When Nuns Embrace the “Nones” – Politics and the Future of Faith

As many of you know any chance that I can stir up the stew of politics, culture and faith, I’m in. As a progressive Christian and  liberal Democrat or conservative Green depending on the day, this year’s election again provides ample fodder for those of us who like to engage in both supporting our beliefs in the public square and trying to model gracious disagreement.

During this year’s election cycle, I have been fascinating by the amount of visibility that religion has received by both the Democrats and Republicans. This visibility combined with the recent Pew report on the “nones” and, like many, I have been wondering about the connect/s between the two. If so many people are no longer religious, why is religion getting so much play?

For one response to this question, I turned to one of my colleagues, Jennifer Butler, Executive Director of Faith in Public Life. I do not know Jennifer really well, but I have tracked the organization and have always been impressed at the depth of content and passion for advocacy that is shared. Full disclosure that FPL does the media for the Nuns, so while this does help to spread their message, it’s a message that I am fully in support of.

Jennifer Butler, Faith in Public Life

This week Sister Simone Campbell and her sister nuns are hitting Ohio roadways to protest the draconian “Ryan budget” recently passed by the House of Representatives. Their nine state bus earlier this summer to protect the least of these and calling for solidarity with the poor has become one of the emblematic stories of this election cycle, sparking a profound debate about economic fairness.

This is also a story about spiritual renewal and vitality that says a lot about the future of faith — particularly Christianity — in America. As the Nuns on a Bus visited Catholic social service agencies and influential members of Congress across several hard-hit Midwestern states, they encountered crowds of people drawn to their Christ-like compassion, their vision for justice, and their deeply grounded spirituality. Even a quick supply stop at Target drew throngs of fans asking for prayers and writing checks “for gas money.” The supporters were not just Catholics, but Protestants, agnostics, and former church goers (“I was born a Christian but…”), all moved by the message that nowhere does the Gospel teach us to cut lifelines to poor families while giving tax breaks to millionaires.

Most striking for me, as someone one who helped support the tour – my organization Faith in Public Life provides media strategy to faith-based advocacy efforts – is the response of those who left the church as adults because of the hypocrisy, bigotry, or hate they encountered: “If this is Christianity, count me in!” Sister Simone in an interview this week with National Catholic Reporter observed that the chord her bus tour struck with people is not just about politics. “I see in this a deep hunger for relationship, a hunger for beauty, a hunger for connection. A lot of people feel left out spiritually and somehow we have tapped into this hunger.” Her observation is all the more important on the heels of a Pew Forum poll which made headlines this week with its finding that one and five adults have no religious affiliation.

Recent polling analysis by Robert PutnamDianna Butler Bass, and others also reveals that the fastest growing religious group in the U.S. is a category of people who say they have no religious affiliation. Sometimes called the “nones” by social scientists, their numbers have more than doubled since 1990. They make up about 16% of the population. Yet surveys also show that many of these have not given up on faith–they’ve just given up on religion (only 4% of Americans identify as atheist or agnostic). Could it be that those of us who feel called to social justice and those called to evangelism—often two separate and distinct leadership camps—now have common cause? The Rise of the Nuns might well be the answer to what Amy Sullivan called the Rise of the Nones.

Evangelicals, Protestants, and Catholics I know are now asking themselves this: how did the Christian Right become the public face of Christianity? For four decades a media savvy and well-funded set of Christian Right organizations ended up branding Christianity as a bigoted, uncompassionate religion, resulting in a mass exodus of young people from organized religion. While the Christian Right built a megaphone, we mainline Protestants gave up our radio stations and waited for society to secularize—yes, we were taught and truly believed that religion’s importance in public life, even in private lives, would decline. We were wrong.

Now that pollsters, sociologists, and historians have informed us that the world needs our message, what do we practitioners do about it? The Nuns have shown us a new path forward that might just enable us to reach the growing percentage of “nones” in American religion. Their success reminds us that theology can best be taught through showing rather than just telling. It also reminds us that in an age of media saturation, if it didn’t happen on television or youtube or facebook–it didn’t happen. This fact may annoy some of us, but it’s not always a bad thing. Just think: our pulpits are much bigger than they were before the advent of the 24/7 news cycle and social media. Yet how many of us in seminary or in our churches received training in how to go on the Colbert Show or write an op-ed? I would love to have swapped out a semester of Greek (sorry, Princeton) for a semester of “Spreading the Good News with 21 Century Communications Strategy.” Pastors, consider this your new pulpit. Preach it, Sister!

Most importantly, embracing the Nuns’ approach will require that we consciously and confidently reclaim our once prominent role in American public life. Having watched the tactics of the Christian Right for years, I think many of us are embarrassed by our faith and reticent to speak out. It’s almost as though the Christian Right stole our voices. Take heart from the Nuns and those who flocked to their bus: the “nones” and others are eager to hear your voice.

Thanks to Jennifer for taking the time to respond. If you want to keep up with Jennifer and Faith in Public Life, you can read more from Jennifer on her FPL blog, follow her on Twitter or like the FPL Facebook Page.


Christian Hypocrisy in Examining the Word of God and the Words of Politicians

Flickr photo by wy_jackrabbit

First off, before the strident atheists out there start lifting this post up as a “See, even, so and so, says Christians are a bunch of hypocrites!” let me be the first to stipulate that all people of faith are, at some level, hypocrites. Because we understand that we are not perfect, there will always be inconsistency. Of course, depending on one’s context, some Christians are more hypocritical than others, but in the end, very few people actually do walk the talk in totality. This reality doesn’t lessen faith for me, rather it is the way in which I hold myself accountable and am challenged to keep striving to live a life that is consistent God’s calling and claim on my life.

With that disclaimer, out of the way, as part of Patheos’s 2012 election coverage and in response to this week’s questions, What’s wrong–and what’s right–with the role of faith in American politics today? I offer this min-rant.

Like many of you out there, I am both frustrated and fascinating by the election season. Truth be told, I love it: the strategizing, the sociological implications and the constant challenge to be community. I do my best not to add to the negativity and unhealthy interactions that are in front of us all the time, but sometimes, like so many of you, I just want to scream/tweet out, “You are mean, lying poopy face . . . oh why do you hate America so?!?!?”

One of the instigators of my frequent potty mouth moments is seeing how supporters of both main presidential candidates* respond to one another and the claims that each campaign makes. It seems that supporters of both parties are pretty inconsistent when it comes to examining what the campaigns are putting out there about the economy, healthcare, foreign policy, taxes, poverty, etc. Generally speaking, when we like and support a candidate, we believe them and if we don’t support a candidate, we find every way to discount their every claim as an utter lie.

Seeing as many of the people who show up in my various news streams are of the Christian variety, I have noticed the same patterns when we approach Scripture. Now don’t worry, I am not trying to equate our political system and God’s movement in the world. I am only pointing out  how we tend to approach our beliefs in times of disagreement. These are the things that I have noticed:

When we read the Bible, The Word of God . . .

  • We lean into and take at face value passages that reinforce our already held beliefs.
  • We dig deeper into the history and context of the passages in order to discount any that call our beliefs into question

When we hear words from politicians . . .

  • We lean into and take at face value the words that our preferred politicians says.
  • We dig deeper into the words from politicians we don’t like in order to discount their version of the truth.

In both of these cases we are basically doing two things: one, finding all the support we can to affirm our already held beliefs and, two, finding anything we can to discount the beliefs that others might hold as true. In the end, we are more concerned with making sure that we are right, rather than being open to the possibility that our beliefs might need to change, shift or . . . heaven forbid, be scrapped in totality.

Of course there are always exceptions to these two extremes and I would even go as far as saying that these approaches are not always “wrong,” ways to approach politics and faith, for sometimes when we dig for one truth, we unexpectedly discover another. At the same time, I think it’s fair to say that, at some point, each and every one of us falls into the trap of not thinking critically about our politics and our faith. Truth is, it’s exhausting to engage in the self-reflection and relationship building that might lead to a change of our hearts and minds. Despite what some might like to believe about themselves, NO ONE LIKES CHANGE. The only change any of us really champion is change . . . for other people.

Now I am not sure what we do about all of this other than try and be more consistent. I try to remain diligent in not always discounting everything that any candidates says, nor do I take, at face value, the truth that any candidate claims. I have found that following people on twitter with whom I disagree, while excruciating at times, has been helpful in maintaining perspective. I have also found that Politifacts, especially on twitter, seems to be a very helpful truth-o-meter for campaign claims.

In the end, there are no easy answers and I find strength in the fact that we will always fall short of perfection. But if we can all acknowledge these realities of shared hypocrisy and extend a little grace towards our enemies in these times of battle, maybe we will all see the other side of this election season a little less bruised and battered from the fight.

A small hope for sure, my hope for us all nonetheless.

* I will save this topic for another post, but I am seriously considering a vote for the Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala Green Party Ticket.

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