. Wilson's mentor, University of Wisconsin economist Richard Ely, perhaps the central intellectual of the era, spoke for the majority of progressives when he rejected the traditional Christian emphasis on individual salvation, arguing instead for collective redemption through the state: "God works through the State in carrying out His purposes more universally than through any other institution." Progressive ministers and social planners alike argued for merging church and state into a real theocracy. Wilson himself believed the mission of progressives was "to make the United States a mighty Christian Nation, and to Christianize the world."

There are no hard and clear lessons here, or at least not ones I can offer. Many secular liberals today are nostalgic for the progressive era, even calling themselves progressives - even as they denounce the very passions that motivated their heroes. Meanwhile, conservatives defend the rising influence of religiosity in their own politics - even though such religiosity often encourages big-government approaches to social problems.

What is unavoidably true is that religion isn't going anywhere. The dustbin of history is crammed full of Marxist nostrums while religion, for good and ill, continues to make the world go round. Daniel Ortega may be faking it, but at least he has realized something lots of folks in America have yet to figure out.