Thursday, March 12, 2009

Losing Our Religion

Our new colleague Gary Kowalski writes an interesting post below, on an apparent trend in the polls away from religiosity in America.

Mr. Kowalski summarizes from Alexis de Tocqueville's classic study of America:

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.

Pope Benedict XVI has made a similar observation per Tocqueville:

“This new people was made of communities that had escaped official state purges and wanted a lay state, a secular state that opened the possibility for all confessions and all form of religious exercise...Therefore it was a state that was intentionally secular. It was the exact opposite of state religion, but it was secular out of love for religion and for an authenticity that can only be lived freely.”

As we see here, "secular," when used as the opposite of "religion-as-sectarianism," is quite accurate.

However, Mr. Kowalski unintentionally [I hope] conflates "faith" and religion-as-sectarianism [or as conservative politics, which he obviously abhors]. It's not so much "organized religion" that the young America eschewed, it was official state-established sectarianism, be it Catholicism or the Church of England or any other sect.

Pope Benedict draws the distinction between American secularism and the rest of the West's:

"It strikes me as significant that here in America, unlike many places in Europe, the secular mentality has not been intrinsically opposed to religion. Within the context of the separation of Church and State, American society has always been marked by a fundamental respect for religion and its public role, and, if polls are to be believed, the American people are deeply religious."

That's the difference between the "neutrality" that many call for today and American pluralism, which allowed everything as long as no one sectarian flower dominated the garden.

Now, Mr. Kowalski [nom de paix: "Revolutionary Spirits"] holds a Harvard Divinity School (M.Div. 1982) degree, and unlike me, is the author of an actual book on this subject, and a well-praised one, at that.

Therefore, I hide behind the former Cardinal Ratzinger's scarlet skirts, as he is a gentleman of some credentials himself.

As for the poll cited, "Americans [who] claim no religion at all (15%, up from 8% in 1990)" is a significant jump, and the analysis contends that "the challenge to Christianity...does not come from other religions but from a rejection of all forms of organized religion." Still, 15% is not quite the 50+% hit by much of the rest of Western [European] civilization: America indeed remains a pervasively religious nation, with 69% believing in "a personal God."

Nor do I find persuasive Mr. Kowalski's argument that American Christianity's dip is attributable to the Religious Right's affiliation with GOP politics: It is the former mainstream Protestant sects that are aligning with "liberalizing" social issues that are showing the greatest declines. And as a clergyman of a Unitarian Universalist congregation himself, Mr. Kowalski is well aware that all that remains of Founding-era "unitarianism" is a hybrid sect that numbers but 300-500,000 American souls these days.

These things come and go, ebb and flow in American history. We are no doubt in an ebb period. But will America follow Europe into a post-Christianity?

Mr. Kowalski's reference to the "Horse Protestants" is very interesting: I was unacquainted with them although John Adams mentions them in his writings. The Horse Protestants were the rural folk who didn't know much about Aquinas or Luther or Calvin or any of that theological splitting of hairs about how many angels fit on a pin. But they welcomed itinerant preachers on horseback to read and discuss the Bible, and after they sent them off with thanks and a full belly, went back to their everyday lives and tried to live the Bible.

This was the America Tocqueville found, and has been the root of America's Christianity. I see that The Coming Evangelical Collapse has now been predicted in a very good CS Monitor article. Perhaps such a collapse is coming, but as the article argues, the genius of America and American Christianity was not just in its ability to reinvent itself, but in its ability to get back to the basics when the times call for it, to return to what is good and true about Christianity in the first place.

Thx for your essay, Rev. Mr. Gary Kowalski, Revolutionary Spirit, M.Div. It occurs to me that Benjamin Franklin was a Horse Protestant in his way.


Phil Johnson said...

In Michigan, the Kowalski family is highly regarded for making some of the best sausages, cold cuts, weiners, and frankfurters out of Detroit which has to be the sausage capital of the the U.S.A..
Any relation?

Matt Huisman said...

Well said, Tom.

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