Religion in a 'different strokes for different folks' world

Social scientists have been described as often
having a magnificent grasp of the obvious. The recently released Pew Forum’s US
Religious Landscape Survey falls squarely in that category. Not that the large
survey of some 35,000 souls doesn’t contain some nuggets. It just has about it
an aura of “been there-done that.”

The study confirms again that the United
States deserves to be called a ‘religious nation” with 71 percent absolutely
certain about the existence of God, 56 percent reporting that their church is a
very important part of their lives, and 39 percent attending religious services
at least once a week. Only 16 percent of US adults report that they are
“unaffiliated” with a particular church, but a solid 92 percent claim to
believe in God. While surprising and unsettling to university professors and
media mucky-mucks, the study confirms what most Americans experience as they go about
their daily lives.

The Pew Forum’s write-up of its study,
while chronicling the breadth of religion in America, makes much of our religious
diversity, from the ever-shrinking Protestant majority [now 51 percent] to less
than single percentage numbers of Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists. The authors
suggest that this diversity of religious affiliations has led to the widespread
conviction that there are many religious roads to God’s house.

This American tolerance for their
neighbor’s creed has long been a goal of our political leaders. Cognizant of
the religious wars that from Luther’s time through the 19th century poisoned
life in Europe, religious tolerance has been a
national priority and one that apparently has been achieved. The American
elementary and secondary public schools, which today educate 88 per cent of the
nation’s children, have historically been used to promote this religious
tolerance. Indeed, in recent decades the public schools have shifted that
emphasis from tolerance of different religions to make a religion of tolerance.

Of course, this emphasis on religious
tolerance makes life in the democratic public square appear to run smoothly
with few angry public arguments over predestination and transubstantiation. Asserting
the superiority of one’s religion is considered bad form. It is so much more
comfortable to blandly assume the theological position of “different strokes
for different folks” and “if it works for you…”

But America’s embrace of religious
diversity and its enshrining of the virtue of tolerance has its downside. “If God
doesn’t care which road we take to Him and if He is tolerant about all these
conflicting religions and their claims, why should I take them so seriously. Isn’t
it small-minded and intolerant of me to think, let alone assert in public that
my religion is the true one?” This tolerant approach to one’s core beliefs has
not been lost on American youth. Three years ago, sociologist Christian Smith
and his colleague released the results of a large survey of some 3,300
teenagers entitled the National Study of Youth and Religion.

Like the Pew Forum’s report, this, too,
confirmed the nearly ubiquitous American belief in God, this time among 13 to 17-year-olds.
Rather than rebelling from the faith of their fathers and mothers, it also
revealed strong adherence to the family’s religion. On the other hand, and
particularly worrisome, the research revealed that American teenagers have
quite a low understanding of their religion and had much trouble articulating the
major beliefs and tenets of the faith to which they claim allegiance.

Summing up their primary findings, the
researchers described the religious views of American teens to be “moralistic,
therapeutic deism”. “Moralistic” in that most teenagers had a sense of right
and wrong; “therapeutic” in the Dr Phil sense that following the Ten
Commandments is “good for you” and helps you succeed in life’s endeavours;
and “deism” in the sense that God is a distant, impersonal force. The
researchers characterized the faith that young people have inherited from their parents as
the ideal religion for “our culturally post-Christian, individualistic,
mass-consumer, capitalist society”. One wonders, however, whether this type of
religion would hold up under the strains of a stressful marriage, a deep
economic depression or a severe religious persecution.

Another Pew finding, particularly among
Protestants and Catholics (who make up three-fourths of the sample) is how a
particular religious label today covers a range of personal practices and
attitudes. Where we once simply had Coke, now we have choice: among them Diet
Coke, Diet with Lime, Zero Coke and Classic Coke. Similarly, we can decide within our religion where on the
spectrum of doctrinal issues, church involvements and practices we feel “most
comfortable” and settle in there. Not surprisingly, religiously conservative
people attend church more frequently, pray more and attach greater importance
to their religion. Thus, we have Evangelical Protestants and Protestant groups
passionate in their defense of the gay lifestyle, and Latin Mass Catholics and
"Catholics For a Free Choice" of abortion. All very American!

As the Pew study makes clear, however,
one’s religious selection on the liberal to conservative spectrum correlates
quite closely with one’s politics. It confirms the growing conviction that a
person’s religious views are the key indicator of what kind of a government one
desires. Religious conservatives tend to vote for Republicans and religious
liberals vote for Democrats.

Diversity. Tolerance. Choice. It would
appear that, at least in religion, the American project has succeeded. One
wonders, however, whether this is what Christ and the Apostles had in mind.

Ryan founded the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston
University, where he is professor emeritus. He has written and edited 20 books.
He has appeared recently on CBS's "This Morning", ABC's "Good
Morning America", "The O’Reilly Factor", CNN and the Public
Broadcasting System speaking on character education. He can be reached at [email protected]


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