In 2009, we should expect religion to do what is has always done — inspire the very best and the very worst in human thought and practice, especially when it comes to politics and public policy. Faith is like a fire which can either safely cook our food and warm our homes, or burn them to the ground. It’s not up to the fire, it’s up to us. And it’s no different with religion.
As to the degree of influence, according to this month’s polling from Gallop, 67% of Americans see religion as a whole, losing influence on American life at the present time. I hope that they are wrong, but more importantly, so should the people who gave that answer. Why? Because the majority of those same people also stated that they believe religion “can answer all or most of today’s problems”.
Of course statistics, as an old professor of mine used to remark, are used like a drunk uses a lamppost, more for support than illumination. But that having been said, it leaves the faithful among us, especially those who believe faith can contribute positively to American public culture, with a very real question. We need to ask why religion, which most Americans believe can address life’s big problems, is seen as losing influence.
The easy, self-congratulatory, and incorrect answer would be to blame some wicked cabal of secular elites who have it in for the faithful. The real answer probably has more to do with the gap that has opened up between the ethics, values, and wisdom within religion which most Americans still trust, and those religious institutions which people anticipate will have less influence in what may be emerging as a less ideologically driven culture.
Are they right? I don’t know, but a culture in which people appreciate religion as a useful resource in addressing today’s problems while imagining that the influence of religion as an institution is waning, strikes me as pretty healthy. It’s an attitude which privileges people’s spiritual needs over institutional power and ideology, which is always a good thing.
Ironically, if religious institutions could relate to their work in the same way as the folks who responded to Gallop’s survey, they would actually increase their institutional influence. And that might be a trend for which to look in 2009.
Happy New Year!