Self-Defeating Religion

Self-Defeating Religion May 13, 2015

Hemant Mehta drew attention to the fact that what some conservative religious people in the United States today want – namely to obliterate the separation between church and state – is arguably the most self-defeating course of action they could pursue. In Europe, countries where Christianity is the national religion have seen Christianity decline significantly. Baptists, in adopting their historic stance that church and state should be separate, thought that state support for a religion ultimately does it more harm, as people become associated with it for cultural, political, and other reasons besides sincere religious devotion.

It is interesting to reflect on how this relates to the recent Pew study suggesting that things are not going well anyway, for traditional Christian identities at least. The number who self-identify with historic denominations and movements has declined, and the number of “unaffiliated” has gone up. That category is not primarily agnostics and atheists, but people who say they are “nothing in particular.”

An article by Sarah Posner for Religion Dispatches suggested that there is both a desire in many circles for the bringing of religion and politics together, and disillusionment with how that has been done. Among five main noteworthy points, she included the following:

1. The first report on Pew’s data released today does not include its analysis of respondents’ religious intensity or orthodoxy, nor of the respondents’ political and social attitudes. That will come later this year in a separate, detailed report. Stay tuned!

2. A different Pew survey out last year found a “growing appetite” for mixing religion and politics, particularly among conservative religious respondents. As I wrote at the time, the poll found “those affiliated with a religion, particularly evangelicals, Protestants, and Catholics, ‘have become significantly more supportive of churches and other houses of worship speaking out about political issues and political leaders talking more often about religion.’” Granted, the rise of the nones is partly a result of disaffection with mixing religion and politics, indicating a possible mitigating effect. That will likely drive divergent trends of mixing religion and politics among Republicans and Democrats.

3. Keep in mind that, politically speaking, evangelicals, and in particular white evangelicals, have been highly politically organized for decades. As the sociologist Lydia Bean documents in her book, The Politics of Evangelical Identity, through churches and parachurch organizations, evangelicals’ political views are shaped by a “narrative of Christian nationalism,” a “24/7 narrative” that “liberals basically destroyed America and conservatives have to take it back.”

Perhaps the message is that there is no sure-fire way to guarantee that religion in general, or a religion in particular, will thrive or decline. Alliance with political power, and separation, can ultimately lead to either, whether in the shorter or the longer term.

Other Patheos bloggers have also written on this subject. Here is an excerpt from a post by Erin Wathen:

This ship is sinking, folks. We are bailing out water with tiny communion cups, but it is going down.

And it isn’t because technology has drawn us out of community, or because Millennials are hopelessly selfish (other people’s theory, not mine), or because so many people have soccer practice on Sundays now and the stupid Wal-Mart is open 24 hours a day. No, we are an increasingly faithless nation because the culture, at large, is evolving. As a species, we are moving past the trivialities of moral code, in the interest of our own survival. In this age of globalization, people are increasingly aware of global suffering, inequity, and rapidly melting ice caps. If they look to religion at all, they look for real transformation— for a body of people who will speak up for justice, care for the aging planet, and embody life-giving love and compassion… and we, the People Religious, come up short again and again.

Why? Mostly because we’ve been too busy playing house, trying to keep our doors open, fussing over the bylaws and deciding who gets in. We have failed to evolve with the rest of our species.

I don’t know that we can ‘bring back’ the post-exodus masses… But what we can do is hear them. We can acknowledge that we have used our resources, our time, our precious breath for all the wrong things. We have cast out where we should have drawn in. We have judged more than we’ve connected. We have fretted over our own infrastructure and who the hell is sleeping with whom, while our neighbors were hungry, hurting, isolated.

If healing of the Body is possible, it has to start with that acknowledgement. And a large measure of humility, as we recognize that ‘we’ are a growing minority, and no longer hold the authority to shape culture. The world is not looking to us for answers. They are looking to see if we practice what we preach.

What are your thoughts about the latest Pew study?

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