The re-clothing of America

Posted: Mar 11, 2004 12:00 AM

"The Lord of the Rings," with its subtext of God's providential guiding, and "The Passion," with its in-your-face text of Christ's suffering for us, have been the big movie successes of the past few months. Pastor Rick Warren's "The Purpose-Driven Life" was the No. 1 nonfiction hardback bestseller last year. Many churches report increasing attendance, and some observers even speculate that a great revival is underway.

At the same time, The Wall Street Journal accurately noted yesterday that "Secular absolutism is becoming the most potent religious force" in America." The WSJ blasted the "effort by liberal activists and their judicial enablers to turn one set of personal mores into a public orthodoxy from which there can be no dissent, even if that means trampling the First Amendment. Any voluntary association that doesn't comply -- the same little platoons once considered the bedrock of American freedom -- will be driven from the public square. Meet the new face of intolerance."

So what's going on? Is this the religious moment, or do secular foes have the big momentum? Sure, the current of religious interest ran very fast for several weeks after 9-11, when the World War II observation that "there are no atheists in foxholes" showed its accuracy once again. But isn't the current slower now, as many are no longer pushed to prayer by the feeling of being preyed upon?

Maybe -- 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, when college protests in the 1960s, diet books in the 1980s and Viagra in the 1990s all became big news. Interest in religion generally increases as people age, and as this biggest generation contemplates God, the whole world will be watching.

The new debate about a very old matter -- How did life begin? How did man begin? -- is also likely to intensify over the next decade. From the 1860s through the 1980s, Darwin's theories waxed powerful, opposed only by a tiny, scorned group of creationists. That changed during the past decade with the advent of "intelligent design" scientists who explain how complicated processes like blood clotting could not have come about through chance mutations. As more people come to understand the necessity of creation, some will stay to praise the Creator.

The compassionate conservative drive for religious groups to provide spiritual and material help to the poor has only just begun. People who see the effect of belief in poverty-fighting may realize that if God apparently changes some lives, He may change more. Also, as other religions have a higher American profile -- the number of Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims in the United States has quadrupled over the past three decades -- more nominal Christians and Jews may explore them and eventually realize that the grass isn't greener in the other cleric's yard.

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 in recent decades that attempts to avoid mentioning religion in public places do not yield neutrality, they leave us naked. We have lived in a society, very unusual in the history of the world, where many intellectual leaders boasted of nakedness. Most people in most places at most times have worn religious clothes.

The "secular absolutism" decried by the Wall Street Journal could freeze to death the already-naked -- but as many of us face pressure perhaps from terrorists but certainly from the terror of growing old, we are likely to see the re-clothing of America.