“Jesus – The ONLY way to God.” Thusly said a large billboard high above the busy interstate highway. Reading that sign, my immediate thought was, “Given this message of spiritual arrogance and separation, no wonder we have such tensions and fighting among ourselves in America today.” Not that my thought was of any criticism of Jesus and his profound teachings. Quite the contrary. But it did have everything to do with what people do in their own use of those inspiring teachings.
There is a lot of talk from a segment of politicians, media commentators and clergy about a supposed “war on religion” going on in America. That Americans are being denied the opportunity to practice their religion where and how they see fit; that their personal and religious values are being attacked and compromised. Most all of these claims – often expressed quite angrily – come from some segments of Christian churches and their congregants. And, not coincidentally, the leaders of this outcry are usually ones with their hands out asking for donations, or television ratings, or secular laws passed to mandate their religious causes.
In fact, there is good cause for such religious leaders and congregants to feel threatened. But not because a big, evil government is threatening their religious beliefs. Not because politicians with different views are advocating for different actions. And not because other religions are trying to convert seekers to their cause. The threat is not from without; it is from within.
Various opinion polls help shed light on what is happening in the spiritual landscape of America. Data from the respected Pew Research Foundation found that @75% of American adults declare themselves to be “Christians.” That is a significant portion of the citizenry, but that significance falls apart when we acknowledge that not all Christians believe the same things and have highly irreconcilable practices. When we subdivide the distribution among Catholics (@24%), and then Protestants across their myriad branches (26% Evangelical, 18% all the mainline churches combined together, 7% historically Black), none of these segments has a commanding hold on the American citizenry.
The differences among these various Christian groups are often quite profound. Some Christian segments are “top-down” authoritarian in their decisions regarding religious dogma and organizational management, thereby requiring adherence to a shared set of beliefs. Others are “local-control” organizations without a central governing authority, thereby more independent in creed and action. More than half of American Catholics have said they do not follow established Catholic dogma and practice (e.g. birth control) in spite of the “infallible Pope” principle of their Church. A worship service in a rural Southern Baptist Convention church in Alabama is apt to look and sound nothing like a Baptist church in a large Oregon city. It took from 1788-1960 before Protestant America was willing to elect a Catholic as President, and only then by the thinnest of margins, due to centuries of distrust and discrimination.
Most Christian religions are deep in the throes of contentious disagreements regarding theological issues. Ordination of women and/or gays/lesbians to full pastoral rights; gay/lesbian marriage; abortion; the role of the pulpit in politics; “modern” religious services versus “traditional” ritual; the church’s role in servicing the poor versus accumulating wealth. These kinds of issues are breaking up the unity of many denominations, if not bordering on outright schism as some churches seek to secede and form new affiliations.
Many churches struggle with the “graying” of their congregations as pews go unfilled, older generations occupy most spaces, young adults are increasingly unseen. Over 25% of adults have left the religion in which they were raised (44% if intra-Protestant changes are included). This often reflects the gap in social / political / religious views today between the under-40 population and “their elders,” which is as great as the extreme divisions of the 1960s/1970s. The increasing politicization of many religions is described as a major reason young people are rejecting the church. The religions and the sermons of the 1950s simply are not meeting the needs of today’s young adults and their children.
The fastest-growing religious group had been the decentralized Evangelical Christians. But this movement has also been hurt by its increasingly aggressive secular involvement in the politics of the country: the secular reigns over the spiritual. Currently, one of the fastest-growing groups includes those describing themselves as “unaffiliated” or “spiritual but not religious” (16% among all adults; 25% for ages 18-29) – many highly serious about their own personal spirituality, but who do not find their religious home in organized churches or with a pre-occupation with some required orthodox dogma.
Yoga and Buddhist spiritual and meditation practices are engaging people of all faiths, and are also becoming part of mainstream medical and mental health practices. Islam is scattered across the country, but is laying low due to the post-9/11 prejudice from some Americans. Judaism remains religiously strong, its impact belying their smaller numbers. Yet I do not know when we might see our first Jewish president. Numerous other smaller, independent religious groups abound to offer alternatives to the mainstream religions. Again, almost all of these religious groups also have their own subdivisions into differing, more specialized beliefs and practices.
All in all, “America’s religion” (singular) does not exist. Our religions lie in near-chaos, being pushed, pulled and stretched all over the spiritual landscape. And that is the great news – that America still stands, as it has since its beginning, for Freedom of Religion. Religious diversity was what our Founders intended to protect, not religious hegemony. That all religions are acceptable and protected in America, living side-by-side each other. That no religion is preferred or mandated by the State. That every American is free to seek out the religion that best services his/her spiritual seekings and aspirations. That freedom FROM religion, or from any one religion, is as ensured as freedom TO any religion. Our national religious issue today is an internal conflict among good people of good intent in each religion, each trying to find their own way. Those who would seek to exploit these difficult divisions for their own personal gain should be shunned to the sidelines, cast out from involvement in this more serious spiritual contemplation.
In the end, we need to stop arguing about who is “right,” who is the “more spiritual,” and who are “the chosen ones.” Instead, we should simply be respectful and supportive of each person’s individual quest to discover their own spirituality and how to best fulfill that potential of “self.” Perhaps then our churches could better serve us by focusing more on how people carry their weekly Sabbath lesson into their other six days of the week. If we feel we must judge the spiritual worth of another, let it be based upon the depth of his beliefs and the purity of her actions, not by the catechisms that they rotely recite. For too many centuries, we have attached more importance to the label under which we dress our religious beliefs than we have to the content and practice of our personal religion.
“Is it not strange that the descendants of those Pilgrim fathers who Crossed the Atlantic to preserve their own freedom of opinion have always proved themselves intolerant of the Spiritual liberty of others?”
(Robert E. Lee, General, Army of Northern Virginia)
© 2014 Randy Bell