David Brooks finds the religious journeys of the leading presidential contenders interesting:
George W. Bush was born into an Episcopal family and raised as a Presbyterian, but he is now a Methodist. Howard Dean was baptized Catholic, and raised as an Episcopalian. He left the church after it opposed a bike trail he was championing, and now he is a Congregationalist, though his kids consider themselves Jewish.
Wesley Clark’s father was Jewish. As a boy he was Methodist, then decided to become a Baptist. In adulthood he converted to Catholicism, but he recently told Beliefnet .com, “I’m a Catholic, but I go to a Presbyterian church.”
What other country on earth would have three national political figures with such peripatetic religious backgrounds? In most of the world, faith-hopping of this sort is simply unheard of. Yet in the United States, we simply take it for granted that people will move through different phases in the course of their personal spiritual journeys, and we always have.
Nearly 200 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville was bewildered by the mixture of devout religiosity he found in the U.S. combined with the relative absence of denominational strife, at least among Protestants. Americans, he observed, don’t seem to care that their neighbors hold to false versions of the faith.
That’s because many Americans have tended to assume that all these differences are temporary. In the final days, the distinctions will fade away, and we will all be united in God’s embrace. This happy assumption has meant that millions feel free to try on different denominations at different points in their lives, and many Americans have had trouble taking religious doctrines altogether seriously. As the historian Henry Steele Commager once wrote, “During the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, religion prospered while theology slowly went bankrupt.”
Indeed, most social scientists would argue that a move away from religious fundamentalism is a key distinguishing feature of modernity.