If a foreign visitor --a modern-day Alexis De Tocqueville, let’s say -- wanted to understand the state of religion in America today, a good place to start would have been Nationals Park in Washington D.C. three weeks ago, where the megachurch pastor Joel Osteen preached to a sold-out house. Osteen’s bipartisan reach and global influence makes him one of the most plausible contemporary heirs to Billy Graham. But unlike Graham, his message tends to be doctrine-free and relentlessly upbeat, rarely mentioning sin and regularly suggesting that God wants nothing more than to shower worldly blessings on believers.
Or the curious visitor could pick up the new census of religious affiliation in America that was released shortly after Osteen’s rally, which showed that non-traditional forms of Christian faith now comprise the third largest religious category in the country, after Roman Catholicism and the Southern Baptist Convention. Overall, the growth in American Christianity today is mostly nondenominational and Mormon, while the churches that dominated American life a half century ago --Catholic and Mainline Protestant --have continued their decades-long decline.
Or our hypothetical foreigner could just listen to the way the president of the United States --himself a nondenominational Christian - discussed his famous “evolution” on gay marriage last week. Rather than just making a secular case for his position, Barack Obama defended his shift on explicitly religious grounds, invoking the figure of Jesus and the language of the New Testament to justify a perspective that obviously places him at odds with the historic Christian view of marriage.
For decades, the cultural tug-of-war between the Christian right and the secular left has encouraged people to envision the American religious future in binary terms --as either godless or orthodox, either straightforwardly secular or traditionally Christian. But these examples and trends suggest a more complicated reality, in which religious institutions have declined but religion itself has not, and Americans increasingly redefine Christianity as they see fit rather than than abandoning it entirely.
We aren’t a nation of rigorous Richard Dawkins-style atheists and equally rigorous Pope Benedict XVI-style Catholics, in other words. Instead, we’re a nation of Osteens and Obamas, Dan Browns and Deepak Chopras --neither a Christian nation nor a secular society, but a nation of heretics.
To many Americans, this description no doubt sounds like a compliment. Because we’ve always been a nation from of religious freethinkers and entrepreneurs --from Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson to Joseph Smith and Mary Baker Eddy --the word “heretic” often carries positive connotations in our religious culture. It’s associated with theological daring, spiritual experimentation, and a willingness to blaze new trails and push on toward new horizons.
But the heretical imperative in America’s religious life has usually existed in a kind of fruitful and creative tension with more conservative, institutional, and historically-rooted forms of faith --first denominational Protestantism and then later the Roman Catholic Church as well. And the post-1960s decline of these churches has taken a significant toll on our common life, in ways that both religious and secular observers should be able to recognize.
For one thing, individualistic and do-it-yourself forms of religion are less likely to bind communities together, encourage stable families, assimilate immigrants, and otherwise Americans to live in healthy fellowship with one another. It is not a coincidence that as the institutional churches have lost their purchase among poor and non-college educated Americans, that population’s social ills have multiplied and its economic prospects have dimmed.
At the same time, self-created forms of faith are also less likely to provide a check against the self’s worst impulses --whether it’s the kind of materialism that Joel Osteen’s sunny promises encourage, or the solipsism that percolates under the surface of popular spiritual memoirs like Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat Pray Love.” Many of America’s contemporary crises, from the housing bubble and the financial crash to the collapse of the two-parent family, can be traced to just this tendency -- encouraged by too much contemporary religion -- to make the self’s ambitions the measure of all things.
Finally, when strong religious impulses coexist with weak religious institutions, people become more likely to channel religious energy into partisan politics instead, and to freight partisan causes with more metaphysical significance than they can bear. The result, visible both in the “hope and change” fantasies of Obama’s 2008 campaign and the right-wing backlash it summoned up, is a politics that gives free rein to both utopian and apocalyptic delusions, and that encourages polarization without end.
Again, these tendencies have always been with us. But they’ve usually coexisted with religious institutions rooted in something deeper than the fashions of the moment, and with churches capable of providing a curb on the very American temptation to make God in our own image and declare that we are good. That is what we lack today, and what we need tomorrow.