On November 4, 2004, two days after George W. Bush was narrowly re-elected President, the New York Times published a gloomy op-ed by historian Garry Wills titled “The Day the Enlightenment Went Out.” The United States, observed Wills, was “a product of Enlightenment values–critical intelligence, tolerance, respect for evidence, a regard for the secular sciences.” But, as the election results showed, these principles had given way to something new–“fundamentalist zeal, a rage at secularity, religious intolerance, fear of and hatred for modernity.” Wills was hardly alone in this reading. “The reelection of a president such as George W. Bush,” declared Michael Tomasky of The American Prospect, “is a culminating event in the political retreat of modernity, a condition of existence whose fundamental tenet was the triumph of scientific skepticism over what used to be called ‘blind’ faith.”
Who exactly upheld this tenet Tomasky didn’t say. Certainly not the nine in ten Americans who have said they’ve never doubted the existence of God. Or the eight in ten who believe the Lord works miracles. Or the same number who are certain they will be called to answer for their sins on Judgment Day. Or the tens of millions who attend church every week–more, in a typical seven-day span, than those who turn out for all sporting events combined. These figures are drawn from the 1990 book Under God, by Garry Wills. As Wills pointed out at the time, the idea that urbanization, scientific progress and rising living standards would gradually transform America into a secular society has long appealed to journalists and intellectuals. Talk about blind faith. In reality, noted Wills, “nothing has been more stable in our history, nothing less budgeable, than religious belief and practice.”
The source of this stability is not, as some right-wing demagogues now insist, that the Founding Fathers were devout evangelicals who viewed America as a Christian nation and who would have sided with conservatives in today’s culture wars. As Brooke Allen points out in Moral Minority, most of the Founders were deists and Unitarians who rejected doctrines like the Incarnation. Thomas Jefferson dismissed the Trinity as “incomprehensible jargon.” He and other Founders made no mention of God in the Constitution, and took pains not to establish an official church on US soil. And yet, as various scholars have noted, disestablishment grew out of respect, not disdain, for religion, which, James Madison observed, “flourishes in greater purity without [rather] than with the aid of government.” He was right. The level of religious observance in America has long dwarfed that in various European countries where official churches still exist. It has remained exceptionally robust despite periodic predictions of its imminent decline. In the 1960s, for example, falling church membership stirred much excited talk about the so-called “death of God.” Somebody forgot to inform the American people, an overwhelming majority of whom told pollsters they were believers. When, a decade later, a Baptist deacon named Jimmy Carter was elected President, the media discovered that tens of millions of Americans considered themselves born-again, which had been true for some time but had managed to escape most commentators’ notice.
It doesn’t get overlooked much these days. From Frank Rich to Kevin Phillips, author of the recent bestseller American Theocracy, sounding the alarm about America’s transformation into a Christian version of fundamentalist Iran has become a popular sport (not to mention a savvy career move) among critics of the Bush Administration. The sense of alarm is, to some degree, understandable. It’s undeniably true that the Republican Party and the religious right have grown increasingly hard to distinguish in recent years. It’s also evident that some Christian fundamentalists want to live in a country purged of people who don’t think exactly like themselves (which would exclude not only atheists and agnostics but the majority of people of faith). On the other hand, many secular people apparently feel the same way. Shortly after John Kerry’s defeat in the 2004 election, an e-mail made the rounds among disgruntled Democrats suggesting that the United States be divided into two nations: the liberal coasts (where the educated, open-minded people live) and “Jesusland” (where the zealots reside). The only way to halt the retreat of modernity, it appeared, was for the cosmopolitan blue states to secede from the increasingly intolerant white evangelical heartland.