Sunday, May 17, 2015
Evangelicals versus "Nones"
According to the latest Pew poll, fewer Americans consider themselves affiliated with any religion than ever in our history. Pew did the last survey of religious life in America in 2007 and then again in 2014. In that span, the number of people who called themselves Christians dropped from about 78 percent of the population to just under 71 percent. Meanwhile, the Americans who considered themselves atheist, agnostic or of no particular faith increased from 16 percent to 23 percent. (I understand why these last are lumped together as "everyone else" but that can be misleading because their spiritual beliefs or non-beliefs are often miles apart).
Still, almost 71 percent of us consider ourselves Christian, which means Christianity remains the dominant faith by far. By contrast, Muslims and Hindus together comprise less than one percent with Jews at 1.9 percent (a slight rise).
This all means that 56 million Americans are not followers of any religion, which is the second largest total behind evangelicals, who claim 62 million believers.
This sets up the political fault lines we see in American politics as most "nones" tend to vote Democratic while evangelicals vote overwhelmingly Republican.
Meanwhile, mainline Protestants, which used to be the majority, have fallen by about 5 million. Catholics have dropped 3 percent. Ethnicity makes a difference. One third of America's Catholics are Latino. A quarter of evangelicals are minorities.
All of these trends are even more accentuated when it comes to young people, particularly Millennials.
Why is this happening? There are many theories and I have one. Keep in mind, it is from observation and reading only, there is no scientific research behind it so you can accept or dismiss it as you see fit.
I believe the two main trends - fewer Christians in general and more evangelicals in particular, are interconnected.
Different groups of people need different things from their religion. Some require structure and exclusivity. They want to know they are indisputably right while anyone who disagrees is wrong. There is no room for tolerance. They need passion from their faith, the passion of the true believer. Doubt makes them uncomfortable. Homosexuality is wrong. God said so. So is abortion. Period. End of story.
If you die without having accepted Jesus, you're going to hell. God does not make allowances. The rules are the rules. All you have to do is follow them unquestioningly and you'll be fine. Otherwise, you're going to hell.
On the other hand, to the "nones', evangelicals, (and by extension, Christianity itself), seem increasingly harsh and judgmental about their fellow man. Reading their militant posts on social media pushes the "nones" farther away from the established church. They often consider themselves spiritual even if they are no longer religious. They prefer a kinder, gentler deity, one who made us with all our weaknesses and is understanding of them.
I would expect that Pope Francis will drive away some of the more philosophically militant Catholics while drawing back some of those who fell away during the more intolerant reign of Benedict.
So, there is a push/pull in American religion today. It is the same divide we see in our politics between conservative and liberal. The number of religious are smaller, over all, but they are ever more driven to work their will on the country, which is what religious freedom laws are all about.
The "nones", meanwhile, fight against having to abide by the rules of the religious, rules they themselves don't believe in.
Where does this leave the mainstream churches? Standing on the sidelines trying to find a way to make their own views relevant. All the interaction is between the fundamentalists and the "nones".
Religious war has never turned out well. I have no doubt that this one won't either.