The March issue of The Atlantic is devoted to the topic "Which Religion Will Win", with a wide ranging series of articles and comments on religion in America and across the world. It begins with a comment by Walter Russell Mead about the apparant moderation of American evanglicals, in which Mead borrows some analysis from Adam Smith:
Smith saw what we see: the progress of modernity, he noted, was not undermining religion in the Britain of his day. Instead, religious revivals were blooming. These new religious movements often rejected the liberal values of a free society. They favored absolute moral codes, conservative interpretations of religious doctrines, and political activism to enact their values into law.
Smith observed a relationship between these revivals and the process that we now call urbanization. Young people, arriving in cities in search of work, faced new opportunities and temptations without the structure that village life—with its communities of relatives and others that watched and guided young people—had provided. “A single week’s thoughtlessness and dissipation is often sufficient to undo a poor workman forever,” wrote Smith about life in London. But the city’s small sectarian religious congregations gave rural immigrants a social-support network and a moral code that could keep them on the straight and narrow as they built new lives. These movements were a response to the dislocations of modernity; there was no reason to expect them to fade away.
Yet in the teeming religious marketplace of Britain’s cities, Smith also saw pressures that would limit the political impact of religious beliefs and prevent theocracy. With so many competing denominations, he noted, religious leaders could acquire political influence only by finding allies outside their own version of the faith—and the process of forming those alliances would drive them toward agendas that could appeal to a wider, multi-faith audience. To be politically significant, he wrote, religious extremists had to move toward broader and necessarily more-moderate coalitions. Their entry into politics would, itself, moderate them.
The symbiotic relationship between alienating, amoral modernity and fervent religion can still be seen in the United States today. In a rapidly changing world, strong religious movements and convictions help many Americans cope—and not just the uprooted or the poor. In the coming years, we may well see religious devotion increase among society’s elite: admission to top colleges has broadened beyond the handful of feeder schools and legacy families who dominated the process in past generations; the intense competition for top university spots favors adolescents with steady homework habits, harmonious relations with school authorities, and the ability to please adults. A variety of surveys and anecdotes suggest that the freshmen entering colleges such as Harvard, Yale, and Brown these days are more likely to have strong religious convictions than their wilder, less conformist predecessors of decades past. Evangelicals (as well as devout kids from other backgrounds) are entering the halls where America’s future leaders often sit.
Yet American religious movements are also still following a path toward pluralism and moderation, along the lines that Smith described in 1776.
Read it all here.