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American Religion from the Turn of the Millennium

WHEN I WAS GROWING UP in the 1960s, most of my friends were Christian churchgoers, and all of those churchgoers were Catholics or mainline Protestants—Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists. I’d never heard of anybody being “born again,” and I’d never met a Jehovah’s Witness or Seventh-day Adventist. Until my brother married a girl who’d been raised Pentecostal, I didn’t even know that word.

The memberships of all the tried-and-true denominations were then at their peak. By the 1970s, they were all shrinking and never stopped. Mainline churches are a lot like the nightly network news shows. The audiences for both peaked at the same time and for analogous reasons have declined since by around half. Episcopalians and Methodists and the others suddenly seemed too sober and bland and elitist, especially given all the exciting alternatives: the new charismatic and fundamentalist churches were to American Christianity as sensationalist two-hour local shows and talk radio and Fox were to network news. Before long mainline Protestants would be outnumbered two or three to one by those who, as Tom Wolfe put it in the 1970s, want “a little Hallelujah!Praise God!…ululation, visions, holy rolling, and other nonrational, even antirational, practices.”

The 1980s and ’90s continued to be a boom time for all those alt-sects and denominations—the older ones like Southern Baptists and Assemblies of God, the ones invented in the 1960s and ’70s like Calvary and Vineyard, and the latest freebooting start-ups. So many such churches had such enormous congregations we coined a word, megachurch, to describe them, and their number increased at least tenfold during the two decades after 1990. Holy-roller practices and beliefs, speaking in tongues and faith healing and the rest, went viral within established evangelical denominations. Most of the Protestant churches founded since the 1960s are growing; three-fourths of the ones founded before 1900 are not.

The newfangled Christianities rode the wave of newfangled entertainment technology. Cable television’s rollout meant that by the mid-1980s, 40 percent of Americans were regularly watching religious shows—and religious show now essentially meant show-boating evangelical, fundamentalist, Pentecostal, and charismatic preachers. Robertson’s The 700 Club on his CBN had an audience of seven million, three times as large as those of the top-rated prime-time Fox News shows today. CBN and the skeevier Trinity Broadcasting Network remain the largest, both serving as platforms for multiplying nondenominational churches and sects, many of which exist only electronically, virtually.

So how religious are we now, and how are we religious?

Much has been made of the increase in the fraction of people who aren’t sure they believe in God or don’t attend church. One in six Americans say their religion consists of “nothing in particular.” The Pew Research Center lumps those people in with agnostics and atheists, but that’s misleading. “Nothing in particular” isn’t a proxy for disbelief. A large majority of them believe in God, and a plurality are “absolutely certain.”

Compared to a decade ago, it’s true, almost twice as many Americans say they don’t believe in God. But consider the actual numbers: the total of agnostics and atheists has gone from extremely tiny (4 percent in 2007) to very tiny (7 percent in 2014). Those are percentages one otherwise finds in less-developed countries. If that is evidence for U.S. secularization, we are now just about as secular as, oh, Turkey.

In America, belief in the unreal seems to be very fungible. Individuals don’t so much abandon religious fantasy in favor of reason as find different fantasies that better suit their particular excitement and credulity quotients—sometimes joining new churches, sometimes affiliating with amorphous movements, sometimes constructing bespoke packages of spiritual and worldly make-believe. People who reject institutional theologies are more likely to believe in New Age enchantments. Almost a third of the unaffiliated believe in “spiritual energy in physical things such as…crystals” or that they’ve communicated with the dead, according to Pew. Moreover, “religious and mystical experiences are more common today among those who are unaffiliated with any particular religion than they were in the 1960s among the public as a whole.”

Women are much more likely than men to say they’re “spiritual,” whereas two-thirds of people who call themselves agnostic or atheist are men. So male seculars go elsewhere to satisfy their need to believe in the untrue—for instance, men constitute large majorities of devoted believers in nonexistent conspiracies. In America there are plenty of brands to satisfy everyone, of fantasy as with everything else. If you aren’t crazy about Coke, there’s always Pepsi; if not Coca-Cola Zero, then Pepsi Perfect or Pepsi Jazz Strawberries & Cream.

But for the moment we’re talking about Coca-Cola Classic religion—God. And Americans remain exceptional. If you include belief in a diffuse “universal spirit” as belief in God, at least nine in ten of us are believers. Moreover, 80 percent of Americans say they never doubt the existence of God. When we set aside the iffier theists—the ones who say they believe but admit to doubts and the ones who think of God as “an impersonal force”—we’re left with about half of us “absolutely certain” God exists as “a person with whom people can have a relationship.” That’s presumably the same half who say they often “receive a definite answer to a specific prayer request,” the half who are also “absolutely certain” that Heaven exists and who “completely agree” that “miracles still occur today as in ancient times.”

Sure, we’re multicultural. However, those of us who identify with a specific religious tradition but don’t worship Jesus—American Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and others combined—make up less than 6 percent of the population.

We’re still more than 70 percent Christian, and around 70 percent of those are Protestant.*1 People tend to talk about Protestants in a binary way, as belonging to either evangelical or mainline churches, with “historically black churches” off to the side. Which is okay if you’re interested in the political implications of religious affiliation. But to get at the particulars of religion qua religion, that’s too oversimplified. Instead, think of American Protestantism as a Venn diagram of four highly overlapping blobs—evangelical, fundamentalist, charismatic, and mainline.

Not very many call themselves fundamentalist anymore. Ever since antimodern Christians coined the term a century ago, fundamentalist has carried some taint. At midcentury, canny mass-marketers like Billy Graham rebranded by reviving the old term evangelical. Today the great majority of Protestants identify as evangelicals, the way all Americans call themselves middle class. Conservative evangelicals (né fundamentalists) believe that God created everything at once around 4000 B.C.E. and that Roman Catholics are going to Hell, whereas other evangelicals concede that He probably created Earth billions of years ago and that non-Protestant Christians might get to Heaven. As with America’s denominational disputes from the beginning, the tendencies differ at least as much by temperament as by belief. “A fundamentalist,” the religious historian George Marsden famously said, “is an evangelical who is angry about something.”

Many clergy in these churches actually call themselves “pastorpreneurs.”*2 It reminds me of the craft beer sector. There are all the different styles (IPA, brown ale, imperial stout, a dozen more) and breweries that run the gamut from thousands to millions of barrels per year. But the various nondenominational churches, like craft brewers, all emphatically push artisanal brand values—robust, authentic, anticorporate—no matter how similar they are or how big they get. Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard churches are the Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams. Over the last few decades beliefs among the biggest legacy denominations, Southern Baptists and United Methodists, have become more fundamentalist—the way Anheuser-Busch InBev and SABMiller now sell beers resembling those of the brewpubs and regional breweries.

The way evangelical replaced and subsumed fundamentalist, charismatic did the same for Pentecostal. Pentecostals are now just one old-school type of charismatic. The new coinage has made ecstatic outbursts and miraculous stunts—spontaneous shouting, shaking, and crying, hearing directly from God, channeling the Holy Spirit to get rich or cure illness or exorcise demons or speak in tongues—acceptable to Christians for whom Pentecostal has down-market white-yokel or black-ghetto connotations. Pentecostals are more or less fundamentalist charismatics who insist on speaking in tongues; for other charismatics, tongues are just one way to channel the Holy Spirit. Charismatic Christianity, both the term and the looser doctrines, gave respectable people permission to feast at the whole buffet of magical and miraculous signs and wonders. Especially respectable white people. Seven of the fifteen largest Protestant denominations are African-American, and two-thirds of black Protestants are Pentecostals or other charismatics who believe that tongues and faith healing are real.*3 Indeed, the black churches pretty much invented “charismatic” Christianity before that term existed.

UNTIL FAIRLY RECENTLY, many fundamentalist Christians maintained a real antipathy toward the heretical Mormons. It subsided, I think, not exactly out of an outpouring of ecumenical fellowship but rather because Protestants’ own beliefs and practices grew to be so peculiar that the Mormons’ peculiarity became almost irrelevant. Indeed, in many ways evangelicals have been Mormonized during the last half-century without realizing it. Mormons were way ahead of Protestants in their rejection of evolution, their logistical preparations for the end-time, and their conviction that Jesus and the angels directly intervene in daily life. Theological deviancy was defined down.

But leaving the Protestant half of us aside (and Mormons and Greek Orthodox), what about the other two organized religions with which more than 1 percent of Americans identify? How much wild belief and practice exists among Roman Catholics and Jews?*4

A fifth of Americans call themselves Catholic. The Roman Catholic Church is in every meaningful way mainline, with its stable hierarchy that shapes and enforces doctrine and practice. In this sense, America has been a four-hundred-year-long natural experiment testing how religion develops with and without a powerful central organization. In other words, a big reason American Catholics are more reality-based than Protestants is because tenured grown-ups, from the Vatican on down, have consistently been in command, tamping down and pinching off undesirable offshoots.

Only a quarter of American Catholics consider the Bible the actual word of God—as opposed to the half of Protestants who do.*5 In fact, Catholics have been fairly reasonable biblical interpreters from the beginning, before modern science even posed any problems, and they’ve stuck with it. Sixteen hundred years ago Saint Augustine instructed, basically, Don’t be stupid. “Shall we say, then,” he wrote about Genesis, “there was such a sense of hearing in that formless and shapeless creation, whatever it was, to which God thus uttered a sound when He said, ‘Let there be light’? Let such absurdities have no place in our thoughts.” In 1996 the conservative pope came out strongly in favor of the scientific consensus about how life works and humans came to be. “Evolution,” John Paul II declared, given the “discoveries in different scholarly disciplines,” is “more than an hypothesis.” And as Pope Francis said in 2014, “When we read about creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so.”*6

There is the official Catholic doctrine about Communion, that the “bread and wine that are the Body and Blood of Christ are not merely symbols” but “truly are the Body and Blood of Christ.” It’s the single way in which Catholicism is more outlandishly literal than the doctrine of most American Protestants. However, 37 percent of practicing, mass-attending American Catholics admit they don’t actually believe it.*7

Rationality and old-school sobriety, however, aren’t selling. The church’s only real growth sector is charismatic Catholicism. “In the early years of the Charismatic Renewal,” Pope Francis told a gathering of them, “I did not love the charismatics: and I used to say of them ‘they look like a samba school.’ I did not agree with their way of praying and the many new things that were happening.” But now? Go for it! “I began to understand the good that Renewal does for the Church.”

His American clergy condone charismatic Catholicism today the way missionaries in the Americas centuries ago condoned bits of paganism their native converts incorporated into worship. More than a third of U.S. Catholics, including most Hispanic Catholics, are now charismatics. But only 12 percent of non-Hispanic white American Catholics are charismatics; like the very white Southern Baptists and mainline Protestants, they are not yet surrendering en masse to this riptide.

As for American Jews—do I even need to stipulate how religiously reasonable they are? How little they fuss over the question of Heaven (although the fraction who believe in an afterlife has doubled since the 1970s), how few of them think a messiah is coming (although the small number who do has grown)? American Jews’ great exception to assimilation, bless them, has been the national weakness for the supernatural. It’s not only a matter of more education tending to make Jews more rational, although that correlation is striking: only one or two in ten Christian evangelicals, fundamentalists, and charismatics graduated college, versus six in ten Jews. An overwhelming majority of Protestants are fundamentalist, evangelical, or charismatic; maybe a sixth of Jews are Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, or associated with the little New Age-y branch called Renewalist. American Judaism has not gone nuts.

*1 The data in the previous seven paragraphs are from the 2014 Religious Landscape Study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, based on interviews with thirty-five thousand Americans.

*2 Anne Hutchinson, the Puritan whom the Puritans exiled because she said she received revelations directly from God and channeled the Holy Spirit, was America’s original charismatic Christian pastorpreneur.

*3 2008 Barna Group survey.

*4 I don’t discuss Islamic beliefs extensively in this book. But by the most basic metrics of religiosity and belief in the supernatural—certainty of the supreme being’s existence, literalism concerning Holy Scripture, and so on—American Muslims are very much like evangelical Christians.

*5 2014 General Social Survey.

*6 On the other hand, Catholics still defend their persecution of Galileo in the 1600s for saying the Earth circles the sun. “His problem arose,” the quasi-official American site Catholic Answers explains, “when he stopped proposing it as a scientific theory and began proclaiming it as truth.”

*7 2011 National Catholic Reporter survey.

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