Back-Pocket God

This past week, I set aside the Trump revelation books for a while to explore a book about the religious behavior and attitudes of young USA “emerging adults.” They are currently very important AND they will still be here when DT is just an old memory…..

More than fifteen years ago, a group of researchers — directed by Christian Smith, Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame and Lisa Pearce, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — began to study the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers in what was called “The National Study of Youth and Religion.” They carefully observed these young people and reported on their findings in a series of books, beginning with Soul Searching (2005). Now, with Back-Pocket God, this extensive research project comes to its conclusion.

Back-Pocket God: Religion and Spirituality in the Lives of Emerging Adults by Melinda Lundquist Denton and Richard Flory (Oxford University Press) explores the continuity and change among young people from their teenage years through the latter stages of “emerging adulthood.” Denton and Flory have discovered and documented that the story of young adult religious behavior is one of an overall decline in commitment and affiliation, and in general, a moving away from organized religion. A great many young people are not so much anti-organized religion. They are simply disinterested.

Although the young people in this book – about a quarter of the current US population and already outnumbering the Baby Boomers– are considered within the age range of what is often called the “millennial” generation, the authors do not refer to them as “millennials.” They prefer the term “emerging adults.” The book is a thorough and balanced analysis of their spiritual and religious lives: what they currently think and believe about religion, their religious practices and affiliations, and how these have changed over the course of their development from adolescence to emerging adulthood.

God for emerging adults, the study behind this book confirms, has become increasingly remote from their everyday concerns and rarely enters into their thinking or occupies an important place in their lives. In a way, the authors say, God functions like an app on their phones. God is just one thing among many other things in their lives. One could say that God is really “more of the comfortable feeling that emerging adults have, when they know their Pocket God is with them, close at hand but safely stowed out of sight.”

The top three ranked items that emerging adults identified as very or extremely important in their lives are: (1) to have a good family life (92 percent), (2) a close set of friends (89 percent), and (3) a fulfilling romantic relationship (80 percent). Less than one-half of emerging adults (49 percent) said that having a close relationship with God is very important for them and only 23 percent said that having a close relationship with God was most important.

Perhaps the most dramatic change among the emerging adults in this study concerns attendance at religious services. Attending religious services weekly or more often has dropped to 19 percent of respondents.

Clearly, emerging adults’ views about organized religion are less than positive, with an increasingly negative view of organized religion mirrored across every religious tradition. Many express their dissatisfaction and disagreement with religious institutions, usually around issues like LGBTQ identity and rights, abortion, and gay marriage. Many view the leaders of organized religions as more interested in building their own empires than in serving others. Those who were raised Catholic showed the biggest declines in positive feelings about the religion they grew up in, followed by Mainline and Conservative Protestants. Emerging adults, overall, are moving away from formal religious beliefs, practices, and participation in religious institutions. Even for those who maintain a place in their lives for religion, it tends to be treated as just one part of their lives and not more important than other things they are involved in.

Do I find this book upsetting or depressing? Not really. After researching and teaching about theology and religion for more than fifty years, I find it realistic and challenging. The scope of this book speaks to a great pastoral void. A friend observed that maybe these young adults have not left the church but that the church has left them….What one could call an ecclesiastical failure. Emerging adults are not in general antagonistic toward organized religion. Most just don’t find it all that important. Certainly if the current trends of disaffiliation and lack of interest and participation continue, religious institutions of all types will have a seriously declining membership pool and a big void in their bank accounts. One strong assertion in this book is that – unlike earlier generations — this generation will NOT be returning to church when they start having children.

The future of communities of faith depends on religious leadership observing and listening to young people without judgment and with patience and openness. I still remember, with dismay, the observations of an American bishop acquaintance. He yelled at me that “those young people need to be educated, formed, and forced to obey and observe the teachings of their Holy Mother the  Church.” I told him, much to HIS dismay, that those days are over and that “Holy Mother the Church has to start truly LISTENING to young people.”

These young people – our emerging adults – are neither racists nor xenophobic. They are already multi-racial. They are not anti-gay. They are not motivated by hatred or self-aggrandizement. They are attentive to the environment. They will indeed shape the future. We can help them by encouraging them to love, to search, to ask questions, and to find satisfying answers…..In the process they will indeed reform society and, indeed, reform the shape and focus of organized religion.

Jack

Meditative Moment

September 11, 2020

A very short reflection this week end. Take some time to find a quiet place. Take a deep breath. Slowly reflect on Rabbi Harold Kushner’s “Prayer for the World.”

Let the rain come and wash away the ancient grudges, the bitter hatred held and nurtured over generations.

Let the rain wash away the memory of the hurt, the neglect.

Then let the sun come out and fill the sky with rainbows.

Let the warmth of the sun heal us wherever we are broken.

Let it burn away the fog so than we can see each other clearly.

So that we can see beyond labels, beyond accents, gender or skin color.

Let the warmth and brightness of the sun melt our selfishness.

So that we can share the joys and feel the sorrows of our neighbors.

And let the light of the sun be so strong that we will see all people as our neighbors.

And let the mountains teach our hearts to reach upward to heaven.

Amen.

[Harold Samuel Kushner, born 1935 in Brooklyn, New York, is a prominent American rabbi and a popular author. He first caught my attention in 1981 when he wrote the best selling book on the problem of evil, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.]

The 2020 Campaign: A Theological Observation

It will probably be at least two more months before we know the winner of the US 2020 presidential election. So far the campaign has broken all historic records with its promotion of polarization, violence, and deceptive rhetoric. So far it is certainly the most chaotic and consequential in USA history. Many observers see it marking an historic turning point in US identity and social behavior. I agree with them; but as an historical theologian I also see a major theological issue underlying the current presidential campaign.

The contemporary reality is that the GOP presidential candidate has successfully tapped into significant white disaffection, racism, and fears that “their” America is disappearing. The contemporary populist movement, with strong use of religious symbol and sentiment, is actually a form of “Christian nationalism,” which is neither Christian nor patriotic.

Fundamentally, Christian nationalism ignores the historical reality that, right from the beginning, America was pluralistically multi-religious: with native American religions, Judaism, Islam, and of course Christianity. The other historical reality, that is so often either unknown or simply ignored, is that the religious and philosophical perspective of the “Founding Fathers” was more Deist than Christian. Deists argued that reason and human experience, rather than religious dogma determine the validity of human beliefs. The 1776 Declaration of Independence is a great and important national document but it is not a Christian inspired document.

Christian nationalism denies and rejects our pluralistic society. It stresses a political ideology that holds that Christians (especially white ones) have the right to rule over everyone else in US society. Christian nationalists, believe that “religious freedom” means the right to impose their beliefs on others. Christian nationalists reject authentic US American history and advocate a narrow revisionist kind of history. They insist that the “Founding fathers” were devout Christians who never intended to create a secular republic. Separation of church and state, according to this revisionist history, is a falsehood perpetrated by God-hating (usually called “leftist”) subversives.

Christian nationalist ideology advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity. It uses and often manipulates scriptural texts to promote its perspective. Vice President Pence did that on Wednesday, August 26th, in his RNC speech from Fort McHenry in Baltimore. Using the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews, Pence dropped the name “Jesus” and in its place substituted “Old Glory” i.e. the American flag. Paraphrasing the text from Hebrews 12:1-2, which states: “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith,” Mr. Pence re-worked the text. “Let’s run the race marked out for us,” Pence said and continued, “Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents. Let’s fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire.”

The “Christianity” of Christian nationalism includes assumptions of nativism and white supremacy, along with divine approval for authoritarian control and militarism, often under the banner of “law and order.” Christian nationalism uses violence and created chaos to enforce its rule. The authentic American democratic social system, however, depends on people’s ability to disagree peacefully and still work together for the common good. Communication, compassion, and collaboration are necessary virtues.

Christian nationalism relies on far-right Protestant as well as far-right Catholic supporters, who are anti-abortion (but not really pro-life) and anti-gay. They are strongly linked to what Mark Lewis Taylor, Professor of Theology and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminar, describes as the US “corporate-warrior elite.”

The Christian nationalist corporate-warrior elite prioritizes the corporate interests of a small percentage of the US population (the wealthy 1% controls 35% of the country’s wealth) and then reinforces those interests with military-type force and surveillance. It is an old concept that President Eisenhower (a Republican remember) warned about in his January 17, 1961 farewell address to the nation. Eisenhower warned citizens about an emerging “military-industrial complex,” that was already beginning to erode democratic rule in the United States.

Today of course, the current US president has installed his corporate friends in government agency after government agency. They are now working with presidential authorization to undermine protections for ordinary people in favor of giveaways and rollbacks for big business. A shipping heiress runs the Department of Transportation. An oil lobbyist runs the Interior Department. A coal lobbyist runs the Environmental Protection Agency. A pharmaceutical executive runs the Department of Health and Human Services. An investment banker runs the Treasury Department. The Defense Department has been led by a who’s who of executives from the largest defense contractors.

Please note: the corporate-warrior elite are strong supporters of far-right, white, Christian nationalism.

Unfortunately most critics of the GOP presidential candidate limit their focus only to issues of his racism, misogyny, and narcissism. All these are worthy points of critique, but they fall short of the bigger issue. The most important issue today, in fact, is not simply critiquing presidential behavior but revitalizing a vigorous prophetic tradition that resists the corporate-warrior elite’s self-promoting and self-protecting narcism, racism, and injustice.

A strong element in that vigorous prophetic mission must be the repudiation of Christian nationalism, because Christian nationalism is a religiously sanctioned vision that defends, affirms, and protects the ruling elites’ nationalist projects. Contemporary Christian nationalism has the strong support of far-right militant groups like Qanon who use the politics of fear to whip up their supporters. Unfortunately the current US president supports them and calls their opponents “Anarchists, Thugs & Agitators.”

Christian nationalism is a corruption of “Christian” and “nation.” It has come to signify something mean-spirited, exclusionary, and oppressive. In theology, this is called blasphemy: a desecration of something sacred. There are strange configurations in today’s Christian nationalism: owning a gun is a right but having health care is a privilege. Anti-abortion is a key value but putting immigrant children in prison camps and cutting off health care and funding for the poor and hungry are also key values. Christian nationalists ignore the Sermon on the Mount and the story of the Good Samaritan.

One further clarification about Christian nationalists. It is neither appropriate nor correct to call them, as often happens, “evangelical Christians,” because that term indeed describes people who are committed to the authentic Jesus Christ. We should call Christian nationalists what they really are: people committed to a fabricated and false “Christianity” which has no link with the divinely inspired man from Nazareth. Their “theology” is based on distorted cultural and political beliefs rather than the Word of God.

In this 2020 election campaign it is essential that we help people distinguish Christian faith from the authoritarian ideology of the Christian nationalist movement. Christianity is a religion. Christian nationalism is a political program. There is nothing sacred about it.

Jack

[For further reading, I recommend: Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism by Michelle Goldberg]