Saturday, June 6, 2009

Religious Disengagement In Historical Context

Although a month old, today I came across an op-ed column by Michael Gerson who previews an upcoming book, American Grace: How Religion Is Reshaping Our Civic and Political Lives, by authors Robert Putnam (we discussed his other thoughts here) and David Campbell. To begin, according to Putnam and Campbell, religious adherents are very constructive and productive citizens:
Putnam asserts, "religious Americans are nicer, happier and better citizens." They are more generous with their time and money, not only in giving to religious causes but to secular ones. They join more voluntary associations, attend more public meetings, even let people cut in line in front of them more readily. Religious Americans are three to four times more socially engaged than the unaffiliated. Ned Flanders is a better neighbor.

Against the expectations of many religious believers, this dynamic has little to do with the content of belief. Theology is not the predictor of civic behavior; being part of a community is. People become social joiners and contributors when they have friends who pierce their isolation and invite their participation. And religious friends, says Putnam, are "more powerful, supercharged friends."
Yet, this level of religious engagement is on the decline. According to Putnam, this religious disengagement is the result of "one shock and two aftershocks," the historical antecedants to the current trends. The shock, the 60's and its rebellious culture:
The shock came in the 1960s. As conservatives have asserted, the philosophy of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll is an alternative to religious affiliation (though some of the rocking religious would dispute the musical part). Baby boomers were far less religious than their parents were at the same age -- the probable result, says Putnam, of a "very rapid change in morals and customs.
The first aftershock, the advent of the Religious Right:
This retreating tide of committment [sic] affected nearly every denomination equally, except that it was less severe among evangelicals. While not dramatically increasing their percentage of the American population, evangelicals did increase their percentage among the religious in America. According to Putnam, religious "entrepreneurs" such as Jerry Falwell organized and channeled the conservative religious reaction against the 1960s into the religious right -- the first aftershock.
The second aftershock, blowback against the politicization of religion from the Religious Right:
But this reaction provoked a reaction -- the second aftershock. The politicization of religion by the religious right, argues Putnam, caused many young people in the 1990s to turn against religion itself, adopting the attitude: "If this is religion, I'm not interested."
The result of these "shocks and aftershocks" is religious polarization. This polarization, however, hasn't affected the overall religious level of America; more are very religious and many not religious at all. And as we all know too well, this polarization correlates with partisan politics. Democrats must maintain their base of "nones" and unaffiliateds, while making plays into the religious base - a strategy successfully completed by Pres. Obama - and Republicans must maintain their base of constant church-goers, while making plays at those less inclined to religious engagement, currently a puzzling problem. Finally, Gerson provides Putnam's thoughts on the "nones" and how their religious views could change and re-adapt the religious landscape, a concluding message of hope:
"They are not in church, but they might be if a church weren't like the religious right. . . . There are almost certain to be religious entrepreneurs to fill that niche with a moderate evangelical religion, without political overtones."

In the diverse, fluid market of American religion there may be a demand, in other words, for grace, hope and reconciliation -- for a message of compassion and healing that appeals to people of every political background. It would be revolutionary -- but it would not be new.

Incidentally, I was talking to my friend, Tripp, tonight about the barriers to mainline faith in our First World, and while I agree with Putnam's historical conclusions, I think there are other contributing factors involved, of which two quickly come to mind. First, I think the mainstream media is complicit in the polarization of religion and politics. As I've said before:
I am most bothered by how the if-it-bleeds-it-leads conflict-generating media elevates certain (more extreme) views into the public discussion creating the general misperception that those views are both normative and majority; their skewing or mis-weighting of the plurality of theological voices leads, cognitively, to a fallacious availability heuristic. In this light, lost is the respect for the vast diversity of religious and theological thought, dismissed by the oversimplified - and perhaps dumbed-down - fault lines of conservatism versus liberalism. And when the press is only willing to cover a very narrow set of hot-button issues (i.e., abortion, homosexuality, environmentalism, school prayer), this supposed ideological binary perpetuates and exacerbates the divisiveness already inherent within those discussions. Healthy theological diversity is out, and unhealthy theological disagreeableness is in.
Second, technological interconnectivity and globalization. Our world is shrinking, via economics and technology, and in this manner, the internet provides instant exposure to a diverse set of thoughts and ideas on any and all subjects. At the end of our finger tips, we have access to virtually everything. The incorporation and assimilation of differing theological concepts, in my mind, creates an atmosphere where one questions - amplified by the results of scientific inquiry - not only his/her faith but the truth claims of all faiths.


matt said...

wow drew, that was really well written and spot on i think. the question is though, how do we fix this? the media isn't going to change any time soon and the world is going to keep getting smaller. and don't forget to add internet rumors and chain emails to the list as contributors (though they may be a subset of your shrinking world idea).

to your point that the media is complicit in the way the shape opinions by the stories they run (sorry, i can't say that nearly as elegantly as you do), i coined my own Jesse Jackson-esque phrase many years ago - "the dissemination of misinformation is ruining this nation".

you can add that to your fav quotes on facebook if you want. :)

Drew said...

Thanks, Matt. Not really sure how we will fix this, but expect a re-emergent Christianity on the horizon, with the 'nones' having their hand in that re-visioning process.

Several things do come to mind, but I don't now how we can pro-actively help. First, we should demand that the media revert back to accuracy seeking instead of giving both sides equal opportunity in an article. While a fair and balanced approach is good, it is part of the problem, and a re-prioritization towards truth and accuracy will go a long way, in my opinion.

Second, there needs to be a strong dissection of religion and politics, but not only in the public sphere but within our own minds. While we, individually speaking, are only one person, we can wear different hats. Right now, and I have seen this first hand, mournfully, people are attending church with a politically partisan mindset. For example, I have have heard pastors who have had discussions with people over torture. This pastor had to rebuke all of torture as anti-Christian, and one parishoner realized that he was "for" torture only because his party was for it. Somehow our, in our polarized partisan contexts, our political ideologies have trumped our theological tenets. This is what I mean, we have to start teasing out the claims of the Gospel from our polarized partisan mindsets.

What do you think?

Katie said...


Thanks for the heads up. Holy cow, you weren't kidding.


Thanks for sticking up for me in the other thread. I was gone for the weekend and came back to absolute chaos... much appreciated. That's what we call bipartisan cooperation, right? :-)

(Sorry to threadjack, fellas. All done now!)