Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Pew and Trump and Fear

Flatly stated, it's not been a good year for organized religion. First in May, then again in November, the Pew Research Center announced what some had long ago surmised--that the American public is getting progressively less and less religious. That's not particularly comforting. 

The summary of the research is fascinating to some, frightening to others. They begin quite reassuringly: "As of 2014, the religiously affiliated [those who actually go regularly to church, not those who only claim to be "religious"] are, by and large, as religious as they were in 2007."

Meaning?--among those who are "religiously affliated," the vast majority (97%) believe in God. That hasn't changed. Neither has the percentage who pray daily, attend weekly worship, or explain that their religion is important to them. Put plainly, the percentage of those Americans who "do" traditional" church and maintain a schedule of prayer didn't change much at all.

On to the tough stuff. Pew doesn't mince words: "But the percentage of people who describe themselves as religiously affiliated has shrunk." In other words, among the swelling American population, more people claim that they aren't "religiously affiliated," that they don't go to church. They may claim to be "religious," but they don't practice it in ways that churches identify: they don't attend worship or pray regularly. In just seven years--sounds so biblical, doesn't it--those numbers have fallen off significantly, from 83 percent to 77 percent. 

But there's more: Among those who says they're religiously affiliated, a higher percentage, in Pew's terminology, "have become more secular," which means they don't pray, don't attend church services, don't believe in God. These are the "nones" (people not affiliated in any sense with any church). Maybe most astoundingly, seven years ago 70% of unaffiliated religious people claimed to believe in God. Today, Pew found that percentage had dropped to 61%. 

Overall, says Pew, the American people are becoming less religious. It's not a waterfall--the percentage of those who say they believe in God has dropped only three percent--but things are moving downhill, no matter how you do the numbers.

And then, as if the Pew results weren't enough, enter Trump and Cruz, stage right. Ted Cruz determined that he could count on the Christian Right because he was especially outfitted for them. Huckabee was yesterday's news, Rubio was mostly Catholic, Trump was basically nothing. Cruz assumed that if he whistled some familiar Sunday School tunes, the evangelicals would line up like good Christian soldiers.

Didn't happen. Among U.S. evangelicals, what was most shocking was how many of those Christian soldiers trooped off to Trump, a man whose history was so unlike them that he may well have seemed like an anti-Christ. Nope. The thrice-married gambling mogul who didn't remember ever asking forgiveness swept the South as if Christians never got near the ballot box. But they did, and they cast their favor on Donald Trump.

That totally unexpected phenomenon has created all kinds of hand-wringing among believers. Who are we anyway? What do we believe? And if Donald is one, what on earth is an evangelical? That smoke has not cleared.

It's not hard to be Jeremiah with all of this--woe and woe woe. But I'll give my sackcloth and ashes to others.

Besides, there's always the good news.

"College chaplains at Oxford and Cambridge in England have noticed an increase in attendance at evensong, the service of evening prayer that combines contemplative music with words from the Book of Common Prayer," says Christian Century. "The trend has also been noticed at cathedrals across England, which are seeing a growing interest in midweek choral services."

Amazing. Sure it's England and not this country, but it's happening at what some might call the citadels of English secularism, its most prestigious universities. And what it is, is a return to something "the religiously affiliated" had, for the most part, themselves long abandoned--"midweek, choral services."

Is Pew wrong? I don't think so. That "nones" are more adamant in their rejection of religious practice doesn't strike me as odd. Religion, after all, may not be the opiate of the people, as Karl Marx thought; but lately it's the hallucinogenic force behind just about every form of radicalism, the sword terrorists love to wield.

Religion is an immense force for good, but also--and at the same time--an immense source of horror.

It's now been fifty years since Time magazine proclaimed in banner headlines, "God is Dead." The truth? For the most part, Time magazine is dead. 

Not long ago at the little church up the hill where we more than occasionally attend, I counted only 29 people, lots and lots of empty pews. But it was good to be there that Sunday morning, good to be with them, even though there were few, good once more to hear the good news. 

Pew and Trump and worry notwithstanding, it's also good to remember that the biblical command most often repeated throughout scripture isn't one of the Ten Commandments. It's simply "fear not."

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