God in America
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Interview: Stephen Prothero

Stephen Prothero

Prothero is a professor of religion at Boston University and the author of several books, including 2007's Religious Literacy: What Americans Need to Know. He is also a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal and USA Today. This is the edited transcript of interviews conducted on Jan. 4, 2010 and Feb. 20, 2010. [Read additional interviews with Prothero conducted for night one and night two.

What's happening in this postwar period of American history that's different from what's come before?

I think we've always had a flirtation between religion and politics in American life from the very beginning, from even before the founding of the republic. But what you get after World War II is really a marriage between the two, where religion and politics are going to be closer and closer intertwined. You're going to have preachers who draw on politics to promote their own agendas and also to turn America in a social/economic/political direction that they think is more Christian.

“The success of the civil rights movement is going to move people to say ... let's use religion in the political space in the direction that we want to go.”

And then you're going to have politicians who are using religion, sometimes cynically, sometimes not, for their own public policy reasons. And so the sort of wall of separation of church and state that has been around as an option is going to be gradually whittled away in this period. And religion is going to emerge as a powerful public force, but politics is going to encroach on the religion space as well, so [you see] more and more entwining of the two. …

We're coming out of the Second World War, [with] America victorious, a new enemy. What epic story are we going to tell with [evangelical preacher Billy] Graham, [Martin Luther] King Jr.? What are we going to learn about this country, about ourselves?

One of the big things that happened is after World War II is there's the sense of this enemy of the Communists who are also the enemies of God, and therefore Americans need to be on the side of God, and that's what distinguishes us from the Communists. America has always had this sense of itself as a religious nation, but now it becomes sort of politically and even militarily imperative that we have a God we can call on and that we distinguish ourselves through adherence to that God. …

And that requires us to be more open about who's in our group, right? It becomes trickier to say: "Oh, this is just a Protestant nation," or "This is just a Christian nation," because we need everybody on board against the communists. And that's when Christianity and Judaism start to get together into this Judeo-Christian nation that really coalesces after World War II.

And is everybody happy with that?

The people who are more secular are not happy with it. And the people who fall outside the sacred canopy of Judaism and Christianity are not going to be happy with it either. But those groups are very small after World War II. When you're able to open it up to Protestants, Catholics and Jews, and say, "This is the religious character of America; we're a Judeo-Christian country," that really is a very broad canopy, at least for the time. And so it's a rallying point for Americans after World War II. …

But also, there are African Americans, people who say, "We're a part of this, but we are excluded." They hold a mirror up to society and say, "You're not living up to the [Judeo-Christian] ideals that you claim that this country lives by."

One of the interesting things that's happening after World War II in the United States is that we have this sense of religious opening -- that we're including now, somehow, Catholics in this formerly Protestant America. We're including, somehow, Jews in this formerly Christian America. And yet the freedom that we are seeing increasingly in religion isn't necessarily translating over into the political and the secular sphere, particularly when it comes to race.

Part of what's happening also in this period is the sort of legitimate yearnings for religious freedom that are being increasingly met [and] are spilling over into the political space into legitimate yearnings for political freedom that are increasingly being frustrated. And that's part of what's happening with the civil rights movement.

[How are the stories of Billy] Graham and [Martin Luther] King [Jr. both similar and different?]

One really interesting thing about Billy Graham and Martin Luther King is that I think they encapsulate these two types that we find in the Bible. And the one is the priestly type, which is Graham, who is the person who has this sort of cultural authority and can go to the king, can go to the political leaders and has some kind of clout, but really isn't a mover and shaker in terms of society, and tends to sort of have hands off in terms of politics and economy.

And then you have, on the other hand, the prophetic type who is in a clash in the Bible with the priests, who is always saying: "There's something wrong with this society. We can be better. God has told us to be a certain way, and we're not following the laws of God. We're not listening to God. And if we don't listen to God, God is going to smite us. God is going to disrupt our society, and therefore, we need to be just. We need to take care of the poor." And this type, that is King, is sort of working politics more through the grass roots instead of going to the president, to the king, [and] is sort of working more with ordinary people. …

Let's go through some of the Graham story. … Who is this guy? What's going on in the country at that time? And why does this strike a chord?

After World War II … there's been so much focus overseas with the war and these big questions of Nazism and fascism and communism. And I think after World War II there's a sense of: "What's happening here? What are we supposed to be doing?" And one of the answers that comes up in the conversation we're having with communism is: "No, we're not Communists, this is a religious country."

If what distinguishes America from the rest of the world is our religiosity, the question becomes, why aren't we more personally religious ourselves; what's our problem? … If we really believe that there's a God and we really believe Jesus died for our sins, why are we just going to church on Sunday? Why is that enough?

And Billy Graham comes in and he says: "It's not enough. If this is about faith, if this is about God, if this is about a God who came to Earth and died for your sins, it should matter. It should transform your life." And so he offers the promise of radical transformation. …

And, of course, we have this long tradition that goes back to the First Great Awakening of the 1700s and the Second Great Awakening of the 1800s and all these revivals, this tradition of born-again Christianity, so we kind of have it in our DNA as Americans. And we start to think, well, why don't we go for this more kind of hardcore religion rather than our more lukewarm religion that we might be getting right now in our Lutheran Church or our Episcopal Church or in our Northern Baptist Church?

Graham, in his early sermons in L.A. in '49, it's quite striking because I hadn't realized how much he saw America as in a deep moral crisis at the time, that America had turned away from God. We just won the war. What was he talking about?

This is the implausibility, in a way, of the argument that we had turned away from God, because this appeared in our history when "God talk" is just exploding everywhere, right? But Americans have had this tradition that's called the Jeremiad, that comes from the prophets in the Hebrew Bible, that's saying, "Something's gone really badly wrong and this is a sinful place and we need to turn it around." And this is a place where, actually, Graham and King sort of come together, in this idea that there's a malaise.

For Graham, that was personal. For King, it's more public. And the two have very different ideas as well of what Christianity is about. … Sin is personal for Graham; sin is social for King. But when Graham … [is] there in L.A. and he's saying: "OK, fine. We're having all this talk about God. We just beat the [Nazis], but where are we with Jesus in our heart?" …

He's looking at L.A. and he's saying:"You know, this is like Sin City, right? This is the place of prostitution and the place of drunkenness and the place of fantasy in terms of Hollywood, in terms of reality. And we need to turn this around, and we have a problem as a country, and we have a problem as individuals that we need to turn to Christ."

And I think you also can't underestimate the charisma of the individual person, who's now able to show up on television and on the radio. We have these new technologies that can put this guy in front of you, and here's this attractive, well-spoken man who's appealing to our heart, appealing to us as individuals. And I think that resonates with people, even people who are skeptical. I've been to some of these revivals, and you go to one of these revivals and you sort of start listening, and you're sort of like, "Yeah, maybe I need to go forward, too." And he'd give you the push and he'd give you the time. And a lot of people said, "Yes," they were going to go up. …

And [Graham] invoked the rhetoric of the Cold War at the same time.

… We're in a battle with the forces of evil out there in the world, and that was palpable. But that same battle is going inside you. That's part of the Cold War mood. There's this battle of good and evil inside you, and who's going to win the battle? You should win the battle, so come forward and accept Jesus into your heart. That was part of the appeal.

And it's by extension, if you don't come forward, is that somehow empowering the [enemy].

Exactly. If there's a battle between good and evil that's going on in your heart and going on out in the world, not only are you giving up your soul to the wrong side if you don't accept this call, but you're also joining the Communists. You're on the wrong side of history.

I think what made the appeal of Graham different from some of the earlier appeals is that it was joined to a big world picture. … And so you weren't just saving your soul, you were, in a way, saving the country, and maybe even saving the world.

It's extraordinary when you look at some of the footage and the photographs. … He comes to New York [in 1957] and he fills Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium and Times Square. …

I think you have to also remember the entertainment value. This is before the Internet, before video games, and so it was a show. And it was advertising, and part of what he was good at was the advertising. And part of what he was good at was using the local churches and the local media. He was putting on a good show. And there was good music and he gave a good sermon.

And a lot of people went just for the fun of it. And a lot of those people went home and weren't changed by it, but some of them who came for a show left as born-again Christians. So that was part of the secret of his success.

Explain his break with more conservative fundamentalists, who didn't like his ecumenical approach. He seems to adapt by the time he comes to New York, [he's] a bit more inclusive.

We often think of Billy Graham as a fundamentalist, which is wrong; he was an evangelical. He was raised in sort of fundamentalist circles, but he was an evangelical, which means that he was more open to the modern world and to transforming Christianity as long as you still got across this message of "the Bible is true" and "Jesus died for your sins and you should accept him into your heart."

And when he was doing his revivals, he realized that he needed for them to be effective. He needed to work with all kinds of people, and he needed to work with liberal Protestant churches. He needed to work, maybe, even with Catholics. And so he couldn't just work with fundamentalists or even evangelical groups. He was going to work across the political spectrum of the various Protestant churches in a given town. And a lot of his criticism early on was he just wasn't doctrinally rigorous enough. How could he be working with these fake Christian churches, these liberal Protestants who weren't really Christians at all?

And he said: "Well, no, God will work that out. My point here is to get people to come to Christ, and if I can do that through whatever means, I'm going to do it." So, he sort of gave up the purity of the situation for the pragmatism of the situation. …

What's the difference between a fundamentalist and an evangelical?

Evangelicalism and fundamentalism are different, and it's important that they're different because fundamentalists are a teeny group in America and evangelicals are a large group in America. By some accounts, maybe 25 percent, 30 percent of Americans are born-again Christians or evangelicals, but maybe 2, 3 percent of Americans are fundamentalists.

Fundamentalists are evangelicals who are angry, and what they're angry at is modernity. And so fundamentalists are typically staying away from modernity, but evangelicals -- one of the secrets of their success is their willingness to take on all sorts of the trappings of modernity, from the organ, which when it first came out was considered something you played in a saloon; why would you ever want to play that in a church? Evangelicals were like, "Great, we're going to use the organ." And fundamentalists would say, "No, we're not going to touch that sort of thing." The radio, television -- these are new, modern technologies that evangelicals really took to, and [fundamentalists] really were more distant from.

In terms of doctrine, one of the key differences is that fundamentalists typically believe the Bible is true and infallible; … whereas evangelicals are more likely to use the word "inspiration" and to say that the Bible is inspired by God but it's not really a history or a science textbook. …

So how do we understand Graham historically? On the practical level … what's the wider significance?

I think the two great religious impulses in American history are Puritanism, which defined America from the colonial period to the early national period, and then evangelicalism, which defines America from basically the middle of the 19th century until today. And Billy Graham is the epitome of that second impulse, the evangelical impulse. He's the epitome of the impulse that says humans are flawed, humans are sinful. We need to confess our sins, turn around, accept Jesus into our hearts and become the new creatures that God wants us to be.

And that idea of becoming a new creature is such a deeply, deeply American notion. We love that stuff. … This is the New Jerusalem. We have this new covenant with God. And Graham, I think, understood that. And he made that about ourselves as individuals. He made that about the new creation that we can have as a person and really offered that in a way that was in keeping with modern technology, and exploited the media in a way that prior revivalists just never had done. …

Let's talk about how there are people who felt like this [Judeo-Christian] consensus didn't apply to them, and how the schools became a focus for this.

Schools have always been a place where we inculcated this religious sensibility and where we made the connection between Christianity and morality and citizenship. And so schools have long been a battleground for answering the question, what kind of place is America religiously. Especially after World War II and the Cold War and with the specter of the Communists, the atheistic Communists, it became really important to do religion in the public schools -- and not teach about religion, not world religions courses or objective Bible courses, but to pray in the public schools.

A lot of us forget that this used to go on not that long ago. And so you would have devotional prayers and devotional Bible reading in the public schools, and most people thought this was fine; not just fine but imperative and important. But in some places, there were parents with kids who said: "No, I'm an atheist. My kids, when they're at home, I tell them, 'God is a figment of the imagination of people who can't think straight.' Why should my kids go to school and be told something else -- and not only be told something else but be forced to pray alongside kids to this God that doesn't even exist? That's ridiculous."

And so we had some very important court cases in the early 1960s where the Supreme Court very consistently said: "It's OK to teach about religion. It's OK to talk about God as something that people have believed in over the centuries and millennia. But it's not OK to read the Bible as a historical or scientific book or to read it as a book of piety. And it's not OK to pray."

And this was very, very upsetting to a lot of Christians, particularly the Christian right: "This is our country. This is God's country. The public schools are the place where we raise up citizens. How can we give the schools over to the Communists? … If our schools are going atheistic, next thing they'll go communistic." …

And I think this was a great moment for the Supreme Court. A lot of people would say: "Oh, everybody thinks it's fine to pray in the public schools. Everybody in my town thinks it's fine to read the Bible. It's important to read the Bible." And the Supreme Court steps in and says, "No." And that's its job when it comes to the First Amendment and when it comes to protecting minorities, to say: "Yes, this is a country where a lot of people are religious, but this is a country where religious minorities are protected, and those minorities include atheists. And they can't have religion shoved down their throats in the public schools."

Where did those rulings fit within the broader sweep of American religious history? …

One of the interesting things about how religion works in the schools and in American culture more broadly is that we seem to have this impulse toward greater and greater freedom, or [a] wider and wider lens on the minorities that we are going to afford protection to. And this happens in the political space, too. We just don't think immediately in the beginning of America that women should vote. Now that seems crazy to us. We just don't think or want black people to vote early on, and they don't. And yet we think, "Oh, America was founded as a place of freedom." Well, not really. Same with religion; it's a gradual, gradual process. … And the court has been an important factor in pushing that along, in saying, "You may only have one atheist in your town, but the Constitution is on the side of that one atheist."

And that atheist or secularist or people who just don't want to pray in school are a minority that should be protected.

Yeah, that's right. In other words, that the First Amendment is not just protecting Catholics or Jews or Hindus or Buddhists, but it's protecting nonbelievers. …

And then leading up to this "Is God Dead?" Time magazine cover [in 1966], what's going on there?

One of the responses to this sort of crazy religion of the post-World War II period … was a more public movement against [it]. It makes perfect sense, right? As more and more people are talking about religion, as people like Billy Graham are getting more and more publicity, as religion books are selling more and more, religion just seems to be everywhere, and it's sort of natural that those people are going to want to slough it off.

And those people start to speak, and they start to say, "OK, we're not with the Communists, of course, but we're with the atheists." … We've had atheists throughout American history. They haven't been really ever particularly powerful or particularly visible, but in periods when religion becomes really vibrant, they tend to become more vibrant themselves. …

[What about] God is dead?

What happens is we start to get some theologians who start to say: "You know what? When I look at God, God tells me God really isn't the sort of God that you people think God is." And they start to say as a kind of provocation that God is dead, and we got what was called "Death of God" theology, which is kind of odd when you think about it. If God is dead, why would you do theology? …

But what they were saying … was actually quite theological and quite faithful in some ways. … They were saying,"God is the sort of being that has kind of disappeared into the world," and so God's doing this dance in secular society, in politics and economy, instead of up there, outside of the world.

Now, there were people who were more atheistic than the "Death of God" theologians, but "Death of God" theology was a little bit of a creation of a dozen or so theologians who had a good slogan in the middle of the 1960s. And they were able to get on the cover of Time magazine, this great cover of sort of black and red and white, scary, almost looked like a funeral notice, a 19th-century funeral notice: "Is God Dead?" And the answer at the time seemed to be, "Yes," which is sort of weird because there were all these revivals going on at the same time. But I think a lot of what you see in religion in a society depends on where you look. And if you look to these intellectuals in universities, people like Harvey Cox who were writing The Secular City and saying, "We've gone secular," then it could look that way.

But if you looked more to grassroots places, if you looked to the places where Billy Graham was having his revivals or where the civil rights movement was marching in the name of God, it didn't look to be a particularly secular society, even in the middle of the 1960s.

Circle back to the court and the protection of nonbelievers, which was opposed to the message coming out of politicians leaning toward Billy Graham at the time. …

I think the way that religious freedom has worked historically in America is with the sort of notion that,"OK, we're secular kind of, and we're religious kind of, but as a society, we've overwhelmingly chosen to be Christian." And so, as a practical matter, we've sort of moved forward as a Christian country that has gradually allowed more people under the sacred canopy. We start out Puritan and we become Protestant and then we become Christian.

And then after World War II, we say,"Let's add the Catholics in and let's add the Jews in," and we become a Judeo-Christian country. But the idea of folding nonbelievers in there, it doesn't really fit. If the idea is that God has somehow chosen the United States as a special people, the way that God chose the Israelites in the Hebrew Bible, it doesn't make sense to include nonbelievers there.

And that was one of the key moves that happens in the '60s where the Supreme Court is saying:"This may not fit with the American narrative, with the American mythology about this as a nation ordained by God, but in terms of First Amendment protections for minorities, that atheists have the same protections that other minorities have, that they shouldn't be considered different from Catholics or from Jews or from Hindus or from Buddhists."

So we start to get a conversation, then, in the '60s about where does atheism fit in here, where does nonbelief fit in, and is there a way to integrate nonbelievers into this sort of great American story of religion? And at the moment, we don't really know exactly how to do it, but the Supreme Court is kind of pushing us along in that direction. …

[What is civil religion?] …

Civil religion is this idea that -- alongside and not competing with Protestantism, Catholicism or Judaism -- there is this religion of the country, religion of the nation in that it has its God, the God that all Americans, presumably, but really Jews and Christians, can worship. And it has saints like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and maybe Martin Luther King [Jr.]. And it has scriptures like the Gettysburg Address and the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. And it has holy days like the Fourth of July. And it sort of smells and walks and talks like a religion, so let's call it a religion. That's the idea. …

It can motivate people to action in, say, war. But it can also stir emotions, like that you might have a feeling like you have in church when you're standing there listening to the national anthem. Something wells up in you, something bigger, something greater than yourself, something maybe even transcendent. …

It comes at a time when America is really coming into its own as a world power. It's won a war, big war, a world war. And there is a grasping after [the idea that] maybe there's something bigger here in America than just politics. Maybe there's something sacred.

Who's thinking about this? … This is religious scholars thinking of it this way?

Scholars come up with the idea in the '60s of civil religion. They're observing, basically, the Cold War situation. The Soviet Union has atheists and communism and we have Judeo-Christianity. But it's not just that; we're not just doing Judeo-Christianity, we're doing this religion of Lincoln and Washington and the national anthem and Mount Rushmore and the whole thing.

Scholars are seeing it, but I think it's real. It's something that's happening, that Americans are starting to feel a kind of religious sensibility about their nation. And then it comes out in ways that are explicitly or implicitly religious.

What's the difference between that and patriotism in any other countries?

I think there is civil religion in some countries. There's a civil religion of France, for example. But what is different about American civil religion is sort how much it really does walk and talk like religion, how we have these memorials in Washington D.C. to our dead saints: [Thomas] Jefferson, Lincoln, Washington. How we have these holy days of sorts like the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, and that we have these hymns that stir us as a nation. …

I think the sacred texts in American civil religion would be the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. But then also key speeches in American life like the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address And I think nowadays Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. These are moments in American life where an individual stands up and seems to speak not just for himself but also for our country. And not just for our country but for the sort of broad sweep of human history. And not just for the broad sweep of human history, but human history being guided by some sort of divine force.

And King seemed to meld religion itself with the civil religion.

The amazing thing about King is that here's a preacher who obviously knows how to talk about Jesus in the New Testament, and as a black preacher obviously knows how to talk about Moses in the Old Testament. But he's able to as well seamlessly integrate the sort of sacred language of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and Lincoln's speeches, into his own vision of America, into his own speeches.

So you see this sort of beautiful kind of tapestry of the religious and political heritage of all of us that he's integrating oftentimes into improvised speeches, you know, he's not necessarily reading them. So they're happening inside himself at the same time that they're happening inside the country. …

There was something very powerful about him with the March on Washington speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

It's perfect. There's Lincoln, this huge Lincoln, oversized Lincoln behind him who stands for us in our American civil religion as this saint bordering on Christ figure who is the arbiter of freedom in America, the midwife of freedom. And there's King standing in from of him, in front of thousands upon thousands of people, saying where that legacy goes next. …

Did you read that speech as a prophetic moment?

It's a prophetic moment in the sense that King totally stands in that prophetic tradition. He marched with Abraham Heschel, a Jewish leader in America who literally wrote the book on the prophets, wrote a wonderful book on the Hebrew Bible Prophets. And Heschel had a sense of King as a prophetic figure and I think King had a sense of King as a prophetic figure. A prophetic figure not in the sense of someone who predicts the future, but someone who has this special relationship with God, where God kind of whispers in his ear and he then speaks to his people and says: "God is mad at you because you are being" -- and for the prophets, it's almost always political and social -- "you are being unjust. You are being unrighteous. Turn around and be righteous, or God is going to get you."

And that's precisely what's going on in that speech. There's this tremendous optimism and hope about America. And at the same time there's a realism that says: "This is not the Promised Land, this is not the kind of society that God would want us to be." And that was the power of the civil rights movement and of King, and of the strategy of non-violent civil disobedience was that it assumed that the opponents knew in their hearts that they were wrong. … You might not admit it to your wife, you might not admit it to the people who elected you, but you know this is wrong to have blacks and whites [sit in] different part of the bus, blacks and whites [eating at] different restaurants, blacks and whites [having] different places to drink water in water fountains. And, it's the sort of the God in you that knows it's wrong. And I'm going to speak on behalf of that God and remind you what you already know. …

The use of the violence against the marches was in part the tear gas and those images -- he almost wanted that to provoke action. He was trying to inspire people religiously to then provoke political action. It was an intentional sort of mixing of the two.

It's important that the civil rights movement was televised because that appeal to conscience -- "You know what's right America, do it" -- became much more powerful when you could look at these innocent black men and women and adults and children, faced down by dogs and faced down by tear gas and faced down by water hoses.

There's a way in which that was the moment that the civil rights struggle was won, when people across America could look and say, "Is this my country?" …

So this was a religiously inspired movement that was designed to effect political change? They were trying to change the political landscape.

The civil rights movement had as its goal to get rid of segregation in the South and across America. This was a political goal but it was advanced very much through religious means by mobilizing people in churches, through the leadership of ministers, through speeches that sounded like sermons, through songs and hymns like, "We Shall Overcome." The whole thing had the feel of religion about it. It had the feel of a revival or a religious crusade. And it was moving forward on the direction of people who understood the biblical prophetic tradition of calling out injustice and unrighteousness in the name of God. …

How does the Exodus idea connects to the civil rights movement.

Throughout American history, Americans have gravitated to stories that will help them make sense of our weird experience of coming across this ocean to this huge place and setting up shop. And the main story that we've gravitated toward has been the Exodus story, which is a wonderful story of a people who are enslaved even though they are somehow chosen by God, have a horrible existence of oppression and enslavement, are called out of slavery by a Moses figure and by God, go across the ocean, head toward the Promised Land, but spend a long time in the wilderness and the desert before they get there, and so [there is] this sort of march from slavery to freedom.

A people on the march with God by their side has been a powerful story. And we've told it to ourselves throughout American history, as Puritans coming over to New England, as Mormons heading west across the mountains, and in the civil rights movement. … And it was that story that really sustained the civil rights movement in a lot of ways, and it sustained much of American history.

And I think part of what gave the civil rights movement power was the idea that the story of the Bible didn't end when the Bible ends, when you close the last page of the Bible. It's still going on now. The same activity of this God who wants freedom for his creation is still happening now and is inspiring Martin Luther King just as it inspired Moses.

The idea that King is a Moses figure becomes really strong throughout the civil rights movement. And towards the end of his life, it becomes palpable when he starts to talk about himself as a Moses figure in saying: "I might not get there" in the same way that Moses didn't get there.

I think people need, in moments of transformation and in moments of forward movement, they need a story. And this story that Americans borrow from Judaism, the Exodus story, is this powerful story that we have sort of shape-shifted over time to make it work for us. And when it came time for the civil rights movement, it just seemed to be the perfect fit. …

Looking at the sweep of what's happened from the end of the Second World War up through King's assassination -- the rise of Billy Graham, school prayer and this extraordinary movement, faith-based movement with civil rights -- what's changed about American religion over that 20-year course of history?

I think in the quarter century or so after World War II, you get Americans owning up to their religious roots and becoming even more religious than they have been before in terms of belief in God, in terms of attending churches and synagogues. But what you also get is a powerful entry of that religious impulse into the political space in the civil rights movement. …

So if you want to say, "Oh, religion doesn't really matter; where's the force of religion in history?" this is a hard period to make that argument, because this is a period where religion is pushing us, changing us as individuals, but also pushing us and changing us as a society. …

You were talking about the religious swirl at the end of the '60s, trying to define what America really is. What does that lead to?

… Into that swirl, we're going to get all these people who are going to answer the question: "What is America about religiously? Is it a secular country? Is it a Christian country? Is it a multireligious country? Is it an evangelical country where the life of Christ should determine the life of the nation?" That's going to be the big question as we move forward out of this kind of big postwar boom of religious excitement. …

One thing that happens, as we get this personal religious fervor with Graham and then this public religious fervor with King, is now the public space, the political and social space, is sort of ripe for religious harvesting, and all sorts of people are going to come in and say, "OK, King did religious politics this way, but this is where we want to take religion politically." So the ballgame has sort of opened up.

Religion and politics have always been connected in American culture, from the very beginning. We've never had these pure [divisions, where] religion's over here and politics is over here. They've always been mucked up together. But the success of the civil rights movement is going to move people to say: "Let's do this with our political concerns, with our concerns about, say, abortion or with our concerns about, say, the moral degradation of American culture in the 1960s. And let's use religion in the political space in the direction that we want to go." Sort of a big, green light in a way, to the conjoining together of religion and politics in the American life. …

And the mixing of religious faith and power?

What's going to happen is sort of this powerful influx into our own, hearts of personal faith, and then also into the public space of the power of religion. And then [there will be] this sort of wonderfully intriguing and vexing mixing of the two so that religion and politics are going to be dancing maybe a little closer than they have been through the early part of American society.

One of the fascinating things about [John F.] Kennedy for me is that now we think about presidents as having to talk about how their faith determines what they're doing as the president. It's almost a requirement because we don't want to have an atheist president. We want to have people of faith in the White House. But Kennedy had to promise the opposite. He had to promise that he would never consider his Catholicism in any way in making any decision he would ever make in the White House.

It's kind of crazy, but it's a different moment. It's a moment when we were bringing religion into the public space but we weren't really that comfortable with it yet. We weren't really that comfortable with stepping out beyond the space that had been carved out earlier by presidents like Jefferson and Lincoln, who would sort of talk about God, but in this sort of abstract way that really wasn't connected to a religious tradition like Protestantism or Catholicism or Judaism. And, of course, there was a huge disquiet about Catholicism, because up until Kennedy, this had been a Protestant country.

We wouldn't have said it that way, but it was. All the presidents were Protestant. The Bibles that were being read in the public schools were mostly King James Protestant Bibles. And so you had this specter of a Vatican takeover of American society that people have been worried about in American history for hundreds of years before even Kennedy emerged. But his response to that had to be, "My religion doesn't matter," which nowadays we would never either fall for that or go for that either. But he had to say it, because the moment was we were not quite sure, not quite comfortable yet with a kind of real coming together of the heart of a president religiously and his public policy out in American life.

Did it work for Kennedy?

It did work for Kennedy. People bought it, probably because it was sort of true. Kennedy was a Catholic for sure, and he thought about the world through Catholic lenses, but most of that was through his notions of social justice, rather than through questions of, say, abortion. And I think Americans were convinced that this was not a takeover by the Vatican of American society. And I think they were also convinced they were voting for this man who was sort of accidentally Catholic or contingently Catholic, rather than sort of dogmatically Catholic.

A lot of prominent Protestant ministers -- including Graham, it seems -- had very strong reservations. And … tried to inject themselves sort of behind the scenes directly, to stop the campaign.

And I think this is one of the things that is fascinating, that as recently as 1960, which is not that long ago, we still had this fear of Catholics in America. This is a very important tradition in American life, that this is a Protestant country, and that not only is it not for Jews and Buddhists and Hindus, but it's not even for Catholics. … And that's been a part of American religious life, an ugly part of American religious life, anti-Catholicism, from the very beginning. …

But what's wonderful about the story is that we did decide as a country that it was OK to have a Catholic president, and I think this opens the doors for us to decide in the future, maybe it's going to be okay to have a Jewish president, and maybe it might even be OK to have a Hindu president or a Buddhist president or an atheistic president. …

What does the world look like if you're Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell or Francis Schaeffer in the early '70s? What does America look like to this evangelical fundamentalist subculture? Who are these people, and how do they see this country? And what's going to happen?

They see the United States as a Christian country that has lost its way. And so the United States was established by Christians as a project of God, and all of a sudden, the '60s happened, and so we've lost our way. We are using drugs; we're having sex outside of marriage; we've lost the moral center … and so we need to be called back. … This Puritan mentality … that God was with us and that we had a covenant with God and that God would punish us if we were bad and God would reward us if we were good. People like Falwell and Schaeffer and the Christian right, they have this idea.

The fact that we're starting to do all these bad things … isn't just a "tsk tsk" for individuals, but it's a threat to the divine safeguarding of America itself. So I think they're looking out with a kind of peril across the landscape of the `60s and saying, "Where's America going?" and "It's not going in a good place, and we need to steer it back." And the back is toward God. …

Francis Schaeffer: Who is he, what is his significance?

Francis Schaeffer is the kind of guy most people have never heard of in America, but he's sort of a hero among evangelicals. He's a hero because he's smart. He's a hero because he's intellectual, and he responds to that idea that evangelicals are dumb, evangelicals are ignorant, the stereotype that you get in California and New York about conservative Christians. And he gave evangelical college kids, especially in the '70s, a sense of, "We have a smart guy on our side, too." …

What made him so effective, so appealing?

One thing was, he was confrontational. He was willing to say, "Modernity has gone wrong, and most Americans and most Europeans just don't see the world as it really is." And he told a compelling story that was consistent in his view and the view of his followers with the Biblical narrative. And so he gave a way to hang onto the Biblical narrative and yet be a modern, intelligent person instead of being like, "You have to give up modern thought in order to be a Christian." He said, "No."

What's the story that he was telling?

The story that he was telling was that God created the world as the Bible described: Humanity fell, Jesus returned, he died on the cross to be saved for our sins, and that ever since then we've been running away from that truth. And we need to turn back to it and realize that that is the story of the world, and we need to participate in it and say "Yes" to it.

And that had a certain power within that evangelical subculture?

There were other people who were making this argument, but what was different about Schaeffer was that he connected it to the great thinkers in the Western tradition. So he could engage young evangelicals with John Stuart Mill and the sort of great philosophers that they might be reading in an introduction to philosophy class or the great theologians that they might be reading on their own. And he could make evangelicals intellectually respectable.

Set the stage of this evangelical subculture. … In, say, the mid-'70s before it all kicks off, who are we talking about? What are the institutions? …

The places that these conservative dissatisfied Christians are operating are really local and small scale. They're operating their own churches, mostly white, many of them in the South. They're operating their own Bible colleges, which are actually very important institutions where young people can go and get an education very much in the evangelical Christian idiom: biblical, particularly [the] reading of American history that reads it as a Christian nation, the founders were Christian, etc. [They have] their own publishing houses, their own magazines. So there's this sort of a world of their own that these conservative Christians have created. … They're not seeking public power. They're seeking to sort of be left alone and to do their own thing. …

As an historian, you can sort of sit back and look at them as sort of waiting for their moment and their moment to re-emerge into politics. And that moment came in the late 1970s.

What happened, and what was the moment?

There was … the offense of the '60s, the moral offense of America going awry through drugs and sex and rock and roll, and that was a pushback. But what really got to evangelicals was what they saw as the banishing of God from public schools and then the widespread availability of abortion in the Roe v. Wade decision. I think what they got was a sense that, culturally, America was moving in the wrong direction, but then, politically and judicially, it was also going on that same road to hell. …

So they made what seems almost a conscious decision, at least, to set aside their reservations about engaging in politics. … Describe that moment, that decision to sort of step into the political realm.

A lot of the leaders of evangelicalism were ambivalent about this move into politics, because classically the idea had been [that] Jesus came to save individuals from their sin and get us to heaven, not to improve American political life, not to get the right president elected, that sort of thing. But I think what finally happened is they finally started to perceive American society as a threat to their own religious life. …

And their image has been the success of this faith-driven social movement of the '60s. Is this [correct]?

Yeah, and they had seen [that] … you can mobilize religious fervor for political causes. The cause of the civil rights movement: "Why can't we do that to get rid of abortion? Why can't we do that to get God back in the public schools? Why can't we do that to make it safe to be a virgin when you're in high school? We can do these things." That was the impulse. There was, yes, a political impulse, but there was also a religious impulse, and they were mixing [it] up in this really creative way.

And politically they usually support the Republican Party.

Right. One of the things that happens is the evangelicals have this idea, but they need to sell it, and they sell it very effectively to the Republican Party. And in the late 1970s, the leaders of the Republican Party and the Christian right, they have these conversations where they say, "We need to speak publicly, and we need to inject into our political space words like 'God' and 'Jesus' and 'Bible' and 'morals' and 'family values' and all this sort of language that now just seems like old hat in American culture."

But that was really invented in the late 1970s, and it was happening sort of behind closed doors. It wasn't sort of announced in the pages of newspapers, but the movers and shakers in both the Christian right community and the Republican Party decided that: "This is the way we're going to start to talk, and we're going to speak back against the excesses of the 1960s with this language of God. And the Democrats are going to be stuck, because America's 90 to 95 percent believers in God, 80 percent Christian, and we're going to be the Christian God party, and they're going to be the atheist party. Let's see who wins."

Well, it turns out [Ronald] Reagan gets elected, and the conservatives really take over the country for what amounts to a generation.

Reagan wasn't particularly churchgoing himself.

That's what's funny about Reagan. You know, you have these sort of great champions of religion in American life, like Dwight Eisenhower, you know, who really is seen as a big figure behind the religious revival of the 1950s, and Reagan, behind this political push in the 1980s. But neither was particularly religious, and I think Reagan had a kind of homespun political savvy about him, but also a kind of homespun spirituality about him that he could sell. …

He had this way of being in the world that was evangelical without all the fervor of an evangelist. And so he was somebody that evangelicals could live with, in the way that he could also live with them.

He could also articulate and seemed to feel very deeply and very naturally a sense of America as a country with a special purpose, a"city on a hill," [which] just kind of melded with the evangelical influences.

Right, so Reagan is really going back to the very origins of American colonialism, the British colonies and this sermon on the Arabella that was given by the first governor of Massachusetts [John Winthrop], where he said America will be a city on a hill. We're going to be this place that, across from Europe, they will look and they will see, "Yeah, that's how we want our society to be."

And Reagan picked up on that, and with his great California, American optimistic ebullience, he added the word "shining"; shining city on a hill. We won't just be the city on a hill, but we'll be the shining city on a hill. …

As opposed to another phrase he evoked: evil.

Right, so we have the "shining city on a hill" and we have the "evil empire," and here we go now with that battle that we saw with Billy Graham, of the battle between good and evil, the battle between the believing Americans, the Judeo-Christian Americans and the atheistic Communists. And now we have that playing out again in the Reagan world in the 1980s in American politics in his battles with the Russians and tearing down the [Berlin] Wall. …

Graham [was] talking about Communism in the early '50s, but here you have a president who is actually articulating foreign policy in moral terms, which Eisenhower never did, and Nixon never did.

Before Reagan, the job of speaking about communism and foreign policy in moral terms was really relegated to preachers and pundits and not so much [to] presidents. And presidents were much more focused on what was called foreign policy realism, sort of getting what you can, getting in the down and dirty of the compromises of politics. And Reagan really had a sense of the time, I think, but also a sense of moral outrage, that this was just wrong, and he needed to give voice to that.

And I think American populists really [were] attracted to that, and also attracted to the idea that this is simple. One of the creeds of foreign policy work is that it's never simple. ... And you're dealing with all these different cultures and languages and societies and political systems. It's not simple, but Reagan is able to say it's simple. … And part of [what was] behind that was this is a"good versus evil" kind of issue, and anybody can understand that. …

[How does the Christian right enter politics?]

When Jerry Falwell emerges and decides to go into politics and does so through the Moral Majority, he gives it this name that is kind of vague. It doesn't say evangelical. It doesn't say Protestant. It doesn't say Christian. It says Moral Majority. And he was open to having Catholics in this group and having Jews in this group, and I think he fits with that mold of sort of coming out of the '50s, that sort of Eisenhower Judeo-Christian mold that we were arrayed then against the Communists. Now we're arrayed against the '60s, and we should have as broad of a coalition as possible. …

[The Christian Coalition, on the other hand, gets involved] in increasing politics, grassroots organizing, really a political world. Is that something that is new in historic religion in this country, or have we seen that before?

My sense is the Christian Coalition is new in terms of its tactics, in terms of its savvy of how to work at the grassroots level. … I think we had grassroots efforts in the past led by evangelicals in the 19th century, that were attacking the problem of education, the problem of slavery, the problem of drunkenness. So I'm not sure how new that was. I think what was important about the Christian Coalition is this movement from kind of high-minded idealism to sort of down and dirty politics and showing that Christians can do this, too. …

And this became really important in presidential elections, where it was clear that there was an organization that Republican candidates could draw on to get people literally in church buses and out to the polls at a very, very grassroots level that's sort of reminiscent of the old Chicago political machine kind of system. …

Why did it make their opponents so incensed?

The Democrats were operating under different rules of the game. That's what's so interesting about the rise of the Christian right. Democrats have this sense of: "OK, the rules are that we just don't involve religion. We don't get the churches involved. We don't have preachers involved. That's the game." Then they would just lose and lose and lose and lose, and in 2004 they finally said: "Why, in a country where everybody believes in God, and 80 percent are Christians, why are we the atheist party? Why are we the party that says religion and politics have nothing to do with each other? It's stupid."

And so Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama and basically every other Democratic candidate started to talk about God and the Bible and Jesus and they started to connect their Democratic public policy positions with Bible stories and with the Christian tradition. [It was] a total about face from what the Democrats had done because of the success of the Christian right, because of the way that Reagan had used religion so adroitly.

Do you think they were doing that cynically, or do you think it was genuine?

… [I] think it's both. I think that the Democrats realized after the 2004 election that they were idiots. I remember trying to get an interview with John Kerry. I worked with some people in his campaign, and I said, "Look, you should have an interview with me and put it in Christianity Today. Publish it to the evangelicals, let's hear about John Kerry's faith." And they decided no, they didn't want to do that. That was against the rules. Democrats don't do that. That's what Republicans do.

And of course, what they learned is: Republicans win presidential elections and Democrats lose presidential elections. … There [were] two things that were happening there. One is,"Let's try to get anybody to talk about religion." And I think that part of the problem with John Kerry was that he's a New Englander. … He's not comfortable speaking publicly about his faith. And so even if he were [a] 100 percent faithful Christian who thought about Jesus all the time, he wouldn't sound convincing, because New Englanders just aren't that good at it. It's Southerners who are good at that.

And so the Democrats learned to find people who could make that case. And I think both Obama and Hilary Clinton could; they could both sound like people that religion mattered to them. So I think it was a combination of not cynicism and honesty, but it was a combination of political reality and finding the right candidates. They didn't go and find an atheist candidate who would pretend that he was a Christian. They found Christian candidates who were able to speak about their faith in a way that was convincing.

I've heard Democratic operatives say they thought both of them were making it up or just doing it because they had to.

Obama and Clinton? I actually don't think so. Again, we're talking about this country where the overwhelming majority are Christians, and a country where religion matters. Well, most politicians are like that, too. Most politicians have some kind of faith, and it matters to them. The problem is that the Democratic Party operatives were consistently telling their people, "Don't talk about your faith." … And I think what happened after 2004, is they took off those handcuffs, and they were able to say, "Go ahead, say what's from your heart. Speak about your faith."

Barack Obama has enough of a track record talking about this -- two autobiographies, and all these speeches he gave, many speeches about religion long before he was running for president, where he was quite articulate about his religious convictions -- and I have no doubt that he's a thoroughly religious person. I think he also knew, when he was running, that it was going to be good for him to speak about his faith rather than not to speak about his faith.

These rules that Democrats played by, where are they coming from, and what were they thinking?

The Democratic rules were coming from Thomas Jefferson. And even in his own time, Thomas Jefferson was in a minority. Most people didn't agree with him about this radical separation of church and state. …

But the Democrats decided that they needed to be in this Jeffersonian tradition, and as the Republicans moved even more into religion with Reagan, more and more Democrats thought: "This is ridiculous. We're having these presidents who aren't even hardly Christians, like Reagan, and they're talking 'God, God, God, God.' It's so hypocritical. We're not going to do that." … It was like they were playing by the old rules, and I think, as of 2004, they woke up and decided they should play by the new rules.

And that's a huge legacy of the religious right. And they will say: "We didn't achieve what we wanted to achieve when it came to changing our public schools or changing the abortion law." But they did change our politics, in that they brought religion and politics closer and closer together, and they created a model that was effective that the Democrats have now taken up. …

I want to circle back to the late '90s and The Christian Coalition. Ralph Reed and [Pat] Robertson both say in the film that their goal was to elect a farm team, … go on to Congress, and eventually, within a decade, to have an evangelical in the White House. What happens?

They get an evangelical in the White House with [George W.] Bush. That's what was so shocking to the sort of blue-state secularists and so delightful to the Christian right, that who would have thunk it? Who would have thought that an evangelical could become president? And here a guy who said Jesus was living in his heart and that Jesus was his favorite political philosopher had now been elected. It was as if the Christian Coalition was Moses, and here we were in the Promised Land.

But it didn't turn out to be so great, because the promises that were made to the Christian right, either stated or implied, really couldn't be delivered. The abortion issue had been decided by the courts. It wasn't going to be legislated away. There just wasn't anything a president really could do about a lot of these questions. One of the interesting things here is that when you go into cultural politics, you can't really change that much of cultural politics through legislation, through electing presidents, because by definition, it's cultural. You can pass laws against smoking pot, right, but we had those laws in the '60s, and people were still smoking pot.

A lot of the changes that the Christian right wanted were cultural changes -- to use their own language, sort of changes of the heart -- and it wasn't something that could be done by President Bush or any other president. So the system was almost set up for disappointment in the way it was constructed from the start.

I just want to ask about when Bush was running and he was asked who his favorite political philosopher was and he said Christ. A lot of people kind of chuckled. Reporters and Democrats were kind of like, "Who is this guy?" But does that kind of language speak to a large part of this country?

… The thing that was shocking about Bush was he talked about Jesus Christ. And presidents in America have always talked about God, but they've been reticent to talk about Jesus Christ. That just sort of sounded too particular and sort of almost divisive in this kind of Judeo-Christian America sense that it should be broad. And a lot of people were shocked by that: "Wow, did he say that?" I remember thinking that. …

I think that that was sort of a coming out moment for the Christian right of: "We can not only put forward a candidate, but our candidate can speak from his heart in this confessional way we want, and he can talk about Jesus, not just generically about God. He can be a Christian, an evangelical Christian in public, and not a generic Christian or a generic religious person." And that was really important. …

On the other hand, there's the other reaction of, you're Jewish, or you're atheist or even you're Catholic. This isn't the way Catholics speak about God, about this sort of heartfelt change, this sort of born-again way of speaking about God. So a lot of people were saying, "Come on, this is my country too. How can we elect a president that's sort of so sectarian on a religious side? Already we have these parties fighting at each other's throats, are we really going to be electing people now on the basis of their specific religious affiliation?"

When [Bush] was asked to follow up on this, he said something to the extent that those who haven't had this experience [of being born again] don't really understand.

It's like what was said about jazz: If you have to ask, you'll never know. … In that moment he is speaking to this base, the growing base of the Christian right that really was just standing up and saying, "Amen." And for quite a while in the Bush presidency, too, it's interesting, he was able to use language -- this was very smart -- that came not from the Bible, but from hymns that were sung in evangelical churches. So he could talk about things like the blood of the lamb, for example, and evangelicals would hear it and say,"That's our man."

But it was sufficiently esoteric for other people not to know that it was sort of insider Christian language. And what happened is the media started finally catching onto it … and sort of outed him for the ways in which he was using this insider evangelical hymnody language to say, "I'm one of you. I'm one of you." …

So tell me about this thing with the language that he used when he said Christ was his --

"Jesus Christ, because he changed my heart."

What's wrong with that? Maybe he really did feel this. What's wrong with being honest and talking about it?

I don't think there's anything wrong with a president saying honestly what he thinks about religion. I don't think there's anything wrong with Bush saying Jesus was his favorite political philosopher, assuming that he wasn't saying that for cynical reasons, which I don't think that he was. The danger of it, though, is that you have this sort of person, but you also have the office. And people, when they take the office of the presidency, they become bigger than themselves. They become the president of the United States, of all people in the United States.

And so the tension here is now the president is president of the Buddhists in the United States and the Hindus in the United States and the Catholics in the United States and the atheists in the United States, and I think that then the question starts to become: If you speak in this narrow political language that is authentic to yourself, do you start to give [some] people the sense that they aren't really fully American? …

That is significant after 9/11.

9/11 changes everything in this regard, and it's ironic that President Bush, [who was] the first real, sort of "out" evangelical president, becomes the president who really ushers in the Judeo-Christian/Islamic America idea. After World War II, we move from sort of Christian America to sort of Judeo-Christian America as we integrated Catholics and Jews into this American scheme. And after 9/11, it became imperative to integrate Muslims, because we couldn't be seen as going to war, a holy war, against Islam. That was horrible, and so we had to be seen as a country, not just of Christians and Jews, but also of Muslims. …

It was President Bush who said, repeatedly, not: "Islam is a bad religion and America is a country of Christians," but, "Islam is a religion of peace, and this is a country of Christians and Jews and Muslims." And at the various interfaith events that were held after 9/11, we didn't see the old model from the 1950s of the Catholic priest and the Protestant minister and the Jewish rabbi. That's what we used to see. We saw those three people, but now we also saw the imam from Islam, and beyond that we would see the sheik with the turban. And sometimes we would see a Hindu priest as well, and sometimes we would see a Buddhist Zen master. …

So we just keep making the space bigger, you know, extending the sacred canopy over more and more people. But with Obama saying "and nonbelievers," he's partly saying, "OK, atheists are religious too, maybe," but he's also saying that people with a nonreligious vision of America can somehow participate in the religious vision of America. I'm not sure what that means, but I think whatever it is, it's new and it's exciting, and I think we'll figure out what that means over time. …

The imam who spoke at the National Cathedral [after 9/11], Dr. [Muzammil H.] Siddiqi, he lives in Orange County where there's 100,000 Muslims -- I had no idea. Most of them came in the last 30 years. What is going on, not just Muslims out there, but this extraordinary diversity of communities and religious faith.

This is a really important part of the contemporary American story that's not that often discussed, [and that is the] change in immigration law in 1965. Between basically the '20s and '60s, it was very hard to get into the United States. And what that meant is that religious diversity was held back artificially basically by immigration law. All these people who were Hindus or Buddhists or Sikhs or Jains or Confucians or Taoists … couldn't come [to the United States].

And with the changing of immigration law, the opening up of immigration, you have a huge transformation, not just of the American population, but of the religious landscape. And so coming from Asia, you have Buddhists and Hindus and teachers and students. But you also have all these different kinds of Christians coming in: Pentecostals are coming in, Catholics are coming across the border from Mexico. …

That the diversity that we had at the time of Billy Graham was really more sort of liberal Protestants and the evangelical Protestants and the Catholics and the Jews. But the diversity we have now is much broader, especially in places like Los Angeles, where we have more forms of Buddhism than we have in Tokyo on offer. …

In '49, Graham makes his big sort of entrance, really a national stage, in Los Angeles. It's 50 years later, and L.A.'s a very different place, and some people say it's the most religiously diverse city in the world. …

Los Angeles is amazing in terms of religious choice. If you think about religion as a marketplace and you compare it to walking down the soda aisle in the supermarket where you have every imaginable kind of root beer that you can pick and every imaginable kind of Coke and whatever: L.A. has hundreds of different Buddhist options, you know, dozens of Hindu temples, all sorts, of course, of different forms of Catholicism and Protestantism. It's a place where immigration has really made its mark, and when immigrants come to the United States, they don't just bring their employment skills; they bring their religions. And as they bring their religions here, those religions change, and so it's a wonderful laboratory, not just for examining America but for examining the forms of religion that are available in the world.

As their religions come here, their religions change, they become what, more Americanized in the way of the American Catholic versus Catholics elsewhere?

As religions come here they change and they become Americanized. One of the things that happens is they start to look more like Protestantism. So even though we have this tremendous diversity, we also have this sort of Protestant assumption about the way religion works. So, for example, Hindus, when they come here, will tend to talk more monotheistically than they will in India. We think about Hinduism as a polytheistic religion, but there is a strain in Hinduism of monotheism, where you say, "Oh, of course there's all these manifestations of God, but it's really just one God underneath the many manifestations." …

Also, Hindus in India … form temples and they go to temples, but they're not members of a temple. But in America, by law, the way nonprofits and churches and religious bodies work, you sort of have to have these boards of directors types of people and then you have membership, and so Hindus start to have member-oriented temples. They also start to have congregational services which they don't have in India. In India you just go to the temple and you make an offering to the gods. There isn't, like, the Sunday service at 11 [a.m.]. But because that's what we in America do, we have these services on Sunday mornings, Hindus learn to do that, too. So, even though we have all this diversity, there's also pressure to conform the diverse religions down to something that looks … recognizably religious here in the United States.

[What is the religious marketplace?]

When people talk about the spiritual marketplace, they're talking about choice, which is thoroughly American, and it's quite in the grain, too, of evangelicalism. It's the idea that every human has free will. Every human has the choice to make a wrong choice when it comes to religion. Every human has the choice to make a right choice. And we like to have a lot of options when we walk down the supermarket aisle to buy our paper towels, and we like to have a lot of options in religion. It makes us feel like the religion that we have chosen is the one we have chosen rather than the one we've inherited, and the one that we've chosen is the one that fits our unique personality.

You can say, "I'm really into Buddhism, but I get bored by sitting meditations, so I want chanting meditation and I want a chant that's easy to learn," and so, there you go. And you can say, "I want a black church that is really into the social gospel, that's working on Habitat for Humanity houses, but it has to have a great preacher who preaches to my heart and talks about the salvation of the soul," and you can find that person, too, and that church. …

It's just an amazing marketplace for where you can go and find the right religious product designed especially just for you. Now, this does sound kind of cringe-y if you think about religion as being about God and about truth and about salvation, but I think it can be about all of those things and still be about choice. And I think the key insight about the marketplace metaphor is that religions compete in the United States, and they have from the very beginning, and there are winners and losers in the American religious marketplace.

And we can look at them and say,"Boy, these non-denominational megachurches, those are winners, those are gaining market share, they're doing great." And,"Boy, the old-fashioned Catholic churches that don't really know how to speak the language of young people, they're having a hard time." The only way they're hanging in there is because of immigration.

When you hear Rick Warren [founder of the Saddleback Church] talk about how he thought he'd settled that [what was a winner in the religious marketplace], it was like he was doing market research, what people wanted.

And it wasn't "like" he was doing market research. Rick Warren did do market research, and some of these megachurches hire marketing research firms, and they go out and say, "Why aren't you going to church? What do you want in your church?" And people say, "I'd love to have a basketball team at my church." "I'd love to have an espresso bar at my church so I can get a good cup of coffee." "I'd like to have a good preacher;" "I don't want people to make me stand up when I go and say, 'Who are the new people in church this weekend?' because that makes me feel bad."

So these megachurches have figured out how to do that, and they have a very, very successful formula for how to address the American public.

And just to continue on with Warren, he also seems to have learned or decided that taking the overtly political route like Falwell and Robertson did, was not the way to engage them.

I think Rick Warren is taking the old Billy Graham strategy, and he's willing to talk to people [in] power. He's willing to show up for Barack Obama's inauguration and to give a prayer. But he doesn't want to be seen as a political operative. He's young enough -- he's younger than Jerry Falwell -- and he's seen how that appearance of really being a political figure who's using religion doesn't work. He wants to be seen as a religious figure who gets involved in politics sort of by accident, when he has a project that is important, that has a spiritual basis, that somehow needs some connection with political figures.

He engages issues that go beyond the more narrow issues than the Christian right [focused on].

That's right, and I think one thing that a lot of people don't understand about evangelicalism is that it isn't just about bedroom issues. There has been a way that the Christian right has pushed evangelicalism to really be about, "Oh, we're opposed to premarital sex, and we're opposed to abortion and we're opposed to stem cell research because that has to do with embryos." But there is a much broader agenda for most evangelicals and that has to do with questions of poverty and questions on the environment.

In fact, if you ask evangelicals now in America, "Would you be willing to pay higher taxes so that the government can help the poor?" most evangelicals will say, "Yes." "Are you willing to have stricter environmental laws to take care of the environment, God's creation?" They will also say, "Yes." So the Christian right is sort of an unfortunate term. It points to a group of people on the right, but there is a Christian left as well, and there are Christians really across the spectrum, even among evangelicals.

I'm going to circle back to the marketplace idea in L.A., specifically, as it relates to Catholicism and Pentecostalism because, … there seems to be … a phenomenon about Americans where a lot of people seem to turn from the Catholic Church to Pentecostal Church. And certainly [in] the Catholic Church in L.A., Cardinal [Roger] Mahony has adapted his services to try to speak to an evangelical spirit within his congregation while still maintaining the authority of the Catholic Church. What's going on there?

Throughout the world, evangelicalism is competing very effectively with Catholicism among Spanish-speaking people. So what's going on in L.A. with that is really a microcosm of what's going on in Bolivia and Ecuador and Mexico. There's tremendous desire for a lot of Spanish-speaking people to go toward this more emotional, heartfelt, personal spirit of Pentecostalism, where not only is God moving the world but God is just moving inside you with power, which is a key word in Pentecostalism: power.

And so, of course, the Catholic Church is trying to adapt all over the world, including in the United States and including in L.A. How successful they're going to be, I don't know. My impression of the Catholic Church in America is it's not quick on its feet. It's a big corporation, it's a big oil tanker, and the Pentecostals are out there driving these little motorboats, and they know how to turn and they know how to change, and they're adapting more and more with the times than the big old Catholic Church is, and I think that's one huge source of their success.

[Can you talk about the] sort of "browning" of Christianity in this country?

We tend to associate Christianity worldwide with white people -- with white Europeans -- but when Christianity began, in its first few centuries it was about Africans and Middle Eastern people. It wasn't people who looked like me. And then, over time, as it became so successful in Europe, and as the Roman Catholic Church gets set up in Rome we tend to think about it as European, but over the last century there's been a tremendous shift to the south. It's a huge story in global Christianity, the shift from the global north to the global south, and the center of gravity is just moving, and Christianity is getting browner and more conservative as we go. And so the old kind of European model of the liberal Protestant white European is increasingly becoming smaller and smaller, and similarly in America because of immigration.

We often think about religious immigration as bringing Buddhists and Hindus to America, and it has, but the largest group of people coming to America now are Catholics, and they're coming from Spanish-speaking countries, and they're making American Catholicism more conservative because they're more conservative than the Irish Catholics who came here in the 1830s, and their ancestors, their descendents. …

It's interesting that both the Catholic Church and the Pentecostal Church's leaders in California, although they've been more socially conservative, they're also speaking out on immigration reform. More of a left-wing approach on that. And they're comfortable in the political realm.

One great thing about religious people in politics is they just don't always line up in a simplistic way. And so in that sense, in the Catholic Church, in America, is it liberal? Is it conservative? Well, it's very liberal on certain things, like capital punishment and immigration. It's very conservative on other things, like abortion and contraception.

So, yeah, the Hispanic population in L.A. that's Catholic, tends to be more theologically conservative. But it's not conservative when it comes to questions of immigration. And, no doubt, nor is it when it comes to things like taking care of the poor. It doesn't have a Republican agenda of lowering taxes on the rich and keeping services away from the poor. …

L.A. might be a good place to talk about the spiritual but not religious. [You] see that out on the beach[es] of L.A., and spiritual renewal centers. …

One of the wonderful little ironies of America as a religious country is that we're deeply religious but we're just not that comfortable with the word. And many Christians are not that comfortable even with the term Christianity, or the term Christian to describe themselves. And so you see in a lot of recent polling, this rise in the religiously unaffiliated, which is often mistaken for a rise in secular people. But most of these religiously unaffiliated people, not only believe in God, but many of them are Christians and many of them go to church all the time. It's just that they don't want to be affiliated with Christianity, or affiliated with a particular church in their town, and so they sort of seem like religious freelancers. …

So there is this new style now, this new spiritual, but not religious, style that is not secular in the least. But … it sees the drama of religion as going on inside the individual. And it doesn't matter whether it's happening in a synagogue, in a church, in a Zen center, it doesn't matter where it happens, because the drama is happening here.

And I think we tend to see this as kind of opposed to more traditional forms of religion. But actually, this isn't that far away from Billy Graham. This isn't that far away from the revivals of the second Great Awakening of the 19th century. These are places that say the drama of religion is the individual transformation. Well, now we can get that individual transformation by going to yoga class. We can get that transformation by doing some Zen sitting with some cool Zen teacher down the road, right? That doesn't mean I'm Buddhist, doesn't mean I'm Hindu. I think that's wonderfully intriguing, and very, very American. …

I want to just talk about where we're at today. … What is going on? We hear these studies about spiritual but not religious, are we moving away from institutions? Are institutions still strong? How do you make sense of where we're at today? …

One reaction against the entanglement of religion and politics, especially for young people, has been to disengage from both political and religious institutions. It seems to be something a little unseemly about both of them. And yet, humans are meaning-making creatures, so we're going to try to look after meaning, and [we're] not just after day-to-day human meaning, but after big transcendent meaning. And I think that's where this sort of spiritual but not religious generation is going. They're mistrustful of political parties, more likely to be political independents; mistrustful of religious denominations, more likely to be religiously unaffiliated.

And so they're going in on their own resources and the resources of smaller groups. They're more likely to be affiliated with a local Buddhist meditation group or a local Bible study group, or even a local book club that's interested in reading novels that are somehow spiritually inflected. And this also has a very long American tradition. … I mean, this is the Puritans, the Transcendentalists. Even in some ways the evangelicals. This idea that the real drama of the human being happens in here, not out there. And that God operates inside our hearts and we just need to listen for that still, small voice of God. What's changed is the diversity of techniques for going there. …


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Published October 11, 2010

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