The new Pew numbers show that the number of Americans who do not identify with any particular religion, the “nones,” continues to increase. The trends confirm earlier studies by Pew that have documented the gradual lessening of the hold traditional forms of Christianity have on the American people.
Most of the commentary so far has looked at the political implications of the new data. The nones are now the largest religious group (or, non-religious group) within the Democratic Party. At RNS, Mark Silk predicts that the trends will prove beneficial to the Democrats. An earlier article on the same topic by David French at National Review looked at the rise of the nones through the lens of culture war battles like same-sex marriage rather than partisan identification.
Religion and politics have always been intermingled in American culture, never out of earshot of each other, sometimes more deeply embedded in mutual or at least parallel concerns. We all know the famous lines from George Washington’s Farewell Address:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
The idea that religion is not only an important, but a necessary, prop to the kind of civic virtue a democracy requires if it is to flourish, remains a staple of a certain kind of American exceptionalist thinking and preaching. It is patently false: Most of us know someone who is not a church-goer but who nonetheless demonstrates they are not ethically crippled.
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This idea that religion is a necessary prop to Americanism has always existed side-by-side with the founders’ hostility to the idea of an established religion. Dwight Eisenhower famously, and clunkily, drew the connection with these words: “[O]ur form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply-felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion with all men are created equal.” Eisenhower’s statement is less coarse than it seems, linking government with a religious belief in equality. Still, the phrase “Judeo-Christian concept” rankles and I would contrast it with these words of Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est:
Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. Saint John's Gospel describes that event in these words: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should ... have eternal life” (3:16). In acknowledging the centrality of love, Christian faith has retained the core of Israel's faith, while at the same time giving it new depth and breadth. The pious Jew prayed daily the words of the Book of Deuteronomy which expressed the heart of his existence: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might” (6:4-5). Jesus united into a single precept this commandment of love for God and the commandment of love for neighbour found in the Book of Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (19:18; cf. Mk 12:29-31). Since God has first loved us (cf. 1 Jn 4:10), love is now no longer a mere “command”; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us.
For too long, our faith has been given a prominent but circumscribed place in American public life. Ultimately, that place is not only circumscribed but distorting. Christianity is welcomed as a prop for politics, valued for its ethical expertise, doing for the uneducated what “enlightened education” accomplishes for the better sorts. This reduction of religion to ethics has a long history, going back to the Reformation. It is a decidedly non-Catholic perspective although, regrettably, many Catholics in the U.S. on both the left and the right routinely engage in precisely such a reduction. You see it all the time: Look at the facile way certain conservatives objected to Archbishop Blase Cupich’s comments about conscience or the way a certain kind of liberal Catholic considers dogma a bad thing. If American Catholicism really is only about ethics, than to hell with it.
As Pope Benedict said, being a Christian is not about ethical choices or lofty ideas, although one hopes that good ethical choices and lofty ideas will come forth from a vibrant Christian culture. It is about an encounter with Jesus Christ. Today, for a variety of reasons, many Americans are willingly to openly say that they do not identify with a particular religion, although I suspect that in years past many who did so identify with a particular religion did so out of a kind of cultural conformism rather than any deep faith commitment. Yes, some will slide into the easy, solipsistic stance “I am spiritual, not religious.” Yes, some are simply recoiling from the face of public Christianity in recent years, an angry, sometimes bigoted, usually judgmental, and often scolding face. Yes, the lack of religious identification tracks with other cultural trends of increasing individualism that have been going on for sometime: Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone fifteen years ago. But, the Pew numbers do not portend a plague. Locusts are not coming.
I see these new Pew numbers as an opportunity, a wake up call. In a little more than a week’s time, the U.S. bishops will gather in Baltimore for their annual plenary. This is their first meeting since Pope Francis’ amazing visit to the U.S. At a time when religious identification is declining, his popularity remains robust. Why is that? Like St. Paul at the Areopagus, Pope Francis approaches modern culture and finds a starting point for dialogue, a starting point for an encounter. Like the early Christians, Pope Francis does not look to political props for the proclamation of the Gospel, but believes that living a saintly and simple life, trusting in the Spirit to accomplish what the Spirit intends, will not only be more successful at attracting people to the Gospel, although it will, but that such an approach to evangelization is more consistent with the Gospel, no matter the results. Will the U.S. bishops think that the way to spread the Gospel is to continue to present a moralistic Catholicism, engaged in the culture wars, or will they follow Francis’ lead, and show to an increasingly irreligious culture that our faith generates a beauty that is, literally, other-wordly?