As religious faith has declined, ideological intensity has risen. Will the quest for secular redemption through politics doom the American idea?
The United States had long been a holdout among Western democracies, uniquely and perhaps even suspiciously devout. From 1937 to 1998, church membership remained relatively constant, hovering at about 70 percent. Then something happened. Over the past two decades, that number has dropped to less than 50 percent, the sharpest recorded decline in American history. Meanwhile, the “nones”—atheists, agnostics, and those claiming no religion—have grown rapidly and today represent a quarter of the population.
But if secularists hoped that declining religiosity would make for more rational politics, drained of faith’s inflaming passions, they are likely disappointed. As Christianity’s hold, in particular, has weakened, ideological intensity and fragmentation have risen. American faith, it turns out, is as fervent as ever; it’s just that what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief. Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations. This is what religion without religion looks like.
Not so long ago, I could comfort American audiences with a contrast: Whereas in the Middle East, politics is war by other means—and sometimes is literal war—politics in America was less existentially fraught. During the Arab Spring, in countries like Egypt and Tunisia, debates weren’t about health care or taxes—they were, with sometimes frightening intensity, about foundational questions: What does it mean to be a nation? What is the purpose of the state? What is the role of religion in public life? American politics in the Obama years had its moments of ferment—the Tea Party and tan suits—but was still relatively boring.