Is America Losing its Religious Vitality?

Is America Losing its Religious Vitality? September 30, 2014

Over the last week, I have been seeing a confluence of concerns regarding religious vitality in America, specifically pointing to the diminishing numbers of “cults” appearing in the news media. In the New York Times Op-Ed section, Ross Douthat lamented the loss, and pointed to others, stating “The decline of cults … might actually be a worrying sign for Western culture, an indicator not only of religious stagnation but of declining creativity writ large.” Douthat links to a talk Philip Jenkins gave this summer at Baylor where Jenkins stated, “the first symptom we might expect of genuine American secularization would be the disappearance of cults, and a precipitous decline in activism and enthusiasm on the spiritual fringe, which is exactly what has taken place over the past two decades.” In each case sounds a jeremiad regarding American religious vitality, and we are told the center of American religiosity is at stake. But is it?

I have to admit that I find these claims unconvincing. Instead I think there is something else going on beyond a mild shift towards a secularizing public. The first is the continued diminishment of Christianity’s, particularly Protestantism’s, claim to be the religious center of America and the continued expansion of a diverse religious marketplace. Second, we need to take into account the legal changes, and its mandates for tolerance and accommodation. Lastly, we need to recognize the different religious patterns in the youth of America, and their reluctance to join groups of any kind, established or marginal. Combined, these three factors have made objecting to newer religious groups socially unacceptable, and have pushed Gen Y and Millennials to eschew joining any group, but instead, to create their own religiosity, remaining spiritual but not religious.

There can be no doubt that America is greatly diversifying its religious environment. As a recent internet meme made apparent, while Christianity may be the most common religion in every US state, the second most common religion is surprising to many. America’s promise of real religious freedom has spawned a nation of significant religious diversity. Add to this many Christians who promote tolerance, accommodation, and diversity and you have a formula for fewer complaints about fringe religion. In a tolerant religious marketplace, new religious movements are not seen as threats, but just one more option, an option that is barely worth noticing or making a big deal over. It certainly is not cause to go to the media, abduct people to “save” them, or claim people are being brainwashed.

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