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How Religion is Changing in America, Part 2

Posted by The Rev. William Zettinger on

Last post I introduced how religion was changing in America. Here’s a look at some of the ways religious practice and belief have changed over the last 50 years, and the trends that may continue to evolve:

It isn’t sufficient to simply build the positive case for historical Christianity, the wonderful contribution that Christians have made to the world and then expect people to flock to our churches. One significant bridge building attribute is to admit that there are valid objections to the way Christians have treated others in history. Just consider the brutality of the Crusades or Inquisition. I’ve read passages from Martin Luther’s “On the Jews and Their Lies.” Luther became increasing anti-sematic in his life. He once recommended that Jewish books be burned in the public square and their businesses destroyed. And this is the person who was the cornerstone of the Reformation in 1517ce.

This discussion about the reality of the Christian life through the centuries can take us in several directions. One direction might be to talk about the grace of God that offers hope and forgiveness even to atheists, abusers and the self-righteous. A second direction that an authentic discussion of Christian history might take us toward a renewed understanding of the word “Christian” and “Christianity.” Remember that Luther also discovered that it is by the grace of God that we are saved and loved regardless of where we come from, the color of our skin, our race or nationality.

So what has changed and is changing?

Belief in God has wavered.
In 1966, some 98 percent of Americans said they believed in God. When Gallup and Pew Research surveyed Americans in 2016, the number had dropped to 84 percent. Among the youngest adults surveyed by Pew, those born between 1990 and 1996, the share of believers was just 79 percent and falling at about 2% per year.

Christianity has declined.
In 1948, Gallup found that about 91 percent of Americans identified as Christian. That number took a big dip in subsequent decades and continues to decline in recent years. From 2007 to 2016 alone, the percentage of Americans who identified as Christian fell from 78.4 percent to 70.0 percent.

New “religious” group has emerged.
Nearly one in three Americans under 35 today are religiously unaffiliated, meaning they do not identify with any formal religious group. As a whole, these “nones” comprise the second largest religious group in the U.S. behind evangelical Protestants.

Spirituality has taken center stage.
The term “spiritual but not religious” has emerged in recent years to describe how more and more Americans identify. Yes, religious affiliation has declined. But feelings of spiritual peace and wellbeing? Wonder about the universe? Both have significantly increased in the last decade across religious and nonreligious groups. Between 2007 and 2016, the percentage of atheists who said they felt a deep sense of wonder about the universe on a weekly basis rose a full 18 points from 37 percent to 55 percent. Quantum physics and our understanding of the Cosmos plays a big role in these views.

Non-Christian faiths have grown.
Islam, Hinduism and several other non-Christian faiths have risen in the U.S. in recent years. Pew Research predicts that by 2050, Muslims will surpass Jews as the second largest organized religious group after Christians.

So where do we go from here?
No doubt religion in America and our beliefs are changing. One thing that does not seem to have changed is the people's need for a spiritual relationship with God or some life force or entity of some kind. Some time ago I had a conversation with the Rev. Brian McClaren, head pastor of Saddleback Church. I will never forget how Brian said, and believed, that the Episcopal Church with its Via Media or middle way theology could be a bridge to bring all people together instead of polarizing them into one category or another.

I am a strong advocate of the “Middle Way” because it lets us say to the world: “all are welcome here.” That said, as we gather around the table for the Eucharistic feast, we can and should promote listening with open hearts to each other. That is, regardless of our point of view. The promises we make in our Baptismal Covenant are reminders that we are not yet perfect, that we are called to move deeper in our faith and make a difference in our world. We do so together as the church, always professing that we will indeed live into our baptismal vows as followers of Christ, but always “with God’s help."
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love." (Book of Common Prayer, p. 833)