Three decades of 'On Religion' columns: tmatt offers five 'Big Idea' takeaways

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This week was an important one for me, since it marked the 30th anniversary of the start of my weekly national "On Religion" column. That very first column on April 11, 1988, focused on Pat Robertson -- but the real topic was American evangelicals trying to figure out White House Politics (imagine that).

Now, if you do some #DUH math, that would mean that 20 years ago I wrote a 10th anniversary column. In that column I focused on what I thought was the "Big Idea," the central theme, I had spotted in American religion-beat news over that time.

I described a scene that I kept seeing in my work as a journalist, one most easily seen at rallies linked to "culture wars" topics in American public life. Thus, I wrote this in 1998:

A pro-life rally, for example, would feature a Baptist, a Catholic priest, an Orthodox rabbi and a cluster of conservative Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans. Then, the pro-choice counter-rally would feature a "moderate" Baptist, a Catholic activist or two, a Reform rabbi and mainline Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans.
Similar line-ups would appear at many rallies linked to gay rights, sex-education programs and controversies in media, the arts and even science. Along with other journalists, I kept reporting that today's social issues were creating bizarre coalitions that defied historic and doctrinal boundaries. After several years of writing about "strange bedfellows," it became obvious that what was once unique was now commonplace.

That led me back to the work of the scholar whose work had influenced me the most in that era. You see, all kinds of people use the term "culture wars" these days, but it's important to remember how that term was defined by the man who wrote the book.

Yes, this is precisely where "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I started this week's podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Now, back to the 1998 column. This is long, but essential:

... In 1986, a sociologist of religion had an epiphany while serving as a witness in a church-state case in Mobile, Ala. The question was whether "secular humanism" had evolved into a state-mandated religion, leading to discrimination against traditional "Judeo-Christian" believers. Once more, two seemingly bizarre coalitions faced off in the public square.
"I realized something there in that courtroom. We were witnessing a fundamental realignment in American religious pluralism," said James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia. ...
The old dividing lines centered on issues such as the person of Jesus Christ, church tradition and the Protestant Reformation. But these new interfaith coalitions were fighting about something even more basic -- the nature of truth and moral authority.
Two years later, Hunter began writing "Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America," in which he declared that America now contains two basic world views, which he called "orthodox" and "progressive." The orthodox believe it's possible to follow transcendent, revealed truths. Progressives disagree and put their trust in personal experience, even if that requires them to "resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life."

As it turns out, that is still the theme that I see more than any other in American conflicts about religion.

You can even see that in the famous "Nones on the Rise" study from the Pew Forum, with about 20-plus percent of the population on the doctrinal right (camp of the orthodox) and about 20-plus on the doctrinal or anti-doctrinal left (think atheists, agnostics and religious liberals).

Folks in the middle? That's the giant "Oprah America" crowd in which people claim to think like the orthodox some of the time and progressives at other times (which means, of course, that they aren't really "orthodox").

This time around, I'm ready to add four more "Big Ideas." Here we go.

(2) The fading of the old "liberal" consensus on the First Amendment, with most of the conflicts centering on religious liberty and free speech. Illustration? In the Bill Clinton era, left and right worked together to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The vote in the U.S. Senate was 97-3. Try to imagine that today.

(3) Demographics are destiny and doctrine is destiny, too. Which religious groups are making converts, having children (at a rate higher than 2.1) and retaining those children in the faith? This can affect everything from the health of the Catholic priesthood to key pieces of real estate in major American cities.

(4) From the earliest days of this weblog, your GetReligionistas have said the press needs to focus more attention on the religious left -- in terms of its doctrine and faith (not just its political activities). Now we are -- in the Donald Trump mini-era -- watching all kinds of splits happening in American evangelicalism., often linked to fights about sex and marriage There are new divisions on the right. There are new superstars emerging on the left. That leads us to ...

(5) Like everything else in Internet-era America, religious life is increasingly focusing on niche markets in which alleged citizens primarily consume products that reinforce what they already believe. Religious celebrities play a crucial role in this process, as they do in every other niche in American life.

So who would you say is the biggest celebrity in white evangelical life these days?

If you get this question wrong: You're FIRED!

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