The curious thing is the lack of memory. It seems a fairly obvious fact that the influence of religion on politics and policy¯and the general tone of American life¯is at one of the low points in the nation’s history. There isn’t a religious leader left who has the kind of direct power that the archbishop of New York had in, say, 1939. There isn’t a religious institution with the prestige of the National Council of Churches in 1959. And there surely aren’t any religious activists around with the strength the abolitionists had in 1859.

An optimist could claim that over the last few years the religious influence on the nation has begun to decline less steeply. Maybe it has even ceased to decline. But no one with much sense of American history can honestly say that we live in what any other era would have called a religious age. The mainline Protestant churches¯the centerpieces of the nation’s tone for two hundred years¯might as well not exist, for all the effect they have on American policy and American life. The institutional Catholic Church in the United States is still reeling from the scandals that broke in 2002. The large Jewish organizations are fading¯still mirroring perhaps, but certainly not directing, the bulk of Jewish voters. The evangelicals may have decided to enter American public life in 1976 (when they helped make Jimmy Carter the first modern evangelical president), but they were also the last great untapped well of Christian voters.

All this is not to say that things are necessarily grim, if you are an opponent of abortion hoping to rally religious voters to the defense of life. But it has to make you wonder why so much of the nation’s chattering class insists that the United States is dominated by religious politics. Were Cardinal Spellman in 1939 and Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1852 perceived as American theocrats? That seems unlikely¯and, even if it were true, we’re a long way from the worlds in which they lived.

But there was the New York Times proclaiming during the presidential campaign of 2004: "Never before have so many bishops so explicitly warned Catholics so close to an election that to vote a certain way was to commit a sin." Does the Times really know nothing of the Know-Nothings’ anti-Catholic campaign of the 1856? Of Al Smith’s run in 1928? Of John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960?

Apparently not, for on Sunday the Times carried a long, glowing review of Kevin Phillips’ American Theocracy , the latest entry in the ongoing series of America-Is-Becoming-a-Religious-Dictatorship books. The review is like a parade of those who should know history better than this: if not the editors of the New York Times , then surely Kevin Phillips, who once wrote a very important political analysis called The Emerging Republican Majority , and if not Phillips, then at least the reviewer, Alan Brinkley, who is a senior professor of history and provost at Columbia University.

But no. All of them assert, for what must be partisan political reasons, that the republic is in peril from its historically unprecedented religious activists.

Actually, American Theocracy seems to be as much about the looming problem of national and individual debt (along with the political effect of Middle Eastern oil, a long-standing paranoia of Phillips’). But who’s interested in debt? That’s not exciting, in publishing terms, and so we get "theocracy" in the title¯and thunderous warnings about what Brinkley calls "the ominous intrusion of radical Christianity into politics and government."

From there, the litany is familiar. First, American religion is reduced to the Southern Baptist Convention, which was "once a scorned seceding minority of the American Baptist Church but [is] now so large that it dominates not just Baptism itself but American Protestantism generally." (That’s somewhat overstated, but even so, mightn’t the collapse of the mainline have something to do with this?)

Then the Baptists are segued into Christian Reconstructionists, "who believe in a ‘Taliban-like’ reversal of women’s rights, who describe the separation of church and state as a ‘myth’ and who call openly for a theocratic government shaped by Christian doctrine." And once we’ve got every religious believer in America linked to the theonomists’ Reconstructionism, the argument is set to roll along all by itself.

Of course, "all by itself" is the point. For those whose partisan politics run against the current sense of the Southern Baptist Convention, history teaches that if the republic survived Cardinal Spellman and Harriet Beecher Stowe (to say nothing of all those Protestant New Englanders from Jonathan Edwards to Louisa May Alcott), then it will survive its current generation of religiously motivated thinkers and activists. And for those who share some of the concerns of evangelical America, history teaches just how much more work needs to be done before religion returns to its usual place in the nation’s life.


In addition to which :

Many were outraged, while many others were jubilant, when the court in Dover, Pennsylvania, outlawed the questioning of Darwinist orthodoxy in public school classrooms. In the April issue of F IRST T HINGS , Robert Miller of Villanova Law School writes that the court was right, but for better reasons than it gave. In an argument sure to be controversial, Miller says it all comes down to the differences between science and philosophy, and he offers a possible solution to conflicts in Dover and the rest of the country. Isn’t it time for you to subscribe to F IRST T HINGS ?


Archbishop Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has this to say about the new book by Father Richard John Neuhaus, Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth :

"When it comes to ‘Catholic matters,’ Father Richard Neuhaus’ thoughts matter a lot. He unfailingly challenges, enlightens, fascinates, inspires, humors, and occasionally even vexes me. And I would not miss reading a word he writes."

Articles by Joseph Bottum

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