U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Atlantic on Religion and Modernity

The issue of religion and politics remains hot. The Atlantic devoted several articles of its March 2008 issue to the question of religious conflict and coexistence.

Eliza Griswold covers the conflict between Christianity and Islam in one of its hottest locations, Africa. This is a good article that might be of interest to intellectual and cultural historians of religion.

Walter Russell Mead looks to Adam Smith in order to predict a kinder, gentler evangelicalism in the United States that will still command significant power in the future. By quoting Smith, Mead invokes a theorist of modernity that does not often get attention when studying religion. Doing so allows him to make the astute observation that the religious revivals of Britain went in tandem with the urban-industrial transformation. “These movements were a response to the dislocations of modernity,” he adds, “there is no reason to expect them to fade away.” Yet as evangelicals in the United States merge with the halls of power, Mead predicts a moderation in evangelical political views toward the center.

Finally, Alan Wolfe predicts the end of religious violence and the full embrace of state secularism. Using statistics, Wolfe claims that religious affiliation and belief are currently in great flux. This flux allows him to make a prediction on the future. In Wolfe’s understanding, secularism itself is a religious concept, having Christian roots. He follows this breezy assertion with another one: “It was once thought that the First Amendment was written to protect public life from the depredations of religious orthodoxy. It is now commonly accepted that the Founders also separated church and state in order to protect religion from government.” This separation allows for the proliferation of a religious economy, in Wolfe’s understanding, that will both increase religious belief and channel that competition into the aggressive attempt to win souls through persuasion, rather than coercion. In this case, I’m not convinced by his explanation of the future or of the past, but readers might find it of interest. -DS