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Born Again in the U.S.A.

The Enduring Power of American Evangelicalism

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In international politics, religion has been the elephant in the room for most of the modern age. And in recent years, it has only grown larger and louder. Policymakers and political theorists have adopted the mostly unpromising strategies of ignoring it in the hope that rationality and modernity will eventually push it out; using laws, coercion, or public opinion to remove it from the political sphere; or pretending that it is only a matter of culture and treating it accordingly.

The authors of God Is Back are an exception. They admit that religion is here to stay and seek to find out what it is really all about. John Micklethwait, editor in chief of The Economist, and Adrian Wooldridge, its Washington bureau chief, work for a publication that has been notably dubious about religion's long-term viability in the face of modernization and economic globalization. The Economist boldly published God's obituary in its millennium issue, declaring that "the Almighty recently passed into history." Micklethwait and Wooldridge, for their part, were not so sure about God's demise. To investigate God's place in the world today, the two men traveled thousands of miles to talk to religious leaders and ordinary believers across the world and spent hundreds of hours visiting mosques and temples, attending religious services, sitting in on Bible-study groups, and picking the brains of theologians.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge entered dangerous territory. They faced the literal dangers of encountering real live religious radicals and investigating religion's impact in all kinds of tough neighborhoods -- from inner-city Philadelphia to the northern Nigerian city of Kano. And they faced literary dangers by walking into a field thick with theological crossfire between believers and nonbelievers, epitomized on one extreme by Dinesh D'Souza's What's So Great About Christianity and on the other by Christopher Hitchens' atheist manifesto, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. The confessionally diverse duo of Micklethwait and Wooldridge -- the first is a Catholic and the second an atheist -- steers clear of polemics and focuses instead on reading God's vital signs rather than identifying his virtues or vices. What they find is that many of the forces that were supposed to consign the Almighty to the ash heap of history -- or to a quiet corner of the living room -- have only made him stronger.

Beyond discovering that God still has a pulse, Micklethwait and Wooldridge give a firsthand account of how religious groups all over the world -- from family ministries in the United States and megachurches in South Korea to televangelists in Egypt -- use modern methods to convert people. The result is more Robert Capa than Max Weber: arresting snapshots of bubbling religiosity rather than elaborate theories about the causes and consequences of the global religious revival. But the snapshots support an argument: that the United States' increasingly competitive religious market has incubated a form of entrepreneurial faith -- a religious style that is conservative at its doctrinal core but restlessly innovative in its techniques of organization and communication. Micklethwait and Wooldridge focus on this U.S. brand of religion partly because it has been the key to reconciling God and modernity. It also attracts their attention -- and admiration -- because it is contagious, increasingly winning practitioners and followers across the globalized world.

MUNDUS CONTRA DEUM

A happy marriage between God and modernity was never widely expected. In the eighteenth century, some members of modernity's self-appointed vanguard -- especially those writing in French -- considered traditional faith a skunk at the Enlightenment party and made God persona non grata in their Parisian salons. The revolutionary Jacobins even turned on Robespierre when he pushed his Cult of the Supreme Being further than their Voltairean tastes permitted. These radicals endeavored to displace God, not accommodate him. The nineteenth-century French historian Jules Michelet expressed the hope that the French Republic would "take the place of the God who escapes us."

God's partisans returned the favor. In 1864, the Vatican pointedly condemned the idea that the pope should "reconcile himself with progress, with liberalism, and with modern civilization." Even thinkers sympathetic to the church, such as the historians Alexis de Tocqueville and Lord Acton, feared that an unbridgeable chasm was opening up between Christianity and modernity. By 1882, the anticlerical French philosopher Ernest Renan was exulting, "We have driven metaphysical and theological abstractions out of politics."

Across the world, the mutual hostility between divinity and modernity deepened further in the century between 1864, when the pope declared God antimodern, and 1966, when Time magazine asked whether he had died. In Europe, the cradle of Christendom, republican and socialist revolutionaries branded God and the church enemies of the people. God was hardly better off under conservative, monarchical, or royalist regimes -- such as Bismarck's Germany, Victorian England, and Franco's Spain -- where the church depended on government largess and kowtowed to those in power.

In the twentieth century, a worldwide march of the Jacobins' heirs attempted to get rid of God once and for all. From the Bolsheviks in Russia to the Kemalists in Turkey, the monarchists in Iran, the Nazis in Germany, the Maoists in China, and the Nasserists in Egypt, secular regimes seized church-held land, destroyed monasteries, evicted missionaries, criminalized religious movements, banned religious symbols, proscribed religious political parties, and even attempted to exterminate entire religious communities.

Over the last two centuries, most observers of world affairs took these partisans at their word. They assumed that truly modern men and women would never welcome God into their polite and educated company. And they assumed God's attitude would remain roughly that of Groucho Marx, and he would think twice about joining a club that would have him as a member. Sociologists, historians, anthropologists, and even theologians all concluded that God and modernity would inevitably go their separate ways.

But God did finally find refuge in the modern world, and Micklethwait and Wooldridge make a fresh case that it was thanks to the United States.

AMERICA BLESS GOD

The revolutionaries who founded the American republic respected God without patronizing him. Despite representing a broad spectrum of religious conviction, ranging from the deism of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin to the evangelicalism of Patrick Henry and John Jay, the founders welcomed God as an ally and a cornerstone of their ultramodern political revolution. At the same time, they sought to free religion from its historical dependence on state patronage, which they feared would debilitate and corrupt the church and the state alike. Immediately after the American Revolution, Christians squabbled with one another, and some state governments -- unlike the federal government -- kept churches dependent on direct government financing. (The last of these state "mini-establishments," in Massachusetts, was not abolished until 1833.)

At first, Christian ministers in the young republic were much like their European counterparts: indolent wards of the state who nonetheless expected perfect devotion from the masses by virtue of their position in the social hierarchy. This traditionalism initially helped keep more than half of the United States' increasingly freedom-loving inhabitants from joining churches at all.

In time, however, organized religion became part of the fabric of American culture. Micklethwait and Wooldridge draw on the work of such historians of religion as Nathan Hatch, George Marsden, and Mark Noll to narrate God's rapid adjustment to the New World. In the early nineteenth century, churches became less dependent on state support, and in the absence of state sanctions compelling church attendance, they adapted their messages and methods to a society that was increasingly mobile, freethinking, and egalitarian. God rapidly became less European and more American -- less clerical, theological, and communal and more entrepreneurial, pragmatic, and individualistic.

In contrast to the influential interpretations of the historians Henry Steele Commager and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., both of whom viewed the American mind as essentially skeptical and this-worldly, Micklethwait and Wooldridge argue that Christianity became more literalistic and evangelical as it became more American. By 1860, close to 85 percent of the United States' churchgoing population was evangelical, upending Jefferson's famous prediction in 1822 that "there is not a young man now living in the US who will not die an Unitarian." Religion in the United States also reflected a powerful affinity between what the sociologist Peter Berger has argued is the individualistic and voluntaristic core of evangelical Christianity and the voluntaristic impulses of American democracy. As Berger has written, among evangelicals, "one cannot be born a Christian; one must be 'born again' to meet that designation," which makes evangelical Protestantism a "peculiarly modern religion." A variety of evangelical churches and movements -- Methodist, Baptist, and others -- were thus well suited to a rapidly modernizing United States.

Over the next 150 years, evangelical leaders such as Charles Finney, Dwight Moody, and Billy Graham used their revivalist techniques to popularize evangelicalism among successive generations of Americans: deploying modern communication strategies and building specialized voluntary organizations. They also succeeded in creating a new entrepreneurial style of religious propagation, which hinged on leaders who began their careers outside of established and respected religious institutions, who saw alienation from religion as an opportunity to be seized rather than a condition to be condemned, who preached a practical and parsimonious message, and who believed that people needed to respond freely and individually to the call for redemption. Their theology has long been well suited to a constantly churning and mobile nation: from a time when static and agrarian communities gave way to an industrialized and urbanized society down to the present day, filled with suburbanites seeking spiritual meaning. The genius of this American-style religion is that it respects individualism while equipping people to survive its excesses.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge are most perceptive and thorough -- and most entertaining -- when they document the continuing vigor of the United States' contemporary evangelical subculture. They take unexpected detours into evangelical vacation spots, such as Holy Land U.S.A., in Bedford County, Virginia, which features a 250-acre replica of the Holy Land in Jesus' time. Although some secular liberals fear that evangelical leaders are harboring a theocratic agenda out of step with mainstream Americans, God Is Back demonstrates that these ministers win large followings precisely because they are attuned to the struggles and aspirations of ordinary people. The Purpose Driven Life, a book by Rick Warren, the pastor at the Saddleback megachurch in Southern California, has tapped into consumerist Americans' undeniable anomie and hunger for spiritual direction. Twenty-five million copies have been sold, making it the second-best-selling hardcover book in U.S. history -- after the Bible. When Warren delivered the invocation at President Barack Obama's inauguration, he offered vivid evidence of evangelicalism's continuing influence.

DIVINE DECLINE?

If it is an error to equate God's relationship with modernity to Superman's with kryptonite -- a point God Is Back drives home -- religious triumphalism is also unwarranted. God may be back after a century of attempted deicides, but he still faces stiff resistance. Even in the United States, the most religious nation in the industrialized West, those who choose not to identify with any particular religion -- the "unaffiliated" in pollster parlance -- constitute the fastest-growing "religious group." Rather than flocking to more theologically relaxed denominations, an increasing number of Americans are abandoning organized religion altogether. According to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in 2007, 16.1 percent of the respondents said they were unaffiliated.

The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) found that 15 percent of the U.S. population had no particular religious preference, almost double the figure for 1990. In his April 2009 article "The End of Christian America," the Newsweek editor Jon Meacham used the ARIS study to argue that the United States is passing into a "post-Christian" period. "This is not to say that the Christian God is dead," Meacham explained, "but that he is less of a force in American politics and culture than at any other time in recent memory."

Meacham is onto something. Evangelical Christians in the United States now find themselves in the political wilderness after one of their own -- George W. Bush -- left the White House with one of the lowest presidential approval ratings in U.S. history. Many of the most politically powerful evangelical leaders of the last two generations, such as Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and D. James Kennedy, have either died or retired, passing their organizations on to younger and less influential successors. Obama, the man almost all evangelical leaders vociferously opposed during the 2008 campaign, was elected president. And the trends they have fought, such as the rising acceptance of same-sex marriage and abortion, are increasingly entrenched in the country's laws and social mores.

When Dobson stepped down as head of the Christian organization Focus on the Family in April, just after Meacham's article appeared, he gave a decidedly downbeat farewell speech about issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, and pornography. "We are right now in the most discouraging period of that long conflict," Dobson reflected. "Humanly speaking, we can say we have lost all those battles."

In other countries, too, the armies of God seem to be in full-scale retreat. In the last two years, Islamist parties have fared poorly in electoral contests across the Muslim world, including in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, and Morocco. In Iran, the hard-line clerical establishment succeeded in retaining power only by blatantly rigging an already skewed electoral process and crushing protests. Fundamentalist terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and the Taliban are on the run from Iraq to Pakistan, as they lose battles and sympathizers. In India, the coalition led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party received a surprisingly decisive drubbing in national elections held in April and May. As Meacham observed about evangelicals in the United States, the problem is not so much that God is losing popularity as that many of his self-appointed representatives are suffering a palpable decline in social and political authority. Nietzsche may have been right after all: as an unquestioned arbiter of public culture, perhaps God is dead.

But the many attempts on God's life have made him remarkably resilient as an object of private devotion. The same survey that inspired Meacham to pronounce the end of Christian America found that just as many Americans identified themselves as Christian in 2008 as did in 2001 (about 76 percent). Meanwhile, the number of unaffiliated barely grew, remaining around 15 percent. Although the ARIS reported a big decline for Christians and a big jump for the unaffiliated between 1990 and 2001, these changes almost certainly stemmed in part from the increasing willingness of some nonreligious people to identify themselves as such, perhaps induced by a perception that secularism is becoming more socially acceptable. Since 2001, with most secularists already out of the closet, unaffiliated growth has slowed. Micklethwait and Wooldridge note that the link between faith and fertility may also be slowing secular growth: numerous studies, including the World Values Survey, which covers 80 countries, show that secular people go forth and multiply much more modestly than do their religious brethren. Thus, says Ronald Inglehart, director of the World Values Survey, secularization is its own long-term demographic "gravedigger."

A closer look at survey data also reveals that secular Americans remain surprisingly open to God. An analysis by the Pew Forum found that 70 percent of the unaffiliated surveyed believed in God and more than 40 percent said that religion was either somewhat or very important in their lives. Furthermore, a majority of Americans raised in religiously unaffiliated households adopt a religion later in life, giving the unaffiliated population one of the lowest retention rates of all religious groups in the country. Americans are not marching in lockstep toward a singular secular future, nor are they becoming a monolithic Christian nation. Instead, the United States is moving toward an ever more dynamic religious pluralism.

GREENER PASTORS

Micklethwait and Wooldridge are right to suggest that one effect of the United States' vigorous religious pluralism is to make religion in the country even more entrepreneurial and competitive. American evangelicalism has spawned a "church growth" industry driven by a class of preachers -- some of whom call themselves "pastorpreneurs" -- highly skilled in building megachurches that target the religiously disaffected with "seeker-friendly" services and family-friendly facilities, replete with on-site daycare, basketball courts, and fast-food restaurants. God Is Back reports that one of the United States' 1,000 megachurches -- Willow Creek, near Chicago -- is so successful that it has become the subject of a Harvard Business School case study.

The success of such churches is evident in the survey data: according to the ARIS, nearly half of American Christians now self-identify as "evangelical" or "born-again," and the number of Americans belonging to mostly evangelical and Pentecostal "nondenominational" churches -- which are quintessentially modern and American in their informality, their emphasis on a personal relationship with God, and their indifference to ancient ecclesiastical and theological traditions -- jumped from about 200,000 in 1990 to about eight million in 2008. In its 2007 study, the Pew Forum found that some 3.6 million Americans raised without an attachment to any organized religion converted to evangelicalism later in their lives.

Although God's armies around the world may have suffered a string of political defeats, they will regroup in due course. Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Hindu nationalist movement in India are down, but they are not out. Political dynamics are cyclical, and religious parties will regroup in India and Lebanon when the political winds begin blowing in their favor once again. Most important, as God Is Back suggests, these movements are led by organizations that operate in increasingly competitive political and cultural markets. And these markets will force them to adapt -- or they will die.

The Iranian regime's mendacity and brutality after the June presidential election have driven this lesson home, not least in the minds of the Iranian clerics themselves, some of whom have long argued that men of the cloth should endeavor to gain popular credibility by voluntarily relinquishing political power.

God's partisans in Iran and elsewhere would do well to heed Micklethwait and Wooldridge's argument that their political influence will be minimal if they fail to take to heart the deepest lessons of U.S.-style entrepreneurial religion: let God be God by freeing him from both government regulation and government handouts; do not lash him to the mast of a particular government or political party and in so doing make him a hostage to political fortune. God will indeed keep coming back -- especially in those places where he has not been turned into a fawning palace courtier or a shackled political prisoner.

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