The fact that Kristof treated this as news is more telling about the state of religion in America than most of what he has reported in his frequent columns on the subject since. Take today’s doozy, “The God Gulf”: Religion “matters,” Kristof seems to be saying, because Republicans use it to their advantage and Democrats don’t have any (tell that to the Rev., Al Sharpton). This political trend, writes Kristof, is part of a “new Great Awakening that is sweeping the country.”
But reporters with an eye for the long view know that the country has already been swept — religious belief, measured in mostly meaningless numbers such as the percentage of the population that believes in prayer (that it’s a majority Kristof takes as some kind of electoral indicator), has remained fairly constant for a century.
“After talking to Mr. Bush‘s longtime acquaintances,” writes Kristof, “I’m convinced that his religious convictions are deeply felt and fairly typical in the U.S.” That’s some fieldwork. Are Bush’s acquaintances “fairly typical”? One of the most overlooked stories of Bush’s faith, in fact, is how atypical it is, nurtured not in the Methodist church — as misreported by Michael Massing in week before last’s Times — but in a new movement of small group Christianity, marked not only by its folksiness and therapeutic style, but also by its disregard for the “body of God” as a collective.
But that’s not the story here — the election is. Pundits who zero in on the boom in evangelical church attendance as a surefire political indicator have traded one set of blinders for another. The Christian Science Monitor recently ran a decent article on the rise of “megachurches” — non-Catholic churches with at least 2,000 weekly congregants — that included an interesting number: During the last three decades, the number of such institutions has grown from 10 to 740. Pundits intent on discerning “religious wars” (Kristof’s phrase) in American politics would simply tally the believers at such churches under R for Republican. Reporters more interested in the nature of belief, such as The Monitor‘s Kris Axtman, might bother to spend some time in the pews — where they’ll discover, as Axtman did, that the tepid fever of most megachurches does not lend itself to party discipline.
Meanwhile, this month’s print edition of Free Inquiry, a magazine published by the Council for Secular Humanism, includes a chart-and-graph heavy report suggesting that the number of Americans who claim “no religion” has spiked in recent years from single digits to 14%. ButFree Inquiry, ever proud of its ability to reason, is too smart to put a new label on this constituency, noting that there as many ways to not have religion as to have it. And despite its near-fanatical worldlinesss, the magazine ignores the Times‘ Ultimate Concern — what does this have to with the election? — all together.