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.

 


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