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:
- The belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers, regarded as creating and governing the universe.
- A particular variety of such belief, especially when organized into a system of doctrine and practice.
- 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?
You are speaking some complicated thoughts about complicated ideas. Maybe not terribly complicated in itself, but to open one’s mind enough to plot it out compounds complexity. Still, I think it’s an important idea.
I think the faith heritage I descend from (The Restoration Movement) played a part in developing civil religion in America. A big part. Not sure I can justify my thinking, but I still think it did. I think Alexander Campbell (most people don’t know him anymore) was a huge influencer. In the first half of the 19th century, Alex and his father came from Scotland and basically reinvented church, starting one of two of the biggest church movements to be born on American soil: The Mormans being the other.
Campbel was previously Presbyterian. But he modeled his hermeneutical approach to the New Testament (and thus developed a blue print for the “true” church) off the American’s Constitution. And for a while in those early days, the Restoration Movement was the fastest growing religion in the US. In fact, we were the only Christian movement to actually unite splintered denominations. It didn’t last, but for a few years, the Baptists joined the movement and made it huge!
By the turn of the century, the RM was splintering itself. Now there are three main churches associated with it and dozens of splinters within those, and we are a dying bunch too. We now are a small fish in the big pond, and most in American Christendom don’t even know us. Of those who do, we have tended to leave a bad taste in their mouth (but you kinda gotta be my age and older to know much about that).
But here is some of my personal experience coupled with that history that I ground my thoughts in: the churches of Christ (the wing I grew up in) were so staunch about church, we could make hardcore Baptists blush. We even refused to use musical instruments in worship because the New Testament is silent on them – rendering instruments unauthorized. (That’s how conservatives read a constitution.)
But in all our fuss about boiling church down to its biblical atoms and reconstructing from there (an idea I still value, but with nuances), we thought rather arrogantly that we had arrived and finished the reconstruction work – that we had built the TRUE CHURCH and all the others were fakes.
Well that was a slippery slope on an otherwise good trail, and we slipped and fell without knowing it. Because previous to that, back when Campbell was alive, we were still welcoming and inviting people from all Christian heritages to come together on the Word of God and trust him to mold and shape us into ONE (like Jesus prays in John 17).
Of course that dictates we be critical of what Christendom has made of Christianity (your post is doing that!) and of ourselves within it. There was a humility that went with this critical look which turned to pride. But we were addressing the splintering into denominations which should not have happened. We yearned, originially, for UNITY in Jesus.
But we had quietly turned rabid on our neighbors (much like our politics of today). And we began dying a long time ago.
I think TODAY that American Christendom is shrinking and dying largely due to all the splintering. COWBOY CHURCH? REally??? Why do we need a COWBOY CHURCH??? I read my Bible and the point is to get the Jews and Gentiles, the Slaves and the Free, the Women and the Men all together as ONE. So why are the COWBOYS running off to the barn with their own religious marbles?
Well, that was fun for a while, but after that catches on, you have Trucker Church, Biker Church, Gay Church, and everyone is running headlong into vanity taking the Name with them as fast as they can, and we already broke with Catholics centuries ago. Remember Presbyterians?
United we stand; divided we fall.
And we feel it. Our “way of life” is most definitely THREATENED – never mind that we abandoned it. We are Americans, and that means we are consumers and we want it our way like Burger King and we absolutely positively want to get it overnight! Thank you UPS and AMAZON.
Civil Religion is the glue that holds us TOGETHER. We are not turning to God but to the fluff of power and rule we find in the founding fathers and waving a flag in the sanctuary as if God ordains it. We take comfort behind our guns. We claim a brotherhood in the name of Jesus and expect him to make things right, but our compas for RIGHT has changed and we don’t even know it.
And I think the path we as a nation are going down now sure looks a lot like the same slippery slope Campbells RM fell off a couple generations back. Only now it’s better armed.