for The Wall Street Journal on April 11, 2009
America was famously founded by companies and churches. The woes of American capitalism are well known: Wall Street is a synonym for excess and greed around the world, and Detroit is tottering on the edge of bankruptcy. But just as its temples to Mammon are under fire, so suddenly are its churches to God.
With Easter week upon us, Newsweek's April 13 cover proclaims "The Decline and Fall of Christian America." The new American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) shows that the proportion of Americans who claim to have no religion has increased to 15% today from 8.2% in 1990. The Christian right has lost yet another battle, this time in the heartland state of Iowa, with its Supreme Court voting unanimously to legalize gay marriage. The proportion of Americans who think that religion "can answer all or most of today's problems" is now at a historic low of 48%.
America has long stood out among developed countries for its religiosity. This has less to do with innate godliness than with the free market created by the First Amendment. Pre-Revolutionary America was not that religious, because the original Puritans were swamped by less wholesome adventurers -- in Salem, Mass., the setting for "The Crucible," 83% of taxpayers by 1683 confessed to no religious identification.
America became religious after the Constitution separated church from state, thus ensuring that religious denominations could only survive if they got souls into pews. While state-sponsored religion withered in Europe, American faith has been a hive of activity: from the Methodists, who converted close to an eighth of the country in the half century after the Revolution, to the modern megachurches.
Has this model really run out of steam? Betting against American religion has always proved to be a fool's game. In 1880, Robert Ingersoll, the leading atheist of his day, claimed that "the churches are dying out all over the land." In its Easter issue in 1966, Time asked "Is God Dead?" on its cover. East Coast intellectuals have repeatedly assumed that the European model of progress, where modernity equals secularization, would come to the U.S. They have always been wrong.
Look closer and the new poll numbers are not quite as simple as headlines suggest. For one thing, they show that America remains remarkably religious by the standards of other advanced countries -- with three-quarters of the country still firmly Christian. And a significant number of Americans are becoming more godly, not less so: The increase in the number of atheists is going hand in hand with ever more conservative Christians and Pentecostals.
Religion, like everything else, is polarizing, with the faithful more willing to call themselves "born again" and doubters more willing to call themselves unbelievers or atheists. George W. Bush may have been a factor: Many of the unbelievers are less worried about religion per se as about the fusion of religion and political power in the form of the new right. A fifth of the "atheists" in a recent Pew Survey said that they believed in God, a semantic confusion rich in meaning.
The polling numbers actually underline the strength of the nation's pluralism. More than one in four Americans have swapped religions. Americans harbor a powerful distaste for religious establishments, seeing faith as something that they should choose rather than inherit. More than ever, they mix and match spiritual traditions. In other words, the forces that made America such a uniquely religious country, competition and choice, are working as powerfully as ever. In the American model, modernity goes with pluralism.
Most of the evidence from the ground indicates that the American religious marketplace remains vibrant. The biggest megachurches attract tens of thousands of people. There is plenty of data to show that the turmoil of modernity stimulates demand for religion. The churches act both as a storm shelter for people who feel overwhelmed by social change and a community for people who feel atomized. Above all, there is the search for spiritual meaning that has haunted man through the ages. The forces that drove the young Barack Obama to find purpose in a Chicago church will keep on occurring.
Meanwhile, the supply seems as plentiful as ever. Religion, no less than software or politics, is a competitive business, where organization and entrepreneurship count. Religious America is led by a series of highly inventive "pastorpreneurs" -- men like Bill Hybels of Willow Creek or Rick Warren of Saddleback. These are far more sober, thoughtful characters than the schlock-and-scandal televangelists of the 1970s, but they are not afraid to use modern business methods to get God's message across.
Mr. Hybels's immaculately organized church employs several hundred staff, and the church has both its own mission statement and its own consulting arm. Mr. Warren's book "The Purpose Driven Life" has sold almost 30 million copies, with the author comparing his purpose driven formula to an Intel operating chip that other churches can use.
The real strength of religious America lies in its diversity. There are more than 200 religious traditions in America, with 20 different sorts of Baptists alone. Religious America is remarkably good at segmenting its customer base: There are services for bikers, gays and dropouts (the Scum of the Earth Church in Denver); Bibles for cowboys, brides, soldiers and rap artists ("Even though I walk through/The hood of death/I don't back down/for You have my back"); and even theme parks for every faith. This Holy Week you can visit the Golgotha Fun Park in Cave City, Ky., or the Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman, Ala., which includes a mini-version of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
Looked at from a celestial perspective, the American model of religion, far from retreating, is going global. Pastorpreneurs are taking their message around the world. In Latin America, Pentecostalism has disrupted the Catholic Church's monopoly. Already five of the world's 10 biggest churches are in South Korea: Yoido Full Gospel Church, which has 800,000 members, is a rival in terms of organization for anything Messrs. Warren and Hybels can offer. China is the latest great convert. There are probably close to 100 million Christians in China, most of them following a very individualistic American-style faith. Already more people attend church each Sunday than are members of the Communist Party. China will soon be the world's biggest Christian country and also possibly its biggest Muslim one.
The Christian right has certainly stirred up an angry reaction to its attempt to marry religion to political power. But it would be a mistake to regard this reaction as evidence that America is losing its religion.
Mr. Micklethwait is the editor in chief of the Economist. Mr. Wooldridge is its Washington bureau chief. They are the authors of "God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World," published this week by Penguin Press.