America was famously founded by companies and churches. The woes of American capitalism are well known: Wall Street is a synonym for excess and greed around the world, and Detroit is tottering on the edge of bankruptcy. But just as its temples to Mammon are under fire, so suddenly are its churches to God.
With Easter week upon us, Newsweek's April 13 cover proclaims "The Decline and Fall of Christian America." The new American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) shows that the proportion of Americans who claim to have no religion has increased to 15% today from 8.2% in 1990. The Christian right has lost yet another battle, this time in the heartland state of Iowa, with its Supreme Court voting unanimously to legalize gay marriage. The proportion of Americans who think that religion "can answer all or most of today's problems" is now at a historic low of 48%.
America has long stood out among developed countries for its religiosity. This has less to do with innate godliness than with the free market created by the First Amendment. Pre-Revolutionary America was not that religious, because the original Puritans were swamped by less wholesome adventurers -- in Salem, Mass., the setting for "The Crucible," 83% of taxpayers by 1683 confessed to no religious identification.
America became religious after the Constitution separated church from state, thus ensuring that religious denominations could only survive if they got souls into pews. While state-sponsored religion withered in Europe, American faith has been a hive of activity: from the Methodists, who converted close to an eighth of the country in the half century after the Revolution, to the modern megachurches.
Has this model really run out of steam? Betting against American religion has always proved to be a fool's game. In 1880, Robert Ingersoll, the leading atheist of his day, claimed that "the churches are dying out all over the land." In its Easter issue in 1966, Time asked "Is God Dead?" on its cover. East Coast intellectuals have repeatedly assumed that the European model of progress, where modernity equals secularization, would come to the U.S. They have always been wrong.
Look closer and the new poll numbers are not quite as simple as headlines suggest. For one thing, they show that America remains remarkably religious by the standards of other advanced countries -- with three-quarters of the country still firmly Christian. And a significant number of Americans are becoming more godly, not less so: The increase in the number of atheists is going hand in hand with ever more conservative Christians and Pentecostals.
The real strength of religious America lies in its diversity. There are more than 200 religious traditions in America, with 20 different sorts of Baptists alone. Religious America is remarkably good at segmenting its customer base: There are services for bikers, gays and dropouts (the Scum of the Earth Church in Denver); Bibles for cowboys, brides, soldiers and rap artists ("Even though I walk through/The hood of death/I don't back down/for You have my back"); and even theme parks for every faith. This Holy Week you can visit the Golgotha Fun Park in Cave City, Ky., or the Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman, Ala., which includes a mini-version of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. ...
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