There's not a lot of argument about it: For better or worse, The New York Times is far and away the most influential newspaper in the country, and probably in the world. The news sections of the major television networks sound like, and probably are, the handiwork of producers who get the lion's share of their information, not to mention their opinions, from that morning's front page of the Times. And its Sunday Book Review section is as close as many of America's leading thinkers and opinion-makers ever get to intellectual sustenance.
So it is not unimportant that the front page of said Book Review section consisted, on Oct. 22, of the beginning of a long review of "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins. The review continues inside, for another two pages, discussing Dawkins' contention "that to be an atheist is a 'brave and splendid' aspiration. Belief in God is not only a delusion, he argues, but a 'pernicious' one." The Book Review's editor quotes the reviewer (Jim Holt) as saying, "I agree with Dawkins's conclusions," though in the review itself Holt gives a fair hearing to other opinions.
Inside, on the page directly preceding the carry-over, the Book Review publishes a review by George Will of "Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers," by Brooke Allen. Allen's thesis, as described by Will, "is that the six most important founders -- Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton -- subscribed, in different ways, to the watery and undemanding Enlightenment faith called deism." Will explains that "Allen's challenge is to square the six founders' often pious public words and behavior with her conviction that their real beliefs placed all six far from Christianity. Her conviction is well documented, exuberantly argued, and quite persuasive."
With those two reviews under his or her belt, a Book Review reader would be justified in concluding that America's intellectual leaders, at least, are in no danger of believing in God. And yet, just one page beyond the carry-over, we are offered a review of "The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How We Get It Back," by Andrew Sullivan. Reviewer David Brooks tells us that, according to Sullivan, in recent years "something new has usurped conservatism and threatened the world -- religious fundamentalism." Brooks makes it clear that he disagrees with the author, not least in his furious condemnation of fundamentalism. But which is it to be? Was America created, and is it still comfortably ruled, by deists and atheists? Or has it, under our politically dominant conservatism, recently fallen into the hands of Bible-thumping fundamentalists, known to the media as "theocons"?
In theory, the answer could be "both." The nation's intellectual leadership may remain safely non-religious, while the masses are indulging in an orgy of religiosity. But the most casual reading of recent political history suggests a somewhat different interpretation. What has happened is that, in the past thirty years, a large number of Americans whose deepest beliefs and concerns are not political but religious have concluded that they have no choice but to gird themselves for participation in the nation's political wars. There are quite enough such people to influence the election returns, and they have been doing so.
But -- and this distinction is crucial -- their posture is essentially defensive. They are not seeking to turn America into a theocracy. They are simply trying to preserve, and where necessary restore, the politico-religious balance that has been traditional in this country. It is the intellectuals, with the critical support of the courts, and above all the Supreme Court, that have successfully eroded that balance, seeking to marginalize religion and convert the entire civic framework of the nation into a purely secular arena, on the pretense that this is required by the First Amendment's supposed erection of a high "wall" between church and state.
Those who imagine that it is religion's defenders who are the aggressors here are simply not paying attention to the increasingly sharp attacks on religious faith that can be found today in such influential places as The New York Times.