Sociologist Rodney Stark’s article in the Wall Street Journal, “The Myth of Unreligious America,” is his well-stated rejoinder to other sociologists, demographers and religious leaders who imply that the “game is all over” for religion and religious believers in America today.
He does not deny that there has been a decline in most forms of – for want of a better term – “institutional religion.”
But, using broader definitions and critiquing the methods used by many to measure religious response, he sees religion surviving, thriving and prospering “all over the place,” including, we’d add, in Fourth of July advertisements.
Most notably, scores of newspapers contained a full-page advertisement placed by the pious Hobby Lobby on Independence Day. This ad’s bold type beckoned with “In God We Trust.”
Countering it was an ad whose bold type beckoned with “Celebrate Our Godless Constitution.”
This ad was placed by the impious Freedom from Religion Foundation, “the nation’s largest association of atheists and agnostics, working to keep religion out of government.”
“Truth in Advertising” monitors or Better Business Bureaus would find many shadings of truth and plenty of bad business in both advertisements.
Serious citizens who care about “religion and government” and about issues related to what or whom “we trust” have to go elsewhere. Both ads are misleading; neither is of help in troubled times.
Without being picky, one can note that Hobby Lobby undercut its own cause. For instance, its eight categories of evidence include one dedicated to “Supreme Court Rulings.”
Admittedly, the print is fine in the crowded ad, but one does not need a microscope to note that this category, intended to provide evidence that “this is a Christian nation,” identifies only one court case. The Supreme Court ruled on this particular case in 1892, which is more than several court sessions ago.
One could also find an additional, though similar and slightly ambiguous, reference to a 1931 ruling. No other references turn up.
Let it be noted, however, that in recent decades, including during the period when the Supreme Court’s rulings limited the legal reach of religion in the public sphere, many of the justices’ rulings and opinions have been, and continue to be, religion-friendly.
The “Celebrate Our Godless Constitution” advertisers are not wrong about the text of the United States Constitution. It is “godless” in that the Founders celebrated neither the God of Christian faith – often invoked by partisans when the Constitution was written – or any other “established” God (see Article VI and the First Amendment).
Yet, of the six founders whose glorious portraits appeared in the full-page advertisement, five were not “godless” in their personal or public lives.
Thomas Paine tried to be, but Franklin, Washington, John Adams, Jefferson and Madison spoke “officially” of God in numerous ways even if they seldom did so in terms that today would satisfy many kinds of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Mormons and other God-fearers or pray-ers to God.
We have no exact term for what these five church-bred leaders understood as “religion.” They were church members or at least occasional church-goers. But they favored gods more readily recognized by Deists, Unitarians, Masons, devotees and promoters of what some call “the religion of the republic” or “civil religion” or, in Franklin’s term, “publick religion.”
Several of them publicly “celebrated” the roles of these religions and of Christian orthodoxies. They could all say “In God We Trust,” but they might not have welcomed this confession as a national motto.
Today, we are legally and officially and in other ways “free.” Even bad advertisements can lead us to reflect on this freedom.
Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. This column first appeared in Sightings.