In the Pacific Northwest, we're the most irreligious folks in America. We have the largest percentage of adults in the nation who are unaffiliated with any church (63 percent) and the largest percentage who don't identify with any religion (25 percent)—which is more than double the size of the largest religious group in the region (Catholics, 11 percent). The "state" religion in the Pacific Northwest is no religion, according to a new study, Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone (AltaMira Press). If you're one of these so-called "Nones," you're in good company here.
That doesn't mean we Nones aren't deeply involved in religious conflict. From Israel and Palestine to the war on terror to the culture wars at home, they're unavoidable, whether you're religious or not. God, we are told, is setting the agenda.
In his Iraq anniversary speech last week, George W. Bush, whose statements since 9/11 have been filled with Biblical resonance and religious phrasings, showed that he's honed his Manichean view of the world. We are engaged in a war of civilizations, good versus evil, he said again. But this time he was clearer than ever, provoked by the upstart Spanish electorate to assert that there is no room for dissent. "There is no neutral ground—no neutral ground—in the fight between civilization and terror, because there is no neutral ground between good and evil, freedom and slavery, and life and death." He preached to representatives of 84 nations, and the essence was: Bush's values constitute the dividing line between good and evil, and he represents good. Choose Bush, or you're the enemy.
America loves certainty. We value it above nearly everything, even if it constitutes wrongheadedness. We're a complicated country that doesn't like complexity; we're a pluralistic society that seeks conformity; we're ingenious and creative, yet we grandly reward brute power. Bush's advisors understand this. Indeed, they dominate the political landscape with their God-endorsed agenda. Their faith is strengthened by the fact that we have been attacked by a group of religious fanatics who are equally convinced that God is on their side, a God that sanctions the murder of innocents.
For some of us Nones, there is a no man's land in this religious war. Not that we don't want to see Bin Laden's head on a pike, not that we don't also fear American stupidity and excess. But we're religiously neutral in that we don't see God in any of it, only the handiwork of cruel religious zealots killing in the name of God.
But it's even more complicated, because even among Christians, God is sending mixed signals.
In the March/April newsletter of the Sunset Presbyterian Church in Portland, pastor Ron Kincaid wrote: "Western European socialists and their American supporters want to dominate the world as much as militant Muslims want Islam to. Their vehicles are the United Nations, the European Union, and international institutions such as the International Court." This view is more explicitly intolerant—and specific—than Bush's, but it amounts to the same thing: Those who disagree with how we're fighting evil are just like Al Qaeda.
The view is also bleak from the other side. Someone e-mailed me a talk given by the Rev. Richard Lang at Seattle's Trinity United Methodist Church. The title is, "George Bush and the Rise of Christian Fascism." Lang sees literal evil at work in the president's "diabolical manipulation" of religious doctrine to justify his worldview. "It is a form of Christianity that is the mirror opposite of what Jesus embodied," Lang has written. "It is, indeed, the materialization of the spirit of the Antichrist: a perversion of Christian faith and practice." Indeed, he argues that it is not just Bush's mixing of religion and politics that is wrong. The president's particular theology is dangerous. "Whoever controls the interpretation of scripture will control the future of this nation," Lang predicts. "In other words it's the vision of Pat Robertson or Martin Luther King."
However much I might share Lang's political views or find his more benevolent version of Christian faith less threatening, I can't say I'm happy at the prospect of the future of America being determined by a contest over wording in the Bible. That's what our Constitution was designed to avoid. But there it is.
In that Christian contest, it appears that Bush's side is winning—even here in heathen country. According to James Wellman, a professor of comparative religion at the University of Washington, evangelical churches are where the growth is. He described a veritable "revival" in Washington state. They seem to appeal to people who find the mainline protestant denominations too wishy-washy, secular, liberal, or old-school. Evangelical congregations are thriving because they're dynamic, growth-oriented, and they offer moral clarity. He also notes that with Bush articulating so well the evangelical worldview of a titanic struggle between good and evil, people are drawn to the churches because they seem to reflect reality.
In this, Bush's role is key right now. He believes he is called to rise to the challenges of his times. Others believe that he is interpreting events to suit his beliefs. Either way, he's right that there is no longer a dividing line: His faith is shaping politics, and his politics are shaping America's faith.
And those who stand in the None zone feel helpless, suffering the consequences of a debate over a God we don't believe in.