Is Religion in America a Hobby or a Fashion Statement?

John ArmstrongMissional Church

Woman w Statue
The recently published ARIS report, comparing religious data in the United States in 2008 with the same data from 1990, revealed a number of important facts that Christians who care about the health of the church and the nation should be concerned about. Yesterday, I wrote about the growing presence of the "nones," now fastest growing religious preference in America. There is other important data to be noted in this same report.

Roman Catholicism has declined 1.1% since 1990. This is somewhat surprising since their has been a large-scale increase in Catholic immigrants into America during the same period of time. The reasons for this decline are probably numerous. The sex scandals plainly hurt the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. And the liberal trends in Catholic higher education have failed to catechize and strengthen Catholics at the parish level.

Baptists have declined even faster, from 19.3% to 15.8%, a drop of 3.5%. This is a huge decrease and is reflected in the considerable decrease in baptisms and additions in the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). There could be a number of reasons for this large decrease but I am inclined, based on both hard data and anecdotal opinion, to believe the "political struggles" in the SBC have added to this decrease! The conservatives won the power, at the national level, but this win seems more hollow by the day. It raises a perennially important question: "At what price do we wage war with fellow Christians about power and control of institutions and seminaries?" Conservatives will argue that the battles were essential and that the in the longer term the SBC will be stronger for it. Moderate, or more liberal Baptists, will argue that in unity the SBC knew much greater freedom and the mission agencies did much better without the two decade-long struggle for the heart and soul of the convention. I am inclined to believe both sides have a point but I lean toward the belief that such struggles almost never result in stronger and more effective mission.

What about Islam in the U.S.? Ihsan Bagby, an associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky suggests that all such surveys under-count Muslims. This just might be true given the way data is collected and how Muslims might respond to being interviewed. One thing is for sure, Islam is growing but probably not as rapidly as some suggest who want to promote fear and reaction.

Have You Seen Him
There are now 2.8 million Americans who identify with dozens of new religious movements (NRM). These groups include Wicca, a contemporary form of paganism (in the right sense of this historic term) that includes goddess worship and reverence for nature. Wicca has recently made its way into the Arlington National Cemetery where the five-pointed star symbol can be used on veteran's gravestones.

Perhaps the most interesting insight of all was offered by co-author Barry Kosmin who concluded from the 1990 survey that many Americans saw God as "a personal hobby" and America as a "greenhouse for spiritual sprouts." After analysis of the 2008 data Kosmin says, "religion has become a fashion statement, not a deep personal commitment for many."

I find that comparison consistent with what I've seen over the past eighteen years. I began the wider, national ministry of ACT 3 in 1991. By 1992 I began to travel to every region of the country. I have spoken in many culturally and religiously diverse contexts, to small groups and large gatherings. I have talked to older adults and to my own generation. I have also listened to the under-35s. While many under 35 are profoundly interested in a deeper spirituality their number is clearly declining. And the overall effect is that most lack "a deep personal commitment" to Christ or any other person or faith.