Tag Archives: secularization

The Good News

There isn’t much good news right now, nationally or globally. But there are indications of a worldwide swing toward sanity–if we can hang on long enough to allow a younger generation to take charge.

One clear trend that is immensely hopeful is the decline in religious fervor and declining trust in religious leaders, both here and abroad (although in the Arab world, increasing secularization is accompanied by increasing anger at the U.S.)

My characterization of growing secularization as “good news” will undoubtedly offend some readers, so let me be clear about the nature of the “religion” to which I’m referring.

I like my youngest son’s distinction: A “good” religion helps you ask–and wrestle with–the questions; a “bad” religion provides you with The Answers.

Folks who are certain they know what their god wants, and who want to use the power of the state to make the rest of us live in accordance with that certainty, make social peace impossible. We need more Reverend William Barbers, and fewer Mike Pences, more moral courage and less pious hypocrisy.

One reason young people are increasingly rejecting religion is the Evangelical embrace of Donald Trump. A recent article in The Atlantic explored the extent to which that embrace has triggered a crisis of faith.

Last week, Ralph Reed, the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s founder and chairman, told the group, “There has never been anyone who has defended us and who has fought for us, who we have loved more than Donald J. Trump. No one!”

 Reed is partially right; for many evangelical Christians, there is no political figure whom they have loved more than Donald Trump.

Trump’s approval rating among white evangelical Protestants is 25 points higher than the national average. Pew Research reports that, during the period from July 2018 to January 2019, 70 percent of white evangelicals who attended church at least once a week approved of Trump. (That raises the question: what on earth are they hearing from the pulpits of those churches?)

Evangelicals’ rabid support for a man who embodies everything they have long claimed to abhor has operated to de-legitimize Evangelical Protestantism in the eyes of non-adherents. For genuinely religious Christians, this has been hurtful. Peter Wehner, who authored the Atlantic article, writes

What is most personally painful to me as a person of the Christian faith is the cost to the Christian witness. Nonchalantly jettisoning the ethic of Jesus in favor of a political leader who embraces the ethic of Thrasymachus and Nietzsche—might makes right, the strong should rule over the weak, justice has no intrinsic worth, moral values are socially constructed and subjective—is troubling enough.

But there is also the undeniable hypocrisy of people who once made moral character, and especially sexual fidelity, central to their political calculus and who are now embracing a man of boundless corruptions.

Americans have traditionally purported to respect “religion.” We’ve been unwilling (at least in public) to suggest that some theologies undercut social cohesion and undermine the common good, that some “believers” support white Christian dominance more devoutly than spiritual growth, and that many have created a God in their own image.

A recent article in Forbes, of all places, illustrates the point.The author writes that it wasn’t Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” that turned the racist south Republican; it was pastors.

Southern churches, warped by generations of theological evolution necessary to accommodate slavery and segregation, were all too willing to offer their political assistance to a white nationalist program. Southern religious institutions would lead a wave of political activism that helped keep white nationalism alive inside an increasingly unfriendly national climate. Forget about Goldwater, Nixon or Reagan. No one played as much of a role in turning the South red as the leaders of the Southern Baptist Church.

Are there religious people exhibiting humility and loving-kindness, who define morality as an imperative to treat others as they would be treated? Certainly.

A group of 17 Christan church leaders under the banner of ‘Christians Against Christian Nationalism’ have issued an official statement. It condemns the Christian Right’s constant attacks on other faiths and their efforts to bring about a Christian fundamentalist theocracy in the United States.

Their warning is clear: “Christian nationalism provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation.” Adding that it goes hand in hand with white nationalism.

The group points out that the Constitution — the foundation of American law (the only one that counts) — makes it clear that: “Whether we worship at a church, mosque, synagogue or temple, America has no second-class faiths. All are equal under the U.S. Constitution.”

Equality under the Constitution, of course, does not translate into “equally meritorious.”

Before pundits decry the accelerating “loss of religion,” it would behoove us to determine just which versions of “religion” we’re losing.

Some versions need to be lost.

 

 

The Retreat of the Puritans

Last week, Irish voters overwhelmingly voted to recognize same-sex marriage. Leave aside, for now, the question whether fundamental rights should ever be subject to popular vote, and consider that Ireland has long been considered a very religious country.

Whatever it may mean to be “very religious” today, for growing numbers of people, it’s clear it doesn’t mean obediently following the doctrinal pronouncements of the relevant clerics. Increasingly, the ways in which people connect with their religious traditions have changed.

Earlier this week, my friend Art Farnsley had an excellent op-ed in the Washington Post, addressing this decline of religious authority. It is well worth reading in its entirety. Art notes the recent, widely-discussed Pew poll showing a decline in the number of Americans identifying as Christian, and suggests that numbers don’t adequately tell the story:

.. behind the story of Christian decline and the rise of “nones” is a long-standing debate about what religion theorists call “secularization,” the broad process by which religion gradually loses its social influence….

By the last two decades of the 20th century, secularization theories were in retreat for a number of good reasons. Most people did not stop being religious in the sense that they still had beliefs, intuitions, feelings and practices they defined as sacred. Modernity had not pushed spirituality out of their lives in America, and maybe not even in Britain or the Netherlands.

As Art notes, whether secularization has grown depends upon how you define the term.

Sociologist Mark Chaves redefined secularization as declining religious authority back in 1994. He suggested we stop worrying about whether individuals thought of themselves as religious and focus instead on religion’s social influence.

The evidence for this kind of secularization, the decline of religious authority, is everywhere. It is quaint to think of a time stores did not open and liquor was not sold on the Sabbath. But that is a small, symbolic change compared with the massive growth in individual choice at the expense of tradition, especially religious tradition.

Understood in this way, secularization is an inevitable consequence of modernity. We no longer see diseases like smallpox as indicators of God’s judgment; we call a doctor. We no longer ask the minister or rabbi to mediate our disputes; we call a lawyer.  For most inhabitants of modern, Western countries, religion is an incubator of values, not the source of binding law. So we have cultural Catholics, social Protestants, ethnic Jews…individuals still attached to their respective traditions who nevertheless feel free to pick and choose aspects of the relevant doctrines.

Change in the role of any social institution is never linear, of course, so we still have a number of the folks I called Puritans in God and Country- the “old time religion” fundamentalists who continue to wage war against religious diversity, women’s rights, same-sex marriage and any effort to grant LGBT citizens equal civil rights.

As Art concluded, they aren’t likely to win that war.

“In the struggle for authority with modern individualism, American religion is slowly losing.” That would be my headline for the recent Pew report. “Christians are declining in America” is just the tip of the iceberg.