In Graham Greene’s novel The Third Man, people suffer and die because of diluted penicillin purchased on the black market in postwar Vienna. American Christianity is suffering a similar fate, though our diluted faith is practiced in the open for all to see.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat raised the issue by pointing to the conundrum of Bible no-no’s flourishing in the Bible Belt. Social scientists affirm the positive connection between religion and several measures of personal and community wellbeing. “Yet at the same time,” said Douthat, “some of the most religious areas of the country — the Bible Belt, the deepest South — struggle mightily with poverty, poor health, political corruption and social disarray.”
So what’s the deal? “The social goods associated with faith flow almost exclusively from religious participation,” according to Douthat, “not from affiliation or nominal belief.” That stinks for us because the truth is that while Americans are very religious, we are nowhere near as religious as we let on.
While nearly half of us say we attend church weekly, for instance, time-diary research by Philip Brenner of the University of Massachusetts show only about 20 percent of us actually do. Time-diary stats cited by Mark Chaves in American Religion: Contemporary Trends confirm the point. “[T]hose who exaggerate are regular church attendees,” according to Chaves, “just not as regular as they say they are.”
A poll by Barna and the American Bible Society paints a similar picture when it comes to scripture reading. More than half of us say the Bible should have more influence in society. More than three quarters of us worry about moral decline. And a third say that a lack of Bible reading as the main culprit. But most of us only read the Bible a few times a year if at all. Only 26 percent claim to read the Bible four or more times a week. And as with church attendance, the skeptical among us (e.g., me) wonder if time-diary studies would reveal an even lower number than reported.
This lag in attendance and Bible-reading is unsurprising. Despite the overwhelming number of Americans who profess to be Christian, only 12 percent of adults claim faith as their top priority. Family, health, leisure, success, career, and wealth all rank higher, according to Barna research. Furthermore, though more than three quarters of Christians claim spirituality is very important, fewer than one in five seriously invest in spiritual formation.
Then there is the question of belief itself. If the content of belief matters — and I can’t help but think it does — then we have to discount even further for the baffling, novel, and absurd things we actually profess. Responding to the claim that American adherence is down, Rodney Stark cites the large number of people who believe in angels as rebuttal. But have you paid any attention to the nonsense people actually believe about angels? Having written a book about the traditional view, I can say with some authority that Augustine and Doreen Virtue are from different planets. And then what about prosperity gospel silliness or end-times extremism? We may believe — sure, yes, stipulated — but we believe a lot of goofy stuff.
So back to Douthat’s argument. Religious attitudes about sex before marriage, abortion, etc., may still govern our actions, but our lax adherence twists the results. Take divorce. While marital sunderings are low among the ardent, “‘nominal’ conservative Protestants, who attend church less than twice a month,” said Douthat, “have higher divorce rates even than the nonreligious.”
Douthat highlighted other examples as well, but the upshot is the same: Religion may be helpful, but half-assed religion is not. And that is manifestly what seems to prevail in some quarters. It’s like the penicillin in The Third Man. Dosage matters, and if not used as directed, Christianity might just well cause more problems than it solves.
In other words, we have to really live the faith or it will rot in our hearts.