TCS Daily

Religioso, Ma Non Troppo

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - April 13, 2005 12:00 AM

Are we in the midst of a religious revival that will change the face of America, and the world? Some people on the Right hope so, while many people on the Left fear so. I suspect, however, that the trend will be less dramatic than either the hopeful or the fearful believe.

There certainly are signs of a revival in religious interest. Not only is there some evidence in the polls (depending on which polls you read), but I've noticed an increase in religious talk in recent weeks, even from such normally secular rightists as Rush Limbaugh. It may well be that there's something of a preference cascade going on, with events like the Terri Schiavo affair and the death of Pope John Paul II making religious people more willing to display their faith openly.

Some people certainly seem to think that there's a major realignment underway. Columnist Jack Kelly writes:

        "Noting the explosive growth of the mega-churches in the suburbs, 
        University of Chicago economic historian Robert William Fogel thinks we're 
        in the midst of a fourth Great Awakening. As a liberal, he's concerned 
        about it. He'd like the energy being poured into spiritual renewal to be 
        applied to more secular concerns. . . .

        "We're headed for another titanic battle between a religious populace 
        and a secular elite, between the peoples' elected representatives and the 
        courts. What is past isn't necessarily prologue, but it is comforting 
        to note who won in the earlier confrontations."

But I think that Kelly overstates things (and as I've noted elsewhere, the "elites" may not be as secular as he thinks). I suspect that we will see more religiosity -- and more religious talk from politicians -- but I think that Americans' appetite for that sort of thing is limited.

After all, skepticism about religious talk, and religious talkers, is also an American tradition. Back in the comparatively pietistic Eisenhower years, when my mother told her father that she was planning to marry a seminary student, his response was pithy: "Preachers are a sorry lot." Remembering the preacher who used to help himself to the best pieces of chicken when he dined with my grandfather's large and impecunious family (as a child, my grandfather always got stuck with the feet or the neck when the preacher visited, and he remembered that his whole life), he regarded preachers as socially acceptable parasites, who would be better off earning a living out in the world, as he had always had to do, instead of dressing better than their parishioners and telling other people how to live.

That's a longstanding strain of American thought, too. In fact, the traditional American attitude toward religion -- and especially religion in politics -- might be summed up this way: "Religious, but not too much."

This is captured in two provisions from the Tennessee Constitution, adopted in 1796. Article IX, Section 2 provides that "No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state."

On the other hand, Article IX, Section 1 provides that: "no minister of the Gospel, or priest of any denomination whatever, shall be eligible to a seat in either House of the Legislature."

Religious -- but not too much. (Both of these provisions are no longer operative, because they violate the provisions of the Federal Constitution, but the point stands -- and, in fact, as the Supreme Court noted in overturning the ban on clergy in the legislature, which the Tennessee Supreme Court interpreted as an effort to limit religious influence -- quite a few states had similar provisions at the time of the Framing. This is, I think, part of our inheritance from the English Whigs of the 18th Century, who valued religion, but whose recent experience with the religious fanaticism of England in the 17th Century made them suspicious of overenthusiasm.)

Likewise, I think there's a lot of sentiment in favor of people being able to practice their religion, and talk about their religion, without discrimination or ridicule. And I think there's some support (though less so) for efforts to inform legislation with religious values. There's also a commonsense attitude toward de minimis expressions of religion: Americans are not, for the most part, offended by references to God, or by things like prayers at football games.

But Americans really don't like busybodies telling them what to do. The decline of the Left as a political force in America coincided precisely with its shift from a politics of individual freedom to that of tut-tutting politically-correct nanny-statism. I suspect that if the religious Right decides to emulate the Left in this regard, its influence will evaporate in similar fashion.

Religious, yes. But not too much.


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