Winners and losers in our do-it-yourself religion era

No one on the national religion-news scenes writes with more vigor and enthusiasm about America's sharp turn away from religious doctrine and traditional religious institutions than veteran scribe Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today. Her journalistic glee is completely justified, in my opinion, because this is one of the most important religion-beat stories of our age, especially on the religious left. On one level, her latest piece on this topic -- the headline is "Relationships are the new religion for many" -- is best seen as part of the wave of mainstream coverage following the "Nones on the Rise" survey about the surging number of religiously unaffiliated Americans, research that grew out of a partnership between the Pew Forum on Religious & Public Life and the PBS program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Toss in new research numbers from a number of other sources, such as the LifeWay team linked to the Southern Baptist Convention, and you have yet another chapter in the important story of do-it-yourself spirituality in postmodern America. The holy days hook at the top of the story, fleshed out with some name-specific anecdotes, is perfectly natural:

Emily Hilliard will cook a festive brunch with friends on Easter Sunday. But none in her Washington, D.C., social circle of foodies, folklorists and fiddlers will go to church that day.

In Denver, Ambra Vibran will enjoy an Italian feast with cousins that Sunday. But she says, "My spiritual life is in hiking, skiing, kayaking and enjoying God's creation." It's a stretch to recall when Vibran last went to church.

Eleanor Drey plans a Jewish traditional meal where family and friends will talk about freedom. But it won't be on Passover, Monday night this year. Folks are tied up with their kids' spring vacations. They'll gather at Drey's San Francisco home in April instead.

The new data kicks in at the summary paragraph, where the line between the religiously devout and the new American normal is made quite clear. This is long, but you need to read it in order to get Grossman's main point:

This week, most Americans will celebrate essential stories of Christianity and Judaism: God freeing the enslaved is a key Passover theme. Easter's core is Jesus' resurrection, offering a doorway to salvation.

But many will celebrate with a twist. While 73% of Americans call themselves Christian, only 41% say they plan to attend Easter worship services, according to a March 13 survey of 1,060 U.S. adults by LifeWay Research, a Nashville-based Christian research agency. Passover is a home-centered celebration, but it's not known how many Jews plan to recite the prayers and serve symbolic foods at their Seder meal.

In the gap between faith and practice are millions of people who will delight in Easter and Passover as "holidays," not "holy days." They're just as Christian, just as Jewish, in their own eyes as people who follow traditional scripts -- church on Sunday before carving the ham or the Seder rituals before slurping the matzoh ball soup. They've simply redefined their spirituality to center on the people at the table -- shared time, shared values with their nearest-and-dearest.

"Relationships have replaced religion for many Millennials," says Esther Fleece, who spent three years specializing in outreach to young adult Christians for the evangelical group Focus on the Family.

Now, the only part of that I would question is Grossman's summary judgment that these believers consider themselves "just as Christian, just as Jewish" as traditional believers. To be more specific, the only words in that summary that I want to question are "just as" -- as opposed to millions of Americans still calling themselves Christian or Jewish, but then turning around and saying, something like "but I choose not to sit in a pew" like those who are still affiliated with traditional religious institutions.

They consider themselves "just as" Christian, "just as" Jewish as the orthodox? I'm reading the same surveys, but I don't see that judgment in the numbers -- although it's in a few of the anecdotes. I see numbers suggesting that the unaffiliated people are saying, "but I still consider myself Christian" or "I still consider myself Jewish."

So here is the key question. How does one interpret the personal identity being articulated in the following quote:

Fleece's friend Vibran, 30, takes the view that "religion has evolved over the years. I feel like it's whatever you want it to be. I believe the Catholic moral values, but I don't feel I have to go to church to consider myself a believer in that."

One thing is for sure -- that point of view sounds very American. And it is very American. That's the strong point of Grossman's report.

Another key plank in the story is Grossman's link between interfaith marriages and cohabitation and this new emphasis on faith without doctrines, rules and institutions. Much of the data here focuses on the demographic trends that are tearing at institutional Jewish life in America:

About 27% of Americans are in interfaith marriages or relationships, according to the 2007 Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the most recent data available.

InterfaithFamily, an organization that promotes Jewish choices for interfaith couples, found in a survey of 327 respondents that while 58% say they will participate in Easter celebrations, just 5% will tell the Easter story. And while 96% say they'll participate in Passover celebrations, only 66% expect to tell the Passover story -- the central event of a traditional Passover Seder meal.

Now, let me end with one other question.

Have we reached the point, after the Pew Forum study and similar research, where we can say that the growing norm in American society is a liberalized, personalized Judeo-Christian ethic (will scholar Christian Smith please call his answering service), while the liberal religious groups that offer this perspective continue to be in painful decline, in terms of membership? In other words, did liberal religious groups win the cultural war, while losing the battles to keep their own institutional ships afloat? Will radically individualized liberal religion drive liberal churches and temples out of business, while traditional religious groups become slightly smaller, but vital?

When the Pew Forum/PBS survey came out, the always quotable John C. Green of the University of Akron told me:

This survey shows that “it’s going to be much more difficult for mainline churches to turn things around simply by focusing on higher levels of commitment,” said political scientist John C. Green of the University of Akron. ...

Part of the problem is that fewer Americans remain committed to supporting religious institutions and a high percentage of those who do seem to favor faiths that embrace the very doctrines and traditions the unaffiliated often reject. It also appears that young people who are rejecting traditional faiths -- during the past five years in particular -- are quitting organized religion altogether, rather than joining progressive institutions.

“It’s going to be hard for something like a ‘fewer Methodists, but better Methodists’ approach to work because these mainline churches are already so small and there are so many of them,” said Green. “The mainliners will have to find their niche. But who are they? What do they believe? Do they know?”

That's the negative side of this story. Meanwhile, John Turner of George Mason University -- in a blog post entitled "The Rise of Liberal Religion" -- noted that it is possible to see this glass as half full:

Liberal Protestants may have ultimately lost the battle for membership, but they won the larger cultural struggle. A trenchant quote from the sociologist Christian Smith: “Liberal Protestantism’s organizational decline has been accompanied by and is in part arguably the consequence of the fact that liberal Protestantism has won a decisive, larger cultural victory.” ... Through their embrace of religious pluralism and more universal mystical religious experiences, liberal Protestants imperiled their own institutional strength but persuaded many Americans of the value of their ideas.

So, Grossman's story documents a story built on half of the equation.

Where is the other half? Where are the packed sanctuaries at midnight and at dawn on Easter, in liberal or traditionalist locations? How many babies and young children are seated around the Orthodox Jewish tables at Passover, as opposed to those in liberal Jewish households?

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