In a recent Religion Dispatches op-ed, “Why Atheists Should Fight For Establishment of State Religion,” professor Shanny Luft advises American atheists on how they can win the “culture war.” Using the recent proposal to establish a state religion in North Carolina as an example, Luft points out that our nation’s various squabbles over religious/public entanglements add up to a veritable stalemate in the larger culture wars, a situation he claims a remedy for:
Those atheists and progressives hoping to end religious intrusion in government affairs should not have protested this legislation or claimed the founding fathers as secular liberals. Instead, they should have done everything in their power to promote North Carolina’s Freedom of Religion Act and, more, fought to establish the Christian state of North Carolina as quickly as possible. And conservative evangelical legislators need not waste their time writing toothless resolutions establishing state religions. Rather, if the Christian Right would like religion to prosper in America, they should erect a wall between Church and State so high it can be seen from orbit.
According to history, the side that heeds this advice first will win.
I’m dubious about the extent to which “history” can accord future outcomes and especially based on the observed correlation between just two of many interrelated variables. Luft’s premise follows the assumption that America’s “free market” of religious competition is the cause of our nation’s religious vitality. As the argument goes religious monopolization in Europe (in the form of state churches) spurred on the secularization of European society by regulating religion and limiting choice. Apparently when faced with only one choice religious consumers grow disinterested, or so say the supply-side rational choice theorists (e.g. Rodney Stark, Roger Finke and Laurence Iannaccone) who originally championed the theory. The flip side is that by (constitutionally) deregulating the religious market in the United States–through the freedom of (personal) religion and from (state) religion–our founding fathers set into motion a self-replicating personal interest in religion. Not only are Americans interested in faith because as consumers they inherently like choices, but because competition between religions and denominations has meant the production of innovative religious goods, services and perhaps above all marketing plans. Or so the story goes, and that is why Luft suggests that atheists should fight for state religion(s), because, following this argument, it will lead to European style secularization.
I’ve always found this particular narrative of American religious history wanting and consider its current ubiquity unfortunate because it prevents scholars from considering other variables that may have been equally or perhaps even more responsible for American religious vitality. Consider the so called “rise of the nones” we are currently experiencing in the United States. Surely the contemporary decrease in religious affiliation (and belief/practice to different degrees) is not due to the regulation and/or monopolization of the religious marketplace, which has remained unchanged for the most part. So why is it happening if the religious marketplace remains free? No singular cause has been pinpointed with certainty, although the going explanation is usually that people on the liberal ends of American religion (mostly Christians) have left organized religion altogether because of the public association between faith and social conservatism. And of course in keeping with supply-side assumptions religion scholars have been busy working on depictions of these unaffiliated Americans as no less interested in religious goods and services. According to these commentators American “nones” just aren’t attracted to the mainstream producers of those goods and services or indeed to the very category of production they operate within. While it is true that most of the unaffiliated still believe in various supernatural phenomena and find some “religious” practices meaningful the assumption that disaffiliating Americans are merely shifting their religious needs away from established institutions is just as unfounded as the idea that they are all becoming atheists. What survey data from Pew, the GSS and ARIS has shown us is that in the last three decades American religion has, perhaps slowly, been losing ground across a spectrum of measures, including beliefs and practices. So is that trend mainly or merely due to the religious politics of social conservatism?
I don’t mean to downplay the negative effects that the Religious Right has had on religious affiliation, as noted early on by Michael Hout and Cluaude Fischer and more recently “confirmed” by Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s work in their recent book, American Grace. Surely these scholars are onto something, but just perhaps not onto everything. In fact there is one obvious correlation that has to date been seriously explored by no one (at least to my knowledge), and that correlation brings us back to Luft’s essay. As evidence of religious vitality Luft states that: “Compared to Europeans, three times more Americans report that religion is ‘very important’ to them, and three times more Americans attend church regularly.” On the one hand it should be noted that the first of the two indicators is perhaps the most significant, since it is well established that church attendance figures in the United States are widely exaggerated by survey respondents. The obvious explanation is that religion is deemed so “important” by Americans overall, that many are driven to exaggerate their relationship to it. In Europe, where religion is considered much less important, scholars have found virtually no exaggeration of church attendance. So why has it been so much more important for Americans to be religious? This is where the other correlation comes in…
The “rise of the nones” began in earnest in the 1990s, which not only correlates with the political entrenchment of the Religious Right but also with the end of the Cold War. While the first correlation has been investigated by several scholars at this point, the second hasn’t been considered in earnest by anyone looking directly at the rise of the nones (although in his chapter of Religion and the New Atheism Stephen Bullivant suggests that the abatement of Cold War rhetoric has at least made “atheism” more acceptable as an identity).* So why is no one treading this path? Perhaps because it doesn’t conform as easily to the afore mentioned “free market” narratives that underlie so many perceptions of American religious life. If the end of the Cold War is indeed related to the “rise of the nones” it suggests the importance of another narrative in our religious history–the story of America’s civil religion. If we consider church attendance (actual and reported) as an indicator of religious vitality, we have to consider the fact that at our nation’s founding virtually no one attended church, and the pattern remained the same for much of our early history. While the nineteenth century saw an increase in church attendance the astronomically high figures being reported at the tail end of the 20th century were a product of that same century, and especially starting with WWII. As American civil religion became increasingly nationalistic in contra-distinction to the “godless” foes of the Cold War, Americans reported an increasingly intense involvement with (mostly Christian) religion(s). After all this was the era in which the Pledge of Allegiance was officially blessed with the additional words “under God” (1954) and “in God we trust” became our nation’s motto (1956).
In contrast to supply side claims then, church attendance and the American experience of religious importance went hand in hand with an increasingly intertwined relationship between American politics and religion–not through specific Christian denominations like the state churches of Europe perhaps but instead (as Robert Bellah originally noted) through a tacitly (Protestant) Christian civil religion. With this in mind one could argue that the supply side comparison between the United States and Europe is, at minimum, too general. The world of contemporary global religion also suggests that state religions backed by nationalism actually thrive in the right geopolitical contexts, and I’m unsure why we should consider the United States exceptional in that regard.
Perhaps a civil religion/religious nationalism approach provides a more accurate explanation of religious vitality in twentieth century America than the supply side approach does. It would be interesting to see religious historians and social scientists alike tackling the “rise of the nones” as a distinctly post-Cold War phenomenon. In fact, it isn’t difficult to consider ways in which the going explanation of reactionary politics could complement a post-Cold War theory of religious decline. Perhaps after America’s communist foe disintegrated as a godless superpower American civil religion became so fractured that it has become easier for Americans to both shed their religious identities and to question various ongoing relationships between God and government that still persist. If that is true one might also reconsider Luft’s advice to atheists and their culture wars foes. If American religion thrived throughout the twentieth century in no small part due to a form of institutionalized religious nationalism then Luft’s advice would itself be upside down.
*UPDATE: Barry Kosmin has also commented on this correlation in Free Thought Today but from a socio-economic angle, suggesting that post-Cold War prosperity and national security could be linked to secularization (in line with Norris and Inglehart’s “existential security” thesis). But then what do we make of continued disaffiliation post-9/11 and now in the wake of the Great Recession?