Columnists > Voices

The good new days

Rodney Stark's picture of the past gives hope for the future

Issue: "Into the light," Dec. 3, 2005

Sometimes, particularly as folks get older, we fall into "good old days" ways of thinking. Music wuz better when we wuz young. Baseball wuz better. Church wuz better. I could run faster.

The last is certainly true in my case, but I demur regarding the first three. Others will demur in relation to my demurral, and off we could go in an amusing debate. But what happens if we view American history in a "happy days" way? We might believe that colonial days were filled with pious people-and yet, 18th-century clergymen such as Jonathan Edwards in Massachusetts and Samuel Davies in Virginia didn't see it that way. Davies wrote, "Family-Religion is a Rarity. . . . Vices of various Kinds are triumphant, and even a Form of Godliness is not common."

Fantasies about the past have consequences. If we think the prairies with their little houses were pure, maybe we think that clothes from a century or two ago will keep our daughters safe. If we think that abortion wasn't a problem before Roe v. Wade, maybe we think that if only we get a 5-4 Supreme Court originalist majority-which I hope we do-all will be well. But I demur again, because sin does not come from what we wear or who wears black judicial robes. It comes from within.

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The antidote to fantasy is fact, and Rodney Stark, now a professor at Baylor University, has in numerous books separated myth from reality by examining both stats and historical testimony. A book he wrote with Roger Finke, The Churching of America, 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (Rutgers U. Press, 1992), gained attention during the 1990s for shooting down stereotypes concerning declining church membership and the problems of church competition; a new, updated edition is out this year.

Mr. Stark's latest book, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (Random House, 2005), is also useful, so you'll want to look at our interview with the author on pages 38-39. But let me emphasize here the facts that Mr. Stark's research brought out about American religious history: In 1776 only about 17 percent of Americans were churched, and by 1850 that percentage had doubled. In the early 20th century slightly more than half of the U.S. population was churched, and adherence rates have recently been a bit over 60 percent.

Those figures can be interpreted in several ways, but they undermine assumptions of decline. So do other indications: Mr. Stark notes that in early American seaports "on any given Sunday morning there were at least as many people recovering from late Saturday nights in the taverns . . . as were in church." Sure, we have in recent decades defined deviancy down, but the research I did while writing books on the pre-20th-century history of abortion in America leaves me unsurprised about this Stark conclusion: "Single women in New England . . . were more likely to be sexually active than to belong to a church."

Another Churching of America thesis that drives some traditionalists crazy is that the United States is highly religious today (in comparison to European countries) not primarily because of a Puritan past but because it has a free market for religion and lots of highly competitive churches. Denominationalism, conflict, and even infighting among churches are not curses but blessings, forcing pastors to cut their overhead and get out on the streets.

Mr. Stark bulwarks that conclusion with testimony from 19th-century journalists such as Austria's Francis Grund, who observed that a state church establishment makes clergymen "indolent and lazy," but in America because of competition there is "not one idler amongst [pastors]; all of them are obliged to exert themselves for the spiritual welfare of their respective congregations." Sure, supposed shepherds who gain temporary popularity by ignoring the gospel are wolves, but so are ecclesiastical leaders who feel entitled to ignore the needs of their congregants.

All of us can learn much from Mr. Stark's work. Secularists, instead of scorning the past, should learn how Christian understanding led to the most significant intellectual, political, scientific, and economic breakthroughs of the past millennium. Christians, instead of sometimes worshipping the past and fearing the future, should embrace with excitement the new race laid out for us.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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