“Christian nation” has replaced “separation of church and state.” Thomas Jefferson’s role in shaping America in his deist, spiritual-but-not-religious ways has been trumped by the God-and-country influence of William Blackstone, historical inaccuracies notwithstanding.
We’re losing. The number of American adults identifying themselves as “more spiritual than religious” has increased from 19 percent in 1998 to 27 percent today, according to the General Social Survey. In fact, as reported by religion writer Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier Journal, fully 30 percent of adults under age 40 say they are spiritual but have no religion at all. And, according to a poll by Marist College, 63 percent of Americans say it’s either “very true” or at least “partly true” that they are “spiritual but not religious.” In fact, the number of Americans self-identifying as “more spiritual than religious” equals the number identified as Roman Catholics, the largest actively religious body in the U.S.
Whose fault is that?
Given that Presbyterian Christians long have promoted creedal faith, it behooves us to diagnose this problem and offer some health-promoting prescriptions, and soon, lest our whole culture become “Europeanized.”
No doubt, some folks pin the blame on the secular-minded educational programs of the past fifty years. Doubtless, the distancing of schools from churches has drawn some students away from the faith of their parents. But the cited research points to a more primary cause: disgust over the behavior of the organized church.
The spiritual-not-religionists cite several reasons why religion turns them off — painful treatment from ministers and others, the most horrific example being sexual exploitation; the arrogance, exclusiveness, judgmentalism, and coerciveness spouted from pulpits, broadcast in the media, and published in fundraising letters.
It’s déjà vu all over again.
Self-defined Biblical Christians enjoyed a huge victory 85 years ago, when their hero, William Jennings Bryan, a Presbyterian elder, successfully prosecuted John Scopes in Dayton, Tenn., for teaching the theory of evolution to unsuspecting children. Bryan – who was nominated for Moderator of the PCUS twice and for President thrice, never to be elected to either post – didn’t live long enough to hear the U.S. Supreme Court’s dismissal of the case on a technicality, nor to see the huge backlash against the faith that ensued over the following years.
In fact, the fundamentalism that had enjoyed a heyday for 30-plus years fell into disrepute after the Scopes trial showcased its prejudicial and anti-intellectual underbelly. The burgeoning newspaper business, including the yellow journalism associated with William Randolph Hearst, found the flamboyant Bryan to be an easy target for mockery and scorn, and the whole movement suffered collective embarrassment.
Anti-intellectualism and prejudice are riding the populist tide these days, and a vastly broadened news media has chosen sides, some mocking the faith of the impassioned traditionalists while others are promoting the cause.
Both brands of news reporting and commentating tend toward the big story, so the extremes appear to be the norm.
The cause of the gospel is not getting well served through any of the national press. Indeed, the cause of truth-telling isn’t being advanced.
People of faith—conservative, moderate, progressive, fundamentalist —need to look in a mirror.
Few of us manifest the humility, grace and patience we generally categorize as virtues. Our passion to do right and to promote good causes often leads to disdain for those who see things differently. Soon our disdain turns to accusations and scorn, and well, our speech and deportment discredit our best intentions. Our own noise drowns out those who say, “I don’t want to be a part of a denomination that’s always fighting,” or “I don’t want to be a part of any religion. I’ll just be spiritual.”
Shall we fight to win all the more while in the process, lose that many more? What do you suggest?