"Down and Dirty" is the headline on the May 6 Sports Illustrated account of the National Hockey League playoffs thus far. Exhibit A was Boston Bruins defensemen Kyle McLaren "clotheslining" Richard Zednik of the Montreal Canadians -- sticking out his arm as the wing skated by so that Zednik, smashed in the face, ended up in the hospital with a concussion.
Some pundits are predicting that Catholic priest scandals are putting an equally rough hit on Christianity in America. But just as the NHL, citing McLaren's previously clean record, gave him only a two-game suspension, so Catholicism specifically and Christianity generally will be iced for a short time but will soon be skating freely again. Overall, Christianity is likely to have a larger presence in America over the next several decades, not a lesser one.
This is not just post-Sept. 11 talk. (That swell of religious interest did not last long.) We should pray that we will not be preyed upon again soon, but whether or not terrorists mind their manners, one grim reaping will advance: Baby boomers are aging. Because of their numbers, they have yanked press chains for a third of a century, with college protests in the 1960s, diet books in the 1980s and Viagra in the 1990s all big news. Interest in religion generally increases as people age, and as boomers ask about God, so will reporters.
The new debate about a very old matter -- How did life begin? How did man begin? -- will also intensify. From the 1860s through the 1980s, macro-evolutionary theories waxed powerful, opposed only by a tiny, scorned group of creationists. That changed during the 1990s with the advent of "intelligent design" scientists who explain how complicated processes like blood clotting could not have come about through chance mutations. Christianity will excite more interest as more people realize they have been worshipping false Darwinian gods.
The compassionate conservative drive for religious groups (most often Christian) to provide spiritual and material help to the poor has only just begun. That has led to vigorous discussion about the "separation of church and state," an overused term that in some way camouflages the deeper issue: Do we want a separation of faith and life? People who see the effectiveness of Bible-based poverty-fighting will see that belief has consequences.
The growth of other religions will also lead some nominal Christians to examine their own. The number of Hindus in America has increased during the past 30 years from 100,000 to almost a million. Buddhism has similarly grown, and perhaps 5 million Muslims now live in the United States, up from about 800,000 three decades ago. Religions that once were exotic in America are now next door -- some who grew up with Christian teaching will turn to one of its competitors, but many will return to their roots.
We can expect more sad headlines about severe priestly sin, but the overall story confirms rather than refutes Christian teaching about the presence of sin among us all. Popular pressure may lead to a mini-reformation within the Catholic Church that will leave it stronger, and Protestant churches will also be more vigilant about those who could clothesline them.
Overall, these factors lead to movement away from what Richard John Neuhaus called "the naked public square" -- naked in its lack of religious discussion. We've learned over the past four decades that attempts to avoid mentioning religion in public places leave us not neutral, but naked. We have lived in a society, very unusual in the history of the world, where many intellectual leaders boast of nakedness. Most people in most places at most times have worn religious clothes. As many Americans face pressure perhaps from terrorists but certainly from the terror of growing old, this country will be no exception.