I just read Three Decades Ago, America Lost Its Religion. Why? By staff writer for the Atlantic, Derek Thompson. I find The Atlantic to be full of insightful articles, even when I don’t wholeheartedly agree with them. This article is no exception.
Thompson recalls those enlightened 19th century pundits who predicted the death of God and advances in “scientific discovery and modernity” that would lead to widespread atheism. Thompson is a skeptic, himself. While Europe has largely gone the way the pundits predicted, The United States has resisted that prognostication – at least until recently.
Thompson blames “America’s unique synthesis of wealth and worship” and “stubbornly pious Americans” for the United States not going with the flow of the Enlightenment ascent of man from the superstitious dark ages into the light of science and reason.
While the rest of the western world has been drifting away from religious affiliation, and religion altogether, the United States seemed impervious to those forces working on the rest of the western world – until recently. Things began to change in the United States in the 1990’s, and that trend continues.
The article borrows heavily from Christian Smith, a sociology and religion professor at the University of Notre Dame, for figures and figurings of the reasons why. The shift is clear, though, and the statistics bear it out, that religious affiliation and interest in religion in the United States is waning and going the way of the rest of the western world.
“According to Smith, America’s nonreligious lurch has mostly been the result of three historical events: the association of the Republican Party with the Christian right, the end of the Cold War, and 9/11.” Smith goes on to provide some explanation for how these “events” have triggered the change. He says,
“The marriage between the religious and political right …. disgusted liberal Democrats, especially those with weak connections to the Church. It also shocked the conscience of moderates, who preferred a wide berth between their faith and their politics.”
Thompson’s article got me thinking. He is right about the trend away from religion in the United States. We don’t need data to tell us that. The “nones” are increasing while the committed believers are decreasing. That these observations come from “outside the camp” doesn’t make them false.
Thompson’s explanations for the reasons why this is may be more of a mixed bag. He (naturally) views the changes through a naturalistic lens. He may be right about some of the cause and effect, but he (naturally) isn’t likely to see the more spiritual side of those things.
I “grew up” spiritually during the mid to late 80’s when the marriage between religion and the political right was consummated. I fell out of step with it, and lost track of it, when I went to law school in 1988. Apparently the honeymoon went well.
I count myself (even today) as an evangelical (though I search for a different label). My spiritual upbringing included the experience of the courting of the religious right of the Republican Party. (Or was it the other way around?)
Law school, however, challenged even my most sacrosanct connections, and the cares and concerns of fatherhood and providing for a growing family distracted me from other relationships. It was all I could do to hold onto God during this time, and the truth is that He mostly held onto me.
Perhaps, that was a blessing in disguise, as I didn’t grow into the religio-politico affiliation that seems to characterize a large segment of the evangelical church today. I am a more distant observer of that relationship today, so I think I have some objectivity left.
I agree (partially) with Thompson’s assessment that the congruence of the religious right and the political right changed the political landscape. It also changed the religious landscape. Perhaps, more than we might care to acknowledge.Continue reading “The End of Stubborn Piety, and a New Beginning.”