Meanwhile, Tammy Kitzmiller, the Dover High School parent who was the case’s lead plaintiff, received an anonymous letter at home. The writer reminded Kitzmiller that Madalyn Murray O’Hair, whose 1960 lawsuit led to the ban on organized public-school prayer, was murdered. “I sure would hate to be in your shoes or your daughter’s shoes,” the letter continued. “God hates sin….[W]atch out for a bullet.”


Thanks in part to James Madison and his Bill of Rights, the Puritan vision of America as a rigidly intolerant society didn’t come to pass. The First Amendment ensured that the government could make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion, and America’s protection of pluralism remains one of its most beautiful features.

But beauty has been the root of some brutal fights, and theological skirmishes in twenty-first-century America are shaping up to be doozies. In the wake of the clergy sex-abuse scandal, for instance, Catholics are deeply divided between traditionalists, who still believe in the authority of their bishops and the tenets of their church, and progressives, who prefer to live by the more liberal, post-Vatican II principles that they believe have come under assault by conservatives over the last generation.

One can also see the seams of the Episcopal church coming apart over the issue of homosexuality, which is really just the most visible symptom of a deeper theological division. According to Kevin Eckstrom, the editor of Religion News Service, “The chasm is so deep that neither side trusts the other or is willing to give it the benefit of the doubt on anything. The traditionalists feel their way of life is being taken away from them by the tyranny of the majority, while the progressives think a bigoted minority is holding the Holy Spirit hostage. [And] even those fights aren’t about sex, or even theology, but about power, and who gets to make the decisions that will tie the hands of everyone else.”

Mainline Protestant churches—Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans—are fumbling around in the dark, desperately trying to attract new, and younger, congregants to their barren pews. Evangelical bodies, especially Pentacostals, seem to be the only churches gaining members. But it is also conservative evangelicals (along with traditionalist Catholics) who are most involved in the battle royale with secularists. The culture wars, as they are called, are a blessing for at least one group: journalists. “Heat is good for a story, and religion is consistently good for that,” says Cathleen Falsani, a religion columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times who covered the beat as a reporter for several years. “Religion is polarizing. Maybe that’s not the way it’s intended to be, but it is.”

Falsani, whose book Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace will be published this fall by Zondervan, said complaints about her work escalated when she began writing in her own voice. “The worst ad hominem attacks on me personally have come from my own compatriots in the evangelical community,” she said. “That was angering and hurtful at times.”

Neela Banerjee, who covers religion for The New York Times, said there is a difference in the way those on different sides of the culture wars express their rage. There is, she said, “a great deal of anger between secularists and the Christian right. The former tend to be more upfront about their anger, while the latter…cloak their criticism in language of hating the sin but loving the sinner. Each sees the other as a profoundly dangerous influence on society.”

Eckstrom concurs. All parties, he says, feel their worldview is under attack—“on the one side by religious fundamentalists, who hate science and love war, and on the other by godless hedonists, who want to denude the Pledge of Allegiance and turn the country over to radical Islamists. There’s very little middle ground there.”

Tim Townsend is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.