Portrait in Stained Glass

Bill Murchison

2/26/2008 12:00:00 AM - Bill Murchison

God only knows how it came to this. Just 78.4 percent of Americans currently profess affiliation with a Christian body. And a quarter of Americans ages 18-29 disclaim membership in any religion. Meanwhile, 12.1 percent of adults describe their religion as "nothing in particular." All this while Mormons and Muslims outbreed everyone else.

Or so the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Reports this week, having extensively surveyed "the U.S. religion landscape."

We're in for some soul-searching, it's safe to predict, in confirmation perhaps of the uneasy feeling many have had for some decades as the secularists came to glare with sovereign contempt on public religious expression, and as bellicose atheist writers (e.g., Richard Dawkins and Christopher -- meaning "Christ-bearer" -- Hitchens) scaled the best-seller lists.

The Pew survey doesn't suggest that Christianity is going into eclipse but rather that particular ties among Christians, and particular ways of relating to the faith, are undergoing sharp change. As is everything else in our explosive environment, come to think of it. Some of us who have been around longer notice these things more intensively, but that's just an aside.

Among Pew's other findings (35,000 adults were surveyed):

-- The number of religiously unaffiliated Americans is twice that of Americans who came to adulthood without prior affiliation. That is, half grew up to shed such affiliations as they started with.

-- The United States "is on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country."

-- The Catholics are bleeding members -- increasing overall in number only on account of immigration. More than 10 percent of Americans are former Catholics.

-- Atheists outnumber Episcopalians, while agnostics (the "show-mes" of religion) outnumber Episcopalians and Presbyterians together.

Pew finds -- this won't surprise you much in the iPod/Internet age -- "that constant movement characterizes the American religious marketplace, as every major religious group is simultaneously gaining and losing adherents." The word "marketplace" is worth dwelling on. A marketplace is where you buy commodities. Religion, to many moderns, is a commodity: a thing they shop for, like blue jeans, chardonnay, automobiles, dishwasher detergent, private schools, costume jewelry, mobile homes, DVD players and, for that matter, political candidates. When you find what you like, you buy it. If you decide it's still important to you.

The consumer model shapes everything else around us, Why not religion as well?

Here's one rather large why-not. Because religion embodies Truth, or claims to do so. A consumer society spreads out various "truths" side by side in bins and invites the consumer to choose. Religion (Judaic or Christian) says, or is supposed to say, "This is It. You are here. Go no further. Choose now this day whom you will serve."

It's not what could be called a consumer-friendly approach, nor is there any reason for it to resemble such. Religion goes to the bottom of all concerns, and to the top as well. It tells of how things are. Not how we might like them. Are. A-r-e.

Which sounds despotic. Twenty-first-century Americans don't enjoy being told how the cow ate the cabbage. They want to bring their own special insights to that appraisal, as indeed some of the more spacious-minded churches -- my Episcopalians come to mind, along with some others -- encourage them to do. (With what success you might note from the numerical decline my Episcopalians have experienced since 1965, when they were about twice as numerous as now -- in profession, at least.)

American Christians (and, for that matter, Jews) down in the dumps from contemplation of figures like those the Pew Forum supplies should take heart. For the simple reason that religion isn't consumerism. It's religion. God will have his way with the world that He himself -- so the Good Book instructs us -- created ex nihilo: out of nothing. Whose people He made. Whose Affairs He continues to oversee.

Surveys can be fun, as showing us what goes on in the minds of our neighbors. We might just recall it's not necessary to take with utmost seriousness what our neighbors may be thinking.