According to standard criteria, the United States is one of the most religious countries in the industrialized world—perhaps the most religious country. More than 40 percent of Americans claim to attend religious services each week, compared to 14 percent of the British and 12 percent of the French. These claims may reflect good intentions rather than actual behavior, but—as Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan showed—personal piety can flourish in the absence of regular church attendance. Indeed, 90 percent of Americans pray, 80 percent expect to face God’s judgment, and 60 percent (including Hillary Rodham Clinton) anticipate Jesus’ return. At least eight million Americans accept a system of Biblical interpretation called premillennial dispensationalism — not only to predict the time of Jesus’ return, but also to discover the divine meaning behind wars, economic changes, and technological innovations. In other words, probably more Americans use Bible prophecy than can identify Keynesian economics.
Cultural conflict in the United States has always carried a strong religious tinge. During the twenties, most Protestants supported Prohibition, and the fundamentalists among them campaigned also to bar Darwinism from public school curricula. During the Great Depression, a minority of fundamentalists formed the core constituency of an anti-Semitic, old Christian right that denounced the New Deal as a wing of the international Jewish conspiracy. A self-consciously new Christian right organized in reaction to the cultural liberalization of the sixties and became a junior partner in the Reagan coalition. Grass-roots efforts continued even after the movement dropped beneath cosmopolitan notice in the late 1980s. The election of Bill Clinton, a self-consciously hip cultural liberal, brought fresh recruits and renewed notoriety. Roughly 9 percent of Americans now identify with the Christian right.