Tag Archives: secularization

God And Country, Redux

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”…

 

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.