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Stepping On Sacred Ground

When the German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche declared in 1883 that God was dead, he miscalculated the staying power of religion. Since the turn of the century the number of Christians across the globe has almost quadrupled -- from 558 million to 1.9 billion. Other religions have shown equally large increases.

In America today 96 percent of the population professes to believe in God or some kind of universal spirit. Sixty-seven percent of Americans belong to a church or synagogue. Thirty-nine percent attend services at least once a week.

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Why should Mother Jones, a political investigative magazine, examine the state of faith in America? Some might argue that religion and politics don't mix, claiming that spirituality is a purely private matter. But a recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center illuminates how religion already affects our political landscape: Two out of five Americans report that religion heavily influences whom they choose to support in an election.

Not surprisingly, white evangelical Protestants are the most cohesive religious electorate. They are not only more conservative about life choices that go against their religion, such as abortion or homosexuality, they are also more hardline on a wide range of political issues, from the environment to international security. Although white evangelical Protestants make up only 25 percent of registered voters in the United States, the Pew study concluded that their conservatism is "clearly the most powerful religious force in politics today." Pentecostal and charismatic denominations have made startling membership gains, while mainline churches have lost about a quarter of their members in the past 25 years. The willingness of mainstream Christian leaders to confront their evangelical brethren seems to have declined even more precipitously.

Because the doctrinaire hegemony for which the religious right is fighting assaults the most basic tenets of a pluralistic society, we cannot allow spirituality to be the exclusive preserve of the politically conservative. But I'm much less worried about a theocratic takeover than about the lopsidedness of the American spirit. After all, the realm of the soul -- real or imagined -- is where most of us make our most important moral decisions.

For too long, progressives and the establishment have ceded public discussion about morality to the religious right. That's a major reason Mother Jones has dared step foot on this sacred ground. Still, we do this not just to counter the religious right. Spirituality, if approached with integrity and intelligence, is an effective force for public good. Brave mainstream people of faith have made common cause with reformers at key moments in America's past -- from abolitionism to the Progressive era, from the New Deal to the civil rights movement.

Many political reformers have lost this historical understanding. Some civic activists seem righteously wedded to atheist or agnostic positions, as if the impulse to do good is best if it emanates from reason alone. Ironically, an absolute reliance on rationality resembles the religious right's fundamentalism. I prefer a mix of faith and skepticism. Some skepticism toward religious impulses is healthy since most established religions have authoritarian, sexist traditions, and too many New Age spiritual leaders traffic in charismatic narcissism.

If Karl Marx were frowning down on us today, he might still muse that religion is the opium of the people. Marx thought that if economic arrangements were more equitable, people wouldn't need to escape into faith. But neither he nor Nietzsche could see that animating the world's religions is a profound -- sometimes suppressed, sometimes hidden -- life-affirming impulse. To sense our place in a vast universe, some of whose principles (death, for example) lie fundamentally beyond our comprehension, doesn't mean we should cede control of our hearts and minds. A sense of humility can give birth to deep personal satisfaction and courage.

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