Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Jon Meacham On "The End Of Christian America"

Jon Meacham, in "The End of Christian America" (Newsweek, 4/4/09), cites the "declining percentage" of Christians in America and the rise of the unaffiliated, along with atheists and agnostics. The number of those who call America "a Christian nation" has also declined since George W. Bush's presidency.

Meacham explores the implications in terms of the country's political life. It is not the decline in the number of Christians per se that he views positively; instead, it is the fact that politics is less influenced by religion and vice-versa–something that could actually benefit Christianity:

...our politics and our culture are, in the main, less influenced by movements and arguments of an explicitly Christian character than they were even five years ago. I think this is a good thing—good for our political culture, which, as the American Founders saw, is complex and charged enough without attempting to compel or coerce religious belief or observance. It is good for Christianity, too, in that many Christians are rediscovering the virtues of a separation of church and state that protects what Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island as a haven for religious dissenters, called "the garden of the church" from "the wilderness of the world."

It has been a tremendous irony of our times that many on the right who criticized Islamic theocracies sought to fashion the United States into a country whose policies are based on religious dictates:

...What, then, does it mean to talk of "Christian America"? Evangelical Christians have long believed that the United States should be a nation whose political life is based upon and governed by their interpretation of biblical and theological principles. ...If the church believes the theory of evolution conflicts with a literal reading of the Book of Genesis, then the public schools should tailor their lessons accordingly. If the church believes abortion should be outlawed, then the legislatures and courts of the land should follow suit. ...For more than 40 years, the debate that began with the Supreme Court's decision to end mandatory school prayer in 1962 (and accelerated with the Roe v. Wade ruling 11 years later) may not have been novel, but it has been ferocious. Fearing the coming of a Europe-like secular state, the right longed to engineer a return to what it believed was a Christian America of yore.

But that project has failed, at least for now. In Texas, authorities have decided to side with science, not theology, in a dispute over the teaching of evolution. The terrible economic times have not led to an increase in church attendance. In Iowa last Friday, the state Supreme Court ruled against a ban on same-sex marriage, a defeat for religious conservatives. Such evidence is what has believers fretting about the possibility of an age dominated by a newly muscular secularism.

While professing a belief in freedom and "small government," the religious right has been dedicated to restricting women's right to choose and gays' rights to marry. Its adherents attempt to harm science education by attacking the theory of evolution in favor of religious formulations of how the world came into existence. The weakening of the religious rights' reactionary policies is reason enough to view the increased secularization of America positively.

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