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John Wilson

Stranger in a Strange Land

Greatly love the intellect

When a book elicits angry, uncomprehending, dismissive reviews from the self-appointed guardians of tolerance and enlightenment, pay attention. What you're hearing may well be the pain and rage of a wounded behemoth. A case in point is the reception of Stephen Carter's new book, God's Name in Vain: The Rights and Wrongs of Religion in Politics (Basic). See, for example, Brent Staples's review in the New York Times Book Review (Nov. 26, 2000). Staples writes editorials for the Times on politics and culture, so his review is doubly stamped with the imprimatur of the newspaper of record.

"Visit a church at random next Sunday," Staples begins,

and you will probably encounter a few dozen people sprinkled thinly over a sanctuary that was built to accommodate hundreds or even thousands. The empty pews and white-haired congregants lend credence to those who argue that traditional religious worship is dying out.

Really? For the exceedingly credulous, maybe, or for those whose mind is already made up (after all, no one they know would be caught dead in a place of "traditional religious worship"). By the same logic, after my recent visits to churches such as Southeast Christian in Louisville, which has grown from a congregation of 125 in 1966 to more than 14,000 today, I could conclude that "traditional religious worship" is growing by leaps and bounds.

But neither impression would be worth much, based on such skimpy evidence. In fact, the consensus among the scholars who study church attendance is that it hasn't changed significantly since the 1960s; down slightly, perhaps, but that is all.

Don't bother Staples with facts, though; he's in full swing, explaining that "the quest for spiritual fulfillment has moved away from church and into the secular world." Shades of the sixties and The Secular City. Does Staples really think the future lies that way? But the next moment he has shifted gears to extol the "new ...

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