The Rt. Rev. Sheila and American faith

Yes, gentle readers, it’s time for another visit with Sheila, the oh-so-American individualist who is at the center of the growing, ongoing movement that many call “Sheila-ism.”

There was a real Sheila, once upon a time. These days, her name is used to describe the whole do-it-yourself approach to faith that is one of the most important trends in American religion.

Sociologist Robert Bellah and the real Sheila show up near the end of a recent USA Today news feature that ran under the title, “More Americans tailoring religion to fit their needs.” It’s crucial background that gives Cathy Lynn Grossman’s trend story extra bite:

… Bellah first saw this phenomenon emerging in the 1980s. In a book he co-authored, Habits of the Heart, he introduces Sheila, a woman who represents this. Sheila says: “I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice. … It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think God would want us to take care of each other.”

Bellah, now professor emeritus at University of California-Berkeley, says, “Sheila was a jolt to some at the time. But to a lot of people, it wasn’t a jolt at all, they had been living that way for a while. Don’t romanticize the past. Fervent religiosity was always in the minority. Just because people showed up in church didn’t always mean a deep personal conviction or commitment.”

Bellah sees two sides to the one-person-one-religion trend. On the positive: It’s harder to hold on to prejudices against groups — by religion or race or gender or sexuality — if everyone wants to be seen individually.

“The bad news is you lose the capacity to make connections. Everyone is pretty much on their own,” he says. And all this rampant individualism also fosters “hostility toward organized groups — government, industry, even organized religion.”

But, as I said, this is rather old news. This is also a story that Grossman can write in her sleep, she is so familiar with the terrain.

The part of Grossman’s latest report that really hooked me was the new material from evangelical researcher George Barna in which he notes the degree to which many of the people who are part of the rising tide of “unchurched” Americans are actually people who considered themselves post-church Christians.

What does that look like, in terms of doctrine?

Barna’s new book on U.S. Christians, Futurecast, tracks changes from 1991 to 2011, in annual national surveys of 1,000 to 1,600 U.S. adults. All the major trend lines of religious belief and behavior he measured ran downward — except two.

More people claim they have accepted Jesus as their savior and expect to go to heaven.

And more say they haven’t been to church in the past six months except for special occasions such as weddings or funerals. In 1991, 24% were “unchurched.” Today, it’s 37% .

Barna blames pastors for those oddly contradictory findings. Everyone hears, “Jesus is the answer. Embrace him. Say this little Sinners Prayer and keep coming back. It doesn’t work. People end up bored, burned out and empty,” he says.

Here’s the key passage where I wanted just a bit more information. It’s possible that the printed edition included one of those USA Today info sidebars and that this didn’t make it into the online version (although Grossman and Co. are good at getting those links into the package with her pieces).

When he measures people by their belief in seven essential doctrines, defined by the National Association of Evangelicals’ Statement of Faith, only 7% of those surveyed qualified.

Barna laments, “People say, ‘I believe in God. I believe the Bible is a good book. And then I believe whatever I want.’”

OK, I’ll bite. I’ll ask the obvious question: What are his seven “essential” doctrines?

I would imagine that Barna — with that number seven — is working with this doctrinal statement from the National Association of Evangelicals. However, it would be nice to know, since Barna is known for putting his own brand on traditional matters of faith and doctrine.

The reality, of course, is that it would be hard for anyone to nail down most Protestants (even evangelicals and true fundamentalists) when it comes to creating a mini-Creed to unite believers in our post-denominational world. Similar tensions are easy to find (of course) among Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox and Anglicans. Grossman’s story notes some of the parallel trends among pre-modern, modern and postmodern Jews. Heck, even the agnostics and atheists do not agree with one another on how to live their lives without faith.

Anyway, I headed to Google to try to find Barna’s big seven doctrines. The list must be in the book, or a clear editorial sign that he adopted the NAE list. (If anyone finds a Barna link on that, please let us know in the comments section.

In the end, however, I will take this opportunity to remind journalists of my tried-and-true short list of doctrines to inquire about when covering disputes among the vast majority of Christian groups around the world. As I have always stressed, I have found that it is interesting — as a journalistic exercise — to note how many Christian leaders answer, struggle to answer, or refuse to answer, the following doctrinal questions.

Since the start of this weblog I have called this set the “tmatt trio” and, just the other day, I got a note from a reader requesting a refresher. So be it. Of course, this is another chance for GetReligion critics to break out their shot glasses and kick off another round of that “GetReligion drinking game” of long ago.

So here’s the tmatt trio:

(1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?

That said, it is interesting to read back through Grossman’s piece a second time and look for the echoes of debates about these three ancient Christian doctrines. I’ll also ask another question that I have asked in the past, without response. When Jews argue about actual doctrines (as opposed to traditions), what are the main issues? What would be the top three?

IMAGES: Yes, the top image is of a stole in a pastor’s liturgical vestments. What can I say? Bad Vestments is an amazing website.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • sari

    The single biggest argument between different Jewish denominations concerns the origin of Torah. I hate to say that the Orthodox believe this or Reform Jews believe that, because belief is very personal and not as well delineated as it appears to be for many Christian denominations. That said, Orthodoxy Judaism rests on the notion that G-d handed the Torah directly to Moses at Sinai and then instructed him on the accompanying Oral Law (eventually codified in the Mishnah, Gemara, and subsequent commentaries on same, iow, the whole of Jewish Law, still being promulgated today). The Reform movement rejected the notion of Divine utterance and teaches that Torah is divinely inspired. Conservative sits between the two as an attempt to “modernize” Jewish practice but within the confines of the Halakhah (Jewish Law)–Torah given by G-d, but with a more flexible interpretation. A fourth major movement, Reconstructionism, rejects (or rejected at its inception), the notion of G-d acting in history and views Judaism more as a culture than a religion per se.

    The other biggies, which stem largely from the above, concern who is a Jew and the degree to which Jews should adhere to the Halakhah and why.

  • Hector


    If I may ask, what are you hoping to gather from these questions? We all know that there are Christians who disagree with you about, e.g., sexual morality: what are you hoping to get them to concede?

  • Jerry

    That was an interesting story. Apparently the history of Christian schism has reached its logical end in the USA because people are, in a certain sense, becoming “denominations” of one.

    Barna blames pastors for those oddly contradictory findings.

    Yes, there are uninspired pastors but there are also those who can rouse the congregation. Not so long ago, people chose churches not because of careful study of doctrine, but because of location or because a certain social class when to that church or because they were raised in that denomination. It seems to me that much of the findings can be explained by the death of such superficial reasons for attending particular churches. So reporting that someone fixes the blame in a certain direction is not enough. Stories need to consider more than one explanation.

    Perhaps Americans are turning into sufis, at least as defined by the Chisti Order Sufi Hazrat Inayat Khan?

    Such is also the nature of the Sufi. In the first place he purifies himself by keeping the vision of God constantly before him, not allowing the stains of earthly differences and distinctions to be mirrored upon his heart…

    The Sufi shows his universal brotherhood in his adaptability. Among Christians he is a Christian, among Jews he is a Jew, among Muslims he is a Muslim, among Hindus he is a Hindu; for he is one with all, and thus all are with him. He allows everyone to join in his brotherhood, and in the same way he allows himself to join in any other. He never questions, “What is your creed or nation or religion?” Neither does he ask, “What are your teachings or principles?”

  • Rev. Michael Church

    If Barna is in fact using the seven doctrinal points listed on the NAE website, he might want to exercise caution lest he define “essential” doctrines of Christianity solely by the yardstick of American Evangelicalism, and exclude from his measurements faithful churchgoers who don’t fit that arbitrary definition. A couple of the ANE’s doctrinal points are at least debatable within traditional Christian churches: (a) the “vicarious” death of Christ is one historic theory of the Atonement among several; (b) the idea that the Spirit enables “the Christian to live a godly life” may touch on the old argument between Calvinists and Wesleyans (I’m not expert enough to be sure); and (c) for many Christians, “spiritual unity in Christ” is a mealy-mouthed substitute for visible unity.

    And, while I’m straining at gnats, I should say that one smallish problem with the Trio, as you phrase it here, is that few Protestants recognize marriage as a sacrament. So to get a result that actually indicates a difference of opinion on sexual morality (rather than the nature and definition of sacraments), you would need to ask about “sex outside of marriage,” full stop.

  • Hector

    Re: So to get a result that actually indicates a difference of opinion on sexual morality (rather than the nature and definition of sacraments), you would need to ask about “sex outside of marriage,” full stop.

    I think one problem with that is that there are many different forms of marriage in history (trial marriage, ‘Gaelic marriage’, polygamous marriage, polyandrous marriage, remarriage, plural marriage, gay marriage, temporary marriage) that don’t match up with what was traditionally concidered ‘the sacrament of marriage’.
    ‘Sacrament of marriage’ is a reasonable proxy term for ‘lifelong and indissoluble union of one man and one woman, open to reproduction’. (Of course, by that definition, evangelicals who accept contraception are ‘over the line’ as much as the gay-marriage advocates).

    You’re right about ‘vicarious atonement’, there are people who hold to different theories of the Incarnation (e.g. the Recapitulation theory) which don’t place as much emphasis on ‘vicarious atonement’.

    And of course, ‘the only infallible and authoritative word of God’ is something that both liberal Christians as well as Catholics, Anglo-Catholics and Orthodox might strongly disagree with: it’s really a signifier of Sola Scriptura brands of Christianity, not Christianity per se.

  • John Petty

    Since the Biblical accounts of the resurrection are quite different, which Biblical account did you have in mind?

  • Hector

    Re: Since the Biblical accounts of the resurrection are quite different

    They are?

  • tmatt


    You missed the point. I am not asking anyone to concede anything. I have, as a journalist, simply found that these three questions produce some very interesting answers, semi-answers and non-answers. From a journalistic perspective, there is no RIGHT answer. The key is gaining information.

  • tmatt


    The issue is simply this historical nature of the event — yes or no. Some people, of course, move past an event in real time to an event that is a metaphor, or whatever.

    Again, interesting info to have.

  • Karen Vaughan

    The vestment would be bad for most traditional religions but would probably work for a Unitarian, Universalist, UU, Unity or the “Nondenominational Ministry” that a colleague is studying for.

  • Chip

    Given Rodney Stark’s criticism of Barna’s use of polls last month in the WSJ last month, how are his conclusions credible?

  • Dave

    Bad vestments, indeed! They look very Unitarian Unversalist.

  • tioedong

    Barna’s definition of a biblical world view

    absolute moral truth exists
    the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches
    Satan is considered to be a real being or force, not merely symbolic
    a person cannot earn their way into Heaven by trying to be good or do good works
    Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth
    God is the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the world who still rules the universe today

    original link

    as a Catholic, I’d nuance most of these, so it leaves a lot of us out.

  • MJBubba

    Professor Mattingly, thanks for the laugh with the link to Bad Vestments. As for the flowers, they look like they must be passionflowers, so there is perhaps a real connection ( ) to Christian thought. It doesn’t appeal to me; anything that takes that much explaining is not a good idea for liturgical use.

  • Lea Oksman

    What about a fourth question: “How important is participation in church services to living a Christian life?” Any reason this one was not included?

  • BJ Mora

    Evangelicalism has become so diverse that it’s almost a meaningless word now (maybe it is: see DG Hart’s _Deconstructing Evangelicalism_).