There are more and more Americans taking this Churchillian approach to religion. A new Gallup poll found that 75 percent of Americans believe the country would be better off if religion had more influence—including many who themselves aren’t religious:
Over half of those who seldom or never attend [church] and close to one in three Americans who say religion is not important to them personally still say it would be positive for society if more Americans were religious.
In other words, many lukewarm or non-believing Americans agree more with Churchill than with Christopher Hitchens. Far from believing that “religion posions everything,” they want to to see religion’s influence increase. This is, in a way, an attitude with deep roots in American history; Benjamin Franklin played an active role in raising money to build several churches even though he was a deist without strong personal ties to institutional Christianity.But while the tradition is old, the increase in its prevalence is new. What can account for the fact that people think religion is a force for good but increasingly want nothing to do with it?Any attempt to answer that question will be fraught with difficulty; the story of the decline of American institutional religion is complex and multilayered. But the disconnect unearthed by the Gallup poll springs, in part, from the way American Christianity got tangled up with the blue model. Over the past century, churches evolved in ways that made them look more like other social institutions. They invested heavily in church buildings and built seminaries that functioned like traditional universities. They professionalized the ministry, treating religious work like any other career, with lifetime employment, pensions, and retirement benefits. And as in many other professions, graduate degrees became a prerequisite for serving in nearly any capacity.Like the blue model itself, this worked for a time. There was always something slightly incongruous about the mix of the blue model and institutional Christianity (neither Jesus nor his fisherman disciplines had any graduate degrees, to say nothing of defined benefit pension plans), but Americans generally stuck with their churches. The problems with blue Christianity, however, have become increasingly acute as the blue model itself has broken down in the rest of society. Expensive buildings and pension plans have siphoned funds from mission-minded activities; the distinction between clergy and laity has become increasingly tenuous in an age where people feel they can learn all the theology they need by Googling it; bureaucracies are stifling the life of faith.The well educated, theologically and culturally sophisticated ministers of the blue dispensation also have another problem. They often aren’t very good at communicating with the people in America most likely to be drifting from churches and most in need of the kind of support and community church membership brings: the working poor and the atomized blue collar world that is crumbling around us. This is increasingly where families are breaking down, kids are growing up without strong ties or positive role models, schools are both overburdened and ineffective, and where social capital is withering away.There are other problems. American religion today is highly politicized, and it is easy to find ministers of the gospel who think their political and their spiritual agendas are really one and the same. This used to be primarily a disease of the theological and political left, but in the last generation we’ve seen some conservative religious movements losing their skepticism about political agendas and identifying this or that political trend with God’s will or that of his opponents.Professionalization, bureaucratization and politicization: this distinctly unholy trinity is sapping the vitality of American religious life. If the past is any guide, American religion will not wither away—but neither will the structures and in some cases denominations of the past do much to promote the next stage of innovation and vitality.The revival and the re-invigoration of American Christian life won’t come out of committee meetings on the spiritual life and denominational study groups on institutional renewal. It is very unlikely to come from tenured seminary professors and it will probably not be led by preachers with pensions. It will come from where we don’t expect it, and it will change us in ways we won’t always welcome. It will come from people stirred to the depths by personal contact with a transcendent God, and the messages they bring from those encounters will rock America’s world.[yframe url=’http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f68TdgErXkE’][St. Patrick’s Cathedral image courtesy of Shutterstock]