Religion in America: Crisis of Faith or Crisis in Faith?

Washington National Cathedral

Leaders of religious right groups are fond of claiming that the United States faces a crisis of faith. They’re right, but they’re off by one word. It’s not a crisis of faith, it’s a crisis in faith.

Despite what you may hear, Americans are not abandoning religion in droves. Yes, the number of U.S. “nones” is rising, but a lot of these people remain “spiritual but not religious.” Increasingly suspicious of dogma, they seek spiritual experiences outside the walls of a house of worship. They’re not atheists.

I know this is not what humanists necessarily want to hear, but throngs of folks in this country aren’t discarding religion. They’re simply defining it in new ways and feeling increasingly empowered to blend traditions, reject rigid dogma, and pursue “do-it-yourself” forms of spirituality. And for many religious leaders—especially those of the fundamentalist and orthodox variety—the idea that people can engage in religious activities without their help is a problem.

Their reaction to this has been most curious. Instead of looking inward and asking why fewer people are buying what they have to sell, these religious leaders are clinging to their dogma ever more tightly. More alarmingly, some of them are looking to the government to help them enforce theological dictates that their own members reject.

Hence the crisis in faith.

What religious leaders used to achieve through moral suasion and argument, they now seek to obtain through government power. It’s as if they’ve lost faith in their own ability to persuade people to adopt their moral codes and provide financial support voluntarily.

Consider recent flaps over same-sex marriage and access to contraceptives. In both cases, orthodox religious leaders have angrily demanded that the government elevate their theological views to the status of civil law.

Catholic bishops and fundamentalist preachers fulminate that marriage equality must never be the law of the land because it’s against the Bible or offends “natural law.” Yet more and more states have legalized marriage equality, and polls show that most Americans are fine with the idea. Has it ever occurred to these clerics that maybe their preaching on the subject just hasn’t been very persuasive?

The same holds true for the battle over birth control. Some owners of secular corporations that have nothing to do with religion are insisting that their employees shouldn’t have access to contraceptives under the Affordable Care Act. Again, they haven’t been able to persuade people to follow their religion’s dictates, so they’re seeking to bend public policy to do the job for them.

That’s bad enough. What’s more disturbing is listening to entities like Liberty University (which is part of the Jerry Falwell empire in Lynchburg, Virginia) and the uber-Catholic Eternal World Television Network make the same argument.

Think about this for a minute: the fact that Liberty and EWTN are in court is a tacit admission that they can’t even persuade their own employees to accept their dogma. Otherwise, this would be a moot point.

EWTN represents the most orthodox wing of U.S. Catholicism. These are the people who pine for the Latin mass and believe Vatican II was a mistake. Presumably, everyone who works there buys into these views. In light of that, why would it matter whether its health plan is required to offer birth control? No one there is going to use it, right?

But perhaps they are. The reality is that this is the year 2014, not 1214. Most people don’t want to have ten children these days, so they use birth control—even if they work for Mother Angelica’s TV network or a school founded by a TV preacher.

In the United States, the Catholic hierarchy’s campaign to persuade its own members to eschew artificial forms of birth control has been a complete and utter failure. Rather than accept this obvious fact and move on, the bishops, their Washington lobbyists, and their army of attorneys are currently hard at work urging Congress and the federal courts to adopt policies and hand down rulings that will make it easier for any employer who happens to be Catholic to deny his or her employees access to birth control.

Remarkably, the bishops are framing this as a “religious freedom” issue. That’s right—being expected to tolerate someone else’s use of birth control can now be a threat to a secular corporation’s alleged “right” to religious freedom.

O ye of little faith! It sounds to me like your preaching wasn’t very persuasive, and now you expect the government to do your job for you.

Unfortunately, we’re likely to see more of these demands as current trends continue. As more and more Americans explore spirituality outside houses of worship, some religious leaders will start to panic as they survey shrinking congregations.

During a recent visit to Texas, I had an interesting conversation with a moderate Southern Baptist minister who helps churches come to grips with a future in which more Americans than ever are unchurched.

He told me that he urges pastors to find new ways to reach these people and draw them into church life. But he also conceded he’s worried that as current trends unfold, some pastors will react by attempting to tap the power of government to stay afloat.

We’re already seeing hints of this. After Hurricane Sandy ravaged East Coast states in the fall of 2012, some religious leaders demanded government aid to rebuild their damaged churches because they hadn’t bothered to buy insurance.

There was a time when such appeals for government assistance would have been unthinkable. Religious leaders were proud of what they had built and expected the men and women sitting in the pews to pay for improvements, upkeep, and repair of buildings.

Again, where’s the faith? Where is the belief that a committed body of believers can work together and rise up even in the wake of a horrific natural disaster? Where is the belief that your faith’s doctrines, if they are so wonderful, will be embraced willingly by people?

Maybe the beliefs aren’t so wonderful. Perhaps deep inside themselves, some of these clerics realize they are sinking because their theology is regressive, guilt-laden, and out of touch with the times.

Thomas Jefferson said it best. Speaking about religion in his book, Notes on Virginia, he observed: “It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand
by itself.”