Those who are worried about the future of religion in America (i.e., whether religion has any future) need to read Frank Newport’s new book God Is Alive and Well. According to this editor-in-chief of the Gallup poll, there is no reason to be concerned, and plenty of reasons to be encouraged. Americans become more religious as they grow older, and the massive generation of baby boomers is aging right on schedule. The influx of Hispanic immigrants is bringing more religious interest and involvement to our country. Many Americans are relocating from fairly non-religious states (such as New York and Vermont) to highly religious states (such as South Carolina and Mississippi). Finally, average Americans are seeking ways to improve their health and wellbeing, and religion is being promoted for its power to relieve worry and suffering, produce inner calm, and encourage healthy behaviors. All of these trends portend a bright, perhaps even brighter, future for religion in our country. Religion is alive and well.
Of course, religion’s future will be quite different from its past. Not only will the presence and power of the major faiths of Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism increase, but our own home-grown religions of Mormonism and Christian Science will also become more influential. New forms of paganism and animism are emerging. Emotive-expressive individualism has taken on religion-like qualities and functions, and Americans are by nature syncretists who like to mix-and-match and create their own designer religions.
I must mention the rapid rise of the “nones,” or those who do not identify or associate with any denomination, tradition, faith, or religion, although they still claim to be “spiritual.” Forget organized religion. Forget religion as we have known it. These spiritual independents are freely seeking spiritual experience and expression in unusual, unexpected places such as gardening, jogging, drum circles, sports, meditation exercises, and community service.
Therefore, we can be relieved to learn from Newport and the public opinion analysts at Gallup that we will not be going down the same secularization path of many European countries. Religion is very much alive and well in America. In fact, we are on the brink of such a religious resurgence that the Apostle Paul could stand on the steps of our nation’s capital, saying, “Americans, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” (Acts 17:22)
However, this is a brave new world for religious Americans, and especially for those of us who are still connected to the church and its faith-tradition. It is truly a fascinating, though confusing, time to be a Christian. My take on the current moment is that it is not a “great awakening” in terms of a revival of Christian truth and spirit. While religion is alive and well, I am not confident that identifiably, distinctively Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy are. There is a difference. Therefore, as a pastor and a professor, I am urging my congregants and students to take seriously these dynamic, rapidly shifting, increasingly religious-spiritual times in which we are living, but then to take far more seriously the knowledge, obedience, practice, and witness of our own faith. What I most worry about is not the future of religion, but rather the future of Christian biblical-theological faith.
N. Keith Smith