Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote of the great gift we sometimes have of being able to see ourselves as others see us. John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge are editor-in-chief and Washington bureau chief of The Economist, the best secular newsweekly in the world. Their new book, God Is Back, details the findings that surprised them as they assessed the state of Christianity in America and religion throughout the world.
What were you trying to find out as you did the reporting for God Is Back?
John Micklethwait: Whether the secularization theory taught to us in elite universities-the idea that the more modern the world gets, the more secular it is-is true.
And you found out . . .
JM: It's not.
What about in Europe?
Adrian Wooldridge: Religious questions are now a center of European culture in a way they haven't been for a hundred years, for many reasons. The most important is the rise of Islam and the repercussions of that in Europe. Not only is God back in the sense that He's significant enough for people like Christopher Hitchens to devote their energies and talents, such as they are, to battling Him; but also, He's there in Europe in the center of political debate.
We're hearing that Christian political influence is waning in America.
AW: That's true concerning gay marriage. On abortion, what is probably slightly rising in this generation is skepticism about whether abortion is constitutional. But more subtle and more interesting is that religion has escaped from the clutches of a particular political party, the Republicans, and has become much more pervasive in American life.
And at the United Nations also . . .
AW: On lots of issues at the center of the United Nations, lots of religious people have more influence than they have had ever before. The United Nations was created after World War II by a bunch of secularists who saw religion as a problem that needed to be excluded from public life and international life-and now the UN addresses all sorts of religious issues. I see the political influence of religion becoming actually greater in the United States, rather than less. This is true times 10 for the rest of the world.
How does American Christianity affect the rest of the world? You write, "American multinationals are contributing not once but twice to the global revival of religion-as the world's leading exporter of religion and as the world's leading supplier of the capitalism that increases demand for religion."
AW: America is one of the great suppliers of religion, partly because its mega-churches look to the world, not just to America, but also because it is the leading supplier of missionaries, Bibles, and books. America is also the leading exporter of capitalist culture. Capitalism is an extremely disturbing and revolutionary process that creates turbulence wherever it goes, but all of that turbulence creates demand for the consolation that comes from religion. Many people find the values of Hollywood turbulent and disconcerting, and their reaction is to turn back to their traditions and become more religious, rather than less.
A lot of people see competition within Christianity as a waste, but you see it as a good thing.
JM: It's a great irony that sometimes American Christians don't realize how wonderful that competition is. That is the thing that makes American religiosity different, the ability of different churches to spring up and to compete against each other. Look at the Methodists: They came in after the Revolution, and within 50 years they converted an eighth of the country. That set the trend for a variety of different traditions that followed. That element of competition, I think, keeps American religion enduringly fresh.
Europe misses that element?
JM: Adam Smith pointed out that if you have a religion backed by the state, they're not going to work as hard to bring people in or to convert people. Think back through English literature that you've been forced to read at different times; think of Trollope, where you might remember people sitting around and talking about the kind of "livings" they would get. Think of Jane Austen's Mr. Collins who spends his time desperately sucking up to his patroness.
Some people worry that Islamic countries have an advantage because they don't have the religious competition that we have in America.
AW: If you go to Dearborn, Mich., there are a lot of people who pray to Mecca every day. If you go to Mecca itself, I don't think you'll hear many people pray to Christ. I think that's a weakness rather than a strength of Islam. Christianity has two very powerful strengths on its side in the 21st century. One is that it has survived the acids of modernity. It's had its reformations, it's had its competition, it's had all of that and it has been strengthened by it. Islam has to go through all those tests, and it has to learn how to live with all those criticisms. It's going to be a very severe testing: The question is whether it will survive or not.
Do you see a Reformation coming to Islam?
JM: Islam is going to have a much harder time going through that than Christianity had, because the Quran is the word of God and there is only the literal translation. Reform-minded Islam is a tiny, tiny percentage. On the optimistic side, think of Dearborn: Look at what's happening to Islam in America. There are a lot of Muslims in America who are extremely happy living in a pluralistic world. Go to Indonesia; that's also changing.
But does Islam intrinsically discourage competition within it?
AW: One problem that Islam's going to have is that Muhammad was a ruler. When the Saudis create a theocracy in which they enforce the law of the Quran in the most ruthless manner, where there is an absolute, indistinguishable world of alliance between the church and the state, that's not a misinterpretation of the Quran as far as I can see.
How does the opportunity Christians have to read the Bible fit in, as compared to reading the Quran?
AW: The Bible is published in 95 percent of the languages of the world, various dialects. It's also presented in cartoons, Bible theater, teenage magazines. . . . There's actually huge resistance to translating the Quran, because Muslims believe that it is the word of God spoken to Muhammad in Arabic, and it can't be translated into any other language. So most people that Muslims are converting do not understand a word of what they are taught to recite. Today, I think this competition and pluralism, which is the essence of American doctrine, is its strength.
Why don't we hear about the advantages of competition for Christianity?
JM: People haven't gone out and reported it. Secular intellectuals are wholly blind to it, and evangelical intellectuals have not yet really wanted to get hold of it. A lot want to say, "We're right, we're right, we're right," rather than actually engaging in full-scale intellectual debate.
Evangelicals from Puritan days to the present have often preached of declension, with a sense that the old days were better.
JM: Before the Revolution, America wasn't that religious. In Salem, where The Crucible was set, some 80 percent of households had no religious identification.
Today, do you find more optimism or pessimism among American evangelicals?
AW: There's really no middle ground: Either the sky is falling or empires are being created that will never, ever decline. Some "pastorpreneurs" have these incredible notions about growing by 10 percent or 20 percent a year, and on the other hand there's a sudden shift of some people saying, "Everything is falling, the numbers are collapsing, evangelical America has no influence on politics, we must retreat from the secular world, we have to create a cocoon where we can protect our values from a corrupt world."
And some people go back and forth.
AW: You can see these two things existing together, sometimes even within the same brain, in the same mental space. A lot of people are truly schizophrenic between the notion of the immanent Christianization of America and the immanent destruction of Christianity in America. During the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal: "We've lost the culture war, we have to just give up. We have to retreat, just deal with the private world, just let this sinful world out there be as it is." When Bush came along suddenly everything had changed, and we were back to building a Christian republic in which everybody should adhere to the same principles.
What do you make of the atheist bestsellers during the past several years?
JM: You do not suddenly wake up in a panic about God being bad or terrible if you think you've already won the argument. If you went back 10 or 15 years, the idea that Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens could write a bestseller on the subject would have seemed odd, because-certainly in Europe-most of the educated elites would have assumed that God was disappearing anyway, so what's the worry?
Do you think they make a strong case?
AW: Two things really annoy me about the neo-atheist position. One is that they write about evangelical Christians in much the same way and in much the same tone as white supremacists used to talk about blacks. And the second thing is that there's a notion of unilateral moral disarmament where the other side is expected to disarm. If you're arguing about gay marriage, people who are liberals and who support gay marriage are allowed to bring their most profound moral beliefs to that argument, as they should be, but then they say, "You can't base your contrary arguments on religious beliefs, because that shouldn't be part of the public square." That's nonsense. Everybody should be allowed to bring their most profound beliefs; for many, many people, their most profound beliefs are based on their faith, and no one should question their right to bring those arguments and to engage in political organization on the basis of those arguments.
Still, the atheists get a lot of press attention.
AW: There's been a Hitchens figure in almost every generation who is sort of the village atheist who announces the death of God or the irrelevance or malignity of religion. The extraordinary thing about American religion is its capacity to reinvent itself and reassert itself. Every time you feel as though it's dying out, the system is competitive and religious entrepreneurs redefine the product and the market. We have a new generation of entrepreneurs who can talk to a new generation of people.
How does this sense of religion's importance affect U.S. foreign policy?
JM: The irony is that when it comes to foreign policy America's often been completely clueless, which is odd. It may have a lot to do with the fact that there is a very secular foreign policy elite that generally and repeatedly ignores religion. When the State Department and CIA looked at Iran, they dismissed the idea that this could have anything to do with Islam; that was dismissed as mere sociology. When Hezbollah emerged, they looked at it in terms of right vs. left, although you would imagine the name "Party of God" would have given them some vague clue as to what was happening.
You suggest that the government's lack of backing for religion is a plus.
AW: A lot of religious people thought it would undermine religion. They said, "What do you mean? You're taking religion out of official public life? You're going to create an irreligious people who don't have any values." That didn't happen, because as soon as you separate them you get competition and you get religion even stronger; and that is something that Islam has yet to understand.
So, freedom to choose in religion, as in economics, is a strength rather than a weakness?
JM: In America one out of four people change their religion, which is much different from the rest of the world. If you choose your religion, when it comes to politics and work, you're not going to leave it at home. You're not going to assume that it's part of your life. It's going to go all the way through. If you've chosen to be an evangelical Christian, it's not going to be something that you park away when you go to the voting booth, and possibly not when you go to work.