These were among the forecasts that emerged in talks with 16 leading religious thinkers interviewed about the future of religion in America by religion reporters across the nation. In looking ahead, the scholars were also asked to identify patterns of cause and effect that have led us to the brink of the situation religion faces now. Their comments are contained in the new study "Religion in America at the Turn of the New Century" commissioned by the Interreligious Information Center of New York.
The same journalists who spoke with these scholars also gathered evidence of the powerful drive that sends Americans to the ever-burgeoning religious marketplace for spiritual answers. Though formal religion may experience difficulties, the thirst for religious sustenance seems unabated. America remains a nation of seekers, and from these accounts of newfound believers, that seems sure to continue. Unlike any place in the world, America is a land of restless souls shopping for a religious tradition that meets their needs, prepared to switch from one to another as aspirations and circumstances allow. It is a religious consumer's paradise with more offerings than ever.
More of the personal accounts later. First, a look at what the religion specialists had to say about where the nation has been, religiously speaking, as a prelude to where they believe it is headed. What follows is a summary of their insights. Blended with them is a sizable helping of my own interpretation, for which I take full responsibility.
Asked to compare the status of religion now with that which it occupied in 1900, there was broad agreement that the muscular optimism that accompanied the dominance of Christianity a century ago had largely disappeared, giving way to a landscape of increasing variety and diversity of traditions. No longer do large contingents from the churches march boldly under the banner of a "Christian America" to the drumbeat of "Onward Christian Soldiers." The public square of the future has mosques and zendos and various kinds of temples along with an array of churches.
Though Christians were still a large majority in this mix, the experts said, the Immigration Act of 1965 had opened the doors particularly to followers of Asian and Middle Eastern religions. The greatest challenge to Christian hegemony, some believed, would come from a growing Muslim following. One possibility, often mentioned, was that this and other competing traditions would result in greater religious fragmentation, which could reduce the overall impact of religion on public policy and morality.
What was an effort to ease tensions and establish productive relations among Catholics and Protestants, and among Protestants themselves, has now become a challenge to create harmony among very distinct religious groups that, the experts tell us, will likely be coming into increasing contact with one another. At the same time, they add, no one group is likely to hold the kind of monopoly on public consciousness and media that the churches once did.
Institutions themselves would appear to be in some peril. While the media is sometimes blamed for downplaying religion, the reality seems to be that religion is more lip service than primary force in the shaping of society's policies. None of the specialists interviewed here see religion as a major challenge to the nation's central values of getting and spending. There are special cases: Catholics and conservative Protestants fighting abortion law, a smattering of liberal Protestants and Catholics taking on the death penalty, and weak coalitions protesting the economics that keep the poor poor, but these are all marginal.
Fundamentalists decry homosexuality and abortion, but seem content with the forces of corporate greed and a gun culture. In all the analysis here, there is lacking any degree of significant countercultural resistance. That is to say, there will be marginal resistance, but nothing to indicate that the great maxims of religious faith will motivate America to turn from the ways it does business. Instead, there is the widespread assumption that religion will, in the main, bless the set of economic and political assumptions--the importance of the bottom line, the protection of the nation's military interests, the end to welfare, and the like--and that dissenters will be outsiders within their own traditions.
In other words, the outlook in these interviews is largely devoid of the kind of social activism--some would call it the prophetic call for justice--that brought religious groups together around the civil rights and the anti-Vietnam War movements in the 1960s. Is it any wonder that the media sometimes become confused? How are they supposed to cover religion if it has become so intensely personal and conformist that it simply blends in with its surroundings? If these traditions are believed to instill the great values of truth and courage, how, in fact, are these qualities being manifest in ways that are distinguishable from the unbelievers around them? This has been known as "culture religion," a subordination of religion to the interests of the society, the kind of quietism that poisoned so many German churches in the Third Reich.