Winners and losers in our do-it-yourself religion era

No one on the national religion-news scenes writes with more vigor and enthusiasm about America’s sharp turn away from religious doctrine and traditional religious institutions than veteran scribe Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today. Her journalistic glee is completely justified, in my opinion, because this is one of the most important religion-beat stories of our age, especially on the religious left.

On one level, her latest piece on this topic — the headline is “Relationships are the new religion for many” — is best seen as part of the wave of mainstream coverage following the “Nones on the Rise” survey about the surging number of religiously unaffiliated Americans, research that grew out of a partnership between the Pew Forum on Religious & Public Life and the PBS program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Toss in new research numbers from a number of other sources, such as the LifeWay team linked to the Southern Baptist Convention, and you have yet another chapter in the important story of do-it-yourself spirituality in postmodern America. The holy days hook at the top of the story, fleshed out with some name-specific anecdotes, is perfectly natural:

Emily Hilliard will cook a festive brunch with friends on Easter Sunday. But none in her Washington, D.C., social circle of foodies, folklorists and fiddlers will go to church that day.

In Denver, Ambra Vibran will enjoy an Italian feast with cousins that Sunday. But she says, “My spiritual life is in hiking, skiing, kayaking and enjoying God’s creation.” It’s a stretch to recall when Vibran last went to church.

Eleanor Drey plans a Jewish traditional meal where family and friends will talk about freedom. But it won’t be on Passover, Monday night this year. Folks are tied up with their kids’ spring vacations. They’ll gather at Drey’s San Francisco home in April instead.

The new data kicks in at the summary paragraph, where the line between the religiously devout and the new American normal is made quite clear. This is long, but you need to read it in order to get Grossman’s main point:

This week, most Americans will celebrate essential stories of Christianity and Judaism: God freeing the enslaved is a key Passover theme. Easter’s core is Jesus’ resurrection, offering a doorway to salvation.

But many will celebrate with a twist. While 73% of Americans call themselves Christian, only 41% say they plan to attend Easter worship services, according to a March 13 survey of 1,060 U.S. adults by LifeWay Research, a Nashville-based Christian research agency. Passover is a home-centered celebration, but it’s not known how many Jews plan to recite the prayers and serve symbolic foods at their Seder meal.

In the gap between faith and practice are millions of people who will delight in Easter and Passover as “holidays,” not “holy days.” They’re just as Christian, just as Jewish, in their own eyes as people who follow traditional scripts — church on Sunday before carving the ham or the Seder rituals before slurping the matzoh ball soup. They’ve simply redefined their spirituality to center on the people at the table — shared time, shared values with their nearest-and-dearest.

“Relationships have replaced religion for many Millennials,” says Esther Fleece, who spent three years specializing in outreach to young adult Christians for the evangelical group Focus on the Family.

Now, the only part of that I would question is Grossman’s summary judgment that these believers consider themselves “just as Christian, just as Jewish” as traditional believers. To be more specific, the only words in that summary that I want to question are “just as” — as opposed to millions of Americans still calling themselves Christian or Jewish, but then turning around and saying, something like “but I choose not to sit in a pew” like those who are still affiliated with traditional religious institutions.

They consider themselves “just as” Christian, “just as” Jewish as the orthodox? I’m reading the same surveys, but I don’t see that judgment in the numbers — although it’s in a few of the anecdotes. I see numbers suggesting that the unaffiliated people are saying, “but I still consider myself Christian” or “I still consider myself Jewish.”

So here is the key question. How does one interpret the personal identity being articulated in the following quote:

Fleece’s friend Vibran, 30, takes the view that “religion has evolved over the years. I feel like it’s whatever you want it to be. I believe the Catholic moral values, but I don’t feel I have to go to church to consider myself a believer in that.”

One thing is for sure — that point of view sounds very American. And it is very American. That’s the strong point of Grossman’s report.

Another key plank in the story is Grossman’s link between interfaith marriages and cohabitation and this new emphasis on faith without doctrines, rules and institutions. Much of the data here focuses on the demographic trends that are tearing at institutional Jewish life in America:

About 27% of Americans are in interfaith marriages or relationships, according to the 2007 Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the most recent data available.

InterfaithFamily, an organization that promotes Jewish choices for interfaith couples, found in a survey of 327 respondents that while 58% say they will participate in Easter celebrations, just 5% will tell the Easter story. And while 96% say they’ll participate in Passover celebrations, only 66% expect to tell the Passover story — the central event of a traditional Passover Seder meal.

Now, let me end with one other question.

Have we reached the point, after the Pew Forum study and similar research, where we can say that the growing norm in American society is a liberalized, personalized Judeo-Christian ethic (will scholar Christian Smith please call his answering service), while the liberal religious groups that offer this perspective continue to be in painful decline, in terms of membership? In other words, did liberal religious groups win the cultural war, while losing the battles to keep their own institutional ships afloat? Will radically individualized liberal religion drive liberal churches and temples out of business, while traditional religious groups become slightly smaller, but vital?

When the Pew Forum/PBS survey came out, the always quotable John C. Green of the University of Akron told me:

This survey shows that “it’s going to be much more difficult for mainline churches to turn things around simply by focusing on higher levels of commitment,” said political scientist John C. Green of the University of Akron. …

Part of the problem is that fewer Americans remain committed to supporting religious institutions and a high percentage of those who do seem to favor faiths that embrace the very doctrines and traditions the unaffiliated often reject. It also appears that young people who are rejecting traditional faiths — during the past five years in particular — are quitting organized religion altogether, rather than joining progressive institutions.

“It’s going to be hard for something like a ‘fewer Methodists, but better Methodists’ approach to work because these mainline churches are already so small and there are so many of them,” said Green. “The mainliners will have to find their niche. But who are they? What do they believe? Do they know?”

That’s the negative side of this story. Meanwhile, John Turner of George Mason University — in a blog post entitled “The Rise of Liberal Religion” — noted that it is possible to see this glass as half full:

Liberal Protestants may have ultimately lost the battle for membership, but they won the larger cultural struggle. A trenchant quote from the sociologist Christian Smith: “Liberal Protestantism’s organizational decline has been accompanied by and is in part arguably the consequence of the fact that liberal Protestantism has won a decisive, larger cultural victory.” … Through their embrace of religious pluralism and more universal mystical religious experiences, liberal Protestants imperiled their own institutional strength but persuaded many Americans of the value of their ideas.

So, Grossman’s story documents a story built on half of the equation.

Where is the other half? Where are the packed sanctuaries at midnight and at dawn on Easter, in liberal or traditionalist locations? How many babies and young children are seated around the Orthodox Jewish tables at Passover, as opposed to those in liberal Jewish households?

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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.

  • Jerry

    I remember reading an analysis of science fiction plot lines once. One typical story is the “if this goes on” which extrapolates current trends into the future. Clearly this story is one of many who do just that. But sometimes events happen which can change that trend line quite dramatically. And this calls for a certain humility in those who write about events when assuming that things will continue as they have been going.

    In this case, I’m thinking specifically about Pope Francis. In the past weeks Religion & Ethics Newsweekly program, there was a segment on St. Francis in which Fr. Larry Dunham, OFM said this:

    One reason why everyone takes Francis to their heart is because he is not perceived specifically as a Catholic Saint, he’s not perceived as specifically belonging to Christian people but he seems to be someone that appeals to all men and women regardless of their religious background or lack thereof.

    http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/episodes/march-22-2013/st-francis-and-the-new-pope/15267/

    So will a Pope who can even appeal to atheists change the direction of American spirituality? I don’t know the answer to that, but I think those who purport to write stories about changes in American religious expression need to stay mindful that what is happening now might just change in the future in unexpected directions.

    • Jerry

      Argh. I left something out and hit post prematurely resulting in a confused post. I should have written that Pope Francis’ is being very positively received by non-Catholics including atheists. And that there’s also a surge in interest in St. Francis as a result of the Pope’s chosen name. Thus the new Pope could have an influence on how we see Catholicism as well as Christianity in general. And I think quite a few will want to learn more about St. Francis and that could also influence American attitudes toward religion.

    • Newark

      In a very less than certain sense would it possible for a “practising Jew or Christian” (scare quotes) to consider herself – at least – an understanding (oh, say, Animist) just for example…ya’know…just sayin. Or would that cause too much confusion in the mind of the MSM. Again just sayin? Oh dear, why don’t people understand the “otherness” of others?

  • Patrick

    Relationships are a religion if Facebook is a church; but they aren’t, and it isn’t. All these articles spend a lot of time excusing Nones for what they aren’t – religious folks. I’d love to know what it is that a none actually ‘is’ – I have a feeling that all these nones are actually ‘somes’, and I bet we’ll see these ideologies get names over the next few years. The dissolution of liberal religion in this country isn’t a victory for liberal coreligionists at all – this is the end result, a long time come, of the utter rout of the entire project of liberal rreligion itself at the hands of secularizing forces.

    • http://www.swiftnow.org Ted S.

      I love your question about nones. What is a none? I agree with you that this “rise of the nones” phenomenom isn’t just the religious-with-doubt people becoming atheists (as I, an atheist, would be perfectly welcome to see). I actually suspect it is these so-called spiritual people feeling guilty about calling themselves Christians (or Muslims or whatever) and have finally stopped identifying as such. They have shed that label and, like you said, are waiting for a new one. They know that the holy books really are works of fiction, but will go along with the religious claims because they think of themselves as good, moral people who deserve a chunk of real estate in the afterlife just like their born-again friend says he’ll get. Sort of a Pascal’s wagerer. (???)

  • Matt Jamison

    So where is the evidence that traditional groups are becoming “more vital.” Is there quantitative evidence of this?

    As a traditional Christian, I would very much like to see evidence that churches such as my own are growing or prospering or surviving at a higher rate. But in fact, congregations such as my own are ageing, shrinking and going out of business at almost the same rate as the liberal mainline. While we all know of thriving individual congregations, they are the exception, not the rule.

    We traditionalists also need to be warned against seeing what we want to see, lest we sound as delusional as John Turner.

  • tmatt

    MATT:

    Actually, you need to dig into the details of that Pew Forum study and listen to Green and other voices on the mainline academic left (especially in the Jewish community).

    The conservative Prot denominations are not declining at anywhere NEAR the sustained rate of the old mainline. You also have to deal, there, with the rise of nondenominational evangelical/charismatic life — which is sucking members into often giant churches that are almost impossible to study.

    Vital is not the same thing as large and important. What Green told me is that there is a strong 20 percent or so of the American public that actively wants to practice a faith tradition. That number seems to be solid. The loses to the “nones” trend are from the mushy middle of more lax and compromised churchgoers, including lots of Catholics and evangelicals. But the strong 20 percent (now balanced by a strong 20 percent on the secular/unaffiliated left) of the US population seems to be hanging in there.

  • Richard Mounts

    Tmatt,

    Um…I’m confused. Your reply to Matt suggests that John C. Green, of the Univ.of Akron, (my alma mater), is politically left. I recall a local newscast, in describing his background, say he came from a conservative, politcally farther-right-than-center Republican background. Maybe I mis-heard (ask Julia about my propensity for that :-) ) I’d appreciate a clarification.

    Wow! A journalistic question about a journalistic post in the comments section of a blog about professional journalism. Who’da thunk it?

    • Chris Bolinger

      Go Zips! :-)

  • Julia

    1) Perhaps these “nones” have been there all along and in this cultural climate and lack of social pressure feel freer to not go to church, etc. because they just don’t want to.
    2) This is an imperfect analogy, but here goes. Lots of people are not really Republicans or Democrats but they aren’t anything else, either. So they depend on the political organizations to present and support candidates & do the thankless ground work. Same with religion – if there aren’t structures to maintain coherence of belief systems, the practice of any religion will go away eventually or only remain as a bloodless cultural artifact.

  • Pingback: Clinging to the Barque of Peter » From the navel-gazing crowd

  • Pat

    “… liberal Protestants imperiled their own institutional strength but persuaded many Americans of the value of their ideas.”

    That’s not a problem if this group is willing to redefine the institution. What it could be a decline of is the traditional institution as we have known it for the past many years. Something entirely new, I believe, is on the horizon.

  • cvg

    I loved the quote that explicitly equated spiritual aspects of a pastime with religion. I think too few stories bring this out. In general, I prefer such equivocations to come with a bit of external rigor. For example, there is lots of research on quasi-religion studies that could have shed a bit of light on what key elements are generally present in religiously bonded groups. Scott Atran’s work, David Sloan Wilson’s work, Jonathan Haidt’s work, etc.

    I think parallels between the secular left and non-denominational spirituality is a fruitful area of investigation. Drawing religion’s boundaries at brick and mortar, sacraments and sacred texts is no longer enough.

  • dalea

    FWIW, NeoPagan religions are booming. We do not have enough teachers to meet the demand for instruction and initiation. Our public and invitation rituals are jammed beyond building capacity. And the participants are young, frequently with children. After 40 years on this path, I find that I am part of a very small group of old timers outnumbered by much younger Pagans.

    Wicca is a pre-eminent do it yourself religion. One unemcumbered with doctrines and beliefs. Instead there is practice and discipline.

    Media treatment of us is amazing. Both Game of Thrones and Merlin have shown what we call a handfasting as a marriage ritual. Vikings, Supernatural, Arrow, Grimm, and other teevee programs present Wicca and other NeoPagans religions very clearly and fairly.

  • pvw

    I can’t help but wonder whether numbers of the “nones” were those who veered away from the conservative Christianity (ie., evangelical Protestantism or Roman Catholicism) of their youth.


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