Does America’s Civil Religion Need a Revival?

Religion in the United States is dry kindling ready to burst into flame when lightning strikes. For the “Religious Right,” Supreme Court decisions on gay marriage and abortion are lightning strikes igniting a revivalist fire of political action. In the minds of the “secular left,” each of these lightning strikes burns up a little more fuel that supplies atavistic values voters.

Young people who perceive religion and politics through this lens are not wrong. They are justifiably discouraged by such mutual hostility.

Young people should blame their cynicism on how political elites and religious leaders on both sides have exploited religious divisions while ignoring religion’s influence on American social life that transcends politics.

In the book, American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us, Robert Putnam points out the period of great American civil religion during the post-WWII era. Church attendance reached all-time highs and huge majorities of Americans trusted in religion to answer important moral questions. Patriotism, citizenship and religiosity formed the great triumvirate of Main Street, USA.

Then the Sexual Revolution shook the foundations American religion. The revolution inspired a conservative backlash against rapidly changing family life and gender roles. Yet Putnam finds that even with the conservative backlash, non-religious and religious Americans viewed women’s rights, racial equality and gay marriage with increasing favorability over time. Social change is a stronger influence on public opinion than religious orthodoxy. Religion adapts and evolves.

Don’t get trapped in the dichotomy of Religious Right and secular left created by the sexual revolution and conservative backlash. There’s a new synthesis to be made: religious liberals left their mark on the pages of American history. Meanwhile, nonreligious conservatives are a growing segment of the population.

The religious left sparked social movements such as abolition, created new social institutions during the Progressive Era and put powerful moral frames on issues like monetary policy and workers’ rights. Social gospel churches, synagogues and temples have been hotbeds of organizing and activism. Yet the religious left receives little attention and wields less influence than it did even a half-century ago.

Meanwhile, the identification of religion with political conservatism has eaten away at the ranks of moderate churchgoers. Mainline Protestants, white Catholics and some evangelicals are dropping out of active religious life, a trend accelerating with each new generation. These “nones” have religious beliefs, but have ceased to participate in religious congregations. Nones are more likely to be male, white and working class, a core conservative constituency, than highly-educated and affluent.

Why does religion, liberal, moderate and conservative alike, matter? More accurately, why does religiosity matter? Putnam finds unequivocal benefits from churchgoing behavior through his research: civic engagement, political participation, happiness, friendships and more. The benefits of churchgoing are consistent across the theological spectrum. Churchgoers generally accept social change and coexist happily with other faith traditions, despite the visible intolerance of a minority of “The True Believers.”

It’s past time for an affirmation of religion undivided by party and unashamed of diversity. The postmodern, fissiparous, globalized American society needs a new generation of participators seeking communal identity, fellowship and right living.

America needs a civil religion for the 21st century.

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