Deep into the 20th century, nine in 10 Americans said they believed in God and belonged to an organized religion, mostly Christian.
Then deep faith started eroding in this country until it became as airy as a soufflé.
By the early 1990s, the historical connection between American identity and faith snapped like an ACL on a torqued knee. Religious non-affiliation in the United States started to rise like summer heat off two-lane blacktop.
By the early 2000s, the share of Americans who said they didn’t associate with any established religions, also known as “nones,” had doubled. By the 2010s this medley of atheists, agnostics and spiritual dabblers had tripled in size.
Once upon a time there was almost a scalding sadness to people turning their back on God. Now they were flocking to secularism like ants to a honey hill.
According to Christian Smith, a sociology and religion professor at the University of Notre Dame, America’s nonreligious shift has mostly been the result of three historical events — the association of the Republican Party with the Christian right, the end of the Cold War and 9/11.
The marriage between the religious and political right appalled liberal Democrats, especially those with weak connections to religious observance. It also alienated moderates who preferred a wide berth between their faith and their politics.
During the Cold War many Americans were reluctant to confess their ambivalence toward God while we were locked in a geopolitical showdown with a godless evil empire. That changed when the Cold War ended in 1991 and the U.S.S.R. dissolved like a lump of sugar in coffee.
When God-fearing radical Islamic terrorism culminated in the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda became a useful reference point for atheists arguing that all religions were inherently destructive.
It is starkly ironic that religion lost its halo effect on Americans in the past three decades not because science drove God from the public square but rather because politics did.
If you recall your history, philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud proclaimed the death of God and predicted that atheism would follow scientific discovery and modernity in the West, sure as smoke follows fire.
In this century, “not religious” has become a specific American identity — one that distinguishes secular liberals from the conservative evangelical right.
Of course, this is just another example of the philosophical and glandular great divide that paralyzes this country. At times it seems the only thing united about our nation is its name.
With all the red states and blue states, we should rename ourselves the Divided States of America. The politics of hate poisons disciples on both sides.
Granted, other social forces having little to do with geopolitics have played key roles in the rise of the “nones.”
Churches are just one group of many social institutions – including banks, Congress and the police — that have lost public trust. And the sex abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church have accelerated its rapid loss of moral stature.
In light of all this, it was time to have a conversation with God. My people talked to His people and on one celestial evening God spoke to me from on high. I was surprised that His voice was more tenor than baritone.
ME: What do You think of the secular shift in America?
GOD: What do you think I think? If I didn’t have infinite patience, I would be just as ticked off as I was when I drowned the whole world except for Noah, his family and his floating zoo.
ME: Would it help if there were fewer sermons boring enough to put insomniacs to sleep and if the hymns were snappier than the songs in Hamilton?
GOD: We don’t go to church to be entertained. But I’ll consider bringing Billy Graham and Elvis back from heaven and multiplying them into churches around the globe. The last time I dabbled in multiplication the loaves and the fishes worked out pretty well.
ME: Will You punish America for its endless sins?
GOD: I have been punishing Americans big time. What do you think Donald Trump is all about?
ME: Then why are the Evangelicals all in for the president?
GOD: God works in mysterious ways.
ME: Why aren’t You punishing Trump? The guy is rich, has a hot wife, has a full head of hair when the wind doesn’t blow, and has done for the color orange what Creamsicles once did?
GOD: Not punished Trump? Nonsense. He is suffering from countless plagues like the impeachment inquiry, Russian collusion, Hunter Biden and Ukraine, Hillary Clinton’s emails, Nancy Pelosi, Robert Mueller and neckties that are longer than the Nile River. Plus I stuck him with friends like Putin, Sean Hannity, Rudy Giuliani and Kim Jong-un.
ME: Will Trump be impeached?
GOD: Who am I, Nostradamus?
ME: How else are You punishing Americans for losing their faith?
GOD: Have you’ve seen that hard-lefty rabble in the Democratic presidential debates? They want to hand out everything for free without being able to pay for it, all the while making federal government more intrusive than Orwell’s Big Brother in 1984.
ME: Are You punishing Democrats and Republicans?
GOD: I gave Democrats Mitch McConnell. He’s driving them more nuts than the 10 plagues did Pharaoh. And I saddled Republicans with the stigma of defending Trump. Not very pleasant having that large a millstone hanging from your neck.
ME: How are You punishing Americans as a whole?
GOD: Gridlocked partisanship in Washington and in state legislatures. Nothing gets done in this country. Hate abounds because love starts with God. Highways and bridges are crumbling. I also have blinded many Americans to the threats of climate change and global warming. The rich had better hang onto their yachts. The poor had better save a large bar of soap.
ME: Why do the poor always get the short end of the stick?
GOD: Only on earth. The paupers will be princes in heaven. If they get there. Remember, many are called but few are chosen. And if you thumb your nose at God, St. Peter will slam the Pearly Gates on your soul. Then you can discuss the joys of atheism with Satan in hell for eternity.
ME: I gotta go, God. I hear church bells ringing.
GOD: Amen, amen I say to you Michael, get your act together if you want to see me in heaven.
ME: Since I only heard Your voice during our conversation, give me a hint on what You look like.
GOD: More like George Clooney than Woody Allen. After all, I am God, not some schlub who’s a fishmonger by day and moonlights as a certified public accountant by night.