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Culture Wars? How 2004.
American history offers many examples. In his magisterial new history of the antebellum United States, "What Hath God Wrought," Daniel Walker Howe shows that religious divisions and the rise of evangelical Protestantism were defining characteristics of the party system built by the Whigs and the Jacksonian Democrats. But the republic has also had moments in which religion was less important to public life, and it is easy to be blinded when we find ourselves at a turning point.
The last long secular era endured from 1932 to 1980. Presidents throughout that period continued to use religious language in their speeches, declared their devotion to God and invoked faith on behalf of the great causes they pursued. FDR saw Nazism as a "new German pagan religion" and insisted in 1942 that "the world is too small to provide adequate 'living room' for both Hitler and God." Dwight D. Eisenhower assailed "godless communism" that "strikes at the jugular vein of freedom." John F. Kennedy proclaimed in his 1961 inaugural address: "Here on Earth, God's work must truly be our own."
But Kennedy's line also signaled the distance between politics and specifically religious questions. His emphasis was on the work to be done here on Earth. In his famous speech before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960, designed to reassure Protestants that his Catholicism would play no substantive role in his presidency, Kennedy said, "I believe in a president whose views on religion are his own private affair." Religion was private, not public or political.
But the secular period that Kennedy spoke for ended with Ronald Reagan's election, the rise of the Moral Majority and the emergence of the Christian Coalition. If my theory is right, we will come to see this era of religious polarization as having lasted from 1980 to 2008. The era that is beginning will likely be more religious than the long post-FDR secular period. It's hard to imagine Obama, Clinton or any other Democrat giving a speech quite as relentlessly secular as Kennedy's Houston address. But compared with the period that is just ending, the new period will be more secular, more pluralistic and more focused on issues outside the cultural realm.
The era of the religious right is over. Even absent the rise of urgent new problems, Americans had already reached a point of exhaustion with a religious style of politics that was dogmatic, partisan and ideological.
That style reflected a spirit far too certain of itself and far too insistent on the moral depravity of its political adversaries. It had the perverse effect of narrowing the range of issues on which religious traditions would speak out and thinning our moral discourse. Precisely because I believe in a strong public role for faith, I would insist that it is a great sellout of those traditions to assert that religion has much to say about abortion and same-sex marriage but little to teach us about war and peace, social justice and the environment.
With the United States turning its attention again to very large, post-9/11 issues -- as our forebears did during the Depression, World War II and the Cold War -- we will certainly be asking for God's blessing and help. But the questions that will most engage us will be about survival and prosperity, not religion and culture.
E.J. Dionne Jr., a Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is the author of the recently published "Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right."