Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Been Down This Road Once Or Twice Before

 Pew Research is, once again, gettin' by on gettin' by:

Modeling the Future of Religion in America

If recent trends in religious switching continue, Christians could make up less than half of the U.S. population within a few decades

That's the headline; and I don't have a serious problem with this report, except that it should be put in historical context.  Long-time readers of this blog (you know who you are!  All three of you!  Or is it two now?  I guess I shouldn't count myself) may know where I'm going, because I seldom now go anywhere I haven't gone before.  That's right:  gimme that old time religion!

The official count of denominations increased from 186 in 1906 to 256 in 1936, when the Census Bureau stopped counting them. Although the number of denominations at the end of the century is not known, it included about eighty denominations with more than 60,000 members each. Seventy percent of the U.S. population belonged to a religious organization in 1998, up from 41 percent in the early years of the century.

Pew says, without ever saying it, that we're going to catch up to 1906, and then probably surpass it.  Or not; it kinda depends on context.

Depending on whether religious switching continues at recent rates, speeds up or stops entirely, the projections show Christians of all ages shrinking from 64% to between a little more than half (54%) and just above one-third (35%) of all Americans by 2070. Over that same period, “nones” would rise from the current 30% to somewhere between 34% and 52% of the U.S. population. 

Those projections are just that: projections.  And Pew knows it.  I'm not arguing with their presentation or even their polling/analytical methods (been there, done that).  I just want to put this in context.  Because, for one thing, this isn't about "nones."

At the end of the century, eight of every ten Americans were Christian, one adhered to another religion, and one had no religious preference. The non- Christians included Jews, Buddhists, and a rapidly growing number of Muslims.

"End of the century" there refers to the end of the 20th century, not the 19th.  Religious pluralism continues to rise, and declining interest in Christianity continues to be, in my mind, perfectly normal.  Because the first question is:  whose "Christianity" is declining?

In the '80's (and for decades after) the answer to that question was "liberal Christianity" was declining, because it wasn't about 'spiritual warfare' and making Jesus Supreme Commander Of Your Soul!  That Christainity was very exclusionary, which was its selling point!  No weenies and pussies allowed!  You were in, or you were out!  Not, actually, too unlike this critique of "weaponized" Christianity today:

"It’s natural for Christianity to exist in a state of tension within an inclusive democracy," he wrote. "Consider Jesus’ Great Commission to 'go and make disciples of all nations,' which includes, of course, this nation. By scripture, Christians are not encouraged to just live and let live. But our Constitution says otherwise."

Let's just stop there, to make this easier.  Christians are encouraged to meddle in other people's private decisions and personal choices?  Where the hell does this come from?  The Jesus who told the person without sin to cast the first stone against a sinner?  The Jesus who told the prostitute in Simon's house "Your faith has saved you" after she solicited him for prostitution, and he told her "Go in peace"?  The Christianity of the Desert Father who listened to the monks around the fire complaining about the sins of everyone not there, until he left and came back with a great pack on his back and a tiny one hung before his eyes.  When asked what he was doing, he said the pack on his back were his sins, the one before his eyes the sins of others.  A fine model for the beam in your eye and speck in your brother's eye, it caused the assembled monks to retire to their cells to pray for forgiveness of their sins.

And Jesus' "Great Commission" was to spread the word of Christianity.  "Nations" only meant "nation-states" after the 19th century; it didn't mean that at all for almost 2 millenia prior.  Maybe we should avoid anachronism, huh?

He went on to say that Christians struggle with how to impact the world they live in, deciding whether to attend the school board meetings or home school children. What continues among right-wing nationalists is that the United States has "a special spiritual purpose." He claimed that Black churches fighting for civil rights in the 1950s and 60s employed ministers that would today be considered "Christian nationalists" and dangerous.

Yeah, that's just embarassingly stupid.

"For many White Republicans, who are typically identified as the movement’s drivers," Abernathy continued, "the recent focus on Christian nationalism is the latest way to call their very existence a threat, close on the heels of accusations of racism, fascism and being 'MAGA Republicans,' defined in changing ways but always negatively, by President Biden." Biden is a devout Catholic and a Christian who implements much of the morality and values of his faith in expressing compassion for others.

Abernathy advocated, however, that "what is asked in prayer or otherwise invoked of heaven should never disturb anyone. God often answers, 'No.' An individual’s personal belief system, whether based on religion or other guiding principles, informs their political actions. That will never change. But because Christianity is and will long be the predominant religion in the United States, it is important that Christians constantly remind themselves not to impose their beliefs on others by weight of law or strength of numbers. The deal we made long ago for the freedom to worship as we see fit was to guarantee that same right to people of all religions — or no religion at all."

Christianity will be the dominant cultural touchstone for morality and duty in this country for a very long time; culture is like that.  It is, in the words of Stephen Sondheim, "as permanent as death, implacable as stone" (he wasn't referring to culture; I did that).  That's not saying the same thing as Christianity will be the dominant religion in the U.S.  It may see itself that way for a while, just as white people see themselves as normative and implicitly "in control;" but the times, they are definitely a'changin'.*

And as for that last sentence:  yeah, I don't understand how that works at all.  I mean, I agree with the sentiment, but didn't he just say Christians are supposed to be all up in everybody else's business?  So which is it?

My inherited church heritage (the one I was ordained into) had a rather different idea about the "Great Commission" and involving themselves in the lives of others.  They established orphanages when they got to this country, because adults died and children were left without families.  They set up hospitals to care for the sick; mental health facilities to care for the mentally ill; missions for the shipworkers riding up and down the Mississippi from St. Louis to Biloxi.  Their idea of "making disciples of all nations" was actually very Biblical.  Isaiah's famous "holy mountain"  was going to draw the "nations" (careful!) to it by example, not by proselytization.  People around the world would be drawn to the prosperity and harmony of Israel living under God's guidance, and come to learn such lessons themselves. Not to be bound to the covenant with Abraham, but to learn from the blessings bestowed on Israel by its faithfulness.  That's all my spiritual ancestors were trying to do:  serve others because that, they understood, was what the Lord required of them.  "Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God."

Abernathy writes of growing up in a small church:

with about 75 people on an average Sunday. The sermons were about the message of Christianity with a touch of fire and brimstone for good measure. He noted that only on occasion was there a commentary on the Christian "underpinnings" of the country with quotes of Founding Fathers saying the word "God." It wasn't about rage over a political party or policies being good or evil.

I grew up in a church about that size, only without much of the fire and brimstone.  Policies didn't become good or evil until 1964, and even then no pastor I ever knew publicly lauded the principles behind the Civil Rights Act or, the next year, the Voting Rights Act.  They knew better.  Abernathy connects the decline in churches to conservative politics "weaponizing" Christianity, a religion which "was once based on compassion, peace and love."  Well, love, compassion, and peace within very serious restrictions.  I never heard a pastor preach on peace over war concerning Vietnam; or even condemning the shooting of innocent students at Kent State.  Compassion was pretty much for the "deserving poor," v. people who deserved to be poor.  And love was a good idea, but let's be reasonable about it.  Pew points out the ages of 15-29 is "the tumultuous period in which religious switching is concentrated."  This is probably because that's the 15 years in which one begins to see through adult eyes, and realize that while Santa Claus was a kindly meant fraud by adults, there are many other frauds adults accept just as willingly, because it serves their interests.  The more you realize "Compassion, love and peace" are not the pure instruments you might have thought they were in your childhood, the more you must decide "that's cool by me," or "No, it's really not."  It's not quite as dramatic as walking away from Omelas, but it's something of the same motivation.  After all:  "What's so funny about peace, love, and understanding?"  For some people, not a damned thing.  Which could very well be why some don't become atheists or even agnostics, but just don't show up for church any more.

Weaponizing Christianity hasn't helped; and it's a cruel irony that what was once considered the salvation of Christianity (worldly purpose, spiritual power leading to secular conquest, the "kingdom of God" serving the material needs of white men who wanted to be sure they had the last say and got the best seats), is now its doom.  But then, it never was about Christianity, was it?

Personally, I think a lot of the decline is due to the failure of mysticism and the liturgy.  What's the point of going to church on Sunday?  See people?  Hear a good sermon?  Sing a few hymns?  The best hymns are still from the 19th century; that's a bit like worshipping with the works of Dickens or lyrics by Wordsworth.  Muslim worship involves the duty of prayer, which is a spiritual and communal duty.  If Christian worship doesn't create community anymore, what do we use it for?  Entertainment?  That's a weak reed to rest on for any purpose.  Shouldn't worship in a Christian church put you in the presence of the living God, a terrifying place to be?  Shouldn't it charge you with a sense of the eternal so that everyday life seems to flame with it like shook foil, gathering to greatness like the ooze of oil crushed?  Liturgy used to serve that purpose.  What new liturgy would do so, now?  And could we take it, if it did?

That's a much more interesting question than how much of the population we can expect to be in church on Sunday morning in 2070.


*Funny thing about that song, it has an implicitly Christian premise.  Both "the slow ones now will later be fast" and "the first ones now will later be last."  Dylan has said he was always Christian, not just in his "evangelical phase."  So it can be said he was being explicit there; or it can be understood as a cultural Christian reference.  Which just underlines how culturally Christian we are, without being religious or even Christian at all.  I don't mean that makes us all religious without our consent; I just mean there is a contribution of Christianity to American culture which will no soon fade away, even as church attendance does.

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