In 2007, I wrote a book titled God and Country: America in Red and Blue. It explored a question that had preoccupied me for years: how do religiously inculcated world-views affect our political behaviors? I was–and remain–convinced that a number of ostensibly secular policy positions are (consciously or unconsciously) rooted in religious ways of seeing the world.
In order to examine the religious roots of America’s cultural and policy divisions, I needed to do a lot of research. I was–and am– far from well-versed about my own tradition, which is Judaism, and I knew little or nothing of the 2000-plus Christian denominations in the U.S., or how religious beliefs affect socialization. Writing the book required a “deep dive,” and I remain very grateful to Christian friends–including a couple of clergy members (you guys know who you are!)– who patiently read drafts and checked my conclusions.
Those conclusions are detailed in the book (which is still available) and it is not my intent to recite them here. I share the fact of that rather extensive research because it is the background with which I approached a recent column by John Pavlovitz and a New York Times guest essay about America’s rapidly growing secularism.
Pavlovitz is a writer, pastor, and activist from North Carolina, and a favorite among my Facebook friends, who share his posts rather frequently. He’s what I consider a “real” Christian (granted, deciding who is “real” is pretty arrogant coming from a non-Christian…). This column was titled “How You Know if You Have the Wrong Religion,” and what struck me was that his message–with which I entirely agreed– addressed the longstanding divide between faith and works. (Traditional Christian denominations are typically concerned with belief; Judaism prioritizes works.)
Growing up and later ministering in the Church, the elemental heart of spiritual community was the stated or implicit sense that we alone had cracked the God code; that we’d figured out what every other faith tradition (and many communities within our tradition) had not. Evangelism was less about sharing God’s love with the world around us but about getting the world to be as enlightened as we were by completely agreeing with us.
Believing the right thing was everything. The world was sharply divided between the saved and the damned and the greatest imaginable sin was to reject that idea. And it wasn’t enough to believe in God, you had to believe in the correct God, adopt the correct doctrine, and pray the correct prayers—or else your sincerity or judgment (not to mention, your eternal destination) were questioned.
Pavlovitz isn’t the only critic of those ostentatiously pious believers whose faith never quite translates into good works or even loving-kindness. There’s significant research suggesting that the growing exodus from churches and organized religion is a reaction to precisely that form of religiosity.
And that brings me to a New York Times guest essay by a Baptist pastor who is also a college professor. After charting the steady decline in American religiosity since 1988, he reports
Today, scholars are finding that by almost any metric they use to measure religiosity, younger generations are much more secular than their parents or grandparents. In responses to survey questions, over 40 percent of the youngest Americans claim no religious affiliation, and just a quarter say they attend religious services weekly or more.
The partisan implication of that statistic, which he duly notes, is a reduction of support for the Republican Party, which is heavily dependent upon religiously observant Christians, including but not limited to Evangelicals. As he also points out, however, Democrats will have to balance policy priorities “between the concerns of the politically liberal Nones and the more traditional social positions espoused by groups like Black and mainline Protestants.”
Whatever the partisan consequences, Christians like Pavlovitz are offering a way forward that would significantly reduce today’s religious tribalism–and ultimately, redefine what counts as genuinely religious.
If you claim to be a “God and Country “Bible-believing Evangelical,” great. But if you have contempt for immigrants or bristle at white privilege or oppose safeguards in a pandemic, your Christianity is ineffectual at best and at worst, it’s toxic. You might want to rethink something.
If you believe because you prayed a magic prayer to accept Jesus at summer camp when you were 13, that you can inflict any kind of adult damage to the people and the world around you and you’ll still be golden, while gentle, loving, benevolent atheists and Muslims go to hell—you’re doing religion wrong.
So many of America’s problems stem from “doing religion wrong”…