Nones again

May 16, 2015

The Pew Research Center has a new study out on the “landscape” of religion in America. In just 7 years the percentage of American adults not claiming any religious affiliation has risen from 16.1% to 22.8%. The “Nones” now outnumber Roman Catholics, and way outnumber “mainline Protestants” according to Pew’s classification of denominational families; only the Evangelicals are more numerous, at 25.4%. At the same time total Christian identification has fallen from 78.4% to 70.6%

The increase in Nones seems to involve both generational change – the more religious older folks dying out and being replaced in the sample by youngsters – and a steady drift away from religion within each generational slice. There has been little sign of what used to be considered a “thing”: people drifting away from church in their late teens and twenties, but returning when they marry and have kids of their own. And while in the past a significant number of people raised as Nones eventually found themselves churched, this too is becoming less common.

As I see it, Nones have reached a self-sustaining critical density in many parts of the country, especially metropolitan areas outside the South. When I was a kid in the 1950’s, even though I myself wasn’t actually raised in a church (my parents were marginally affiliated with Greek Orthodoxy), I got the sense from people I knew, as well as from the media, that church-going was something normal, something most people did. This was the age of Eisenhower, who said it was important to have a religion, no matter which; I recently read somewhere that he was the only President to have been baptized while in office. It was the age when Billy Graham was always being mentioned in the media, widely admired by millions who didn’t share or even understand his particular beliefs. There were times I felt I was missing something, and once I was on my own I had to try to figure out what it was and how it worked. Today’s young people are much less likely to get that message, less likely to have close friends or relatives who are religious and who might inspire or at least enable them to give it a try at some point; moreover, most of the Christians and other religious-identifiers whom a young None is likely to encounter in daily life, in school or at work, are a lot less likely to be involved in their respective faith traditions than their predecessors were, more likely to have lifestyles and moral and political beliefs similar to those of the Nones rather than to those of the religiously more conservative, and therefore much less likely than in previous decades to pull their None friends into church (or whatever) with them. Back in the ’50s, even though there were plenty of differences among religious and denominational groups, they all seemed to share a certain mindset – a respect for traditional teachings, scriptures, and that hot topic for kids growing up in all eras, sexual morality; it was those who rejected religion altogether who were “marked” as a somewhat alien minority. Today it’s the Evangelicals who are isolated on the conservative wing, with Mainliners, Catholics, members of non-Christian traditions and Nones tending to agree among themselves on most issues.

Ross Douthat and others have published interesting reflections on the Pew results, which I may find time to comment on in days to come…


Imaginary Friends

December 20, 2012

Ever since looking into anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann’s book When God Talks Back a few months ago, I’ve wanted to post a few words on it. An op-ed of hers that appeared last week in the New York Times finally got me to sit down and do it.

Luhrmann has been studying the Vineyard Movement, an association of young and growing  Evangelical churches with a charismatic flavor. In particular she reports on a series of imaginative practices used by members of these churches to make God and specifically Jesus a real personal presence in their lives. She points out – in the book, not the op-ed – that these practices are strongly inspired by the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola, one instance of how this new movement crosses traditional denominational barriers. Luhrmann insists that though the subjects of her study report encounters with Jesus that often sound hallucinatory to outsiders, there is really no delusion (self- or other) involved; they remain lucid throughout and in control of the process.

I find this quite fascinating; my only quibble is that she presents this set of practices as really widespread among Evengelicals generally, without any real evidence that it has spread much outside the Vineyard churches – still rather far-between compared with say the Southern Baptists, whose leading theologian Albert Mohler is quoted as a strong critic of the whole idea. (To him and many others, it is dangerous to add anything, even innocent-seeming imaginative detail, to the literal text of Scripture.) I accept tentatively, in the absence of further information, that in most if not all cases the thing is psychologically harmless, and may even be of some emotional value.

Nevertheless, I cannot help noting that since the effectiveness of the practice doesn’t seem to depend at all on the objective reality of the God or Jesus being invoked – at least I have never been persuaded of the existence of a person quite like the God described in the Bible as literally understood, and Luhrmann makes no such claim – it should work just as well with any canonical text, any work of vividly imagined fiction. I am aware of some parallels in Hindu and Buddhist practice; and I cannot help wonder what, say, the Objectivists might make of it. Could they imagine themselves sharing breakfast with Dagny Taggart or Dominique Francon, or make Howard Roark or John Galt a real personal presence in their lives? Maybe some of them already do? Let’s see, what literary character would I like to try it with…

A few last words on Mitt

January 13, 2012

… at least for now.

To sum up: Mitt seems to think of  himself as the kind of candidate who dominated Republican politics in the era from McKinley to Hoover: one who believes, as Coolidge said, that “the business of America is business.” I could also cite the Eisenhower cabinet member who said “What’s good for General Motors is good for the United States,” except that Romney’s position on the auto industry bailout needs some interpretation…

Unfortunately for his prospects, no Republican has won the Presidency since 1928 as a pure business-first candidate. Eisenhower won as a moderate who accepted the New Deal; Nixon, Reagan and the Bushes won by appealing to the sorts of sentiment that McKinley disdained and let Bryan represent, the fear (aggravated by the events of the 1960s) of urbanisation and cosmopolitanism and immorality among the young…

The closest thing since the Depression to a GOP national victory based on economic issues was 1980; but Carter did not run as FDR, nor Reagan as Hoover. Reagan won on an economic platform that his running mate, a far more traditional Republican, had previously derided as “Voodoo.”

If in the course of the year the economy starts looking so bad that Romney can run by just pointing at it, and not going into his own ideas of what to do about it, he may well win the Presidency. If not, probably not.

In days to come I plan to blog more regularly than I’ve done recently. I’ll look in on the campaign again from time to time, but will continue to address my broad range of interests.

Thanks for looking in!

More about the GOP

January 12, 2012

The latest turn in the GOP primary contest, in which Newt Gingrich and others who had all along been attacking Gov. Romney from the political right are now criticizing him for his profit-seeking activities in the private sector, has come to many as a surprise.

To me it is a reminder that the alliance we have come to take for granted between religious conservatism and laissez-faire capitalism is a fairly recent phenomenon.

Less than a century ago William Jennings Bryan, who in Vachel Lindsay’s words “scourged the elephant plutocrats” throughout his career, and most famously at the Democratic convention of 1896 where he proclaimed the following –

There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.

– ended his days in Tennessee prosecuting a certain John Thomas Scopes.

William McKinley (with whom Karl Rove liked to compare George W. Bush, himself taking the role of sidekick Mark Hanna)  beat Bryan twice for the Presidency precisely by letting him have the Bible thumpers and xenophobes who had until then tended to vote Republican, appealing instead to the urban and largely immigrant masses in the Northeast and Midwest who, however severe their own issues with the plutocracy, saw no place for themselves in Bryan’s rural Evangelical  vision of America.

So what changed? Several things, I think.

First the New Deal of the 1930’s. It addressed the grievances of all who suffered most from the Depression, and at first it drew their support whatever their regional or demographic background; but after a while the buildup of Federal bureaucracy which it required left Bryan’s old Western constituencies feeling that Washington had become at least as hostile to their vision as Wall Street had been.

Then the Cold War: with Stalin’s Communism as a universally acknowledged enemy, which threatened capitalism and religion both, people came to feel that both were somehow on the same side, both part of the America that needed to be defended.

The articulation of a rigorous but “Big Tent”-ish conservative ideology in the 1950’s, most eloquently by William F. Buckley; Barry Goldwater’s luring  Southern whites away from populism by linking it with Civil Rights; finally the great parental freakout of the late Sixties – all these things combined to produce the constellation of political forces that seems to us so natural.

So I am not at all surprised by occasional signs that like all composite things, it is prone to decay…

First, what is being described as a “kerfuffle” (love that word) over the rejection of an ad by Sojourners Magazine. Sojourners is the vehicle of Jim Wallis, widely acclaimed as the country’s most prominent “progressive evangelical.” That is, theologically conservative but progressive on most political issues, especially those involving poverty and social justice. Sex and gender not so much. So when a group called “Believe Out Loud” attempted to place an ad in Sojourners calling on churches to welcome all kinds of family on Mothers’ Day, and the magazine rejected it, some observers professed not to be surprised at all.

Wallis wrote to defend the rejection as based not on any substantive disagreement with the cause of equality and inclusion but simply a desire not to get involved in a controversy “not… at the core of our calling.”  This of course inflamed matters further. Subscriptions are reportedly being cancelled, perhaps a significant number. Here are a few  comments gathered from cyberspace: these from Episcopal Cafe and Religion Dispatches reflect the sense of many progressive Christians that it was a mistake all along to let Wallis be perceived as their spokesman; while over on the Atheist side, Hemant Mehta speaks for those who see this as one more bit of proof that Christianity is just not worth trying to save.

Meanwhile: reports are being tweeted that the Presbyterian Church (USA) now has enough votes to ratify an amendment to their constitution deleting heteronormative language (“the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman… or chastity in singleness”) from the requirements for ministerial office. The necessary 87th vote – from the Twin Cities presbytery – apparently came in within the past hour or so. (There’s been a net shift of at least 15 presbyteries in favor, compared with previous votes on the question.)  It seems likely that there will be defections by more conservative elements in the denomination, as with the Episcopalians and ELCA, which will make the progressive/inclusive tendency even stronger among those who remain.