Walter Russell Mead writes, in a recent article in the Atlantic, that “America’s evangelicals are growing more moderate— and more powerful” in American politics. He opens the article talking about Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” and how it highlights the path American evangelicals are headed these days by comparing religion in Britain at the time of his book.
Smith observed a relationship between these revivals and the process that we now call urbanization. Young people, arriving in cities in search of work, faced new opportunities and temptations without the structure that village life—with its communities of relatives and others that watched and guided young people—had provided. “A single week’s thoughtlessness and dissipation is often sufficient to undo a poor workman forever,” wrote Smith about life in London. But the city’s small sectarian religious congregations gave rural immigrants a social-support network and a moral code that could keep them on the straight and narrow as they built new lives. These movements were a response to the dislocations of modernity; there was no reason to expect them to fade away.
Yet in the teeming religious marketplace of Britain’s cities, Smith also saw pressures that would limit the political impact of religious beliefs and prevent theocracy. With so many competing denominations, he noted, religious leaders could acquire political influence only by finding allies outside their own version of the faith—and the process of forming those alliances would drive them toward agendas that could appeal to a wider, multi-faith audience. To be politically significant, he wrote, religious extremists had to move toward broader and necessarily more-moderate coalitions. Their entry into politics would, itself, moderate them.
I agree that freedom of religion leads to a “free market” of religion and that creates market pressure but I don’t believe that evangelicals are growing more moderate or more powerful. It isn’t the free market reducing their power, it is the gross abuse of that power that causes a backlash.
There have been cycles of religious revivals over the past couple of hundred years. There have been at least four Great Awakenings where religion became popular and more influential in politics. Some results of this influence was the abolition movement, labor reform, prohibition, and even the land mark church and state rulings in the 1960’s – where the special status in government of the Protestant religion was eliminated as result of their attempt to pass laws at the expense of Catholics.
The main thread of these awakenings was religious people attempting to do what Mead details as favoring “absolute moral codes, conservative interpretations of religious doctrines, and political activism to enact their values into law.” And such needs haven’t been moderated only reduced for a time before the next awakening when it seems evangelicals go too far as seems to be happening recently.
The 1980’s were a very scary time for supporters of church and state separation as is the current the President Bush administration. I feel that the influence of the evangelicals will be reduced with the new administration.
There maybe non-denominational mega-churches sprouting every where but the silence of their members toward the abuse of politics by the religious right is telling.