Seeing the Decline of Religion with the Wide Lens

Heather Mac Donald of looks past the up and down ticks of contemporary Gallup polls that gauge respondants’ self-reported religiosity, and looks instead at the larger historical trends, which show that religion in the Western world is in a slow, but thoroughly detectable decline:

Who’s still for hair shirts and flagellation?  Does the dispute over when baptismal regeneration takes place seem compelling enough that one can imagine Britain’s Privy Council addressing it, as it did in 1850?  How about spending virtually all day in church on Sunday, being instructed about the fires of hell?  I’ve never heard a theocon argue for reinstatement of Sunday blue laws, which would torpedo our retail sector, or even voluntary compliance with the Sabbath; could it be that the good of the economy trumps the clear commandments of God? 

The religious superstructure of centuries past has been dismantled.  Rising in its place is a remake of religion “in the image of mass-consumer capitalism,”  according to a sociologist of American religion at the University of Notre Dame.  That remake offers up easily digestible bits like the “5 Minute Theologian”  and “7 Minutes With God.”  Only a quarter of Americans attend church weekly.  Yet moral chaos has not broken out; society has grown more prosperous as secularism expands.  Empathy with others, an awareness of the necessity of the Golden Rule, survive the radical transformation of religious belief, it turns out.  Perhaps because a moral sense is the foundation, not the result, of religious ethics.

My only quarrel with her analysis is that the product being sold is not always so banal as “7 Minutes with God.”

Mirroring the capitalist economy, religion also sells its products to specific audiences.

If you are an anti-gay, anti-feminist authoritarian, for example, you can find an authoritarian religious product to match your “inclinations.”

And religion matches itself to its times.

Let’s hope our times remain relatively prosperous, and we don’t enter “Great Depression 2.0” or experience a massive Islamic fundamentalist terrorist incident in the United States.

If we do, I think that Western Christianity’s capability for real virulence—though relatively dormant now and chastened by the Enlightenment—will once again come to the fore, and what seems “dismantled” could reassemble as a driving support for political authoritarianism.

One need only look at the video clips of the ever so hip Pastor Mark Driscoll (of the Seattle mega-cult, “Mars Hill”) on YouTube to realize what a religious authoritarian is capable of doing—and how much more such an authoritarian is capable of pulling off if times turn seriously dark.

As Richard Nixon taught us, it’s never too late for a comeback.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Seeing the Decline of Religion with the Wide Lens

  1. Jared says:


    I’ve known of Driscoll for years and he is as controversial within the evangelical world as without.

    Have you looked at Jeffery Sheler’s book “Believers”? Sheler is, by no means, the writer that Hedges is, but I think he paints a far more calm and honest portrait of evangelicalism than the alarmist Hedges.
    Evangelicals deserve criticism, but I just don’t get this angle. I suppose I am just repeating myself, but I simply cannot understand how you and Hedges read evangelicals as political authoritarians. Maybe you can help me to understand—perhaps with future blog posts?

    I don’t understand “Rick Warren: the authoritarian.” But if I did, I would not ignore that Warren has been warmly embraced by Obama, and vice versa, going back several years. Keeping the criticism compartmentalized to only Warren seems suspicious.

    I don’t mean to sound condescending, but you are familiar with the standard narrative behind the rise of the Christian right, yes? The so-called fusion movement, spurred by Goldwater’s loss in 64, led to the Reagan coalition of traditionalists (conservative Christians) and libertarians—you probably know, this is the standard recent history of Republicanism in the U.S.

    Libertarians who vote within the 2-party-system have, by far, voted with evangelicals over the last 40 years. With the exception of an aggressive foreign policy (something we see in both major parties), conservative evangelicals have aligned themselves with the politics of small government, less intervention, less funding, and less power. They tend to be as fearful and loathing of authoritarian “big government” politics as any other American group I can think of. The fundamentalist premillennialists that I know are very concerned that a “new world order” is being ushered in both here and abroad and want to see all government everywhere stripped of its power. Everywhere I look, conservative evangelicals want to render all government impotent at virtually every level. How you and Hedges interpret these folks as authoritarian I simply don’t understand.

    A couple years back, when I first saw Hedges’ book likening evangelicals to fascists (first time I came across Hedges in the bookstore) I actually laughed out loud in amusement. As an evangelical with progressive economic tendencies, I find that Lakoff is spot on. Conservative evangelicals have adopted a laissez-faire theological worldview—one that is constantly frustrating to those of us who want to see a communitarian shift toward an Obama-like politic.

    Sorry for the long comment. No need to respond if it is inconvenient. Maybe future posts will help me to better understand some of this.

  2. santitafarella says:


    As always, your post is thoughtful.

    I would ask you to read Altemeyer’s study on “right wing authoritarianism” before concluding that very few people in North America actually match the designation.

    And I’d also ask you to think about how economics and war can influence authoritarian sentiment.

    Since 1964, the date that you cite, America has, economically, mostly prospered. This fact ameliorates a great deal of latent authoritarianism.

    But let an extreme economic downturn akin to the Great Depression occur, or an atomic weapon go off in an American city, and I think that the right wing in this country—and including the religious right—will have laid the groundwork for a narrative against “elites” and “secularism” and “political moderation” and “liberals” and “the media” that will turn virulent.

    Yes, I think that Weimar Germany is a proper analogy for contemporary America IF things get seriously dicey economically (20% unemployment etc.).

    And I’d also ask you to think about renewing the distinction between evangelicals and fundamentalists—and especially fundamentalist authoritarians.

    I understand that many, many evangelicals are open toward gays and have a nuanced understanding of the Bible etc.

    But I also think that those who are moderate now can be radicalized during a national existential crisis.

    And I’m not sure (at this point) that I buy Lakoff’s notion that the conservative movement is libertarian. It is authoritarian, and uses libertarianism as a foil against liberal domestic programs. But in a crisis a right wing authoritarian govt. would POUR money into the military-industrial complex in ways that would ameliorate cuts in domestic programs.

    You have confused, in my view, sentiment for less domestic spending on the poor with a desire for a “live and let live” philosophy. The reality is that authoritarians want a SAFE and CONFORMIST and NORMAL world—and this means a hyper-policed world—a world of LAW and ORDER—both with the military overseas and with police and prisons domestically.

    It is, at bottom, a politics impatient with nuance, and a politics of authoritarian reaction and nostalgia—not of urban libertarianism ala Virginia Postrel and Reason magazine.

    I think that GEORGE WILL is a conservative, and fundamentally tolerant, and in favor of small govt.

    But the contemporary right wing has very few George Will-type conservatives in it.

    I wish it had more.


  3. santitafarella says:


    One more thought.

    I think that the Reagan coalition was far more libertarian than contemporary conservatism.

    I agree with you on that.

    George Will was a real intellectual force back then.

    But if Reagan represents conservatism’s “Romantic Period,” the Bush era, and the post-Bush era, represents conservatism’s “Decadent Period.”

    Conservatism is now driven largely by Machiavelians and instinctively reflexive authoritarians.

    It is fundamentally nihilistic, and includes “religious nihilists” (yes, I think the phrase is meaningful, and not an oxymoron).

    God’s “might makes right” is a form of nihilism, in my view.


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