AMERICANS are, on average,
far more religious than citizens of other affluent countries. But
we are not uniformly religious: we are divided between a shrinking
body of religious believers, and a growing population of "Nones" -
individuals who say that they have "no religion".
Most Nones are neither
militant atheists nor spiritual seekers. To them, religion is like
Mah Jong, photosynthesis, or the Ross Ice Shelf - something that
they have rarely thought about, and in which neither they, nor
anyone they know, have any interest.
Nones and Christians live in
different neighbourhoods. Many Nones have never knowingly met a
Christian socially. And Nones of the liberal semi-intelligentia
have a voyeuristic interest in our lives and customs. They consume
non-fiction about us by social scientists - such as T. M.
Luhrmann's recent anthropological study of Evangelical culture,
When God Talks Back (Knopf, 2012).
With the exquisite
sensitivity of her predecessors' reporting on traditional South Sea
Island cultures, Luhrmann, who spent four years as a
participant-observer in the Vineyard Christian Fellowship,
describes the folkways of Evangelicals - of "prayer warriors" and
women who lay out dinner à deux for "dates with Jesus".
She is not, of course, a religious believer. In the social world
that Luhrmann and her readers occupy, the world of the
urban-coastal professional class, religion is not done.
The few Christians in this
world are reticent about their religious affiliations. Admit to
being a Christian, and your extra-ecclesiastical contacts will
assume that you are one of those who "cling to guns and religion",
believe that God created species in their current form less than
10,000 years ago, and, perhaps, arrange fantasy dinner-dates with
Jesus. Among educated professionals, once the primary constituency
of the Episcopal Church, religion is dying because it is an
From 1992 to 2002, during
the Anglican Decade of Evangelism, membership in the Episcopal
Church declined by 32 per cent. And the decline continues.
Conservatives attribute it to the Church's liberal agenda, which,
they claim, has driven Christians from the main denominations to
churches that have (as they understand it) kept the faith.
But that is not so.
Conservative churches are holding their own because working-class
Americans, traditionally members of Evangelical churches, are still
religious. Episcopalians and members of other mainline Churches
have not, in any significant numbers, left for more conservative
Churches. Embarrassed by the patently absurd beliefs of
Evangelicals, and the virtual identification of Christianity with a
socially conservative agenda, they are joining the Nones.
The Episcopal Church's
traditional constituency - upper-middle-class professionals - is
lost. And it will never appeal to working-class people, no matter
how desperately it attempts to tailor its style.
The US mirrors the global
divide between affluent secular Europe and the socially
conservative "traditional societies" of the Global South. Luhrmann
and her readers - educated, cosmopolitan, and thoroughly secular -
are, effectively, Europeans. Working-class Americans - socially
conservative and religious - are, to all intents and purposes,
living in the Global South.
Locally in the US, as well
as globally, the churches that will survive are the ones that cater
for the needy, the naïve, and the poor, the ones that promise
healing, promote self-improvement, and preach the prosperity
gospel. Liberal, mainline churches, including the Episcopal Church,
are doomed, because religion has become déclassé, a source
of shame. Mainline Churches are dying of embarrassment.
Dr Harriet Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the
University of San Diego, USA.