And Then There Were None: The Changing Nature of American Spirituality

Over twenty percent of Americans now claim no spiritual allegiance.

So says a number of Pew studies conducted over the last few years. Americans are increasingly dissatisfied with religion, or at least organized religion. While the country has always been home to a strain of anticlericalism, what is being seen today is unique in a number of ways. Spirituality is not necessarily declining, but adherence to traditional religion is. I would like to briefly state the problem of decreased American religiosity, analyze one of its primary causes, and present an idea of what it will mean for America’s immediate cultural future.

I would like to offer a brief autobiographical prelude. I was born and raised in the Evangelical Free Church of America. This network was born out of a group of Scandinavian Lutherans who gradually adopted a less liturgical version of Christianity. I am a product of vacation Bible school, high-impact youth conferences, and some truly thoughtful religious mentors. My interest in American religion is not academic, and neither is it unspecialized. I will be primarily speaking of Christianity in America, as that is the area that has seen the steepest declines.

America’s current religious makeup would have been unthinkable sixty years ago. The decades of the mid-twentieth century were widely considered the high watermark of American religiosity. Prominent public intellectuals brought religious–particularly mainline Protestant–ideas to the table regularly. The battle against communism had an explicit religious dimension (which would remain well into the following decades and be encouraged by President Reagan.) Theologians such as Rheinhold Niebuhr called for vigorous Christian engagement in the public square, while newly-minted Catholic TV personality Fulton Sheen offered theology and moral guidance to the American home. Even thirty years later things didn’t look as they do now. Along with the rise of inner city violence, MTV, and the end of détente came a flood of Christians who sought to bring socially conservative mores directly into the public square. The rise of the “religious right”–a problematic, but necessary categorization–made for a decisive trend in American politics.

Things don’t look the same in 2013. Presidential nominee Mitt Romney, championed by the religious right, seemed to galvanize mostly the older, White segment of the population. Religion—Christianity in particular–is now seen as divisive and solely concerned with condemnation of the other. Young evangelicals are increasingly making their ambivalence known, with blog articles like “How To Win A Culture War and Lose a Generation” gaining much press. Others, tired of the game entirely, are abandoning ship. Some embrace an updated rationalistic atheism, espoused by the like of Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens.  Others lean toward a more general spirituality by way of Oprah, Deepak Chopra and The Secret.

Why are so many–especially so many thirty and under–quitting religion? There are several possible reasons. Ross Douthat penned a trenchant critique of American Christianity in which he sought to analyze “how America became a nation of heretics.” In that book, Bad Religion, he writes:

“For most of our country’s history, the American experience has vindicated this point. In many ways, the landscape of Christianity in America–where the faith is uncorrupted by state power and a thousand heresies are allowed to bloom–resembles the climate of the early Church, with all the furious theological ferment but (mercifully) none of the Roman persecution. What Christianity has offered to the United States has been matched by what the United States has offered to Christianity: a chance, in a nation with no establishment of religion, to recover the subversive power of its early centuries–a power that a religion founded on the crucifixion of a God-man alongside common criminals ought by rights to always possess.”

He outlines the results of long-term American populism. He pays particular attention to the rise of new historical criticism of Jesus (and its popularization in works like The Da Vinci Code); what he calls “Americanism”, the fusion of pro-American rhetoric with quasi-apocalyptic religious fervor; and American Christianity’s “prosperity gospel” in which God promises health and happiness.

These are important changes in American religion that make more traditional options look banal and unattractive. Douthat is right to recognize them and offer an alternative.

The more important critique, however, comes from the work of sociologist Christian Smith and those who draw upon his work. Smith did extensive quantitative research to determine the beliefs of religious American youth. What he found was startling: a vague, detached belief in a relatively absent God who wanted everyone to be happy and follow their hearts. He coined a phrase for this system of thought which has been gaining notoriety: moralistic therapeutic deism.  MTD only vaguely resembles historic Christianity: the Christianity articulated in the early Christian creeds, expounded by Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and John Paul II. It more resembles the spiritual agnosticism outlined earlier in this article. Little wonder, then, that those already embracing this philosophy might just as well find it outside an institutional framework.

The “nones”, as I call them, are becoming increasingly significant culturally and politically. Far from apathetic, however, the lack of institutionalized religion in their lives does not always lead to a lack of meaning. Youth are becoming more politically active; much work in civil rights and cultural transformation is being carried out by the young. As someone dedicated to public advocacy but also beholden to an institutional religion, I can applaud their enthusiasm while questioning its grounds.

What will this mean for institutional religion in America? While I am not optimistic for the prospects of, for example, the evangelical media empire, the sharp contraction may end up as a blessing in disguise. I am hopeful that this decline will force American Christianity in particular to return to a more articulate commitment of its core principles. Its importance is not, despite the recent culture war eruptions, linked to just how much clout it can have in legislation. Rather, it rests in deeper theological commitments: to a present God in a liturgical community that emphasizes the universal need for redemption. It is in their critique, sometimes voiced, sometimes not, of religion that has gotten off track, that we all have something to learn from the “nones”.

-Kelby Carlson is a Senior Columnist and sophomore in the Blair School of Music. He can be reached at kelby.s.carlson@vanderbilt.edu. 

 

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