Peter Steinfels

Peter Steinfels writes the “Beliefs” column on religion and ethics in The New York Times and is the author, most recently, of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America. He co-directs Fordham University's Center on Religion and Culture.

Recent Articles

Changing Faiths

Religious Americans are far more diverse, tolerant, and compassionate than the image of an evangelist upsurge would suggest.

Evangelical Pastor Rick Warren, whose selection to speak at Obama's inauguration generated outrage among gay-rights groups (Flickr/Andy Cornejo)
American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us , by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, Simon & Schuster, 673 pages, $30 American Grace is a scrupulously researched, extensively documented, and utterly clear book filled with findings that should rattle the assumptions of anyone, religious or secular, who cares about religion in American public life. Findings like these: "The evangelical boom that began in the 1970s was over by the early 1990s, nearly two decades ago. In twenty-first century America expansive evangelicalism is a feature of the past, not the present." "Cohorts of whom barely 5 percent say they have no religious affiliation are being replaced by cohorts of whom roughly 25 percent say they have no religion, massively increasing the nationwide incidence of nones." "The more often you say grace, the more likely you are to find a home in the Republican Party, and the less likely you are to identify with the Democrats." "Most Americans today are religious...

Democracy's Faith-Based Troubles

Religion and rationality have been clashing for centuries. Is it possible to talk about this conflict without going nuts?

Salman Rushdie (Flickr/Canada 2010)
Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents by Ian Buruma, Princeton University Press, 144 pages, $19.95 Three years ago, Ian Buruma published Murder in Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam, and the Limits of Tolerence , an analysis of the shocking public slaying by an Islamist extremist of a Dutch filmmaker who, working with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, self-declared atheist and fugitive from Islam, had provocatively attacked Muslim attitudes toward women. The book stirred more than a little controversy, partly because Buruma suggested that the truth about Muslim immigration to Europe and jihadi violence was more complicated than many people, on both the right and left, thought. Those issues continue to loom in the background of Taming the Gods . But now Buruma has pulled back his camera and panned across three continents, centuries of history, and a wide range of questions about religion and democracy. Few writers are better equipped to do this. Born in the Netherlands to a Dutch...

A Darwin for the Divine

Evolution and religion are compatible if we accept that even our cultural development displays inbuilt direction.

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The Evolution of God by Robert Wright, Little, Brown and Company, 567 pages, $25.99 There are, it seems, two Robert Wrights -- a tough-minded Robert Wright and a tender-minded Robert Wright -- who have collaborated on a book about religion. The tough-minded Wright, like the much acclaimed "new atheists," insists that widely held traditional beliefs cannot withstand scientific scrutiny; they are the evolutionary outcome of material forces. The tender-minded Wright exudes a positive view of the entire religious enterprise nonetheless: Religion has a natural capacity to overcome the vaunted clash of faith-based civilizations and the clash between faith and modern reason. Concepts of God have evolved from amoral, violence-prone tribal deities to a "morally modern God" who espouses altruism across ethnic and religious boundaries. In this sense, Wright argues, "religion hasn't just evolved; it has matured." The tough-minded Wright wants to put this argument on a strictly scientific basis...

Religiously Equal?

In her new book, philosophical titan Martha Nussbaum questions the separation between church and state, arguing that constitutional law has more often derived from prejudice than principle.

Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America's Tradition of Religious Equality by Martha C. Nussbaum, Basic Books, 406 pages, $28.95 If democrats win the white house and Congress next November, one reason will be the party's success in neutralizing suspicions that it is hostile to religion, but that will not be the end of the matter. Whether religious Americans feel they have a place in a government shaped by liberals will depend on how a new administration and Congress respond to the issues that religious groups care about. Not that all conflicts with religious groups can be -- or should be -- avoided. Eight years of Republican manipulation of religious sentiments and dubious alliances with religious leaders should not be followed by counter-pandering. The more tempting reflex, however, could be payback. And if the ensuing battles threaten legitimate religious concerns for freedom and equality, liberals will face a broader religious opposition than they did before. The danger is...

Be Not Afraid

Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism by Michelle Goldberg (W.W.Norton, 224 pages, $23.95) Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis by Jimmy Carter (Simon & Schuster, 224 pages, $25.00) The Faiths of the Founding Fathers by David l. Holmes (Oxford University Press, 240 pages, $20.00) American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century by Kevin Phillips (Viking, 480 pages, $26.95) The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right's Plans for the Rest of Us by James Rudin (Thunder's Mouth Press, 300 pages, $25.00) The word, as Stephen Colbert would say, is … theocracy ! Although Kevin Phillips's best-selling volume has three parts, devoted to the politics of oil, religion, and debt respectively, it is “theocracy” that gets pride of place in his title and analysis. “The fight between secular modernity and religious authority is an old one,” writes Michelle Goldberg in Kingdom Coming . “Right now, however, is high...