There was a time in this country when we truly were a secular nation.
In the 1970's, for some reason, religion made a huge comeback.
A lot of people today think that religion is under attack in America - that we need to go back to the "good old days" when we were a Christian nation and everyone went to church. This narrative, however, is entirely untrue. Frankly, we are probably more religious today than we were in past times. Modern religious fervor is a relatively new phenomenon. For a long while, we - and the rest of the world - were trending toward secularism.
Yes, going to church every Sunday was very prevalent in the 1950's and 1960's. But back then, church-goers didn't take their religion as deadly seriously as they do today. You went to church, then you went golfing. And if you had any issues regarding religion, it was with other religions, in particular, other Christian denominations. Baptist Klan members didn't just hate Blacks and Jews, they hated Catholics as well. We were all more suspicious of one another than we were of the government.
And most Christian denominations stayed out of politics. Oh, sure, there were always a few "prayer in school" nuts down South or the "let's not teach evolution" types. But they were viewed as kooks and marginal players. Today they write the textbooks your kids use.
What happened between the 1960's and today that made everyone sort of go nuts?
It is hard to fathom, but perhaps it was a reaction to the far-left trends of the 1960's. People were adrift, looking for answers, and not finding them. The hippie movement and the free love and drugs were not liberating most folks, but rather making them feel lost and confused. Religions seemed to provide the kind of guidance that people - in sheep mode - wanted so desperately.
Cults, such as Scientology, the Guru Marahrgi, and Jonestown, Rajneesh, and the like, proliferated. Most fell by the wayside, with only Scientology making the jump from "cult" to "religion" with any staying power. (A cult is really only the name for any new religion that hasn't established itself.)
About the same time, though, new Christian cults started to proliferate. Hippies, once strung out on drugs, were now strung out on Jesus. And these new Christian cults claimed no allegiance or ties to traditional mainstream Christian denominations, which they claimed were not truly Christian. In order to be a "real Christian" they said, you had to be "born again" into their cult. Being a Catholic or a Baptist didn't count!
In the 1970's it wasn't that unusual to have friends who did a lot of drugs and whatnot, suddenly show up on your doorstep trying to push religious pamphlets. It turns out they were followers - sheep - of the drug culture, until someone turned them into followers of religious culture.
In popular culture, Christianity and religion started to make waves. Musicals like Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar were big hits on Broadway. Suddenly, it was cool again to be religious, and many folks started gravitating toward religion. Archie comics started publishing "Archie One-Way" comics, which had Archie and the gang proselytizing about being "born again" in Jesus Christ. Christian Rock music started to appear, and even many mainstream Rock 'n Roll groups noticed the trend and recorded religious themed music, or music that commented on the trend (e.g., "Jesus is just all right with me").
And Christians weren't the only ones. After years of secular inroads in the Muslim world, fundamentalist theology started to take hold - at first in reaction to the dictatorial regimes installed in many Muslim countries. The revolution in Iran was not only against the secular Shah, but his Western values and ways. And this trend is still going on today. The real struggle in the Middle East is not between Sunnis and Shia, Muslims and Jews, Arabs and the USA, but between Secularism and Fundamentalist Islam. Consider how events have played out in Egypt - and why we have chosen not to intervene. Military dictatorships are preferred over Islamic regimes, at least by the West.
And Judaism, which had a "reformed" branch with a more secular mode, started to veer back toward its past. Many young Jews started to gravitate toward more Orthodox theologies, in an attempt to get in touch with their "roots". The idea of trying to "blend" into a secular society, which was popular in the 1950's and 1960's started to fade.
By the 1980's, a lot of the cults had started to fade away. Jonestown and the Manson family scared off a lot of folks. The Cult Awareness Network was shut down and taken over by Scientology, which was one of the few 1970's cults to survive and make it as a mainstream religion. That, and the "Born-Again" Christian movement. Wacky cults faded away, but this new breed of Christianity became a permanent part of the landscape.
By the 1990's the first "mega-churches" were being formed. These sort of vaguely Protestant "evangelical" denominations did not owe loyalty to any one brand of Christianity, and thus all were welcome. Pastors began to discover they had power, and increasingly, they were exhorting their followers to take their religious views and make them political.
The religious right, as it was called, stared to become a power player in national politics. And this new power base became the backbone of a new Republican party. Wedge issues like Abortion were used to "get out the vote" from this new far-right brand of brand-less Christian. Bringing back prayer in school and teaching "creationism" were thought to be the cures for our increasingly liberal culture. The whole gay-rights thing was just icing on the cake. The GOP had a way to "get out the vote" from people whose economic interests were not really well-aligned with their mega-bucks donors.
Church attendance among traditional religions, such as Catholicism, has been on the decline in the USA, however, new evangelical religions have brought more butts into the pews in "Protestant" churches. Note the dip in attendance for Protestant churches the mid-1960's.
Are we a more religious country today, or were we more religious back then? I think today and let me explain why. Back in the 1960's, religion was on the decline. People would go to church, mostly as a social act. And while many had faith, this faith did not always translate into their daily lives, political views or voting habits.
Today, religion is far more political, and people are far more up-front about their religion. It used to be you wouldn't ask someone about their religious beliefs, as that was considered the height of tackiness. Today, people will tell you what they believe in, whether you like it or not.
Of course, the question remains, is this a long-term trend or just another cycle? Will the holy rollers of today be hard-core believers five or ten years from now? More importantly, will their children follow the same pattern?
It remains to be seen. Many of these "new" mega-churches are starting to alter their hard-line policies on many social issues, as they are seeing people walk out the door, and with huge mortgages to pay, they find that preaching hate isn't good for business. We have a local mega-church here and it "welcomes everyone!" and many people I know of various denominations, like to go there as the message is all about how God loves you and whatnot, instead of the more "traditional" message that God thinks you are something that he found stuck to the bottom of his shoe, and he wants to smite you on a moment's notice.
The problem for these new churches is the same problem old churches have had. Keeping a grip on your flock is a very hard thing to do, at least perpetually. The Catholic church was once a powerful quasi-governmental entity, with untold riches and power to dethrone Kings. That has changed dramatically since the middle-ages. While still powerful today, the Church finds its grip becoming more and more tenuous. As the chart above shows, most Catholics are no longer regular churchgoers. And we're talking about a Church that has Mass five times a day.
As I noted in my posting about tithing, there are a lot of folks who get caught up in the fervor of evangelicalism. When you join a church or cult, it seems everyone loves you and you are the center of attention (some call this "love-bombing"). You give them all your money and you are so popular - for a while. As soon as you run out of money, well, you stop being the flavor-of-the-week. At at that point, many folks drift away from these new churches.
It is said that in any of these cults or cult-like evangelical churches, at any given time, one-third of the members are joining, one third are staying, and one-third are leaving. There is a "story arc" for belief, it seems. People get excited about being in a new religion and think it will go on forever. Then they sort of just practice it, even if the initial thrill is gone. Finally, they get disgusted and feel used - or just merely lose interest - and quit, or start showing up less and less.
Evangelical churches and cults are like a pyramid scheme - they require more and more people to join, over time, in order to keep the place going. If they stop recruiting, eventually the place empties out and the church goes bankrupt. And historically, this has been the case - and the number of boarded-up and abandoned churches in this country is testament to the lack of staying power of most religions.
Indoctrinating children, is, of course one way of keeping the pyramid going, and this has worked well for the Catholic church. But as illustrated in the chart above, Catholics church attendance is way off - and the reasons why are not hard to fathom. The hard-line belief system taught in church often conflicts with their own personal life (the mega-churches have them beat there - they welcome divorced people, and indeed, evangelicals have some of the highest divorce rates in the country!).
And I think children, when they grow up, often rebel against whatever it is their parents believed in. If Mom and Dad were Republicans, junior will be a Democrat, just to piss them off. Or vice-versa. In the 1980's we saw teens starting high school Republican groups, which alarmed their far-left hippie parents. That was the point, of course. Short hair and clean-cut looks are just as alarming to parents back then as tattoos and ear-piercings are today. Kids tend to do the opposite of whatever their parents said to do, which does not bode well for religions, in the long-term.
Of course, if you think this will happen overnight, think again. I am talking about trends that span decades, generations, perhaps centuries. But the current trend, in the world, towards "religiousity" of all denominations, I think will fade over time. People will start to realize that the idea of "their" religion taking over their country or indeed the world, is an idiotic fantasy. Moreover, people will get more and more tired of the hypocrisy of religious leaders, their incessant demands for money, and their advocating violence or draconian laws in the name of peace and love.
And when that happens, religious power will fade, worldwide. And then someone will come up to you, all bright-eyed, with a pamphlet, and say, "Did you know God loves you? There's a seminar at the community center I'd like to tell you about!"
And the whole damn thing starts all over again....