By Frank Wessling
From a people of faith to a nation of “seekers” to a collection of “apatheists.” Is that the progression of America’s religious spirit? From the faith-charged to the apathetic or atheist?
The English who came to this land early in the 17th century and settled here were often intensely religious groups on the fringe of respectability back home. They were the nonconformists hoping for more freedom to practice their minority faith. They were Pilgrims and Quakers and Catholics. Others brought the established, or official, religion of home with them.
Later settlers were motivated by a mix of incentives – military, adventure, greed for land – but a religious consciousness remained prominent. The variety among these religious people required that no one of their churches dominate in public life. So they agreed to this and stated it in their national constitution – along with the declaration that freedom of religion itself was to be protected.
The Supreme Court has since ruled that this part of the Constitution, the First Amendment religion clauses, means that citizens are also guaranteed freedom from religion insofar as its practice shows up in official public life. This expansive reading of the First Amendment in the 20th century made the United States a more comfortable place for atheists, agnostics and the religiously indifferent.
In a sense, they are spiritual descendants of those 17th century nonconformists, the Pilgrims.
While no one religion or church organization could claim to be official here, or established, religion itself has reigned in this country as the established attitude toward time and human destiny. If you didn’t believe in God at all and rejected any need for openness to a reality beyond this life you were somehow not fully American. Artists and writers could flaunt unbelief, but they were suspect anyway.
The ordinary American, the salt of the earth, was, and was expected to be, religious in some vague way – or at least deferential to religion.
This seems no longer to be true in the second decade of the 21st century. Now close to a majority of Americans openly tell pollsters and researchers that they give no thought to a destiny or purpose in life and no time to anything considered spiritual. USA Today reported recently that LifeWay Research, an evangelical religious agency, found that 46 percent of a survey sample last year said they never wonder whether they will go to heaven.
Another 2011 survey, this one a Baylor University Religion Survey, found that 44 percent of its respondents spend no time seeking “eternal wisdom.”
This should not be a surprise, since surveys have shown a steady church-going decline in this country for decades, with Catholics included. Most of us who tell census-takers that we are Catholic don’t show up in church for Mass weekly, or even monthly. What it is that makes us “Catholic” then is a question that has long rumbled in the background of church life.
Historians and sociologists will study and argue about this phenomenon of declining religiosity for years to come. Such work might be interrupted by other crises in national life that lead to another “religious awakening” such as those from the 1830s frontier camp meetings to World War II. But the long-term trend seems set toward the decline of religious faith as a dominating feature in our national life.
Religious people will no longer have the comfort, the ease – it’s tempting to say the easy grace – of majority approval. We will either be mystics, as the German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner predicted a half-century ago, or part of the indifferent crowd. In other words, faith will be real and operative in our lives in some way or we will give up all pretense of religiosity.
The comforts of conformity and privilege are passing from us. The feeling, and the opportunity, is a share in the life of Jesus, perhaps the most radical nonconformist and certainly for us the model of faith.