First up from the God Machine this week is a bold claim from Vice President Mike Pence about the role of faith in modern American life.
In general, when White House figures make claims about Donald Trump's societal impacts, they stick to generalities or boasts that are difficult to check, such as the president's insistence that he personally has created a cultural surge in Americans wishing each other a "Merry Christmas."
Pence, however, delivered a commencement address last weekend at Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian college in Michigan of notable significance in Republican politics, and he was far more specific. Faith in America, the vice president said, is "rising again" because of Trump and his administration.
Pence added, "We live in a time when traditional values, even religious conviction, are increasingly marginalized by a secular popular culture -- a time when it's become acceptable, even fashionable, to malign religious belief. I still believe with all my heart that faith in America is rising.... Religion in America isn't receding -- just the opposite. Faith is gaining new life with every passing day."
He went on to say that even though the American population has grown considerably over the decades, American religiousity "has remained remarkably consistent."
Putting aside the irony of the Indiana Republican's cultural complaints -- the only prominent political figure I can think who's maligned others' religious beliefs is Donald Trump -- the Washington Post noted that there's a fair amount of evidence to suggest the vice president's claims are mistaken.
The truth is that the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion has been rising, according to the Pew Research Center.While more than half -- 55 percent -- of Americans say they pray daily, according to Pew, the poll suggests that differences in the practice among age groups may not have remained consistent overtime.
What's more, the latest survey from the Washington Post and ABC News highlighted the fact that there's been a noticeable "rise in the number who profess no religion" over the last 15 years.
It'd be a mistake to attribute these developments to Trump, just as it was a mistake for Pence to argue that the president and his administration is responsible for religion "rising again."
But whatever the cause for the societal shifts, the vice president's assertions don't stand up well to scrutiny.
Also from the God Machine this week:
* If there's a sensible defense for this, I can't think of it: "One of the most prominent anti-LGBTQ leaders in the country is now a federal appointee shaping U.S. policy on religious freedom, thanks to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council -- which the Southern Poverty Law Center considers a hate group -- announced Wednesday that McConnell appointed him to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom."
* This move came following an emergency summit with Pope Francis: "Every Chilean bishop offered to resign Friday over a sex abuse and cover-up scandal, in the biggest shakeup ever in the Catholic Church's long-running abuse saga."
* And Tennessee's state Constitution, like the U.S. Constitution, is a secular document. That may soon change: state lawmakers are advancing a measure that would add one line to the Tennessee Constitution: "that liberties do not come from government, but from Almighty God."