Religion shows no signs of fading as a defining trait of American life in the opening decades of the 21st century, becoming even a richer mix of sects and traditions, highlighted by a striking expansion and growth of Islam. At the same time, the trend toward seeing faith as a private matter appears to be gaining momentum at the expense of organized religion and its influence on public policy.

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.

From these experts, I think one may fairly conclude that political and economic ideology trump theology (or its equivalent among non-Christians) nearly all the time. Theology rarely trumps ideology.

The big losers in this assessment are the mainline Protestants--the old churches that go back to colonial America--among them the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, American Baptists, the Reformed churches, and the United Church of Christ. The decline of these churches has been well documented. Critics have blamed the slump primarily on a liberal, wishy-washy theology preached by these churches. Several forecasters largely believe mainline Protestantism will further erode, one even foreseeing its demise in the next 20 years. Not everyone is so bleak. A handful believe stability is possible and one or two think a modest recovery may be ahead.

One specialist, Hartford Seminary's David Roozen, who holds fast to the idea that a sharp identity is the key to the future, takes the analysis one step further. In his view, something more than a clear, demanding set of beliefs is necessary. Survival also depends on being grounded more in experience than in thought. Experience entails doing things like kneeling, singing, responding in ritual, smells like incense, dancing and shouting, raising hands in ecstatic prayer, receiving rituals and bodily routines.

Engagement of body and soul will appeal to seekers far more than "thinking" traditions such as Presbyterianism and the Reformed churches that rely much more heavily on a cerebral approach that rests on a sophisticated, intellectual, theological set of beliefs.

By this reasoning, evangelicals, Hasidic Jews, and, to a somewhat lesser degree, Catholics, who also have a strong thinking tradition, should do well in the climate that generally distrusts the intellect. Some traditions have even staked their claim to seekers by preaching forms of anti-intellectualism. As the scholars make clear, these same preferences were dominant 100 years ago. While religion of the mind has never been particularly strong--much of American religion has, in fact, thrived on anti-intellectualism--the tradition of cognitive faith, based on creeds and rigorous theologies, appears to be falling farther back in the competition with religions of experience and feeling.

If indeed the predictions hold true, the nation is as likely to be as saturated with vital religious movements in the coming century as it was in the previous one, perhaps even more so, though the disconnect between private and public religion grows wider. But the tea leaves also foresee a stunning difference in how that spiritual pie is apportioned. Whereas religious diversity was once epitomized by Catholic, Protestant, Jew and the varieties within those branches, the byword for the years ahead is pluralism. The influence of the 1965 immigration act...has already been noted. Even more homogenous developments have unintended consequences. The huge influx of Hispanics, mostly from Mexico, for example, has not only become the major growth for U.S. Catholicism, but has begun to develop a church within a church.

Can we all get along? Given our national track record on religious tolerance, generally speaking, the scholars believe we can, peering out from our mosques, churches, shrines, synagogues, ashrams, sweat lodges, hot tubs, temples, zendos, and so on with a sufficient measure of acceptance towards those who hold other beliefs and disciplines. But acceptance and tolerance come at a price for many of those in this crowded religion village. It means, say the experts, surrendering absolute truth claims, as traditions already deeply rooted have already done. A certain degree of relativity makes this global village habitable

The proliferation of groups, churches, sects, movements, followings, cults and other religious flora and fauna seems likely to our experts to exert a stimulating and enlivening effect on the overall cultural climate. But at the same time, some say, the expansion and fragmentation could weaken the influence of particular traditions. Many believe that religion has already withdrawn considerably from the public square except on special issues that help strengthen cohesion of certain groups. Mounting a concerted drive for social justice across religious boundaries would appear to be far less likely in a religious community with few common agendas.

Finally, however, the story of America's continuing religious vitality is told in the lives of countless seekers who leave one spiritual place for another or find a spiritual home for the first time in their lives. A random sample includes:

  • A distraught Vietnam veteran who returns to faith on a return trip to that Southeast Asian country where he fought so fiercely.
  • A retired doctor who had left the Catholic Church as a young man and spent most of his life with no church connection rekindles his Christian ties through friendship with a Presbyterian minister.
  • An African-American couple become Mormons after they began to feel distant from their Baptist upbringing.
  • A Catholic woman discovers she cannot in good conscience pass along her church's teachings to her children and eventually finds peace and renewal in Judaism.
  • A woman scholar, raised nominally Protestant, explores Islam through her studies and becomes Muslim.
  • A Mexican-American couple leave the Catholic Church, join the Assembly of God, follow the Rosicrucians, become Baha'is, then are led by mystical experience back to the Catholic Church.
  • An African-American Baptist woman was looking for a church when she moved to Washington, D.C., and was so drawn by a homily one Sunday morning in a Catholic church, titled "Stand Still So You Can Understand God's Will," that she became Catholic.
  • A man from the Midwest who was raised Mennonite and delved into Zen Buddhism before settling into Orthodox Christianity.
  • A young woman who began life in the Catholic Church, lost her faith, and became committed to the practice of Buddhism.

In most of these spiritual biographies, the transformations seem driven by a desire to go to a deeper level of practice and conviction, to find a faith that makes better sense of their lives and gives them meaning. Many had received formal religious instruction in the faith of their families and--contrary to some impressions that seekers come from the ranks of the unchurched--were active in groups or congregations. The searching may be more a result of religious inculcation than a sign of religious ignorance. Perhaps their itch to become more religiously or spiritually involved stemmed precisely from this early exposure and a desire to answer the questions of origin and destiny for themselves?

Stories such as these form the parts of the huge engine that drives religion in America. For institutions and traditions, the road ahead looks to many scholars like another series of ups and downs, liberal and conservative swings. For the masses of free agents who search the landscape for spiritual sustenance, the sky will most certainly be the limit.

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