Religious Faith in America — Not a Straight Line

“Back in my day, we didn’t  try to take God out of the everything.”

“Americans used to have a basic set of morals.  No longer. “

You’ve heard these comments from friends, family members, TV talking heads, politicians, and random Facebook posts.  This is an election year, so we can expect a lot more of this talk in the coming months.

Whatever the exact words, the gist is always the same: More  people had an abiding religious faith in the past.  Less people do today.  This is a bad thing.

I do not want to talk about whether or not that is a bad thing.  I merely want to suggest that the basic premise is wrong.  Religious faith in America has not been a steady decline with a peak at the Founding and a low point today.  I’m not making a controversial point; it has been documented in a thousand different ways in a thousand different books by a thousand different people.

Yet, we still hear talk about the lowly state of American religious faith today.  I don’t get it.  Many insist on talking about this issue as if only we could go back in time, everything would be alright.  Uh, not quite.

The Truth: The total amount, kind, and scope of religious faith in America has ebbed and flowed since 1776.  In many ways today is a high point.  All those who keep making dire predictions about the sorry state of American faith should take heart…It could be worse.

After all, it could be 1787, when a group of men who rejected any idea of a personal God led the effort to write the nation’s founding documents; or 1890, when the three most popular speakers in the country were not only atheists but popular because they were talking almost exclusively about atheism.

The History: A few historical reminders…

(1) 1787:  It is so often forgotten that men like Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin were remarkably heretical for their time on religious issues.  Jefferson, of course, was so explicit in his rejection of Christianity that he edited his own Bible, cutting out all the parts that did not jive with science, reason, and his own sense of morality.  Read the Jefferson Bible HERE.  These men not only led the country, they made it.  Yet, in the last one hundred years not a single man has been elected to the highest office if they weren’t a declared Christian.  Heaven forbid if an atheist ran for national office today.  Jefferson wouldn’t stand a chance.

Consider this:  In 1787 America was founded specifically as a nation that wholly separated all spiritual demands from political governance.  Today, in 2012, America still remains the only country in the history of the entire world that has adopted that secular framework as its constitutional practice.

(2) 1890: Few people remember that the end of the 19th century was essentially the “Golden Age of Freethought.”  Perhaps riding on the fascinating implications of Darwin’s findings, Americans were swept up in skepticism of religious claims.  The most popular speakers at the time (a time with no TVs or radios) were as follows: (1) Robert Ingersoll- the most important American thinker who no one remembers these days.  He spoke almost exclusively on atheism; (2) Mark Twain – lecturing on “Letters from Earth” which delved headfirst into atheism; (3) Thomas Huxley – the public spokesperson for evolution known best as “Darwin’s Bulldog.”

Sidenote: For the best discussion of this and similiar issues, see “A History of American Secularism” by Susan Jacoby

The Point: America had more heathens in the past than it has today.

If you think religious faith is a good thing, don’t despair.  There very well may be another mass spiritual revival.

If you don’t think religious faith is a good thing, there’s still a lot of work to do.  There very well may be yet another mass spiritual revival.

(Photo Courtesy of Vince Alongi)