New Faiths for Old

How Matthew Shepard Replaced Jesus Christ

Religion is a very sturdy creature. For two centuries, various atheist regimes have tried to eliminate religious practice in their societies and, without exception, have ended up restoring the forms of the old worship, but with newer and far lamer excuses. The French revolutionaries who tried to free their subjects from the curse of Christianity created an ersatz New Age religion with the feast of the Supreme Being before giving in wholeheartedly to a messianic belief in the Great Nation and its mystical personification in the Emperor Napoleon. Still more sweeping were the dechristianizing efforts of the Soviets, who massacred countless priests and religious and secularized or destroyed places of worship. Yet for half a century, all the public rituals of that society took place under icons of Lenin, whose venerated remains served as the supreme relic and justification of the communist order. As G.K. Chesterton remarked, when people abandon the belief in God, it is not true that they believe in nothing, but rather that they will believe in anything and everything, however ludicrous or lethal.

These precedents may seem singularly inappropriate for the United States, where religious belief and practice are not only perfectly legal, but also flourish to a degree unique among the advanced nations. As has often been noted, however, American religion in the 20th century became increasingly polarized along class lines, so that the nation's...

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