May 31, 2012
By Wayne Slater
How would a foreign visitor with little knowledge of America see the state of religious faith today?
One way to assess the state of religion in America today is to ask how a newly arrived foreign visitor - say, from another country or another planet -- would see it. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat asks that question in his new book and comes to fairly blunt conclusion: The visitor would see a nation of Osteens and Obamas. On one hand, here's Joel Osteen preaching a sunny Gospel to a packed house at a baseball stadium in Washington. On the other hand, there's President Obama defending his shift on gay marriage "on explicitly religious grounds." In Douthat's view, we've become a nation of heretics who've abandoned the orthodoxy of faith.
Osteens and Obamas? Is that what a modern-day De Tocqueville would see? Or would the visitor see instead the rise of the megachurch? Or the growth of non-traditional forms of faith? Or conversely, the popularity of Richard Dawkins-style atheism, the political firefight over Mormonism or the tensions over Islam? What to make of all this?
So, how would a foreign visitor with little knowledge of America see the state of religion here today?...
WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University
Anyone who was unfamiliar with America and who happened to visit the United States today would find an astonishing array of vibrant religious activity. If such a person were to arrive in the communities of north Texas, for instance, she or he would find an amazing assortment of large and active religious institutions. Besides all of those thousands who fill the seats at Prestonwood Baptist, Highland Park United Methodist, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Potter's House, and Fellowship Church in Grapevine--all of them claiming to be Christian--there is an immensely diverse religious presence spanning the varieties of religious experience. The city of Richardson, once known for its churches, now has mosques and temples and an assortment of venues for religious practice. There is no dearth of religious life in America. There is an overflowing abundance of it.
Such a visitor to America might find the laments of Ross Douthat about the decline of religiosity in the nation to be strangely out of touch with the reality. What Mr. Douthat finds lamentable is the disappearance of a particular sort of religious system. In the decade following World War II, as Mr. Douthat fondly recalls, religion in America fit into relatively neat categories--a Protestant majority that was mostly housed within well-managed denominations; ethnic Roman Catholic minorities that ran their own schools, worshiped in their own medieval language, and preferred to be separate from the Protestants in power; a tiny Jewish minority that felt free to function in the larger society; and other religious practitioners that were so few in number as to go unnoticed. Religious groups that wanted to be part of the spiritual landscape in America looked for ways to fit into that model--like Mormons who were eager to see themselves and to be seen as Christians.
There are still vestiges of that mindset. For example, an appallingly large percentage of the American people insist--according to polling data--that a Muslim cannot legitimately be the President of the United States. This is an assertion based on a ridiculous misunderstanding of the Constitution. Nothing in that founding document prohibits a Muslim, or a person of another non-Christian faith, or a person of no faith at all, from being elected President.
The beauty of America's religious environment, as it is secured by the First Amendment to the Constitution, is that religions enjoy complete freedom for engaging in their activities, for recruiting new members, for proselytizing in other religious communities to seek converts, and for offering their witness in the public square on matters of vital interest to them. Any visitor to America can see this freedom displayed. Just turn on the television in a hotel room! Religious programming abounds! It may not appeal to Mr. Douthat, or to readers of Texas Faith, or to me. But that, too, is the beauty of America's Constitutionally protected religious freedom. We are all free to ignore the religious pretensions of others!