The most popular religion is…

What is the most popular religion in the United States?

PRRI released it’s research on what it calls the Census of American Religion back in July of last year. It shows that Christianity has the largest number of adherents and that within this, white evangelicals were still the largest group. However, there continues to be a decline in religiosity in the US.

None of this surprising or new.

But it leaves me wondering some things. I’m not convinced that we’re getting an accurate picture of religions in the US.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines religion the following way:

  1. The belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers, regarded as creating and governing the universe.
  2. A particular variety of such belief, especially when organized into a system of doctrine and practice.
  3. A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.

When I read that, I wonder if PRRI had limited itself to more traditional and expected forms of religion.

Nowhere in the research did PRRI take into Civil Religion. We can call it a number of things, but the simple way to express it is Americanism. It’s the belief that America is special and holy and ordained by God. It ties God and specifically Jesus to America. It often equates American values with Jesus’ values. Often adherents to this put a type of faith of salvation in the nation – that the nation brings about salvation to the world. Are there formal, documented, doctrines around this? No. But if you ask around enough, you’ll hear the creed and doctrines. There are apologists for Americanism, just as there are apologists for Christianity.

Americanism isn’t a religion like the established religions. But it does have many of the same elements. There’s a creation story – you can call it the founding myth. There are the patriarchs of the faith – you could call the myths around the founding fathers this. There is talk about sacrifice – usually referring to the shedding of blood through military actions. There are sacred scriptures – The Constitution and Declaration of Independence are often seen as being divinely inspired despite the fact that they make no reference to God in the Christian sense of the word. There is a clergy, which would be politicians. There is an offering – often associated with political parties and financial support for their actions and proclamations. There is certainly a gospel narrative that is proclaimed with a heavenly vision – just listen to any politician about how the nation will bring about this or that goodness.

Often much of this Americanism cloaks itself in Christianity. A type of pseudo-Christianity – the outward appearance of Christianity (maybe the use of some of the language, using Jesus, etc), but lacking the core tenets of Christianity, which are often replaced because Christ’s teachings are inconvenient or conflict with Americanism. For example, Jesus did not endorse the use of violence. Jesus welcomed strangers and foreigners. Jesus criticized the wealthy and those in positions of power. Jesus cared for the outcast and the poor. Jesus taught about loving enemies, not trying to kill them. Jesus told his followers to sell their possessions and to drop their weapons and pick up their crosses.

Those messages don’t mix well is civic religion which wants us to put our faith in a nation, to consume to help the economy regardless of the cost, to cheer on strength and might and the ability to destroy enemies, to seek out wealth and position and power. To reject the foreigner. To push the poor and outcast out of the way and make them someone else’s problem. To live by the ends justify the means, only the strong survive, and that might makes right.

America as a nation is just fine. There are good things about – some really wonderful things. And there are parts that aren’t so great. There are wonderful things about our history, and other parts that we have not come close to even acknowledging how problematic they are, let alone do anything to correct past wrongs.

I heard a pastor say that God loves the nations. And America is a nation. But the problem becomes when a nation becomes more than just a nation. When it becomes something more, it inserts itself in the place of God – as savior and Lord of all. When people believe that salvation comes through a nation, rather than through God, we have a problem. The nation is no longer a nation, but rather an empire. And every empire that has ever existed has made itself into an idol to be worshipped. Americanism is the worship of an idol. Americanism is really just a denomination of a larger religion that has included several other “denominations” throughout history – Romanism, Babylonianism, Assyrianism, Egyptianism, Britishism, etc.

I wonder if PRRI included such non-traditional and non-formal religions as Americanism into the mix, what the result would be. I don’t know. But it would give us a clearer picture. Imagine if people were forced to decide if they were adherents of Christianity or Americanism, or any other religion. I wonder what the results would be?


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