It’s hardly news anymore that a growing number of Americans are checking the box “none” on surveys of religious belief. According to Pew Research Center polling, one-fifth of the public and a third of those under 30 are unaffiliated with any religious entity.
Among those left who still report being affiliated, the percentage of fundamentalists and other conservatives is increasing. It’s the pie that’s shrinking and leaving the right-wing to have a bigger share.
Relying on figures publicized by denominations is problematic. There are convenient ways for memberships to be counted.
But even the granddaddy of right-wingers, the Southern Baptist Convention, reported this year that it’s losing members and baptizing fewer people. Their response, of course, wasn’t to question their teachings but to assume they needed better marketing.
Those who are religiously addicted never question what they’re teaching. They’re so invested in it that to do so would be a real downer for their high of righteousness.
They always assume that it’s the packaging that needs updating. Hence the stagings of hipster churches, or prosperity mega-churches like Joel Osteen’s and Rick Warren’s that refuse not to smile.
These fundamentalist-with-a-positive-attitude approaches have become multi-million dollar empires. Many drawn into them cherish those positive feelings without commitment to their worn out hidden theologies.
They eschew the language and public demeanors of the Fred Phelpses or other regressive clergy who get national media attention for their otherwise insignificant congregations through outrageous anti-gay acts, burning Qurans, or rantings about divine punishment ready to rain down on the country for whatever cultural fears they can stoke in the gullible who feel they’re losing in the victories of American oligarchy.
It’s still this Christian movement that, like the addict in a family, gets most of the attention, steers the agenda, and keeps progressives in a defensive posture. There are a number of reasons for that.
First, and foremost, right-wingers are the religious category with the most money to spend on their causes. How many pastors would take a more progressive stand on numerous issues, believing that it’s what Jesus would do, if they weren’t afraid that key people would leave their churches, particularly the wealthiest givers, who’re usually conservative?
Conservative theology attracts many of the rich because it justifies the accumulation of wealth. It preaches that wealth is a sign of divine blessing.
Look at the right-wing Green family that owns Hobby Lobby. Their recent Supreme Court victory seemed to have little to do with their faith because they profited from selling what was made in a country that mandated abortion and had previously funded the contraceptives they discovered to be against their beliefs only when a president they wanted to destroy backed them.
The conservatives’ choice of Biblical passages to take literally is never “It’s harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of god” or “Give all you have to the poor and follow me” or the numerous passages in the Hebrew scriptures about usury that say never loan money and ask for ANY interest. And the dominant religion in any culture is the one that supports the status quo and its powerful.
Second, progressive churches regularly fail at acting progressive. They have progressive theologies, but aren’t sure what to do with them, often out of nervousness about upsetting the very status quo that marginalizes Christian progressives.
This has left challenging regressive Christianities to atheist, agnostic and skeptic organizations along with non-Christian religious movements. The established Baptist-inspired Americans for the Separation of Church and State has been joined by more anti-religious groups such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation. And to the original American Humanist Association a growing list of others have been added.
Progressive churches have instead taken up charity activities. In the light of strategic conservative attacks on the government safety net, compassion seems to demand it.
But two observations need to be made here. Right-wing defunding of government assistance programs is a deliberate strategy intended to move liberal money away from politics into making up the difference through funding charities. This gives mega-rich corporations and right-wingers even more of an advantage in buying the political arena while progressive funds are diverted into charities.
But conservative churches do charity as well, and with their major goal to convert recipients to their brand of sectarianism. So, doing charity work, as admirable as it is, doesn’t distinguish progressive churches from fundamentalist ones.
In the mind of younger generations from Generation X to the Millennials, then, there is little reason to come back to a progressive church. These generations are looking for actions that speak to a sense of justice, not what goes on Sunday mornings inside some pious-looking building.
For the progressive church to grow, it will have to move beyond charity to taking a public place in the front line of justice work. For the ten years I was president of the board of a campus ecumenical ministry, what attracted students was exactly that.
Only when convinced we practiced justice, did they ask what we believed and how it fit. Did we march to stand for LGBT rights? Did we support the dignity and power of working people? Did we fight for ecological justice and the future of the planet? Did we live as if all oppressions are offensive and intersecting?
So, when the United Church of Christ filed a lawsuit to protect its first amendment right to perform same-sex marriages in North Carolina, that was a belated example of progressive Christianity standing out from all the regressive sectarianism. Their progressive action even led a Baptist alliance to follow them.
And that contradicts the third reason why the religious addicts have dominated national attention. Progressive Christianity has been defensive, always having to respond to what it isn’t, rather than on the offense.
When any position leads, people take notice. Then they see it as a real option, one that real people really believe, walking their walk not just talking some talk.