Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Can America Keep the Faith?



Can our nation “Keep the Faith”? An American Religious Self-Identification Survey released this week cast doubt, revealing that more and more U.S. citizens just don’t connect to organized religion.

Twenty percent listed their religious affiliation as “none.” The number of “no religion” folk has grown by 20 million since a similar ARIS poll was conducted in 1990, and is the only religious category to have increased in every state.

Maybe we’re returning to a condition like the one that prevailed at the time of the country’s founding. In the years before the Revolutionary War, historians estimate, only one-in-eight of the American colonists formally belonged to any church. Many were what John Adams called “Horse Protestants,” meaning that they were certainly not Roman Catholics or Jews, but had about as much appreciation for the Reformation theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin as Oliver Cromwell’s horse. It was an age of deists and freethinkers.

Dr. Barry Kosmin, one of the investigators on the ARIS study, affirms that “Denominationalism, or Christian brands, have eroded since 1990—even Protestant doesn’t mean anything anymore.” In evidence, traditional denominations like Presbyterians, Methodists, and Episcopalians have dropped from 18.7 percent of the U.S. population in 1990 to just 12.9 percent today. Megachurches are still growing—but even Catholics are just holding their own in a climate where “none of the above” is an increasingly common spiritual preference.

What accounts for the precipitous decline of faith? Here’s one hypothesis:

In the generation after America’s founding, Christianity experienced a boom, thanks in large part to the separation of church and state guaranteed under the new Constitution. De Tocqueville, visiting the United States in 1832, observed a marked contrast with his native France, where organized religion had fallen into disrepute and cathedrals had emptied out. Nearly everyone he encountered in the New World was a proselyte to one sect or other. Speaking with priests within his own Catholic tradition, Tocqueville found near unanimity as to the cause of America’s surging religiosity: Separating government from organized religion led to the growth of a more authentic, heartfelt spirituality among the new nation’s citizens.

If separation of church and state made the United States one of the most devout countries on earth, it’s possible the recent intermingling of faith and politics—particularly on the Religious Right--leaves more and more Americans spiritually turned off. I, for one, have grown heartily weary of the phrase “God Bless America,” a hollow refrain that ends every stump speech and partisan event around.

Do you suppose the way to rekindle our nation’s faith is to get God off the political platform, out of the voting booth, and back into people’s hearts, as responsibility toward your community and compassion for your neighbor? Admittedly, it’s a revolutionary idea—in the spirit of the founders.

16 comments:

Pinky said...

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It makes sense to me.
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Cable television has come to be America's most recent version of the Bully Pulpit. Tuning in on the likes of Benny Hinn, Rod Parsley, Kenneth Copeland, and almost all the others wears one out in short order. But the gullible flock to them like fish flies around a street light.
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Brad Hart said...

Kowalski writes:

Maybe we’re returning to a condition like the one that prevailed at the time of the country’s founding. In the years before the Revolutionary War, historians estimate, only one-in-eight of the American colonists formally belonged to any church. Many were what John Adams called “Horse Protestants,” meaning that they were certainly not Roman Catholics or Jews, but had about as much appreciation for the Reformation theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin as Oliver Cromwell’s horse. It was an age of deists and freethinkers.

I don't think we can compare the two. Yes, Americans during the colonial era were maintained very loose ties with religion, but religion was still a large part of their lives. What we are seeing today (at least from the results of this study) is that many people are simply rebuking the notion that religion is relevant. I don't see any indication of this from the founding. Even men like Jefferson and Paine maintained a basic appreciation for the benefits of religion. Today, however, it seems that the pendulum is swinging away from religion entirely.

Lindsey Shuman said...

What do you mean, Brad? Kowalski's stats are quite right. This myth that colonial Americans were all religious simply no longer stands in the historical community. If only 1 in 8 Americans affiliated themselves with a church, how can you say that "religion was still a part of their lives?" Even you mention in your comment that many Americans had "loose ties" with organized religion.

Gary, yes. I think we could be witnessing a return to such conditions. Good post.

Brad Hart said...

Lindsey:

Citing a statistic that only 1 in 8 colonial citizens attended church is hardly supportive evidence for your conclusion. If I am not mistaken, colonial America was a pretty tough place to live. The road systems sucked, families were forced to farm long hours, sometimes in far away farms. Maybe I am going out on a limb here (I doubt it) but my guess is that it could be pretty tough for people to make it to church every week. Even the ultra-religious Samuel Adams found it difficult to make it to every Sunday meeting.

Again, we cannot possibly conclude that today's decrease in religious belief is equal to that of colonial Americans during the time of the revolution. In fact, it seems to me that the evidence actually refutes such a notion.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The 1-in-8 stat is most likely highly misleading. For one thing there were great distances between the few churches outside the cities, and America was still largely an agrarian/rural society.

From the Library of Congress:

Recently, scholars have changed their opinion about the condition of religion in 18th century America. Against what had become a prevailing view that 18th century Americans had not perpetuated the first settlers' passionate commitment to their faith, scholars now stress the high level of religious energy in the Colonies after 1700. According to one expert, religion was in the "ascension rather than the declension"; another sees a "rising vitality in religious life" from 1700 onward; a third finds religion in many parts of the Colonies in the 18th century in a state of "feverish growth."

Figures on church attendance and church formation support these opinions. It is estimated that between 1700 and 1740, 75 percent to 80 percent of the population attended churches, which were being built at a headlong pace. Anglican churches increased from 111 in 1700 to 406 in 1780; Baptist from 33 to 457; Congregationalist from 146 to 749; German and Dutch Reformed from 26 to 327; Lutheran from 7 to 240; and Presbyterian from 28 to 475.


God Bless America, a sentiment that even Thomas Paine endorsed in his weaker moments, when he spoke of providence.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I was writing mine while Brad was writing his. Oooops. Citation:

http://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/9805/religion.html

Lindsey Shuman said...

I knew you were going to throw that out there, Brad. Very predictable. Nice to see that Tom joined you in this futile argument.

First off, everything you cited, Tom has been refuted by both George Marsden and Joseph Ellis. As Ellis points out, religious devotion was on the DECLINE, thanks to new Enlightenment beliefs that convinced many within colonial America that organized religion was no longer the staple of society it once was.

And then there is historian Whitney Cross, who did extensive research on Western New York during the height of the "2nd Great Awakening." Even then, when religion was supposedly on the way up, Cross notes that:

"The majority of churchgoers in the region found it supremely difficult to profess any one specific religion, and instead chose to attend a variety of different faiths."

In addition, Cross writes that:

"an overwhelming majority of western New Yorkers sympathized with the churches and attended meetings regularly, but few actually joined a specific denomination."

If religion was SOOOOO important in the lives of early Americans, as Brad and Tom insist, why the obvious hostility and avoidance to organized religion? Why not simply join if religion really was so "important?"

Again I ask where is your evidence?

Brad Hart said...

Lindsey:

You just COMPLETELY opened yourself up to a huge rebuttal. Thanks for the gift.

You quote Whitney Cross (and yes, his book on the Burned-over district is great) who wrote:

"The majority of churchgoers in the region found it supremely difficult to profess any one specific religion, and instead chose to attend a variety of different faiths"

And then you quote him again as saying:

"an overwhelming majority of western New Yorkers sympathized with the churches and attended meetings regularly, but few actually joined a specific denomination."

Ok, if colonial Americans were really as "hostile" to religion as you claim, then why did they attend the meetings at all? In your quote from Cross, he states that despite their reluctance to unite with one particular religion, they "instead chose to attend a variety of different faiths (Cross' words). So, even the very quote you throw out supports what Tom and I are trying to say here.

And then in your second quote, Cross writes that, "[an} OVERWHELMING MAJORITY OF WESTERN NEW YORKERS SYMPATHIZED WITH THE CHURCHES AND ATTENDED MEETINGS REGULARLY."

Sounds to me like they found religion pretty important, and that they DID attend church as regularly as possible.

You asked for evidence, and there you have it. From your very own sources.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Your two quotes from Cross simply prove that Christianity was becoming cross-denominational.

In fact, your own quote

"an overwhelming majority of western New Yorkers sympathized with the churches and attended meetings regularly"

argues against your own point!

I do hope you'll stick around and defend your indictments, Lindsey. I didn't particularly enjoy the last one, as I don't believe I've ever been the one to quote Jonathan Mayhew. Mr. Rowe does, and likewise, it's his own evidence that argues against his contention.

Now, was there a falloff from peak religiosity in 1740 of 80% church attendance as we arrive at the Founding era? Yes, there's a Sam Adams quote to that effect about Paine's Age of Reason. But Adams also says that religious feeling is on the swell, as these things do ebb and flow.

But did the ebb sink from 80% to 1-in-8 [12%] in a mere 40 years? Such a massive shift is what bears the lion's share of the burden of proof.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Dang, Brad & I were writing simultaneously again. I'll defer to Mr. Hart.

Brad Hart said...

Heh...it's all good, Tom. Keep it coming!

bpabbott said...

Lindsey, Brad, & Tom,

I think there is a differenc between religion and organized religion.

I think it erroneous to take these an synomymous.

Ben

Tom Van Dyke said...

I think there is a differenc between religion and organized religion.

Well-observed, Ben. However, there is also a difference between Christianity and organized Christianity. We need not get nihilistic or relativistic about it all. That was not the Founding. That's not even comparative theology. Seeya tomorrow on the mainpage, embracing your point. ;-D

Brad Hart said...

I will again refer you all to my former post below, and new personal creed for this blog: ARE WE SIMPLY ARGUING OVER SEMANTICS???

Tom Van Dyke said...

We are not, at least Mr. Spirits is not. He's arguing something completely different.

bpabbott said...

Ben: "I think there is a differenc between religion and organized religion."

Tom: "Well-observed, Ben. However, there is also a difference between Christianity and organized Christianity. We need not get nihilistic or relativistic about it all. That was not the Founding. That's not even comparative theology. Seeya tomorrow on the mainpage, embracing your point. ;-D"

I'm not sure we can avoid being relativistic about what Christianity means. It appears to have meant different things to differnt founders.

Perhaps you mean something else? In any event, I'll be sure to read your post.