That's the conventional wisdom, anyway. Yet a nationwide increase in religious and spiritual interest is happening at the very time America enjoys unprecedented physical prosperity. Perhaps the upsurge in concern for the sacred is not happening in spite of materialism, but because of it.
Consider that Rev. Jim Henry, pastor of First Baptist Church of Orlando, Florida, a mega-church that is among the country's largest evangelical houses of worship, notes, "People today find that the things they're buying and turning to are not fulfilling. Interest in spiritual subjects is the highest it's been in the 35 years that I've been preaching, and I think disenchantment with consumerism has a lot to do with that." Henry's church, being in Orlando--home of Disney World and its satellite parks and hotels and malls and stores--sits at the epicenter of runaway consumption. This fact seems to be driving people toward the church, not away from it; First Baptist draws almost 10,000 worshippers per week.
Scholars see the same trends nationally. Robert Fogel, an economist at the University of Chicago and a leading free-market conservative, is already projecting that the 21st century will see another "Great Awakening" of spiritual concerns in American life, as people turn toward faith and questions of higher purpose to escape the emptiness of commuting, the career ladder, and shopping.
Thoughts of the sacred surely do seem to be on the increase in contemporary life, leading barometers being the popular "spirituality" movement; the rise of evangelical Christianity; the growing membership of Roman Catholic, Orthodox Jewish, and traditional Islam denominations; and the end of the decline in membership in the mainstream Protestant churches; the growth of retreats and hermitages; the width of the religion and spirituality aisles at any bookstore.
When such trends are noted, a common explanation is that "baby boomers are coming back to God" after discovering they have children to raise and realizing that no matter how many vitamins they take and how long they pump the Stair Master, mortality will come knocking.
Each person needs to be materially secure, of course: America of the present is historically favored in that regard, and the majority of its citizens who enjoy material security should give daily thanks for that fact. But does the onrushing saturation of consumer items bring anyone a sense of satisfaction in life? Andrew Delbanco, in his new book The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope, notes that the cycle of consumption leaves us with an "unslaked craving for transcendence," the desire to find the larger connections to life and purpose that no material thing can ever offer. For some, consumerism is the new opiate. But for most men and women, the better off the country becomes, the greater the chance we will step back and ask, "Is that all there is?"
Of course many activities including child rearing impinge on "nonwork" time, but generally the trend is toward more reflective hours, not less. Studies by John Robinson of the University of Maryland and Goeffrey Godbey of the University of Georgia have shown that most Americans have more free time than in 1969, with total housework hours and daily commutes both in slight decline. And despite the popular canard that Americans are now so fantastically busy they don't even sit down to eat together, a 1997 study by the Pew Research Center study found that 80 percent of parents with children regularly take their meals together. Add to this the historically new, large demographic class of healthy, financially secure seniors--a century ago fewer than 15 percent of males over age 65 were retired, today more than 85 percent are--and the number of Americans with the time and repose to contemplate spiritual issues is steadily increasing.
To the extent people are stressed for time, often it is the pursuit of the material that causes the condition. Wanting a 4,000-square-foot house with a three-car garage and two SUVs forces you to take on a huge mortgage and accept long commutes. Then you find that you're rarely in the house because you are working to pay off the monthly note, or stuck on the freeway trying to get home. It would not be difficult to trade back some of this material superfluity for time and a less stressful day.
Does the rising education that accompanies affluence mean belief must decline? This has been a standard assumption since the early-century drive for universal public education began. In 1916, the Bryn Mawr University psychologist James H. Leuba published a book, The Belief in God and Immortality, based on studies of religious sentiment among college students and their professors. His conclusion was that "the proportion of disbelievers in immortality increases considerably from the freshman to the senior year in college" and that, because of the increase in higher education, American belief "has utterly broken down." Leuba's studies of the effect of higher education in diminishing faith were influential in triggering the early-century fundamentalist movement, which took the name fundamentalism to show that it opposed modernism, assumed to be mainly a phenomena of the university.
Recent studies by Benton Johnson, professor of sociology at the University of Oregon, find, in contrast, that in the contemporary world there is little correlation between levels of education and degrees of belief. People with doctorate degrees do tend to be atheists, Johnson has found, but below that level, basic belief in God or divine agency is approximately the same for all education strata. Fundamentalists, Johnson has found, as a group are just as well-educated as members of the mainstream denominations, while college graduates are as likely to believe in God as those who did not attend college. "College may not strengthen faith, but for most baby boomers it did not initiate doubt," Johnson has written. "Most of those who lost their faith did so before going to college, not after."
It cannot be claimed that affluence is already the cause of any general spiritual awakening: for most people, material concerns still come first in life, and may always. But it's enough to contemplate the notion that consumer culture is not necessarily an ultimate foe of higher contemplation. As the political scientist Ronald Inglehart wrote in the 1990 book Culture Shift in an Advanced Industrial Society, "post-materialists may have more potential interest in religion than materialists do" since "a sense of meaning and purpose might fill a need" that no purchase or possession ever will.