May 20, 2009


Why God is back: In America, modernity has not meant forcing religion into the private sphere, but letting it thrive in all its variations (Mark Vernon, 5/18/09,

Micklethwait and Wooldridge pursue the knotty question of why modernity generates religious pluralism, particularly in the US. A number of possibilities are explored, beneath a welter of statistics and facts that they provide. The more modernity undermines people's sense of identity, through the levelling forces of globalisation, the more they seek a distinctive identity through religious commitment. The more turbulent people's work lives become, the more appealing a stable church life can seem. The more people suffer under a harsh capitalism, the more religious organisations offer welfare and help, thereby drawing folk in.

In short, religion in America has thrived because it understands the nature of what Micklethwait and Wooldridge call "soulcraft", which might roughly be translated as taking care of people, body and soul.

But there are certain political conditions that have aided God's return too, or rather sustained his presence, for he never really went away. Top of the list, the two authors argue, is America's constitution, and its First Amendment: "that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

The first part of that clause is the one that is commonly remembered, in effect, the separation of church and state. But the second part is equally important when it comes to creating the right conditions for religion to thrive. It forms what might be called a free market for religion, in which everyone can set out their stall, and moreover can do so in the public square. What America's modernity has not tried to do is force religion into the private sphere, a tendency that has characterised European reactions to belief. At the same time, though, it has ensured that there is at least a theoretical distance between religion and the exercise of political power. That balance is the genius of the American solution, which Micklethwait and Wooldridge commend to a plural world.

If that free market doctrine is right, it would have consequences for the future of religion in the UK. For example, if secular forces succeed in continuing to drive church and state apart on this side of the Atlantic, that could actually be good for belief. Free of establishment shackles, religious commitment would turn a corner and start to grow again. The strong tradition of freedom of speech in the UK would ensure religion was not forced from the public square, for all that the more militant secularists would like to do so. That said, it is likely that certain forms of religion would respond better than others to the new environment. They would be those that exhibit what David Hume called "enthusiasm". In an essay, Of Superstition and Enthusiasm, he noted that religious enthusiasts do well when "free from the yoke of ecclesiastics". Moreover, whilst they can appear "furious and violent" at first, they tend to become more "gentle and moderate" in time, for enthusiasts enjoy the spirit of civil liberty. that it has made it more clear to Americans than to any other people since Hume's time that
">Rationalism just another faith, something Hume had conclusively demonstrated
. Its failure in the marketplace has saved us from many of the worst damages modernity has dealt Europe.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 20, 2009 11:41 AM
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