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Home > The Religious Situation in America

The Religious Situation in America

by Joseph C. Hough, Jr.

President, Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York

 (A presentation to the Peace Councilors' meeting in New York, September 27, 2005)


The Religious situation in America is a bit like the currents off Cape of Good Hope in South Africa – it is unpredictable.  So the best I can do at is to note a few interesting recent trends in the religious life of Americans that have not yet spent their energies.  They might give some indication of what we can expect in the near future. My focus today will be mainly on the Protestant churches in the United States.  I take this approach because I am not nearly as familiar with the research that is available on Roman Catholic Christians, a tradition that claims more than 25 million members and is the largest single Christian group in the nation.  Yet the research on Christianity in general most certainly would be applicable to trends in the Roman Catholic churches in the United States.

On the most important issue facing American Christians, namely the capacity of any sizeable number of Christians to participate constructively in the advancement of respect for and mutual learning from other traditions, I am certain that Christian exclusivism spans the entire spectrum of Christian groups and will remain an intractable problem for a peaceful and constructive interfaith dialogue and cooperation in the future.  I shall say a bit more about that later.

A full 80 percent of all Americans claim to be Christian, though less that a third of them claim to be regular participants in the life of church institutions (The latest Gallup poll taken the second week in September indicates that in the last six months 67 percent of them have attended church at least once). There are more than 250 different Christian denominations and or movements in the United States today.  Yet all Christians in America are shaped by our common culture and our common history during the last four centuries, and in many respects, our religious practices change in response to the same social, political and cultural trends. 

What are some of the trends that are likely to continue to shape the faith and practice of religious Americans? 


Political Events and Cultural Trends that Shape Religion in America 

Robert Wuthnow, in his book, The Restructuring of American Religion,     has reminded us  of the obvious fact that changes in religious organization and practice are heavily impacted by larger changes in the society.   For example, it was an economic boom that made it possible for the rapid expansion in church building and membership in the 1950s.  Moreover, it was responses to the Civil Rights Movement that brought to the fore deep divisions in the churches over race, divisions that have persisted in America for four hundred years.  The War in Vietnam became the occasion for serious disputes within denominations over the appropriate religious responses to America's involvement in that war.   Political events do act as triggers for debate and often outright animosity in the life of religious communities.  On occasion, these same sorts of issues can also promote new alliances. 

Apart from major political eruptions, there are long standing cultural trends that will strongly affect the way that Americans think about and practice religion.  For example, Wade Clark Roof and others have pointed to the rising consumerism in American culture that has resulted in a significant change in the criteria individuals use to choose their churches.  Persons moving to new communities often shop for services such as children's and youth programs, young adult groups and other programs important to them and their families. Where the average American attends church is determined by choices that are less and less based on specific teachings about God, Jesus and the Bible or even traditional family affiliations.  Even those Americans who are still members of the religious groups into which they are born are not likely simply to hold beliefs in conformity with official doctrine. Thus Methodists yesterday may become Presbyterians tomorrow in a new setting if, in their judgment, more is offered to meet their needs in another church of a different denomination. 

Undergirding this consumerism at a deeper level is what the late Christopher Lasch in his book by that title, called,"the culture of narcissism," the rising tide of radical individualism that dominates American culture and is tending on every hand to weaken ties to traditional communities. I use the term “radical” individualism because the individualism of urban America is of a different sort from that observed by de-Toqueville in his two volume work on democracy in America.  Given the open frontier, there was a strong sense of personal independence characteristic of  most white Americans who had come to the new continent to escape structures of authority that they found personally restrictive and limiting.  Yet, in the scattered gatherings of persons in rural communities and in the small towns and cities, there did, early on, exist a strong sense of community, for self defense if for no other reason.  In contrast, the radical individualism about which Lasch writes is a product of the anomie and isolation of the growing urban population, the development of a highly competitive economic order and a major concentration of wealth on the one end and poverty on the other. Radical individualism is a near total focus on the interests of the self with little community consciousness or, as it were, a sense of the commons. 

This radical individualism has significantly shaped American Christianity.  As I have said before, it is true that the overwhelming majority (approximately 80%)  of Americans still see themselves as Christians.  They believe in God;  they believe that Jesus is divine; they believe that the Bible is inspired by God; and about a third of them attend religious services rather regularly.  The percentage of people holding these beliefs has held steady over recent decades.  But what they believe about God; how Jesus is to be understood; and what the inspiration of the Bible means is increasingly seen as matter of personal choice and not one based on any officially sanctioned doctrine. And the purpose of religious faith and practice is seen by the majority of Christians primarily to guarantee the salvation of the individual self for life in the hereafter.  This means that a community, while desirable in most cases, is by no means necessary, and an increasing number of Americans, while perhaps remaining on the membership roles of some church, are exercising their religious choice with the use of the ultimate demonstration of individual freedom to choose religious affiliation--the use of a remote control device to tune in the offerings of television ministries. 

 Associated with individualism is yet another general cultural trend—localism, the trend away from centralized power toward local authority.  Recent welfare legislation, recent Supreme Court decisions severely limiting the role of the federal government, and the popularity of local control over school systems all reflect the growing desire of Americans to bring decision making about their lives closer to home.  The same trend has been evident in recent years in religious organizations.  Authority, power and funding have flowed away from large denominational agencies.  The first to feel the impact of localism were large Protestant ecumenical organizations like the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches.  But the trend has now made itself felt in all of the major old line Protestant and, to some extent, Roman Catholic Churches as well.    This reinforces the trend that has resulted in churches of the same denomination in one region of the country becoming quite different from churches of the same denomination in another region of the country.

 It is not merely these general cultural changes and political events that have promoted the widespread change in the way Americans choose their religious affiliations. Efforts by the leadership of Protestant churches to promote a broader unity of Christian groups have sharply lowered the level of emphasis on doctrinal differences that have long separated Baptist from Methodist, Lutheran from Anglican or Presbyterian from Congregationalist.  Since the 1950s several major competing denominations have merged and there are a number of merger proposals under consideration at this moment.  Recently, the Presbyterians, the United Church of Christ, and the Disciples of Christ, Christian churches have moved toward mutual recognition of ordination and baptism.  Even more significant Episcopalians and Lutherans have moved toward unity in practice.  This is quite remarkable, since these two denominations represent Protestant and Catholic traditions that have long had serious disputes with each other over doctrine in the past.           

In addition there are important initiatives being undertaken between Roman Catholics and several Protestant groups which most certainly will not lead to merger in our lifetime, but the discussions, in themselves, have significantly lowered the level of conflicting rhetoric between Protestants and Catholics.  New political alliances on major moral issues like abortion and the civil rights of homosexuals have even brought Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists together, a development that staggers the imagination. 


The “Liberal-Evangelical Divide” in American Christianity 

I do not mean to suggest at all that there soon will be no more staunch Presbyterians and Catholics in America.  The majority of Americans still identify strongly with some religious group, and there is an even greater likelihood of strong group loyalty in religious communities like Roman Catholics, the Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists and more fundamentalist groups like the Southern Baptists.  When salvation is at stake in group membership, change is not likely!   But over the next decades, I believe that religious affiliation  and religious alliances are more likely to be determined in reference to something like the liberal/evangelical divide that Robert Wuthnow describes in his book, The Struggle for the Soul of America.  Here already is the breeding ground for religious conflict in our nation, and this division is daily visible due to strong differences over the moral status of homosexuality, the ordination of women, abortion, and the obligation of Christians to become advocates for the interests of the poor.  At the present time there are sharp debates within the traditionally main line Protestant denominations over these issues. In fact, there are significant schismatic movements active in the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, and the Episcopal Church.   In addition there are political issues around which there is sharp division including the role of religion in public life, issues of war and peace, and the role of government in promoting the common good.  And the debates have already become quite visceral. 

I certainly do not see the liberal/evangelical divide as a hard and consistent line.  A recent Pew Foundation poll indicates that the so-called “liberal/evangelical divide” is far more complex than Wuthnow and others imagined.  Differences have already surfaced within evangelical groups who may be very conservative on scripture and doctrine and yet divided on public moral issues like environmental issues and support for legislation that will mitigate the awful disparities in income and wealth that have made America the most unequal of all the major industrial democracies.   Moreover, the Pew Foundation reports that their 2004 survey showed: 

…that religious traditionalists, whether Evangelical, Mainline Protestant or Catholic conservatives, hold similar positions on issue after issue, and modernists of these various traditions are similarly like-minded. The divisions between traditionalists and modernists are strongest on social issues such as abortion, school vouchers and gay marriage, but large majorities of both groups agree on many other issues, including the need for anti-poverty programs, strong environmental protection and equal rights for gays and lesbians.

The same is true among liberals who may agree broadly on religious toleration and who are flexible on scriptural interpretation. Yet liberals are already divided on the need for religious groups to become involved in public action on political and moral issues and even more divided on which issues should be given priority.           

Not much research has been done on the major predominantly African American denominations and their attitudes on these matters.  The last major study, <> The Black Church in the African American Experience, by C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya was published in 1990 and was based on their research done in the late 1980s.  This research lacuna is a serious one.  At the time of their research, well over eleven million people belonged to African American denominations.  Almost ten million of them were Baptists, making the combined African American Baptists the second largest Protestant group in the United States.  From the predominantly black denominations, the issues will be addressed differently.  The majority of members in the major black churches will be close to the most conservative evangelicals in their understanding of scripture and doctrine.  On social issues, some will be very liberal on all issues affecting economic justice and human rights, though at the time of the study by Lincoln and Mamiya, the majority of African American Baptists were not in favor of direct political action.  Their focus, like white evangelicals was primarily on the saving of individual souls.  Others were quite conservative on any political efforts to enforce moral standards except those of personal moral issues like the right to an abortion and the extension of gay rights—issues on which the majority of African Americans are still very negative.         

In any case, for the foreseeable future, religious conflict among American Christians, both black and white, will not focus primarily only on doctrinal issues, the status of the Bible, or practices of worship, but even more so on the relation of faith to moral practice, and the role of religious conviction in the making of political and moral decisions.   Because of this and the growing influence of extremists, we are already seeing levels of conflict approaching or exceeding the deep and bitter divisions over civil rights in the 50s and 60s both within religious denominations and among special interest groups whose views on issues like the rights of homosexuals or the legality of abortion are driven by deeply held religious convictions.   This is hardly surprising.  After all the most divisive and bloody moment in our history was triggered by differences on the question of slavery, and partisans on both sides during that awful time appealed to the Bible and to God as the foundation for their positions.


The “Mega-Church” Phenomenon 

One final note on the liberal\evangelical divide.  Wuthnow does not spend much time assessing the popularity of the phenomenon of televangelism and the non-denominational mega-church movements. The mega-churches are community churches writ large.  According to Malcolm Gladwell, in his September 12, 2005 article in the New Yorker, the mega church phenomenon is part of larger cultural trends as well.  He reports that Peter Drucker, a leading American business expert, has pointed out that these churches are rooted in the same cultural and economic changes as are the emerging mega markets and other cultural innovations.  As Americans more and more moved to the outskirts of major cities, huge suburban populations lived in housing developments far from their work and with few neighborhood services nearby.  In the 1950’s the huge investment in super highways financed by the federal government accelerated this trend. 

The first commercial enterprises to capitalize on this phenomenon were huge all purpose stores like Cosco, WalMart, Kmart, and others.  Later, specialty enterprises joined the movement and formed shopping malls with easy access to the national highway system and generous parking lots on site. 

In some ways, the same market research that led to the mega stores and shopping malls, preceded the establishment of large church malls that included everything from variety in worship to fitness centers, snack bars, singles groups, basketball leagues, softball leagues, self-help groups and dozens of other services.  At the center of these mega churches are massive sanctuaries for regular worship, organized prayer groups, and highly skilled preaching often focusing on evangelical messages of salvation through self-improvement.  Included in many of them is also an emphasis on charity and mission in the world. Most of these churches are not affiliated in any significant way with one of the Protestant denominations, and their worship style departs, in most cases, very sharply from the traditionalist liturgical emphases and music styles of those denominations. The mega church movement has emerged with considerable strength among white Christians as well as black Christians.  They tend to be strongly evangelistic in their preaching and many of them are deeply involved in the political life of the nation.  The largest of these mega churches in the United States, Saddleback Community Church in Orange County, California, is host to more than 80,000 members.  The non-denominational mega church movement is the most vigorous new Christian movement to appear on the American scene since the revivals of the Great Awakening.


Religious Pluralism 

Finally, the trend toward religious pluralism may signal one of the most profound religious and cultural phenomena in our future.   Of course, America has always been “pluralistic” after a fashion.  Early colonial attempts to establish a particular Christianity made religious conflict the rule rather than the exception.  The conflict in those days was between one brand of Christianity and another, and the fight was fierce enough, even then, to provoke Madison and then Jefferson to see that without some clear provisions for religious freedom, the religious wars in Europe might migrate to the shores of the United States.

Yet, even though there was no officially established Church, there was, until the middle of the twentieth century a broad cultural consensus that America was by definition a Christian nation, and in the minds of most Americans, this meant a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant America.  As Robert Handy has pointed out in his book, Christian America, there was little doubt in the minds of most Americans about the conviction of the early Puritans that this nation had been established under the providence of God, and that God had brought forth in this new place a Protestant Christian nation that was to be a light to other nations.

This consensus begin to break apart toward the end of the 19th Century.  The massive immigrations at the end of the century brought to our shores millions of new Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Jewish people.  By the middle of the 20th century, Will Herberg wrote his book, Protestant, Catholic and Jew, signifying a change that was already in place. This pattern of change has continued.  Immigration during the later half of the 20th Century has brought to our shores representatives of all of the world's major religions.  Today there are more Muslims than there are Presbyterians or Episcopalians.  There is a growing Buddhist population in the country, and the Mormons, once an isolated and persecuted sect, are now the fastest growing religious group in the country.  Rodney Stark, a leading sociologist of religion recently has predicted that the Mormons will form the third largest religious group in America by the end of this decade and that by the middle of the next century, they will be the third largest religious group in the world--just behind Muslims and Christians.  The National Baptists of America, Inc., the largest of the African American denominations, has a larger membership now than that of Episcopalians, United Church of Christ, and the Presbyterians combined.  The religious face of the United States has changed dramatically. 

We are now a religiously pluralistic nation from the largest urban centers to remote rural villages, and all of us are daily confronted with a new set of questions about the relationship of our own religious faith with its claims for salvation to those of very different religious groups.  These questions are by no means new questions for Christians.  Paul Knitter has provided us with an interesting typology of the answers given to these questions beginning with the Pauline epistles and the Gospels and continuing into the present. Can members of other religious groups be saved?  Are other religions inferior to our own?  Should our strategy for relating to other religions be solely conversion? Are the world’s religions different paths of faith to the same end?  Can we learn from each other?  The answers to these questions have provoked many solutions, primarily persecution, crusades, wars of religion, and campaigns of hate.  Remarkably, however, given the Freedom of Religion Clause together with the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment of the U. S. Constitution, religious pluralism worked very well for a time in the United States so long as the presence of other religions did not threaten the official Christian establishment. 


The Emerging Politics of the Religious Right 

Recently, however, there is growing evidence that some Christians in the United States are determined to maintain the fiction of America as officially a Christian nation.  There is growing opposition to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, particularly as it was interpreted in the 1947 Everson case by Justice Black.  In that case, Justice Black wrote that there was a “wall of separation” between church and state that must be maintained by the court at all times.  By 1971, however, that strict interpretation has been modified considerably.  In the 1971 Lemon v. Kurtzman case, the Court ruled that government aid for religious programs was indeed constitutional provided that the aid (1) served a secular purpose, (b) did not advance or inhibit religion; and (3) did not result "excessive entanglement" of government with religion.

For the next twenty five years, this so called Lemon test was the controlling precedent for both the U. S. Supreme Court and the lower state and federal courts in hundreds of cases. However, in 1997, the Court( Agostini v. Felton) had decided that religious organizations could participate in federally funded programs provided (1) the aid was made available to both religious and secular organizations, and (2) if an individual receiving government aid made a private choice of the agency to which he or she paid the government funds. 

Still there have been strong suggestions from right wing political and religious leaders that the establishment clause is somehow anti-religious, particularly as interpreted by the United States Supreme Court and lower courts as well. This is somewhat surprising in light various court decisions on school vouchers, the pledge of allegiance, government assistance to religious groups, and others that have weakened significantly the more stringent record of the Supreme Court on the Establishment Clause.

Nevertheless, attacks on the judiciary are being sponsored regularly by right wing religious groups, and their aim is to change the Court itself in order to implement a new establishment of a very conservative brand of Christianity.   This, of course, does not auger well for the advancement of a peaceful religious pluralism.

The attack on the Court is but one evidence of the growing political involvement of the Christian religious right. Public leaders of the religious right have allied themselves with the leaders of a neo-conservative political right that has become the dominant political force in America.  If one looks at the debate over what President Bush called, Charitable Choice the extent of this alliance becomes very visible.  Charitable Choice is an initiative, launched by the Bush administration to channel government funds to churches and other religiously based organizations for funding multiple programs of assistance to the poor, the unemployed, and others in need of special services. The entire idea for a “charitable choice” initiative, was conceived by Marvin Olasky, one of the leading strategists for the political right in its continuing ideological struggle to rid the nation of any sort of government funding for social services to those persons marginalized by the free market system.  Assuming that individual liberty is the only value, the political right eschews any public attempts to achieve some measure of fair and equal economic opportunity.  In recent years this commitment has led to an assault on all government measures that are designed to assist the poor in any significant way. That assault has been combined with huge and unfair tax cuts for the richest Americans that would prevent any renewal of assistance programs to the poor at all.

The movement to destroy welfare has been led recently by the Heritage Foundation.  Together with a host of other right wing think tanks this foundation has provided major support for a campaign to scapegoat welfare recipients for all of our social problems like illegitimacy, drug addiction, crime and failing public schools.  They also claim that welfare recipients become dependent, and do not want to work.  Books like Charles Murray's Losing Ground and Wealth and Poverty by George Gilder were supported and funded by the Manhattan Institute, another public policy institution funded by right wing money.  These two books were the lead items in a literature that perpetuated the notions that the poor were responsible for their own problems and that they, in turn, created most of the social problems of the larger society.  And they claimed that government programs like Aid to Dependent Children and the War on Poverty were responsible for creating a massive welfare state that encouraged the dependency of the poor and a host of social problems related to that dependency. 

Incidentally, this same foundation supported the development of a literature attacking affirmative action and resurrecting the notion that blacks are less intelligent than whites. (Hernstein & Murray, The Bell Curve, DiSouza, The End of Racism).  Here it becomes painfully obvious, that underlying the arguments against public support for the poor in America is, at its root, a new form of a powerful and malignant force in all of American public life—racism.  The legacy of slavery, reconstruction, segregation and other forms of legally sanctioned discrimination against African Americans in America has resulted in there being a hugely disproportionate number of African Americans who live in desperate poverty and near poverty in America. It is this racist heritage, more than any other factor that is what The Economist recently labeled the shame of America.  From a Christian perspective it is also the legacy of deep social and personal sin against God.

Picking up on themes advanced by the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Foundation and other right wing think tanks, the Christian right has argued that the most serious moral and social problems of American society are due to the breakdown of the American family.  That breakdown, they argue, has been mainly caused by the creating of a welfare system that encourages irresponsible parenting, the creation of family units that consist of single mothers, absent fathers and illegitimate children.  It also promotes dependency in a society where, they argue, that anyone willing to work can earn a living wage.  As Gary Bauer, once a major leader of the Christian right, once told me. “Anyone who is poor in America today is poor because they have made bad choices.”  The old game of blaming the victims for their plight is revived and “Chrisitanized” by the religious right.

Most of these claims and charges are plainly not true.  They are ideological propaganda.  For example, there is no evidence whatsoever that the majority of welfare recipients would resist working for a living wage.  In fact all of the empirical evidence indicates that most welfare recipients (from 50 to 70 percent) do not remain on the roles for more than two years even when many of the jobs available do not offer anything close to a living wage.  Those who do remain do so mainly either because they cannot work or because the low paying jobs for which they could qualify would leave them without health coverage for themselves and their children.

Yet the success of these propaganda efforts is obvious.  During the time of the greatest prosperity in the history of America, the gap between the rich and poor has steadily widened, and government programs (except those like Social Security and Medicare that are not means tested) have suffered persistently from lack of adequate funding.

Leon Howell, in his pamphlet, “Religion, Politics and Power,” reports that at some point about three decades ago, the major leaders of the religious right adopted the ideology of the political right and both began to coordinate their efforts to transform American politics.  The result has been the creation of one of the most potent forces in American religion and American politics.  The Christian Coalition, The Catholic Council, The Moral Majority, and the Focus on the Family are right wing Christian organizations heavily funded by direct subscription and a variety of business enterprises.  They have joined forces with the political right to create a massive grass roots organization that has seized control of the Republican Party in at least seventeen states.  Their agenda is clear.  They aim to shape the American agenda in favor of an exclusively Christian God and in service to the unbridled accumulation of individual wealth.

Meeting together as the Council for National Policy, the leaders of the right wing coalition coordinate their efforts to advance their common agenda.  The Council meets several times a year.  Meeting dates, sites and membership rolls are secret.  The membership selection process is secret and all participants in discussions are sworn to secrecy.  The Council makes no public statements, but much of the strategy for the political right is shaped and discussed at their meetings. 

Included in the membership from time to time, have been such radical right wing luminaries as Dick Armey, Tom Delay, Robert Dornon, and Pierre du Pont IV, all members or former members of the House of Representatives.  Jesse Helms, Trent Lott, Don Kyl and Don Nickles and a few other right wing senators are members.  Right wing public figures represented are John Oliver North, Ralph Reed, Phyllis Schaffly, General John Singlaub, and other well know right wing leaders.  Leaders of the religious right members include Pat Robertson, Gary Bauer, James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Paul Weyrich, Robert Dugan of the National Association of Evangelicals, Paige Patterson, former President of the Southern Baptist Convention, Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ, and Bob Jones III.  Among the wealthy backers of right wing causes who are members are Howard Ahmanson and Nelson Bunker Hunt (long time John Birch Society member and supporter).  Presidents of the organization have included both Robertson and Hunt as well as Edwin Meese attorney General during the Nixon administration.

It is in the working connections of these forces that the right wing version of the new America is advanced.  While I readily concede that there is nothing illegal about their discussions or the dissemination of their opinions, I am deeply concerned about the amalgamation of right wing fundamentalist Christianity that promotes disrespect for other religions with an ideology that abjures any political responsibility for the good of the least fortunate among us.  On the one hand I am concerned for religious life in an increasingly pluralistic America, and I am concerned that my own religious heritage has been kidnapped by a narrow and self-centered fundamentalism.  On the other hand, I am concerned about a mean spirited politics in America that cares little for the democratic ideal of equality and champions only a narrow idea of freedom that is nothing more than the exercise of maximum self-interested individual liberty.

As a citizen I am deeply committed to support government efforts to achieve equality of opportunity and the obligation of the body politic to guarantee access to what Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen calls "the basic necessities for human flourishing" to every citizen.  Moreover, support for the poorest in a society has always been a major and core teaching of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Therefore, I find the attempt to deny this obligation not only to be a serious moral problem in a democratic society, it is also a deeply religious problem as well, and it constitutes a potential danger to the democratic process itself.

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