The Rt. Rev. Sheila and American faith

Yes, gentle readers, it's time for another visit with Sheila, the oh-so-American individualist who is at the center of the growing, ongoing movement that many call "Sheila-ism." There was a real Sheila, once upon a time. These days, her name is used to describe the whole do-it-yourself approach to faith that is one of the most important trends in American religion.

Sociologist Robert Bellah and the real Sheila show up near the end of a recent USA Today news feature that ran under the title, "More Americans tailoring religion to fit their needs." It's crucial background that gives Cathy Lynn Grossman's trend story extra bite:

... Bellah first saw this phenomenon emerging in the 1980s. In a book he co-authored, Habits of the Heart, he introduces Sheila, a woman who represents this. Sheila says: "I can't remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It's Sheilaism. Just my own little voice. ... It's just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think God would want us to take care of each other."

Bellah, now professor emeritus at University of California-Berkeley, says, "Sheila was a jolt to some at the time. But to a lot of people, it wasn't a jolt at all, they had been living that way for a while. Don't romanticize the past. Fervent religiosity was always in the minority. Just because people showed up in church didn't always mean a deep personal conviction or commitment."

Bellah sees two sides to the one-person-one-religion trend. On the positive: It's harder to hold on to prejudices against groups -- by religion or race or gender or sexuality -- if everyone wants to be seen individually.

"The bad news is you lose the capacity to make connections. Everyone is pretty much on their own," he says. And all this rampant individualism also fosters "hostility toward organized groups -- government, industry, even organized religion."

But, as I said, this is rather old news. This is also a story that Grossman can write in her sleep, she is so familiar with the terrain.

The part of Grossman's latest report that really hooked me was the new material from evangelical researcher George Barna in which he notes the degree to which many of the people who are part of the rising tide of "unchurched" Americans are actually people who considered themselves post-church Christians.

What does that look like, in terms of doctrine?

Barna's new book on U.S. Christians, Futurecast, tracks changes from 1991 to 2011, in annual national surveys of 1,000 to 1,600 U.S. adults. All the major trend lines of religious belief and behavior he measured ran downward -- except two.

More people claim they have accepted Jesus as their savior and expect to go to heaven.

And more say they haven't been to church in the past six months except for special occasions such as weddings or funerals. In 1991, 24% were "unchurched." Today, it's 37% .

Barna blames pastors for those oddly contradictory findings. Everyone hears, "Jesus is the answer. Embrace him. Say this little Sinners Prayer and keep coming back. It doesn't work. People end up bored, burned out and empty," he says.

Here's the key passage where I wanted just a bit more information. It's possible that the printed edition included one of those USA Today info sidebars and that this didn't make it into the online version (although Grossman and Co. are good at getting those links into the package with her pieces).

When he measures people by their belief in seven essential doctrines, defined by the National Association of Evangelicals' Statement of Faith, only 7% of those surveyed qualified.

Barna laments, "People say, 'I believe in God. I believe the Bible is a good book. And then I believe whatever I want.'"

OK, I'll bite. I'll ask the obvious question: What are his seven "essential" doctrines?

I would imagine that Barna -- with that number seven -- is working with this doctrinal statement from the National Association of Evangelicals. However, it would be nice to know, since Barna is known for putting his own brand on traditional matters of faith and doctrine.

The reality, of course, is that it would be hard for anyone to nail down most Protestants (even evangelicals and true fundamentalists) when it comes to creating a mini-Creed to unite believers in our post-denominational world. Similar tensions are easy to find (of course) among Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox and Anglicans. Grossman's story notes some of the parallel trends among pre-modern, modern and postmodern Jews. Heck, even the agnostics and atheists do not agree with one another on how to live their lives without faith.

Anyway, I headed to Google to try to find Barna's big seven doctrines. The list must be in the book, or a clear editorial sign that he adopted the NAE list. (If anyone finds a Barna link on that, please let us know in the comments section.

In the end, however, I will take this opportunity to remind journalists of my tried-and-true short list of doctrines to inquire about when covering disputes among the vast majority of Christian groups around the world. As I have always stressed, I have found that it is interesting -- as a journalistic exercise -- to note how many Christian leaders answer, struggle to answer, or refuse to answer, the following doctrinal questions.

Since the start of this weblog I have called this set the "tmatt trio" and, just the other day, I got a note from a reader requesting a refresher. So be it. Of course, this is another chance for GetReligion critics to break out their shot glasses and kick off another round of that "GetReligion drinking game" of long ago.

So here's the tmatt trio:

(1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?

That said, it is interesting to read back through Grossman's piece a second time and look for the echoes of debates about these three ancient Christian doctrines. I'll also ask another question that I have asked in the past, without response. When Jews argue about actual doctrines (as opposed to traditions), what are the main issues? What would be the top three?

IMAGES: Yes, the top image is of a stole in a pastor's liturgical vestments. What can I say? Bad Vestments is an amazing website.

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