Is America Losing its Religious Vitality?

John L. Crow

Over the last week, I have been seeing a confluence of concerns regarding religious vitality in America, specifically pointing to the diminishing numbers of “cults” appearing in the news media. In the New York Times Op-Ed section, Ross Douthat lamented the loss, and pointed to others, stating “The decline of cults … might actually be a worrying sign for Western culture, an indicator not only of religious stagnation but of declining creativity writ large.” Douthat links to a talk Philip Jenkins gave this summer at Baylor where Jenkins stated, “the first symptom we might expect of genuine American secularization would be the disappearance of cults, and a precipitous decline in activism and enthusiasm on the spiritual fringe, which is exactly what has taken place over the past two decades.” In each case sounds a jeremiad regarding American religious vitality, and we are told the center of American religiosity is at stake. But is it?

I have to admit that I find these claims unconvincing. Instead I think there is something else going on beyond a mild shift towards a secularizing public. The first is the continued diminishment of Christianity’s, particularly Protestantism’s, claim to be the religious center of America and the continued expansion of a diverse religious marketplace. Second, we need to take into account the legal changes, and its mandates for tolerance and accommodation. Lastly, we need to recognize the different religious patterns in the youth of America, and their reluctance to join groups of any kind, established or marginal. Combined, these three factors have made objecting to newer religious groups socially unacceptable, and have pushed Gen Y and Millennials to eschew joining any group, but instead, to create their own religiosity, remaining spiritual but not religious.

There can be no doubt that America is greatly diversifying its religious environment. As a recent internet meme made apparent, while Christianity may be the most common religion in every US state, the second most common religion is surprising to many. America’s promise of real religious freedom has spawned a nation of significant religious diversity. Add to this many Christians who promote tolerance, accommodation, and diversity and you have a formula for fewer complaints about fringe religion. In a tolerant religious marketplace, new religious movements are not seen as threats, but just one more option, an option that is barely worth noticing or making a big deal over. It certainly is not cause to go to the media, abduct people to “save” them, or claim people are being brainwashed.

Legal changes since the 1990s have also opened up opportunities for minority religions to assert their rights, and use the law to punish those who would challenge them. Perhaps readers are familiar with this video of David Suhor, an American pagan, opening the prayer at a Florida County Commissioners meeting earlier this year. Despite the fact that Commissioner Wilson Robertson walked out because he does not want a pagan or Satanist praying for him, the remainder of the Commissioners stood quietly while Suhor read the invocation of the watchtowers, a common part of pagan invocation ceremonies. This kind of activity would be summarily denied in the past. However Supreme Court decisions now force governments to be accommodating and inclusive. We also see the way the law is used to enforce this mandate because Suhor is threatening to sue the Escambia County School Board for not allowing him to pray at their meetings. The legal landscape has dramatically changed since the heyday of cult scares, and the law is much more supportive of new religious movements and is punitive against those who would defame or deny them a role in American communities. As a result, Americans are much more tolerant, accommodating, and fearful of a lawsuit. This, of course does not mean Christians are not complaining about some “fringe” religious movements, like the current controversy regarding the satanic statue in Oklahoma and Satanic children’s activity book in Florida. But even these have a significant legal component to them regarding inclusion and accommodation.

Lastly, I am sure I don’t have to remind the readers of this blog the attitudes the last two generations have had regarding membership of religious institutions. They generally don’t join groups, and when they do, the levels of commitment is much lower than previous generations. This is why since the 1990s we have seen the significant increase of the spiritual but not religious segment of American religious marketplace. Just as the pews remain empty in churches, millennials and Gen-Y’ers are not joining new religious movements. Like established religious traditions, religious institutions simply cannot attract the youth of America to attend, join and donate. This is particularly problematic for New Religious Movements because the youth is from where these movements attract the most members. Since they lack the human capital to make these movements function, there are fewer in number and often don’t last as long.

These three factors, I think, are more responsible for the lack of media attention for new religious movements, “i.e. “cults.” The changing religious marketplace, legal requirements for inclusion, including the threat of legal action, and the fact that the youth of America are resistant to joining any religious institution, established or fringe, equates to a very different, less Christian, but not necessarily less vital religious marketplace.


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