A more re­li­gious na­tion ahead?

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - Re­viewed by David Wile­zol


Pres­i­dent Obama won re-elec­tion ear­lier this month partly on the strength of a Demo­cratic so­cial plat­form that pro­tects con­tra­cep­tive and abor­tion priv­i­leges. At least one Se­nate can­di­date, Richard Mour­dock, tor­pe­doed his own cam­paign be­cause of his the­ol­ogy of con­cep­tion. On bal­lot mea­sures, three states le­gal­ized gay mar­riage and an­other two le­gal­ized mar­i­juana for recre­ational use. In re­sponse, re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives are look­ing at 2012 as the crys­tal­liza­tion of a his­toric shift in the na­tion’s mo­ral code. “It’s that the en­tire mo­ral land­scape has changed,” said R. Al­bert Mohler Jr., pres­i­dent of the South­ern Bap­tist The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary, to The New York Times. “An in­creas­ingly sec­u­lar­ized Amer­ica un­der­stands our po­si­tions and has re­jected them.”

Mr. Mohler’s per­spec­tive of an “in­creas­ingly sec­u­lar­ized Amer­ica” en­cap­su­lates well what many con­ser­va­tive evan­gel­i­cals and Catholics see right now. But Frank New­port, the ed­i­torin-chief of Gallup, ar­gues that those per­cep­tions are in­cor­rect. Mr. New­port’s new book, “God Is Alive and Well: The Fu­ture of Re­li­gion In Amer­ica,” con­tains the pub­lished re­sults of in­ter­views with more than 700,000 Amer­i­cans on the sub­ject of their re­li­gious life. His the­sis might be sur­pris­ing to cul­ture ob­servers who are do­ing some se­ri­ous hand-wring­ing: “The ev­i­dence in this book points con­vinc­ingly to … an Amer­ica that will be­come a more re­li­gious na­tion in the years ahead.”

How does this as­ser­tion square with re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives’ con­ster­na­tion over the fu­ture? The most im­por­tant thing to re­mem­ber while read­ing this book is that when Mr. New­port clas­si­fies Amer­ica as re­li­gious, he doesn’t mean an Amer­ica full of Je­sus-wor­ship­ping, Bi­ble-be­liev­ing, church-onSun­day Chris­tians. His thresh­old for who is “re­li­gious” is low — rooted in ques­tions like, “Do you be­lieve in God or a uni­ver­sal spirit?” (Ninety-one per­cent of Amer­i­cans do.)

Mr. New­port also de­pends heav­ily on his­tor­i­cal pat­terns of re­li­gious iden­ti­fi­ca­tion at var­i­ous ages to pre­dict a re­li­gious fu­ture. His­tor­i­cally, across ear­lier gen­er­a­tions, age 23 is “the death val­ley of re­li­gious to­pog­ra­phy,” while peo­ple gen­er­ally get more re­li­gious be­tween ages 24 and 40, plateau off from about 40 to 64, and again be­come in­creas­ingly re­li­gious as they get older (and in­creas­ingly, Mr. New­port the­o­rizes, con­tem­plate their own mor­tal­ity). With a wave of baby boomers en­ter­ing re­tire­ment, Mr. New­port con­fi­dently pre­dicts a re­gres­sion to the mean; an over­all re­li­gious uptick is in or­der.

This may be true in the im­me­di­ate fu­ture, but Mr. New­port un­der­weights other, long-term trends that clearly chal­lenge his­tor­i­cal norms. For one thing, the num­ber of “Nones,” peo­ple with no re­li­gious iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, con­tin­ues to in­crease. In 1957, the num­ber of Nones was just 2 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion. In 2010, it was al­most 18 per­cent. More­over, many of those Nones are in the nascent mil­len­nial gen­er­a­tion (those born from 1980 to 1999), 25 per­cent of whom don’t iden­tify with any re­li­gion.

More­over, the num­ber of those younger than 30 who doubt God’s ex­is­tence is grow­ing quickly. Per­haps the most damn­ing ev­i­dence comes from east­ern Ger­many. Poll­sters who con­ducted a sur­vey of re­li­gious at­ti­tudes there couldn’t find a sin­gle per­son younger than 28 who be­lieved in God. Un­doubt­edly there are some, but their scarcity in a West­ern na­tion, not too dis­sim­i­lar from our own, chal­lenges Mr. New­port’s san­guine out­look.

Per­haps most cap­ti­vat­ing about his book is what Mr. New­port has dis­cov­ered about who is re­li­gious: women more than men, mar­ried more than un­mar­ried, the poor more than the rich. Mr. New­port gen­er­ally has nu­anced and fair rea­son­ing about what’s be­hind Amer­i­cans’ de­ci­sions to be re­li­gious (or not), but his un­der­stand­ings of cor­re­la­tion and causal­ity are con­fused oc­ca­sion­ally.

For in­stance, Mr. New­port no­tices the re­la­tion­ship be­tween re­li­gious be­hav­ior and phys­i­cal health but then sug­gests that in the fu­ture, “av­er­age Amer­i­cans, seek­ing ways to im­prove their health and well-be­ing, may in­creas­ingly turn to re­li­gion for th­ese same rea­sons.”

At times, Mr. New­port’s clear but for­mu­laic pat­tern of statis­tic­ex­pla­na­tion-con­se­quence is too pro­saic. Would that he had in­jected some anec­dotes from the hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple sur­veyed that would il­lus­trate the panoply of the Amer­i­can re­li­gious ex­pe­ri­ence.

Still, “God Is Alive and Well” is worth read­ing, a clear and valu­able re­source that will var­i­ously af­firm and chal­lenge com­monly held per­cep­tions of re­li­gion in Amer­ica. David Wile­zol is a pro­ducer for “Morn­ing in Amer­ica,” a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated ra­dio show hosted by former U.S. Sec­re­tary of Ed­u­ca­tion Wil­liam J. Ben­nett.

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