The Book Club

A Nation of Indians Run by Swedes?

You asked about the studies I referred to, and I’ll mention several in just a moment. I was using the word “indifference” advisedly, though. One sometimes hears the charge that people in academe and the media are actively “hostile” to religion, which is a straw man for the most part. In any event, you might look at George Marsden’s book The Soul of the American University for a general overview of religious faith, or the lack of it, in university faculties. For the beliefs of scientists specifically, see Edward Larson and Larry Witham’s 1997 survey in Nature. (This was an updating of surveys conducted in 1914 and in 1933, and shows a remarkable constancy over the decades.) As for journalism and religion, various aspects (volume of coverage; nature of coverage; characteristics of reporters) have been examined, even if survey data are sometimes difficult to compare. Reports worth looking at include those by Columbia’s Freedom Forum Media Center; Vanderbilt’s Freedom Forum First Amendment Center; and the Center for Media and Public Affairs, in Washington.

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I’m a little surprised that the subject of politics has scarcely come up in our discussion. Of course, this is in part because politics comes up hardly at all in God’s Funeral: The debates in England over the question of faith occur very much in public, and yield vast amounts of vituperative heat, but at least in Wilson’s telling, politics doesn’t figure the way late-20th-century Americans would expect. The one big exception is the Bradlaugh case–I alluded to it a few days ago in citing that quotation from Randolph Churchill.

For those not familiar with this Victorian cause celebre: Charles Bradlaugh, a working-class radical and atheist, was elected to Parliament in 1880 but refused to swear by Almighty God that he would be a loyal servant of Her Majesty. (Bradlaugh was willing to affirm his intentions, just not to invoke divinity as his witness.) Faced with Bradlaugh’s obstinacy, Parliament refused to seat him. In 1883 Bradlaugh was elected again, and again refused to take the oath. Parliament again refused to seat him. Bradlaugh would eventually win the right to “affirm” rather than to “swear”–but only after eight years of contentious political posturing whose rhetoric sounds surprisingly contemporary. Conservatives invoked the specter of a slippery slope: If God were to be removed from Parliament, what would be next? Christmas? The man who most eloquently opposed the conservatives, and ultimately prevailed, was not the person one might have predicted: It was the prime minister himself, William Gladstone, whose own religious convictions were deeply held, to put it mildly. Gladstone was simply affronted by all the humbug, and found preposterous the notion that Bradlaugh’s position posed any threat to God. “I have no fear of Atheism in this House,” he declared.

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Are there any potential Gladstones on the horizon as we begin the long march to the next round of elections? Larson and Witham, mentioned above, call attention to a remark by the sociologist Peter Berger, who observed that if the people of Sweden were the least religious people on earth, and the people of India were the most religious, then America was a country of Indians led by Swedes. Berger was obviously thinking of cultural leadership–the “chattering classes”–and not to leadership offered by politicians, who are perfectly willing to play the role of Indians. Millions of words get written every election cycle about religion and politics, lots of them lamenting the “intrusion” of religion into political debate. The complaint, or perhaps the emphasis, is misplaced. America’s diverse and messy assortment of religious opinion will make what noises it wishes–and, with Jefferson, I welcome contending beliefs into the open arena. No, the regrettable aspect involves the other side of the equation–the habit of pandering and vote-grubbing by people running for office. And, as a practical matter, I wonder if the politicians achieve anything at all for their efforts. It isn’t easy to “align” yourself with groups that are as internally variegated as are American Catholics (my denomination), Jews, evangelical Protestants, Muslims, even Mormons. The term “religious right” is in some ways politically pointless, given the deeply conflicting world views it unwittingly rolls into one.

Finally, Wendy, you ask whether our conversation would be different if we were face to face. We should give it a try sometime. Do you think we’ll still need the 800-word limit per sound bite?

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