Religion has always played a role in U.S. politics. But these days, as religious influence hits a high-water mark, something strange is happening: Americans are abandoning the pews in record numbers. With God and Caesar increasingly entangled, more and more Americans, especially young ones, are opting out altogether.
An Easter Prayer Breakfast in the East Room of the White House. (Jim Young / Courtesy Reuters)
Until very recently, scholars theorized that the advent of modernity would inexorably lead to a less religious world. Simply put, modernization equaled secularization. In Europe, that assumption was common to the theories of Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Sigmund Freud. In the United States, too, social scientists with policymaking influence, among them Walt Rostow and Daniel Bell, predicted the inevitable decline of religion as modernity marched forward.
The world today disproves that thinking. In the rapidly industrializing BRIC countries, Brazilians, Russians, Indians, and Chinese are turning increasingly to religious faith. The same is true in some ultramodern nations that are changing under the pressures of globalization, such as South Korea and even constitutionally secular Turkey. Africa, which as a whole is making significant economic gains, is also home to some of the world's fastest-growing Christian and Muslim communities. When the people of the global South turn to religion, moreover, they are adopting some of the most intensely devout and pious faiths, such as Protestant evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, and conservative forms of Catholicism and Islam. Rather than disappearing, these supposedly premodern worldviews are thriving in our postmodern world.
At least in theory, the United States should be well poised to navigate a world of faith-based geopolitics. Its two most recent presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, are by all accounts deeply religious and well versed in many of the tenets of Christianity. They have differed in their approaches to foreign policy, but both have made overt references to faith. In reacting to 9/11 and the crisis over Iraq, Bush portrayed the United States as a chosen nation. "We Americans have faith in ourselves, but not in ourselves alone," he said in his 2003 State of the Union address. "We do not know -- we do not claim to know all the ways of Providence, yet we can trust in them, placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life and all of history. May He guide us now."