Reflections on Religion, Democracy, and
the Politics of Good and Evil
THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE contradicts once-widespread expectations that religion would decline and become ever more contained in the private sphere of conscience and association under modern conditions, where religion is a choice rather than an imperative.1 Over time, religious adherence has grown. Fewer than two in ten Americans formally belonged to a church in 1776, just over four in ten did by 1890, and nearly two in three do today.2 In aggregate and on average, the American people testify to more belief (with well over 90 percent persistently affirming a belief in God3) and possess more widespread attachment to organized religion than any other classic candidate for theses about modernity and secularization. Individual religious experiences, church belonging and attendance, and the extent of belief exhibit great vitality.
Religious life in the United States seems more varied and more vital than at any time since World War II. American Protestantism, especially, has been marked by a host of revitalization movements, including Pentecostalism, charismatic movements, and megachurches, whose gains have surpassed losses by long-established Protestant denominations. Even in these mainline forms, as H. Richard Niebuhr put the point a half-century ago, Protestantism has been characterized by “re-evangelization, and by the evangelization of the Nation. The tendency to equate the gospel with the democratic social faith has been balanced by the effort to Christianize the democratic mind.”4 New post-1965 immigrant streams, moreover, have vastly extended the scope of religious belief and activity, well beyond the Protestant-Catholic-Jew triad identified in Will Herberg’s 1983 “essay in American religious sociology.” In Los Angeles, where Muslims outnumber Episcopalians, there are more than 600 identifiable faiths. There, and elsewhere, newcomers have refreshed and renewed long-established churches with declining attendance, notably in urban Catholic parishes.5
This vibrant plurality has not been restricted to civil society. Religious organizations and convictions of many types6 have come to play an increasingly vigorous and visible role in political life in the past quarter-century.7 American politics is charged with tight, if complex and contingent, links