October 22, 2019

Closing the Gap on Believers

Is religion more prominent or less today in American life? Is it fading away or roaring ahead? Articles about the conservative Christian influence in the Bush administration point — often fearfully — in one direction. Statistics about the disappearance of young adults in the 18-30 age group point — with another kind of anxiety — in the opposite direction. Ironically, those who are the greatest removed from religious affiliation tend to believe that religion is more powerful than ever, while those in the thick of congregational life tend to believe just the opposite. Meanwhile, is any force more powerful in American life than inertia?

From Oct. 10-11, a colorfully diverse group of Jews, Christians and Muslims gathered at USC to address what some in the clergy have called the “black hole” in religious affiliation. Synagogues, churches and mosques are all more or less equally affected. Membership tends to be strongest among those younger than 18 or older than 30. Ominously, this black hole seems to be growing at its upper end. Can this common problem have something of a common answer? Can there be learning across canyons that usually divide these groups? Is there a set of identifiable “best practices” that work for all Americans? The conference was given the name Faith, Fear & Indifference: Constructing Religious Identity in the Next Generation.

The diversity of sponsorship of the conference is unusual enough in itself to deserve mention: The Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation, and three entities under the roof of USC.

Among Americans of the middle class, the experience of “going away to college” has long been thought a key to the interruption of religious affiliation. That departure from hearth and home has been sanctioned for many years as a salutary separation away from childhood itself, a coming of age, a major step forward in individuation that would properly include a stock-taking with regard to religion. But because American education has been growing longer and more costly, this interruption between childhood and achieved adulthood has been growing longer as well. American marriage has been taking place later and, as a result, parenthood has come later. In an earlier era, when college education, marriage and first parenthood were all accomplished by age 25, the early adulthood hiatus frequently enough ended with a religious wedding ceremony that was simultaneously a kind of spiritual homecoming. Now the seven years have grown to 12 or 14 or more — And the longer the hiatus lasts, the more likely it is to become permanent.

In a presentation spiced with sometimes-hilarious direct quotes from survey respondents, Berkeley sociologist Christian Smith characterized what might be called the majority or default religiosity of young Americans — present among the unaffiliated as well as among the affiliated — as “moralistic therapeutic deism.” According to MTD, there is a God, he cares much about right and wrong; while he wants you to do right, he mainly wants you to be happy, which means that he wants you to be involved or not in any organized form of religion to the extent — and only to the extent — that it fosters your happiness. In effect, no other value is operative for adherents to MTD.

The surprise, given this as an opening state-of-the-population vision, was then a set of presentations by groups that have been most successful in reaching the age group in question. In every case, the successful seemed to ask a great deal, did not promise happiness or customer-is-always-right service and stressed to newcomers that their communities — be it study group, worship community, summer camp, whatever — were going forward for authentic reasons of their own that would remain valid whether or not new, young recruits were attracted.

This was the message that I, for one, took away most especially from presentations by two charismatic leaders: Brother John of Taizé, an American member of a French Protestant monastery that attracts thousands of young Europeans to a remote village in Burgundy every summer; and Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon, an Argentine who shares leadership of the extraordinarily successful Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Actions always speak louder than words. The cleverest pitch will always seem no more than a pitch when contrasted with a quietly embraced way of life.

We speak proudly in the West of our pluralism, but what happens when you substitute the phrase “the religion market” for “religious pluralism”?

But is it not obvious that religions do compete with each other in this country? Different congregations within the same religion compete with each other, as well, and all religious activities compete with other claimants for the free time of the American. This being the case, there always looms the possibility that market success — and market techniques for building market success — can drive out all other kinds of success and all other techniques for reaching it.

But those who live by the market also die by the market, or so the conference seemed to conclude. The young are, if nothing else, very market savvy. They can spot a pitch. They are the hardest of hard sells. Yet they crave authenticity and, perhaps the largest surprise, they hunger for mystery.

Jack Miles, author of “God: A Biography” and other works, delivered an address at the Faith, Fear & Indifference conference titled “The Leisure of Worship and the Worship of Leisure.”