America’s Religious Identity Crisis

A study indicates that America is becoming more religiously diverse and, in some cases, agnostic.
By @FrederickReese |
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    Santhome church in Chennai, India. (Photo/Vinoth Chandar via Flickr)

    (Photo/Vinoth Chandar via Flickr)

    There is an unspoken reality in America. Despite the nation’s history as a self-proclaimed bastion of religion tolerance and freedom and despite the intentions of the founding fathers to separate Church from State, America is a deeply religious nation. The vast majority of Americans identify with the notion of a Creator, and this is reflected in nearly every aspect of American society — from the currency Americans use, to the way they socialize and play, to the way they salute the flag.

    But that may be changing. According to a new survey from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 28 percent of all American adults have left the faith they grew up in for another religion or no religion at all. The report shows that the number of religiously unaffiliated adults (16.1 percent) is more than twice the number of individuals who reported being raised unaffiliated. One-in-four 18 to 29-year-olds report not having a religious affiliation.

    “This shift is a logical, perhaps inevitable result of the democratization of religion in America, said Ramon Luzarraga, an assistant professor of theology at Benedictine University in Mesa, Ariz. “Since the early 19th century, Americans generally have thought themselves the final arbiter of religious truth. Historically, if one does not like what a Church is preaching or advocating, they usually join another church or start their own congregation. Now, a person not being involved with any religious institution altogether has become an option for Americans because church membership is no longer a prerequisite to full social membership in American society.”

     

    Religion as identity

    As reported in the study, the nation is now on the verge of becoming a Protestant-minority one. At 51 percent, the Protestant portion of the country’s population has been steadily declining, with fragmentation within the population becoming more defined.

    For a nation that has historically seen itself as a Protestant state, this changing reality reflects a change in the very composition of America. For example, let’s look at Catholicism. Even though Catholicism in the United States is shrinking at the highest rate of any observed religion, with the highest number of converts to different religions than any other faith covered in the survey, the composition of the American Catholic Church has changed in recent years. Among new immigrants, almost half are Catholic — 45 percent of all Catholics under the age of 30 are Hispanics, compared to 85 percent of Catholics over the age of 70 being White.

    “The core premise of organized religion is that we are helpless and hopeless without God, and a large percentage of people in their 20s and 30s are rejecting it,” said Steve Siebold, the author of “Sex, Politics and Religion: How Delusional Thinking is Destroying America,” in conversation with Mint Press News:

    “These are young adults who never lived in a world without computers, and most of them had access to the Internet as children. They grew up in the instant information age and they know how to find answers faster than any generation in history. As a result, they are smarter and savvier, and the idea that they are hopeless sinners who should fall to their knees and beg forgiveness doesn’t make sense to them. It’s easy to fool an uneducated populace, especially when you’re offering eternal life in exchange for rational thought. But when the populace has access to all of the world’s knowledge at their fingertips, it changes the game.”

    For many Americans, religion is more a part of their cultural identity and not necessarily an actual practiced philosophy. According to a 2010 Barna Research Group poll, only 12 percent of the respondents identified faith in God as being the highest priority in their lives. In contrast, 45 percent said family is most important, 20 percent said health, leisure and a reasoned way of life was most important and 17 percent said career, money and success was most important.

    This is seen in the percentage of Americans that attend church regularly. According to polling done for ChurchLeaders.com, the percentage of regular Protestant churchgoers in America is approximately 18 percent.

    “The problem with this privatization of religion is that people cut themselves off from communities of character who can help form them to be virtuous persons and hold them accountable for their behavior,” Luzarraga continued.

    Gary Black, Jr., director of Doctor of Ministry Program at Azusa Pacific University, feels that many millennials feel disconnected to the practical implications of the Church’s teachings. Black told Mint Press News:

    “In studying American evangelicalism in the U.S., my interviews with mostly 18-50 years olds indicated dissatisfaction in three areas:

    “1. Belief in traditional evangelical dogma and doctrine is not perceived as resulting in the development of personal character reflective of the gospel Jesus preached. Many of those surveyed perceived that evangelical groups struggle to demonstrate a genuine loving, caring, forgiving posture that matches their professed beliefs. To many, Christian groups and their institutions too often simply don’t look or act like Christ. This lack of consistency and authenticity is a major stumbling block for more postmodern minded younger generations.

    “2. Many evangelical Christians sense that evangelicalism does not provide robust enough answers and insights when addressing the deep issues such as an addiction, a financial crisis, a divorce, physical or sexual abuse, or human sexuality.

    “3. Evangelicals and their institutions appear to be out of touch with the depth and scope of systemic societal and global issues. Therefore sermons rarely reach beyond the walls of the church, and even then, parishioners now wonder more openly what benefit their churches offer them for life and living.”

    Most conservatives claim to be religious and are overwhelmingly Protestant. Most that are religiously unaffiliated see themselves overwhelmingly as liberals. However, beyond the obvious, certain patterns are emerging. The country is moving away from its White Anglo-Saxon Protestant underpinnings. New reflections on what defines Americans as a people are becoming increasingly acceptable and formerly taboo or counterculture ideologies — such as publicly professing to not believe in God — are becoming palatable to the average American.

    Despite this, religious hate persists in this country. Stories such as the New York Police Department’s active monitoring of mosques’ sermons for indications of terrorist plotting or the recent reporting of an Elizabeth, N.J. woman being ordered by mall security to remove her niqab — a religiously-ordained Islamic face covering — the guard going so far as to suggest that he would remove it himself, suggest that even though America is increasingly heterogeneous when it comes to religion, not every American is happy about America’s religious complexity.

     

    A return to religion

    While some have moved away from religion, others have embraced it. One of the largest segments of religious growth is among 18 to 29-years old African-Americans. This group represents one of the largest demographics in the Historically Black Churches and have the largest percentage to population of any age group in the HBCs.

    In the Black community, the HBCs served as the community hub — the core of African-American life, not only religiously, but socially and politically. The Civil Rights movement was born in the Black churches. and traditionally, leaders of the Black community were the ordained leaders of the churches. In recent years, an increasing number of young African-Americans have looked to the HBCs again in hopes of rebuilding the sense of community that many feel is in danger of being lost.

    This is not unique to the Black community. An increasing number of religious outreach programs and “Return to the Church” movements are springing up across the nation. “A decade ago, Jewish parents worried that their children wouldn’t marry Jewish or Bar and Bat Mitzvah their own children. Today, however, we see a younger generation that is marrying within the faith and looking to raise their children Jewish, while maintaining a strong bond to Israel,” said Gidi Mark, chief executive of Taglit-Birthright Israel, in reflection of his organization’s efforts to preserve the Jewish religious heritage in America. “Taglit-Birthright Israel’s free educational trip, offered to young Jewish adults between the ages of 18 and 26, is largely responsible for creating the change we believed only a decade ago to be impossible: The younger generation is not only more connected to their Jewish identity and to the State of Israel, but they are actually even more connected than their marriage partners or significant others who did not participate in Birthright.”

    America will remain a religious country for the foreseeable future. But as the nation grows and changes, the way it prays will change, as well; and in this, the way Americans see and treat each other will also change.

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