Perhaps “values voters” are disillusioned with politics and ready to turn their backs on it. But Mitt Romney wants you to know that liberty is impossible without religious faith. Perhaps an evangelical crack-up is upon us. But Mike Huckabee surged this winter, as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama did their God-dances in megachurches and at the debates. This political season has only heightened the confusion over the future of religion in the nation’s culture and politics. Journalistic coverage of evangelical Christianity has oscillated between confident declarations that the Christian right is dead and horrified discoveries of its continuing influence.
In 1776, Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, a sly and subversive classic of secular humanism too often mistaken today for a mere lecture on the benefits of capitalism. In it, Smith said relatively little about religion and even less about the United States. Yet he managed to put his finger on the forces that are still shaping the role of religion in American politics today. His analysis is a better guide to the future of the evangelical movement than are most contemporary accounts.
Smith saw what we see: the progress of modernity, he noted, was not undermining religion in the Britain of his day. Instead, religious revivals were blooming. These new religious movements often rejected the liberal values of a free society. They favored absolute moral codes, conservative interpretations of religious doctrines, and political activism to enact their values into law.
Smith observed a relationship between these revivals and the process that we now call urbanization. Young people, arriving in cities in search of work, faced new opportunities and temptations without the structure that village life—with its communities of relatives and others that watched and guided young people—had provided. “A single week’s thoughtlessness and dissipation is often sufficient to undo a poor workman forever,” wrote Smith about life in London. But the city’s small sectarian religious congregations gave rural immigrants a social-support network and a moral code that could keep them on the straight and narrow as they built new lives. These movements were a response to the dislocations of modernity; there was no reason to expect them to fade away.
Yet in the teeming religious marketplace of Britain’s cities, Smith also saw pressures that would limit the political impact of religious beliefs and prevent theocracy. With so many competing denominations, he noted, religious leaders could acquire political influence only by finding allies outside their own version of the faith—and the process of forming those alliances would drive them toward agendas that could appeal to a wider, multi-faith audience. To be politically significant, he wrote, religious extremists had to move toward broader and necessarily more-moderate coalitions. Their entry into politics would, itself, moderate them.