About six months ago I read a history of modern Italy and was struck by a passage which observed that during the early years of the Italian state none of the prominent political leaders were practicing Roman Catholics. Part of this was specific to the history of the rise of modern Italy, Umberto I fought the Papacy, and so alienated the institution of the Church from the royal house and the state over which it ruled. But more generally many of the nationalists of the 19th century in Catholic Europe were of an anti-clerical bent. Only with the reconciliation of the Roman Catholic Church with the modern liberal democratic nation-state in the 20th century, and universal suffrage, have the political elites come to resemble the populace more in their religious sensibilities in these nations. And before you dismiss this as a European matter, observe that Andrew Jackson, our sixth president, was the first to have personal religious views in line with the American majority. As late as William Howard Taft in the early 20th century the United States had a head of state who rejected orthodox Christianity (he was a Unitarian Christian). Can we imagine that such a thing would come to pass without much controversy today? Mitt Romney has famously had to elide the yawning chasm between Mormonism and Nicene Christianity to be a viable candidate.
The point I’m trying to make here is that the paths of the arrows of history are more complex than we perceive them in our own moment in time. It is ironic that we in the United States are living through a period of secularization at the grassroots, while at the same time having to deal with the fact that all high level politicians have to pass through a de facto religious litmus test of relatively stringent orthodoxy. The complexity of this sort of social phenomenon makes it exceedingly difficult to analyze and characterize in a pithy fashion. Too often when scholars and intellectuals speak of the history of religion they impose their own visions on the flux of human belief and behavior. Eric Kaufmann’s Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth is not such an argument. Rather, it is a cautious work which makes recourse to both robust theoretical models as well as a wide and rich set of empirical data. Kaufmann casts a very wide net in his attempt to retrieve a useful catch in terms of plausible and robust predictions. The central idea of the book is derived from the fact that the endogenous growth rates of religious segments of developed societies can often be rather high. The broader implication is that history moves in cycles, and that the current age of secularism is nearing its peak, and inevitable demographic forces will see the tide retreat.