I used to spend hours studying a faded, color-coded map at a publishing house where I worked. The map, hung on the wall behind my desk, showed the population density of the various denominations and faiths across America. Save for the southern half of Louisiana, the south was one thick crimson swatch of Southern Baptists. The Northern Midwest was Lutheran green. Utah’s solid yellow represented the Church of Latter-Day Saints. New Mexico, Louisiana, New Jersey, and Massachusetts were shaded the deep blue of Roman Catholicism.
It used to be just that easy to generalize about Americans and religion. That is no longer the case, as shown by several recent polls on Americans and Religion.
Contemporary Americans, it appears, have no problem hopping from one denomination to another, marrying a spouse of another faith, or shopping around for a church or a preacher more to one’s liking. American churches — for the past century and a half at least — have been pro-active in their recruitment strategies, due to the countless denominations vying for a limited pool of congregants. As American luck would have it, those countless denominations turned out to be a good thing. It was Voltaire who noted of 18th-century England: “If there were only one religion in England, there would be danger of tyranny; if there were two, they would cut each other’s throats; but there are thirty, and they live happily together in peace.”
Americans remain one of most religious people on earth, but their creed is no longer the Old Time Religion. The faith of our fathers has been supplanted to an increasing extent by “spirituality,” a vague and amorphous term social scientists are still trying to define. According to a recent Pew poll, about 10 percent of believing Americans no longer call themselves religious, but spiritual. Double what it was in 1964. The results of an April 2009 Newsweek poll, are even more dramatic. Here 30 percent of believers confessed to being “spiritual, but not religious.” If you account for the roughly 11 percent of Americans who are nonbelievers, we are now at a point where 41 percent of Americans hold views on religion that 200 years ago in Europe would have gotten them roasted as heretics.
To many of these non-religious believers, “spiritual” may mean believing in a prime mover, a god that encompasses everything, or some kind of noble truths. It may entail membership in groups like the American Ethical Union, Universal Unitarianism, or the Universal Pantheist Society. What spiritual certainly does not entail is a belief in the God of Abraham, or the belief in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth.
For those who continue to call themselves religious Christians, a good portion of them experiment with other denominations and faiths (three-in-ten Protestants attend services outside their own denomination, and one-fifth of Catholics say they sometimes attend non-Catholic services). Curiously, many of these same religious Christians believe in pagan astrology (about a quarter of Christians), or accept Eastern mysticism’s concept of reincarnation (22 percent). If you are willing to believe in astrology and reincarnation, you are probably open to seeing ghosts (one-in-five Americans have seen or experienced spooks), while 16 percent of Americans fear the “evil eye.”
ALL OF THIS avenue hopping and religion shopping has forced many churches into yet another round of modernization and reinvention. Like any modernization campaign, this often entails a drift to the Left. In its more harmless manifestation, it is marked by string bands, and colorful banners strung about the church, while priests and ministers don even more Day-Glo vestments till they begin to resemble not so much a minister as one of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. In its more pernicious manifestation, it is evidenced by Happy Talk or Feel Goodism.
It is not surprising that Americans would jump from denomination to denomination and faith to faith. Americans are used to having choices, and why shouldn’t religion be subject to the laws of supply and demand? A city or town can only support so many churches. Fire and brimstone may have worked fine when Calvinism held a monopoly, but today’s churches are likely to maintain that God has mellowed, that he’s gotten with the program. Even Billy Graham has come around to this view, and now says don’t worry, hell isn’t a scary, real place after all, it’s just the absence of God’s presence. How hipper and happier can Happy Talk get?
Naturally, with this new, anything-goes belief system something has been lost, those same things that are always lost when tradition goes by the wayside: our sense of self, our confidence in our mission, our connection to all that has gone before, of standing on the shoulders of giants like Augustine and Luther and Wesley. Today, Americans seem to be making it up as they go along, improvising and personalizing religion — a dash of New Ageism here, a teaspoon of Eastern Spiritualism there, a sprinkle of good old-fashioned Lutheranism for taste — until everyone is his own John Calvin or Mary Baker Eddy.
Religion is not like art — something that should be individualized and, in Ezra Pound’s phrase, constantly “made new.” Stripped of tradition, it becomes just another ethical system, no different from one devised by a secularist society. That may or may not be a good thing, but it is not religion. It’s not even spirituality.