April 19, 2004


God talk is everywhere (CAROL EISENBERG, April 14, 2004, Newsday)

The young bank teller eyed the tall, bearded man who had just signed the back of his paycheck.

"Are you a clergyman?" she asked.

The Rev. Thomas Goodhue nodded, sure he would be asked to do a wedding. But instead, the woman wanted to talk about Jesus Christ - specifically, what His suffering meant and why it had preoccupied believers for two millennia. Right there, right then, in the Massapequa Park branch of Commerce Bank.

"When I got back, my wife asked me, 'What took you so long?'" said Goodhue, executive director of the Long Island Council of Churches. "I said I can't cross the street without having a talk about theology. It was probably the 100th conversation of the day inspired by 'The Passion of the Christ' ... It's been very gratifying, but it's also been exhausting."

Nearly 40 years after Time magazine posed the question "Is God Dead?" signs of His resurrection are everywhere: Mel Gibson's "The Passion" is on its way to becoming the highest-grossing independent film of all time, while the apocalyptic "Left Behind" novels, based on the Book of Revelations, have sold 58 million copies, a publishing jackpot.

Dan Brown's "The DaVinci Code," a theological whodunit with a new spin on Jesus and Mary Magdalene, leads the fiction bestseller list, and Rick Warren's "The Purpose Driven Life," a 40-day spiritual workout, is outselling "The South Beach Diet."

The nation's born-again president pronounces Jesus his "favorite philosopher" and trumpets America's mission to battle evil in the world. And faith avowals are all but requisite on the campaign trail - with hell to pay for anyone who demonstrates biblical illiteracy, as did Vermont Gov. Howard Dean when he described Job as his favorite book of the New Testament and was promptly pronounced a heathen.

"God talk is ubiquitous today. You might even say we're drowning in it," said Phyllis Tickle, author of more than a dozen books about religion in America and contributing editor in religion for Publishers Weekly.

Even prime-time television, which once steered clear of overtly religious themes, suddenly has characters who converse directly with a higher power, from Joan of Arcadia to Jaye on the recently canceled "Wonderfalls." And network news divisions are churning out religious-themed specials like so many chocolate Easter eggs - from Dateline NBC's "The Last Days of Jesus" to ABC News' ambitious three- hour special on Jesus and Paul.

"There's just been a sea change in how religion is lived in this country," said the Rev. Margaret Peckham Clark of Trinity Church in Roslyn, who reports that hundreds of people have attended forums at her church on "The Passion" and "The DaVinci Code."

"You have many people who have drifted away from the tradition they grew up in, are disillusioned with it or have never been a part of it," Clark said. "And that creates a climate, particularly after Sept. 11, where people are groping for ways to understand what is at the core of what they believe."

All of this is occurring against a backdrop of growing tension between Islam and the West, and increasingly rancorous debate in this country about issues of morality, biblical authority and separation of church and state - from gay marriage to the deletion of "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance to the struggle over a Ten Commandments monument in an Alabama courthouse.

Is America experiencing a religious revival? Is all this ferment a result of post-Sept. 11 anxiety? Or has spirituality become just another commodity in a world where consumerism has become the ultimate value?

"I think every major sociologist would agree that we're in a time of religious awakening," said Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in Manhattan. "But it's an awakening in which existing institutions like churches and synagogues are no longer mediating the sacred."

One of the great mysteries of American life is why we are so fortunate as to have these periodic Awakenings, while other nations steadily decline into the abyss.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 19, 2004 8:00 AM

I admit that things do not look good in Europe. However, I feel their last great religious enthusiasm was Marxism and they're still sorting that one out. But secularism cannot provide the basis for a life or a civilization. As Europeans are human, I tend to think that spirituality cannot help but reassert itself. I could be wrong, of course.

Posted by: L. Rogers at April 19, 2004 9:34 AM

It's because we are One Nation Under God - and it's God making that choice - not the Supreme Court, the Newdow idiot, Time magazine, Larry Flynt, Katie Couric or one of John Kerry's focus groups.

Posted by: M. Murcek at April 19, 2004 9:40 AM

Amusing moment on NPR this morning. Bob Edwards was doing his weekly political chat with Cokie Roberts. She talked about how 2/3's of church goers voted for Bush and 2/3's of non-church goers voted for Gore -- the single best predicter of votes in 2000. She talked about how gun-owners (48% of voters in 2000 -- wow) voted strongly for Bush, while non-gun-owners voted a little less strongly for Gore.

Edwards: So, Al Gore had the unarmed atheists?

Roberts: Not a safe place to be in American politics.

Posted by: David Cohen at April 19, 2004 10:10 AM

Funny, isn't it. In the rest of the world it's the armed religious fanatics who are considered 'unsafe'.

Posted by: Brit at April 19, 2004 10:29 AM

"One of the great mysteries of American life is why we are so fortunate as to have these periodic Awakenings, while other nations steadily decline into the abyss."

Yes, that's a good one (presuming, of course, that you buy the "abyss" part, which I don't). My own hypothesis--not yet fully developed--is that it has something to do with the functional separation of church and state. Most European churches have historically been _part_ of the state, thus conflating the two most significant forms of social control in the minds of citizens. Here in the U.S., that equation has never been allowed to become so obvious.

One reason, perhaps, why thinking atheists everywhere should be in favor of Bush's "faith-based" initiatives, among other things.

Posted by: M. Bulger at April 19, 2004 11:39 AM

What separation?

Posted by: oj at April 19, 2004 11:51 AM


Perhaps the problem with with union of church and state is merely that socialized religion works about as well as socialized anything else.

Posted by: mike earl at April 19, 2004 11:51 AM

OJ: The separation that religious conservatives, such as yourself, have been known to complain about. To be more precise: the interpretation of the First Amendment that leads to notable Supreme Court decisions (as well as lower court decisions, such as the Pledge decision) that are seen by many to be enforcements of secularism in public life.

Perhaps a better way of putting it: is a significant part of the most recent "revival" (assuming that it is real, and not just an anecdotal construct, as I would tend to believe), not the rebellion against the perceived secular bias of the federal government, the media, etc.? If religion becomes more obviously and inextricably linked with government and with government programs, what will the next social rebellion have to turn away from?

Posted by: M. Bulger at April 19, 2004 12:33 PM


WE COMPLAIN THAT THE COUrt is trying to impose a separation that the democratic system has consistently opposed. There is no separation except where such antidemocratic/anticonstitutional methods are employed. The legislative and executive branches are expressly Christian institutions.

Posted by: oj at April 19, 2004 12:45 PM

The separation of church and state can't explain it all, otherwise your northern neighbours would be a lot more religious as we've never had establishment churches outside Quebec. Nor can statism, because, despite Orrin's fulminations, we're a poor excuse for real European-style statism. Our immigration and pioneer histories were quieter, but are otherwise almost identical, as are many of our legal and political values.

The one real difference I can see is that, viewed from up here, something impels much of American society to live consciously according to first principles, while we keep things in the fuzzy, mediated middle to avoid friction. Consensus trumps truth, but I can't take it any further than that.

Posted by: Peter B at April 19, 2004 1:16 PM

OJ: Assuming what you say is true, and in large part I believe it is, the point still holds: the separation of church and state, whether antidemocratic or not, has at least provided the appearance of a secular government, and of conflict between government and religion. If the nature of two of three (and perhaps soon three of three) branches of government as Christian institutions were to become more obvious, the descent into your presumed "abyss" would begin posthaste.

I still think you should fall down and thank the judicial branch for providing the atmosphere that allows religion to thrive in this country. Your fondest hope should be that the Supreme Court sides with Mr. Newdow. The subsequent revival would be something to behold.

Peter B: Canada has always seemed to occupy a sort of middle ground between American and European values, due to the proximity to and shared history with the former and the more extended colonial ties with the latter. Since my whole "church-state separation" argument is a gross oversimplification anyway, it shouldn't be surprising that Canada provides a notable exception to the rule.

Posted by: M. Bulger at April 19, 2004 1:28 PM


It doesn't appear that way to anyone. Congress convenes with a prayer. It's first action in its existence was to hire chaplains. George Bush finishes his speeches with blessings, as did Reagan and many others. Separation is a figment of the Left's imagination and the Court's worst rulings.

From slavery to abortion to Prohibition to the drug war to MADD to the war on terror--American politics is just one long religious crusade.

Posted by: oj at April 19, 2004 2:13 PM

I'm not sure that there is any one reason, but part of it has to be that the settlement of New England was an offshoot of the Puritan awakening in England preceding and during the Civil War.

Posted by: David Cohen at April 19, 2004 2:15 PM

OJ, those are just Christian trappings, not enough to qualify the government as a church. They have no power to dictate religious observance or to resolve theological questions. There is a separation between the two.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at April 19, 2004 3:37 PM

I gotta ask - why does American religion need to be revived so often? If I were a doctor, I would suspect that some chronic debilitating disease was at work.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at April 19, 2004 3:40 PM


It's like your body temperature. We remain steady at 98 whatever but spike fevers periodically and everyone gets infected.

The trappings you speak of are called laws.

Posted by: oj at April 19, 2004 3:47 PM

It's Article VI. That prevents any sect from taking over the government to distribute the loot to its insiders, which is, of course, what happens/ed in Europe and every other nation where religion and government are/were entangled.

I don't have my copy of R.L. Fox's "Unauthorized Version" by me, but on the subject of American slavery, he comments -- corrrectly -- that biblical endorsements of slavery were a main barrier to ending slavery in 19th century America.

Of course, Christian truth is a moveable feast, and there were other Christians who found other verses to support the ending of slavery.

Besides Article VI, we are protected by our 400-plus Christian sects, who hate and fear each other sufficienctly that the tiny minority of secualarists can play divide and conquer and protect individual liberties from Christianity which, as Orrin so often tell us, would squash them if it could.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 19, 2004 3:54 PM


It's a Judeo-Christian state, not a sectarian one.

Posted by: oj at April 19, 2004 4:00 PM

(1) The relevant provision of the First Amendment was, to my mind, never intended to establish a "wall of separation" between church and state, but to prevent any one denomination from being declared the Established Church. The folly of that happening is plainly apparent to anyone who looks at an European country that does have an Established Church; the next really _vital_ church of that sort I hear of will be the first.

(2) It is not apparent to me that the 400 denominations, as a rule, "hate" each other, and it is certainly not apparent to me that a religious war is about to break out among, for example, the thousands of independent evangelical congregrations, each of which has their own particular spin on Christian theology. Intermarriage among the various sects is so common as to be virtually universal - even the Catholic Church doesn't require anymore that non-Catholics who marry Catholics convert, just that they raise any children of the union as Catholic (I know this first-hand, my Episcopalian sister being married to a Catholic), and a lot of people easily switch denominations at least once during their lifetime; to cite my own family again, my mother, grandmother and stepfather all "converted" from Methodism to Episcopalianism.

Posted by: Joe at April 19, 2004 5:33 PM

Harry's comment reminds me of the Cheers episode in which Woody and Kelly decide that their religious differences are too great: he's a Missouri synod Lutheran and she's a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Woody: Ask her why she thinks the Book of Concord is not in line with the Scriptures.

Kelly: Because it's not.

Woody: HERETIC !!!

Posted by: David Cohen at April 19, 2004 6:14 PM

Something I think I heard from Steven Den Beste over at USS Clueless (paraphrase/summary):

The majority of the American population are Protestant Christian of some sort (and differing levels of practice), but these Protestant Christians are divided up among 400 denominations. Result: A general Christian consensus among the majority of Americans, but no single group within them is large enough to dominate the others with its specific version of Christianity. This makes the US a (generally) Christian nation in attitude and general beliefs, but not in theocratic political power.

Posted by: Ken at April 19, 2004 6:31 PM

They love each other as Christians in the kind of abstract, pointless love that religious people have; but they fight like dogs and cats for turf.

Consider the Baptist seminaries, for example.

If they ever got together, Orrin and I would be in, as we say in Hawaii, deep kim chee. He for heresy, me for atheism.

We'd both be burnt, though I suspect Orrin would be burnt first.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 19, 2004 9:56 PM

Nah, I'd happily conform. Doctrinal differences just don't mean much.

Posted by: oj at April 19, 2004 10:04 PM

Not your call, then, Orrin. You would be vehemently suspected (that's a term of art in Inquisition legal practice) and therefore not allowed to recant, repent or have a hearing.

Straight to the stake.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 20, 2004 7:07 PM


I'd have always conformed. I believe in conformity.

Posted by: oj at April 20, 2004 7:18 PM

I know, you've said so.

But the history of Christian sectarianism shows that mere conformity does not confer safety. Sooner or later, there are competing conformities, and then you're in a pickle.

A more recent example, not wholly Christian, came from Lebanon in the '60s. Travelers would encounter road gangs all over, consisting of swarthy men in camouflage, with guns.

It was not possible to tell, by looking, what religion they were, but they always demanded an answer to the challenge "Muslim or Christian?"

Answer wrong and you got shot.

The history of European Christianity is full of similar examples, of which the most famous, I suppose, is Florence, although Geneva and Magdeburg also come to mind.

Of course, there were complete opportunists who managed to jump from one sinking ship to another, but those had merely postponed the problem of explaining themselves to God, hadn't they?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 21, 2004 3:12 PM

Yes, Lebanon is a perfect example of the problem with not imposing conformity. The whole divided power thing is a recipe for disaster and al-Sistani is right to resist our imposing it in Iraq. Let the Shi'a rule.

Posted by: oj at April 21, 2004 3:48 PM

Actually, you don't have to give up liberty, although I know how you hate it.

Without asking, Lebanese cannot tell each other apart. If they would just give up religion, they could be free.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 21, 2004 5:56 PM