After a few weeks on this planet, I was baptized into the community of faith. Can’t remember much about that sacred event, but witnesses say I screamed bloody murder.
I still scream — about a lot of things, including the shortcomings of my church. But, I remain a member. Even have those little collection basket envelopes, printed with my name.
So, I was shocked by the recent news that I’m now a minority, in faith as well as stationery. Since 1937, the Gallup Poll has asked Americans if they belong to any sort of religious congregation. This year, for the first time, those of us saying yes slipped below 50 percent.
The decline has been underway for years, and it embraces young and old, Catholic and Protestant, mainline and evangelical. Lifeway Research estimates that at least 4,000 churches are closing every year, as have quite a few in the Berkshires. COVID-19 hasn’t helped, though a few local congregations are hanging on with virtual services.
Gallup does not ask people why they avoid church membership, but I have some theories. First, it’s not because of any major decline in national morality or spirituality. Even in this secular age, 7 out of 10 Americans continue to say they belong to a church, even if unofficially. Others insist they believe in God, grace, goodness, the afterlife and other elements of religion as we know it.
Instead, the problem may be that people are indulging their spiritual impulses elsewhere. Politics, especially, is taking the place of religion in the U.S. and delivering the sweet satisfaction of the righteous.
The Republican Party has essentially merged with the evangelical right. Together, they have marched off to fight the culture wars, from abortion to transgender athletics.
Democrats, meanwhile, are framing issues like income inequality, voting rights, and racial and gender discrimination in religious terms, marketing the compassionate part of Christianity.
Both sides of the partisan divide ask, “What would Jesus do?” Inconveniently, he is not here to respond.
Actually, he did once: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s [Mark 12:17].” Jesus wasn’t totally disengaged from civic life — just ask those money changers in the temple — but he focused more on personal salvation than on politics. From that, we can almost discern an early outline for the separation of church and state.
The concept, of course, is one of our country’s founding principles, though it sprang more from the Enlightenment than the Bible. We don’t always live up to that ideal, but it sure does help us avoid a lot of problems. Just look at a country like Iran, where state and religion are fused.
Look also at places where politics take on the fervor of religion — turning dissent into heresy, compromise into betrayal, dictators into deities. We fought a world war against that sort of thing, and it almost ended civilization. Then we had a dogma-fueled cold war, which could have done the same.
Maybe we’ve learned a lesson. I think one reason Americans are turning against organized religion is a growing fear that a wondrous, life-affirming institution like a church can become a dangerous juggernaut when it intrudes into Caesar’s realm, framing political questions as religious crusades.
And not just full-blown crusades. Some of our religious leaders nowadays seem to be dabbling in largely secular policy matters — disparaging masks and vaccinations, preventing some people from marrying, trying to elect a particular president. Or maybe just investing the weekly collection in a private jet. That stuff alienates a lot of would-be congregants, which helps explain the Gallup findings.
This would be a sorry sermon if it didn’t end on a note of hope, and those Gallup numbers contain one. Church affiliation remains strong among one segment of the population: people of color, especially new arrivals to the U.S. Immigration is a revitalizing gift that church members in both political parties should embrace.
Many of these immigrants have fled countries where partisan passion has gotten out of hand. They, like other Americans, know you don’t need a religious congregation to indulge your earthly prejudices. You can do that with social media, cable talk shows and newspaper columns.
That’s right, you can listen to me. I entered this world screaming in a church, but I’ve concluded that it’s better to do so outside.