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A Devil’s Dozen of the Most Important Religion Stories of 2020

The Great Fire of London, 1666. Lieve Verschuier

Something about a plague year focuses the mind to thoughts of divinity. Daniel Defoe writes in his novel about the plague of 1665 that Londoners “flocked to the churches and meetings, and they were all so thronged that there was often no coming near, no, not to the very doors of the largest churches.” One wonders how much of the pestilence was spread in those very same sanctuaries, and yet it’s impossible not to have sympathy for the human fears that compelled parishioners into the pews. A reminder that we’ve only ever been able to remake the world for so long, and that even if the past is a foreign country it is sometimes one which grants visas. For all of the cultural, social, political, and technological changes since the bubonic plague of the fourteenth century, or the Great Plague of London in the seventeenth, there has been an uncanny collapsing of history as their fears, tribulations, hardships, and denialism suddenly seem reflected on Twitter newsfeed instead of printed broadsheet. 1665 and 1666, for those who lived through them, were years of horror. London was nearly emptied by bubonic plague, and autumn of the later year saw the capital destroyed in a massive conflagration. Annus Horribilis is the classical phrase for such a year – literally “A Horrible Year.” Could we call 2020 anything less?

Because religion marks all secular endeavors, whatever our own personal beliefs, an analysis of any year could uncover events that are defined by the sublimated sacred. But in an Annus Horribilis, where the extremity of occurrences can distill our experience to a potent concentration, the sacred (and its opposite) can seem a bit more apparent than it normally does. Things as varied and divergent as the scope of death from the virus, the hopeful promise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the emergence of a Donald Trump cult of personality all speak to the ways in which there can never be any comprehension of current events without the analyses of those who understand religion. Luckily there are scores of journalists who are able to excavate those traces of the theological within the headlines, partisans in a genre which philosopher Costica Bradatan and I call the “New Religion Journalism,” and which we explore in our upcoming anthology The God Beat: What Journalism Says about Faith and Why it Matters, where I argue that “no major phenomenon today… can be understood without some recourse to theological categories.” What follows are a “Devil’s Dozen” of the most important religion stories (and related) from 2020 that fall within this genre, listed in chronological order.

“The Designated Mourner” by Fintan O’Toole, The New York Review of Books (January 16)

An ambitious man whose aspirations were clear even when elected one of the youngest senators in U.S. history back in 1972, Joe Biden has long been a figure many people like, but that few loved. Despite his seeming knowability, Biden is hard to pin down, in part because his innate likability harbors a deep and pained interiority. Irish columnist Fintan O’Toole explains the essence of the man, arguing that Biden is the “most gothic figure in American politics.” To find a corollary one would perhaps have to return to death-obsessed Lincoln, wandering the cemetery after his son died. “He is haunted by death,” writes O’Toole, “not just by the private tragedies his family has endured, but by a larger and more public sense of loss.”

O’Toole’s essay is as lyrical as the Seamus Heaney poetry which Biden loves to quote, and he brings an outsider’s perspective to analyzing the former Vice President as the last of a particular type of politician once ubiquitous: the ethnic councilman who made his bones in local politics and the Church. Religion is the apparatus through which O’Toole measures Biden, seeing in the latter’s faith something deep, genuine, hopeful, and heart-breaking. Even among those on the left who (rightly) critique Biden’s policies, his empathy is arresting, radical even. By the time he is inaugurated, close to half a million Americans will be dead from COVID-19. When O’Toole wrote this piece, it seemed that nobody was particularly enthused for Biden’s run (even the author of the column), but in 2021 perhaps he is exactly what we will need.   

“The Spiritual Journey of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez” by Sarah Ngu, Religion & Politics (March 17)

Even more then Senator Bernie Sanders, who was more Morning Star of a democratic socialist future than its heralding, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (or AOC) has charted a completely different progressivism than the anemic third-way neoliberalism which has dominated Democratic politics since the presidency of Bill Clinton. Just as notable as the content of her politics is its style, for AOC brings a distinctly millennial idiom, humor, and bluntness that has flummoxed her critics on both the right and the further-right. Central to her vision is a vociferous religiosity, even if it’s not the sort of faith which is commonly recognized as such, with Sarah Ngu arguing that the “spiritual dimensions of Ocasio-Cortez’s own journey… are essential to understanding her political theory of change.”

Raised a Roman Catholic, AOC has drawn heartily from the theory and imagery of the Church’s campaigns for social justice, a tradition which, despite the worst efforts of the conservative Conference of Catholic Bishops, remains alive and vibrant. Such a history gestures back towards figures like Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement or the anti-war activism of Fathers Daniel and Philip Berrigan. Ngu writes that AOC’s political baptism was also a spiritual one, having volunteered to protest at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, where a planned oil pipeline threatened the indigenous communities. Facing heavily militarized police, AOC reports that her and her fellow protestors saw it as a “spiritual act of dedication to your values.” It’s a manifestation of a genuine religious left, and not just the appropriation of scriptural rhetoric to neo-liberal ends (as so often hamstrings the DNC). 

“Christianity Gets Weird” by Tara Isabella Burton, The New York Times (May 8)

When it was published last May, Tara Isabella Burton’s column went viral amongst a certain type of Twitter user already well-versed in the internecine sectarianism of the digitally religious. By coining the neologism “Weird Christians,” Burton taxonomizes a phenomenon which the aforementioned Twitter users were already abundantly aware of, but that hadn’t yet been christened in the press. Referring to an inchoate collection of well-educated, painfully self-aware, inquisitive, politically ambiguous, and often denominationally promiscuous millennials who feel drawn to the traditionalism of Anglicanism, Catholicism, or Orthodoxy, Weird Christians have confused the old culture war categories which underlay how we talked about religion for the past several decades. These women and men are “finding that ancient theology can better answer contemporary problems than any of the modern secular world’s solutions.”

Burton argues that this movement eschews both the platitudes of mainline liberal Christianity as well as the ethnonationalism often endemic among conservative traditionalists, resulting in a hard-to-categorize politics that is a “transgressive alternative to contemporary secular capitalist culture,” which she counterintuitively compares to punk. Perhaps it’s strange to think of High Church aesthetics and scholastic theology in the tradition of the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and the Clash, but Burton makes a fascinating (if not always convincing) argument as to the countercultural import of a subset of the religious ecosystem. Critics of the piece charged that Burton missed certain marks, such as occluding the right-wing positions of writer Rod Dreher (whom she interviews), ignoring the Hispanic influence on contemporary Catholicism, and reducing orthodoxy to aesthetics. Despite that, Burton provides a vocabulary for speaking about something which is developing in the milieu of American religion which requires a designation, and she provides it.

“The Prophecies of Q” by Adrienne LaFrance, The Atlantic (June)

For liberals who are unfamiliar with the vagaries of the fever nightmare that is the online right-wing ecosystem (one which has increasingly transitioned to real life), QAnon rightly seems bizarre. As an ever-shifting dogma, adherents hold that there is a pedophilic, Satanic conspiracy in Washington DC and Hollywood, with Trump the unlikely crusader sent to vanquish the demonic horde. Propelled into public consciousness by the 2016 “Pizzagate” incident, wherein a disturbed man travelled to a Washington pizzeria which he had come to believe was a site of ritual child abuse, QAnon has increasingly been understood as a domestic terror threat.                  Sometimes it’s offered as a waggish truism that the difference between a cult and a religion is a few centuries, but whatever you classify QAnon as, it certainly doesn’t seem like regular politics.

The disturbing, conspiratorial movement is epistemically different from other recent movements in conservatism, with Adrienne LaFrance arguing that we’re seeing the birth of something deeply weird and dangerous. Followers of the movement have an elaborate quixotic mythology to explain current events, they adhere to a millennial expectation of their enemies being purged, and they even hermeneutically interpret Trump tweets (misspellings and all) for verification of their faith. QAnon, LaFrance argues, is “already much more than a loose collection of conspiracy-minded chat-room inhabitants. It is a movement united in mass rejection of reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values. And we are likely closer to the beginning of its story than the end.”

“The Last Anointing” by Elizabeth Dias, The New York Times Magazine (June 6)

Organized religion has not always acquitted itself well during the pandemic, from the case brought before the Supreme Court by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, wherein the justices agreed with the argument that the limitation of religious services to stop the spread of COVID-19 was unconstitutional, to the report that the wealthy (and tax-exempt) evangelical megachurch pastor Joel Osteen had received four million dollars in PPP loans from the federal government, even though they were intended for small businesses. Such stories obscure the other role which faith has played throughout the pandemic, however, a purpose that connects worship to the deepest rhythms of life and death throughout history, often in circumstances which echo the past.

Elizabeth Dias’ beautiful article, accompanied by stunning photographs by Ryan Christopher Jones, profiles how religion has had to adapt to the current age, when it is often the most absolutely needed, in her story about Boston priest Father Robert Connors administering the sacrament of last rites to those dying of coronavirus. “The coronavirus has led the United States to the valley of the shadow of death,” Dias writes, “In just three months, a microscopic particle has laid bare human mortality. The entire nation has worked to avoid death.” It’s a sentence that last year would have seemed to have more aptly described the fourteenth-century than our own. Connors is called to the same vocation as priests offering the same sacrament to those who died of different pestilences in different times; it’s a powerful reminder of religious continuity and transcendence. “In 400 years, whatever happens in a pandemic, there will be priests to anoint God’s people,” Connors says, “Whatever happens.”

“Is There a Religious Left?” by Casey Cep, The New Yorker (June 11)

So pre-baked is the understanding among some in the media that religion is the purview of the right-wing, that even the phrase “religious left” has something counterintuitive about it. Yet every major emancipatory movement in American history – from abolitionism, to suffragism, to civil rights, to anti-war protests – has had a strong religious component. The past few years have seen the reemergence not of a religious left which never disappeared, but rather the return of a journalistic awareness of the religious left. Casey Cep begins her essay by profiling Bree Newsome, the artist and activist who in 2015 ascended the flag-pole at the South Carolina State Capital to pull down the Confederate Battle Emblem in defiance of the racist slaughter which had occurred at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church days before. Daughter of a Baptist minister who was the former dean of Howard University School of Divinity, Newsome had announced her iconoclastic protest by declaring “In the name of Jesus, this flag has to come down.”

Unfortunately, the sacred component of much left-wing activism is often forgotten by the broader cause, as Cep argues. “For all the opprobrium directed at the religious right, the activism of religious leftists suffers a different fate, alternately ignored and fetishized, trotted out every election cycle with a tone befitting the Second Coming: always just about to happen.” There are signs, possibly, that this is changing. North Carolina based Reverend William Barber II and his Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival has revitalized ideas and coalitions from the Civil Rights era, while the progressive Reverend Ralph Warnock has narrowly won one of two Senate run-off elections in Georgia. Telling that both Barber and Warnock’s ministries have connections to the last great incarnation of the religious left – the former’s campaign draws its name from a similar movement led by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., while the later is the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, the parish of the slain Civil Rights leader.  

 “’He’s the One to Run America:’ Inside the Cult of Trump, His Rallies are Church and He is Gospel” by Jeff Sharlet, Vanity Fair (June 18)

For decades Jeff Sharlet has covered (among other subjects) the disturbing intersections between religious fervor and ethnonationalism, as in his excellent book 2008 The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, which described the machinations of Douglas Coe’s powerful and politically-connected evangelical lay religious group. Since 2015, Sharlet has attended hundreds of Trump rallies so you don’t have to, and he has come to certain conclusions about the nature of the movement, understanding it as categorically more dangerous than other recent manifestations of conservatism. Trumpism, Sharlet argues, is a heady brew of the supply-side Prosperity Gospel, nationalism, and conspiratorial thinking, which has manifested as a form of Gnosticism, which if it abandons any of the counter-cultural radicalism of that ancient sect preserves its paranoid sense of being privy to certain secrets.

“To attend a Trump rally,” Sharlet writes, “is to engage directly in the ecstasy of knowing what the great man knows, divinity disguised as earthly provocation.” According to Sharlet, Trumpism is metastasizing into its own malevolent faith, with its own rituals, liturgy, scripture, and symbols. Witness the omnipresence of the Blue Lives Matter flag, a black-and-white revision of the actual U.S. flag. Or look at the hermetic parsing of QAnon adherents, who spin ever more baroque mythological fan fiction about Trump’s unmasking of a Satanic pedophile cabal operating within the so-called “Deep State.” With their millennial hopes, their apocalyptic urgency, and their increasingly unhinged relationship to reality, extreme Trumpist adherents are enacting a movement which isn’t like anything in recent American memory. They are more like the Millerites of the Second Great Awakening than they are the Tea Party; more like various personality cults which proliferated in the nineteenth-century than they are even the John Birch Society.

“How Black Lives Matter is Changing the Church” by Eliza Griswold, The New Yorker (August 30)

The leadership of the BLM movement is much more explicitly secular than previous movements for civil rights, where the Black church was often front and center, with Eliza Griswold writing that for the “young activists in Ferguson, the church’s failure to address system racial injustice in the United States rendered American Christian leaders… part of the problem,” with protestors taking “issue with what they saw as the church’s culture of homophobia and misogyny.” As a statement of moral reckoning, “Black Lives Matter” has forced both American individuals and institutions to take an inventory of their souls as regards systemic racism, and to rectify that which they find lacking. Such a grappling with four centuries of institutionalized racism has not always been easy; that explicitly supremacist groups reject the self-evident truth of the phrase “Black Lives Matter” isn’t surprising, but the ethical imperative to which it calls everybody means that difficult conversations must be had even among people who might not have suspected that there was anything disordered in their perspective.

“Black Lives Matter” thus becomes a clarion call not from the church, but also to the church (along with every other institution infected by racism). Griswold profiles the career of Reverend Brenda Salter McNeil, a liberal Black evangelical minister for whom BLM has challenged her previous understanding of racism. Once a proponent of a movement for racial justice called “reconciliation,” Salter McNeil preached that racism was largely an issue of personal sin, and that it could be challenged through individual reflection and atonement. “I began my journey sincerely believing that if I could convince evangelical Christians that reconciliation was not some politically motivated agenda but a Biblical calling rooted in scripture, they would pursue racial justice.” What BLM’s example demonstrated to Salter McNeil and other progressive evangelical leaders was the naivety of that previous position, forcing a much-needed confrontation with racism not just in the broader society, but also within the church (even the well-meaning church).

“The Many Faces of Ethan Hawke,” by John Lahr, The New Yorker (September 14)

In the seventh and final episode of the Showtime television miniseries adaptation of James McBride’s brilliant novel The Good Lord Bird, John Brown in the midst of his doomed raid on Harper’s Ferry, played with passionate intensity by Ethan Hawke, fires a gun from a window of the armory while screaming “I am the sanest man you’ve ever seen.” It’s an unconventional adaptation of an unconventional novel, McBride’s bildungsroman inventing the character of Onion, an enslaved adolescent boy liberated by Brown during Bleeding Kansas, with the radical abolitionist mistaking his new charge as a girl. Written in an idiom that reads like post-modern Mark Twain, McBride presents the figure of Brown as equal parts comic and tragic, insane and righteous, and perhaps counterintuitively the sanest man you could ever know.

McBride’s novel is narrated by Onion, so that Hawke was given carte blanch to invent Brown’s own distinctive voice, with John Lahr explaining that the actor channeled “the stentorian delivery of his Texan grandfather, a nabob of local politics who spoke in paragraphs… a sound and a subtext for Brown, who, [Hawke] decided, was always in dialogue with his Maker.” Few works of pop culture so bluntly address the religious element in American culture in quite this way, with Brown depicted as a lovable weirdo taken to hours long prayer sessions, but a weirdo who is also clearly a righteous prophet fighting a justified holy war. Written and produced by Hawke, The Gold Lord Bird follows up on his role in the excellent First Reformed, demonstrating that no contemporary actor is as willing to consider faith in all its extremity. What makes Hawke’s performance brilliant is that he fully understands and inhabits Brown’s faith. “There is a mistaken idea that [Brown] was trying to save Black folks,” Hawke says, but “Seen through the eyes of a serious Christian, Black people didn’t need saving. The affluent white communities were the ones living in sin. Harpers Ferry was the great American trumpet sound.”

“How Amy Coney Barrett’s Religious Group Helped Shape a City” by Adam Wren, Politico (September 27)

Since the 1970s, a realignment of religious conservatism has thrust together an alliance of right-wing Catholics and evangelicals, who previously saw themselves at an insurmountable theological difference. An argument could be made that the culture wars actually began as a rapprochement between denominations on opposite sides of a divide going back to the Reformation, as issues as varied as women’s rights, school integration, and especially abortion united former foes in a new front. Newly confirmed Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, pushed through by the Senate in record time before the election, is in many ways the embodiment of that political front. This is in particular due to her involvement with the controversial group People of Praise, a largely Catholic ecumenical movement which draws from charismatic worship, and confuses the traditional divisions between Protestantism and the Church.

People of Praise is “one of a number of groups that rose in the 1960s and ‘70s to offer intense, highly supportive religious communities, in the style of evangelical churches, within the Catholic tradition,” writes Adam Wren. “The group, though mostly Catholic, is outside control of the church itself.” It’s Coney Barrett’s membership in People of Praise that has made her a confusing figure to write about, for when it comes to any number of traditional culture wars issues, from contraception to abortion, her opinions are firmly within the status quo of the Church leadership, yet her traditionally conservative Republican politics are to the right of the Church on any number of issues from the death penalty to immigration (though fully in line with the other conservative Catholic justices). Few places are as iconic in the American Catholic imagination than South Bend and the University of Notre Dame (where Coney Barrett had been a law professor). Wren’s piece goes deep in understanding the role People of Praise played among the power elite in South Bend, forging an unconventional heartland Catholicism that’s often as evangelical as it is Catholic. 

“How COVID-19 is Changing American Judaism” by Tevi Troy, Tablet (October 9)

More than the cause of the divide within American religious communities, the reaction to the pandemic helped to illustrate divisions which already existed. No religion within the United States hasn’t had aspects of its identity challenged by the last nine months, with Tevi Troy in Tablet noting that “COVID-19 has brought existing tensions between American Jewish communities to the fore while strengthening and accelerating forces that are putting pressure on all forms of Jewish communal life.” Following shut-downs throughout the country in March, many synagogues (like many churches and mosques) instituted virtual worship services, while debates where had about what was halachically acceptable in terms of mitigating the spread of the disease, such as allowing for Zoom seders during Passover. Among many Orthodox communities, however, there was a chafing against shutdowns, such as those instituted by Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio in New York.

As with conservative Catholics and evangelicals, there have been protests against quarantine and the mandatory limitation of numbers who can attend religious services, with heavily Hasidic Borough Park in Brooklyn a nexus of said protests. COVID-19, and the way in which it has forced people to alter their daily lives, has underlined some obvious differences within the Jewish community (being shomer Shabbos clearly problematizes the question of virtual worship). It’s also highlighted political differences between the Orthodox who are overwhelmingly Republican voters, and the wider Jewish community which remains steadfastly Democratic. “It is probably not coincidental that the increasingly intensified political stances taken by different Jewish communities in the wake of the BLM protests, the intrareligious disagreements over Donald Trump, and the differing responses to Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg’s death are all taking place in the loneliness and isolation of COVID-19,” writes Troy. 

“Christian Nationalism is Alive and Well in America” by Stephen Mattson, Sojourners (October 22)

Something which has understandably flummoxed liberal critics of Trump is the steadfast support which the soon-to-be former president has received from evangelical Christians. A compulsive liar, serial adulterer, casino-owner, and cameo-actor in (soft core) pornography, the nominally Presbyterian Trump would seem to be a non-starter for evangelicals. Many journalists have done an excellent job explicating the justifications which some evangelicals have offered to square such seeming hypocrisy, most of which rely on interpreting Trump as a blunt instrument of God’s design (while frequently comparing him to immoral Bible characters who still had a role in the righteous designs of the Lord, like David or Cyrus). Stephen Mattson, in the venerable progressive evangelical magazine Sojourners, explains how such support for Trump is often more than mere ignorance or hypocrisy, but rather an embrace of an ostensibly heretical position best described as “Christian Nationalism.”

He provides litany of the various ways in which evangelical leaders, intoxicated by political power, have incorporated patriotic and nationalistic symbols, language, and images into their expressions of faith. More than just at the realm of rhetoric, such Christian Nationalism lends itself to an alteration of theology, so that the country (and its leader) is elevated above the church. “Christlike love is often the antithesis of state-sponsored and partisan agendas. Its allegiance is to the kingdom of God rather than any earthly government, and its hope is in Jesus instead of any president,” he writes. Such Christian Nationalism has allowed evangelicals to embrace not just an un-Christian president, but uniquely un-Christian policies as well. Thus, we see how explicitly racist, xenophobic, and anti-poor positions can be declaimed by those Christians who support Trump, seeing their membership in a religious community more as an issue of ethnic or racial identification than one of belief. “It all comes down to power: Various forms of Christendom have denied Christ for the sake of political power,” writes Mattson. “Like Jesus, we must deny and condemn such offerings.”

“Deep State, Deep Church: How QAnon and Trumpism Have Infected the Catholic Church” by Kathryn Joyce, Vanity Fair (October 20)

While conservatives will blame liberalizing impulses for diluting the message of the Church, Kathryn Joyce examines how the alt-right has found a toe-hold among some Catholic leadership and parishioners, allowing for an explicitly un-Christian teaching to flourish, and complicating reform-minded initiatives from the progressive Pope Francis. More than run-of-the-mill conservatism, or even the dogmas of Catholics who reject Vatican II, this new alt-right (or “rad-trad,” for radical traditionalist) contingent has embraced the swamp of strange memes, convoluted beliefs, and cruel rhetoric that has structured Trumpism. “Among the Trumpified Catholic far right,” writes Joyce, “paranoia, along with growing racism and anti-Semitism, crept in.” A type of neo-Falangism, this Catholic alt-right traded in conspiracy theories and rejected the “globalism” of Francis in antisemitic language.

Some members of the alt-right, drawn to an ahistorical medievalism which they see reflected in the aesthetics of the Church, have been attracted to their own construction of Catholicism, which has been exploited by figures like Stephen Bannon and countenanced by some leadership such as Cardinal Raymond Burke. Drawing both from schismatic traditionalist groups that reject Francis’ papacy (some still arguing that Benedict XVI remains pope, others seeing all post-Vatican II pontiffs as illegitimate) as well as the racist and nationalist beliefs of various secular alt-right figures, this contingent has refashioned a strange topsy-turvy image of the Church which owes more to QAnon than Thomas Aquinas. There is an irony to all of this; Biden will be this country’s second Catholic president, while the majority of Catholics voted Democratic in the last election. Joyce identifies something important happening here, a polarization within the Church that almost seems like schism, with an emboldened and angry alt-right Catholicism that “would become something separate: isolated, angry, and alone, shouting accusations into the air.”

“The Most American Religion” by McKay Coppins, The Atlantic (December 16)

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one of the few mainstream denominations which it’s seemingly permissible to mock in polite company. From South Park to the hit Broadway musical The Book of Mormon, believers in the United States’ largest home-born religion have often found themselves the subject of derision, or worse. As a journalist covering Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, McKay Coppins “couldn’t believe some of the things my otherwise enlightened peers were willing to say about a faith they knew so little about.”  Despite the jokes about polygamy and magic underwear, Mormons respond with an “aversion to wallowing” writes Coppins, a member of the Church. “When adversity strikes, my people tend to respond with can-do aphorisms and rolled-up sleeves; with an unrelenting helpfulness that can border on caricature,” hence the stereotype of the enthusiastic, clean-living Mormon, embodied in figures as diverse (or not) as Romney and the Osmonds. Coppins asks what the price of this reputation for niceness is for adherents of a minority religion that’s a product of America, but that has never quite been fully accepted in its birthplace.

Mormonism is marked by that contradiction, an “achingly American” faith, one with a reputation for conservatism, but whose members challenged Trumpism more than evangelicals (helping to turn Arizona blue, for example). Despite a history of Republican politics, Mormons poll overwhelmingly pro-immigration and for social welfare, possibly a reflection of their own history of being persecuted, and LDS congregations are organized with an eye towards socioeconomic diversity, as members of the Church “generally don’t romanticize rugged individualism or Darwinian hyper-capitalism.” Coppins’ essay is a perfect encapsulation of Bradatan and my definition of the New Religion Journalism, a piece which interrogates larger question of belief, culture, and society, while firmly grounded in the experience of the individual. When Coppins asks “What happens when a religious group discovers that it’s spent 200 years assimilating to an America that no longer exists?” it’s a question with a universal import he didn’t intent; it’s a variation on a question that all of us – secular and believer – must confront as we contend with the long dusk of a fading idea of America.