The Religious "Nones" Learned It From Somewhere

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Much has been made regarding the increase of the “Religious Nones” in recent cultural surveys. Houses of worship are being repurposed as congregations shrink, Religion News reports: “‘Nones’ now as big as evangelicals, Catholics in the US.” and the Los Angeles Times wonders in an Op-Ed about how: “Religiously unaffiliated ‘nones’ are pursuing spirituality, but not community.”

As Jack Jenkins summarizes for Religion News:

“In a shift that stands to impact both religion and politics, survey data suggests that the percentage of Americans who don’t affiliate with any specific religious tradition is now roughly the same as those who identify as evangelical or Catholic.”

Though there are theories about what has caused this shift, one constant is that many people are placing a sharper distinction between spirituality and religion. We explored this idea as it applies to prayer, but just to summarize again:

Spirituality is the pursuit of higher meaning in life. It involves questions of identity, security, belonging and purpose.

Religion is the external form of spirituality. Church. Books. Rituals. Religion seeks to put spirituality in order. It seeks to define spirituality and religion uses boundaries and often identifies itself by excluding others. Many religions claim that their particular approach to spirituality alone holds exclusive truth.

In other words, Spirituality is the pursuit of higher meaning and Religion is the form that pursuit takes.

What interests me here is that most of the focus of consideration has been young people. In 2017, Vox considered a Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) survey, saying:

The survey, which profiled about 2,000 American adults in the early months of 2017, found that 18 percent of Americans identify as spiritual but not religious. (By contrast, 31 percent of Americans identify as neither spiritual nor religious.) They tend to skew younger and more educated than religious Americans, with 40 percent holding at least a four-year college degree and 17 percent having some form of postgraduate education. They’re also far more politically liberal than their religious counterparts: 40 percent identify as liberal, compared to 24 percent of the population overall and 27 percent of Americans that are neither spiritual nor religious.

All of this may be true. The shift of focus from religion to spirituality resulting in outwardly declaring “No religious affiliation” might be centered in younger people, but they learned it somewhere. As a Hospice Chaplain, I deal daily with these people’s parents and grandparents as they near end of life.

I have been continually surprised by how many older people welcome Chaplain visits “as long as we don’t talk about religion.” I’ve only served in this role for three years and my evidence is only my subjective experience but, at least here in the Phoenix area, it is more common for my visits to be limited to visits, life reviews, communication techniques and things like that. The older people I meet decline religious services at a rate that would surprise many people. But this shouldn’t surprise us. After all, all these young “Religious Nones” learned it from somewhere.

I have come to think that there is a significant portion of the Boomer generation that has driven the cultural move from religion to spirituality. My thoughts on why we should focus not only on the younger “Nones” by the older ones are based on what I have heard from my patients and their families about why they are not interested in religion even at end of life. Here’s what I’m hearing and it begins with two different threads that seem to wind their way together:

First: After the horrors of World War II, the country set itself on providing a better life for the next generation. But in doing so, the “American Dream” was further fused with consumerism. Suburbia exploded and flourished and comfort became the goal of life. Advertisers bred discontent and our Supermarkets overwhelm us with choices. And church became a commodity that was so interested in just getting you in the doors that it required very little, so after a while, what’s the point of going to church when religion just seems aimed at making me happy? There are lots of other ways to be happy. Yes, I care about my soul and “spirituality,” but

Second: I was raised in a strict religious upbringing that emphasized my behaviors and didn’t seem to care about the resentment building up in my heart.

Couple each of these paths with the inordinate cultural influence of groups like The Family (which I discuss here) that emphasizes an approach to Christianity that seems more interested in cultural influence than actual changed lives: just get a confession: get someone to say they believe in Jesus. Get them into heaven and what matters here and now is cultural power. Therefore we have people living in fear of losing their particular sense of privileged cultural identity and claiming that their struggle to force culture into their mold is “Christianity.” It is not. And people know it is not.

The constant that I do hear; whether from shallow, meaningless consumeristic churches or rigid, grace-less religion is a failure of discipleship and the removal of repentance and faith from Christianity. What’s the point of following a system that just seems to want to make me happy or one that just seems to want to beat me up all of the time? Of course, neither is actual Christianity, but many people have been told otherwise for so long that they’d just assume stay away from the talk altogether.

Most of these people have plenty of religious experience but very little spiritual experience. They certainly have not encountered the Grace of the Crucified and Risen Savior or been wrapped in the love of a community that wants to be more like Jesus. I am reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s quote from Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage:

“What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”

We have sowed years being careless with God’s Bride, the Church and we are now reaping people who don’t want anything to do with it. And, can we blame them? A church that doesn’t require any change in your life isn’t worth attending. Nor is one that wants to beat everyone’s external behaviors into submission to some preferred cultural identity.

We’ve created a culture in which many claim to be “Christian” because of the radio station they listen to, the movies they don’t see, the lifestyles they oppose, the flag they pledge, and the political party they support. We’ve robbed Christianity of its defining characteristics and replaced them with a weirdly patriotic sense of morality and cultural norms. If this is religion, if this is Christianity, no wonder people aren’t interested.

If we want people to identify with Christianity as a religion, if the rise in “Nones” plagues our hearts, then the solution is right in front of us: wouldn’t it be powerful if Christians were known for their love (John 13:35)? for clothing and feeding the poor (Matthew 25:31-46), caring for widows and orphans (James 1:27), for seeking to better our cities (Jeremiah 29), for bringing light and flavor to our communities (Matthew 5:13-16), for being Peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), who had no one remaining needy in the communities we built (Acts 4:34) and just generally tried to live at peace with everyone we could (Romans 12:18)?

It breaks my heart to encounter so many people tell me that they don’t want to identify with Christianity when I’m fairly certainly they’ve never actually encountered Christianity.

There is much more to be said here but I just wanted to start getting some of these thoughts in order. I would love to hear your perspective. Are you hearing what I’m hearing? What is the solution // Does there need to be a solution?

Is The Family the Most Powerful (And Dangerous) Group You've Never Heard Of?

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I am a Christian.

I am probably what you consider an Evangelical.

But I am not part of the “Evangelicals” that remain Donald Trump and the GOP’s most ardent supporters.

In fact, I deeply oppose the Trump Administration and just about everything it stands for. Which has not only left me heartbroken but flummoxed. When I read the Bible, I cannot, for the life of me understand how some people come away supporting an administration that claims to be a “Christian” nation who has caged the refugees and outlawed the Good Samaritan. An administration that, in my mind embodies the spirit of antiChrist. I keep wondering: If the recent ICE raids are really about forcing people to obey the law at extreme penalty; why aren't we arresting the corporate leaders who recruited and hired the people now being punished?

Otherwise, what is this really about?

I can't think of a humane reason. Can you?

I certainly can’t think of a Christian reason. But many people I know and love and care about seem to believe that supporting this administration can be in line with following the Prince of Peace and the God who is Love and commands compassion and outright love of enemies.

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Enter the Netflix documentary The Family. While there are layers of reasons why so many well-intentioned Christians have found themselves supporting a president who has made a life of trouncing our values, understanding the unique “Evangelical” worldview of the Family helps us understand how people can claim to follow the Prince of Peace while supporting an abusive administration.

Based on Jeff Sharlet’s books The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power and C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy, the 5-part series chronicles the rise to power and secretive tentacles of a Christian conservative group known as “The Family,” or “The Fellowship.” Founded in 1935 by Abraham Vereide. The stated purpose of the Fellowship is to provide a fellowship forum for decision makers to share in Bible studies, prayer meetings, worship experiences, and to experience spiritual affirmation and support. Ever wonder who puts on the National Prayer Breakfast? The Family.

The Family is a secretive organization with inordinate influence among world governments, which claims to just want people to know Jesus. But they do in a particular way: Go after the powerful and fight for what’s “right” (their perceived cultural version of “Christianity” most often visualized when old White people talk about how great the 1950’s used to be. Women know their place. Gays stay in the closet. And we all just pretend that Jesus wanted an Authoritarian government. Oh, and some are just predestine for power. And they often utilize sitting government officials on “missionary” trips.

Combining a weird Machismo Jesus with the notion that, to really get things done, you don’t bother with the “little people,” you go after the leaders. You meet with kings. You sit with Presidents. And because it’s “Just about Jesus,” you’ll meet with anyone. You’re not there to interfere in politics, so of course you’ll meet with dictators. But when you confuse trying to influence cultural norms with Christianity, you will soon find yourselves partnering with people who share your outward goals but most likely not your inner motive.

The problem is that fascists and the Authoritarian Right Wing are all too happy to support your “traditional family values,” so you cooperate together “for the good of the culture” (as you see fit). The result is that there is a faction of Christianity dedicated, not to loving all people but to making sure that a particular way of life is protected. They want to feel safe. They want everyone to look like them. And that is not Christianity. We may share some of the same language. But we do not share the same Love.

Another problem with this approach is that it seems to assume that Christians are called to protect certain cultural “norms,” even through legislation, and, if need, be, violence. Christians are to be Salt and Light (Matthew 5:13-16). We have always been blessed to be a blessing (Genesis 12, etc.). This does not mean forcing everyone to live by a certain set of moral principles and then calling ourselves a “Christian nation.” But the Family believes in power. This is why so many “Christians” are fine pushing for laws that privilege Christianity while trampling on other types of faith. They want to push their expression of Christianity as the cultural norm and are perfectly willing to use legislation and dishonest people (often at the same time) to accomplish their purposes.

White Christians have enjoyed immense privilege and safety in our country. There is a lot to be thankful for. But we are not called to hang on to that privilege and safety. We are called to lay it down for the sake of others. Yet there is clearly a subset of American Christianity who is clawing to that place of cultural privilege with every dying breath. Why else would you be offended if your cashier says “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas?” That’s not an attack on Christ. It’s treating people equally. But this notion of confusing certain cultural values with Christianity is exactly why we find ourselves in the place of so many Christians supporting an antiChrist administration . . . in the name of Jesus?

The Family shows us how people can be sincere in their belief that they are following Jesus while walking in the opposite direction. You might call sitting U.S. Senators flying to foreign countries to talk to kings “off the record” about Jesus being wise as serpents. I call it collusion of church and state and as a Christian, I believe it is wrong. Using your place of power to gain entry to foreign leaders and then saying: “I’m a senator, but I’m not here as a senator, I’m just here to talk about Jesus . . .” is dishonest.

The Family has continually worked to undermine the distinction between Church and State and we see this in such silly things as states mandating schools emblazon “In God We Trust” across school walls. That is not Christianity, it’s authoritarian civic religion. But it sure looks good for any candidate claiming to support “traditional values.”

If Christianity can be translated into forcing laws through that appeal to Christians at any cost, then of course it makes sense that they would continue to support Trump, regardless of . . . well, apparently, just about anything other than taking the Lord’s name in vain. Because, it’s about power. It’s about gaining the ability to enforce our agenda (which is “Jesus Plus Nothing except “traditional family values,” opposing Unionized Labor, opposing LGBT rights, etc.). If you claim to be grabbing power for the sake of Jesus and the “greater good,” you soon find yourself losing sight of Jesus.

The Family helps us understand how: If you believe that you are fighting “God’s war” and that part of that means protecting certain ways of life (equated with “being a Christian”) and you believe in a Machismo Jesus, your movement was founded on violent suppression of Unionized Labor, you care about power; then of course you can justify supporting the Trump Administration and not only see no conflict with your faith but believe you support Trump because you support Jesus. I just don’t share this vision.

If you, like me, feel politically homeless as a Christian and struggle to understand just how we got to a place where so many of our brothers and sisters would support something so out of character for Global Christianity, I recommend watching The Family.

The Netflix subtitle tells you their interpretation of all of this: “It's Not About Faith, It's About Power”. What do you think?

Watch the Netflix trailer: “The Family: It's Not About Faith, It's About Power”

  • Purchase Jeff Sharlet’s books at Amazon.

  • Read the Wikipedia entry on The Fellowship.

  • Read as Salon wonders: “How separate are church and state? "The Family" examines secretive Christian power brokers.”

  • Read Vice’s piece: “Netflix's 'The Family' Unmasks the Political Power of Christian Fundamentalists.”