Civil Religion in America Then and Now

Yesterday, I discussed with my class Robert Bellah’s famous 1967 essay entitled “Civil Religion in America.” In a time when news commentators and some scholars express concern that there is too much religion in American politics, Bellah’s essay reminds us that religion has always been part of American politics and national discourse.

Referring to John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Presidential Inaugural speech, Bellah remarked that President Kennedy referred to God three times in that famous speech. Bellah then asks, “Considering the separation of church and state, how is a president justified in using the word ‘God’ at all? The answer is that the separation of church and state has not denied the political realm a religious dimension. Although matters of personal religious belief, worship, and association are considered to be strictly private affairs, there are, at the same time, certain common elements of religious orientation that the great majority of Americans share. These have played a crucial role in the development of American institutions and still provide a religious dimension for the whole fabric of American life, including the political sphere. This public religious dimension is expressed in a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals that I am calling American civil religion.”

Before watching President Kennedy’s speech, which I suggest you do, my students wondered [Read more...]

Why pastors should plagiarize in their sermons

I’ve been thinking about the differences between classroom teaching and pulpit preaching.

When I teach, I use the work of many scholars to help students understand the material, with proper citation of course.  Yes, I give my own ideas and analyses (and probably more than I need), but the the core of my material is the work of others.  If I had to present *only* my own ideas, the class would be about an hour or two long, and then I’d have to call it for the semester.

In contrast, there seems to be a norm among pastors that all sermons have to be original in idea and expression. The problem is that this is very hard to do; I know I couldn’t produce an original, useful 20-30 talk every week.  So, a lot of sermons aren’t really that good.

This leads me to wonder why pastors do not [Read more...]

Whatever Happened to “Unequally Yoked”?

My research team and I are waist-deep in interviews of twenty-somethings for my next book project. Among the 90-some interviews we’ve conducted are about 15 (so far) with evangelicals. Between what they’re telling us and my own listening and reading, I’m detecting a subtle—yet significant—shift in how evangelicals talk about ideal mating scenarios. When I was a younger man, Christians of all stripes were counseled pretty straightforwardly to avoid marrying an unbeliever—that is, someone who didn’t share the basics of Christian doctrine. The logic, of course, is that the unbelieving spouse would foster the same in you and your (future) children, and that that would be a bad outcome. The advice arose, I presume, as an extension of 2 Corinthians 6:14, which itself need not be interpreted as applying primarily to marriage, but it often has been.

But that’s not what I’m hearing today from evangelical quarters. At some point this advice seems to have morphed into a much higher bar for an optimal mate, which seems (to me, at least) a problem, since fewer Americans are marrying today than ever before. When demand (for marriage) drops, I’m not sure restricting supply is the smart thing to do.

The narrative we heard from several respondents—and I myself heard it back when I briefly dabbled with the Baptists before swimming the Tiber—goes something like this: [Read more...]

Best Selling Books in Sociology of Religion, SSSR 2011

Last weekend at the meetings of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, I perused the book sale, wondering “What are other people buying? What should I be reading?”

On the last day of the conference, I asked Theo, the religion editor for Oxford University Press, to tell me which of Oxford’s books were selling a lot. He pointed at Christian Smith’s Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, and gave me a knowing look. Oh, yes, I said, all Smith’s books from the National Study of Youth and Religion sell well. Yes, indeed, he replied. If you pick up this book, get ready for a rather depressing read about the dominant culture of some (though clearly not all) youth: hedonism.

Two more books on youth and religion are also selling well, Lisa Pearce and Melinda Denton’s A Faith of Their Own and Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker’s Premarital Sex in America. Both are very popular among my undergrad students, so much so that I have had to put multiple copies on reserve at the library because so many students want to write their research papers using them. Neither should be read if you think your children or youth group attendees are angels; but if you want a sense of what youth culture is really like, pick them up.

Nearly all the copies of my UNC colleague Charles Kurzman’s book The Missing Martyrs: Why There are so Few Muslim Terrorists were gone from the Oxford display [Read more...]

Religious affiliation in the United States since 1910: The long, steady decline of Mainline Protestantism

On Thursday, I referenced the dramatic decline in Mainline Protestantism over the past century.  Here’s some data from the General Social Survey that illustrate this change.  I took the question asking respondents in which religious tradition they were raised, calculated in which decade they were 16 years old, and estimated American affiliation rates at that time.  Note, this presents the religious affiliation of young people, not adults, and they are not the same since family size varies by religious tradition.