RELIGION IN AMERICA
DECEMBER 25, 1995
Margaret Warner looks at religion on Christmas evening, talking with a group of people who study what place religion has in the lives of Americans.
MARGARET WARNER: The diversity of American life is reflected in the diversity of its religious expression. Americans practice their religion in a host of different ways: An unusual baptism in California, safety patrols for church-goers in Baltimore, daily meditations in San Francisco, and a Mass at Giants Stadium for 82,000 people.
In the 1830's, Alexis De Tocqueville remarked on how religious he found the American people. By most measures, they are still quite religious today. According to the Gallup Poll, 96 percent of Americans believe in God. 71 percent say they belong to a church or synagogue, 45 percent say they actually worship regularly. The traditional faiths still dominate. 56 percent of Americans identify themselves as Protestants, 27 percent as Catholics, 2 percent as Jews.
But within these broad categories, the greatest growth recently has been within the more evangelical churches.
There are other changes as well. One is the rise of Islam, one of the fastest growing religions in the nation. Estimates on the number of Muslims in the United States range from five to eight million people. A rising percentage of them are African-American. Another recent trend is the return of the so-called baby boom generation to organized religion. With many in this age group now raising their own families, four out of ten say they are returning to organized worship.
Some aspects of popular culture too suggest a heightened interest in the spiritual. Religious books and tapes are frequently best sellers. But behind the numbers, questions remain for many churches and temples about the depth of religious commitment among Americans and about what role religion actually plays in our secular society.
Now, we explore these and other questions with a group of people who study religion in American life. Robert Franklin is the director of black church studies at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. He's currently on leave at the Ford Foundation. Martin Marty teaches the history of American religion at the University of Chicago. Anthony Stevens-Arroyo teaches and writes on Latin religion at Brooklyn College and Princeton. Joan Connell is the editor of "Religion News Service," which provides stories on religion and other issues to a variety of media outlets throughout the country. And Richard Ostling is religion correspondent for "Time Magazine" and a regular NewsHour contributor. Welcome, all of you. Martin Marty, what role does religion play in Americans' lives today?
MARTIN MARTY, University of Chicago: (Chicago) Let's say two things. In person life, it's probably as strong as ever. People may want a sense of reality around them. They're scared to die. They'd like to get going living; they celebrate the passages of life. That's very strong, if anything, stronger than ever. The other thing is a little more problematic, and that is, it's supposed to relate to our public life. We stuck in the phrase that this is a nation under God into the Pledge of Allegiance, and we're always trying to see in what ways religion should judge us or the other person, and in what way the nation has a destiny in a religious sense.
MARGARET WARNER: Robert Franklin, do you agree with what Martin Marty just said, that it's--religion in American life is much stronger in personal terms than perhaps in communal terms?
ROBERT MICHAEL FRANKLIN, Emory University: (New York) I actually think the jury is still out on that question. For instance, in the Gallup Poll, although we learned that 96 percent of Americans claim to believe in God, I wonder if this is information that really informs. I'm not sure that it's, it's bankable information. Against the backdrop of rising violence in our streets, resurgence of racism, violence toward women, hate crimes, one wonders the extent to which religious belief is authentically on the rise and strong in this country.
MARGARET WARNER: So you mean, you question--people may say they believe in God, but they aren't living godly lives or anything close to it?
MR. FRANKLIN: That's right. I think that people express belief in God as a kind of badge of membership, a very cheap badge of membership in the civilized society. Americans, in my assessment, have a very high valuation of the aesthetic dimension of religion. We love Handel's Messiah, we listen to the negro spirituals, the art in the Sistine Chapel, but when it comes to adhering to the Ten Commandments, to the Sermon on the Mount, to the ethics of religion, I find that we've still got a long way to go.
MARGARET WARNER: Dick Ostling, do you agree on this critique about the personal and spiritual aspects of Americans' religious commitment?
RICHARD OSTLING, Time Magazine: (New York) I think that's right on target. One of the things that's going on all across our society is individualism, atomization, people sitting and watching their television sets and not involved in community groups. This is devastating to many religious congregations, among other things. I think religious spokesmen, leaders, and so on do not have the kind of influence and impact on people's lives that they would have a generation or two ago.
MARGARET WARNER: And why--let me interrupt you--why is that?
MR. OSTLING: Well, I think there are many factors involved. I think perhaps some mistakes on the part of religions leaders here and there, and I think the involvement of political controversy sometimes alienates people from the churches, but I think it's really part of a broad cultural trend. It affects the Red Cross. It affects local PTA's and a myriad of organizations of this type, and religious congregations are similarly affected.
MARGARET WARNER: I see. Joan Connell, let me ask you, where do you come down on this question of whether religion is a stronger, has a stronger role in the personal lives of Americans or in their religious life?
JOAN CONNELL, Religion News Service: Well, I think that there is a sharpening interest in the spiritual. I think people are disillusioned with the promises of materialism that haven't held up. They're lonely; they're alienated; they're frightened by moral chaos in the world; and they would like to turn to religion as some source of certainty. But turning to religion and living by it are two entirely different things. In Washington, for instance, we hear a lot of rhetoric of religion on Capitol Hill. We hear a politician speaking the language of God and morality. But you see those same people walk right past the beggars on the streets of Washington and never give them a thought.
MARGARET WARNER: Anthony Stevens-Arroyo, do you see the same dichotomy?
ANTHONY STEVENS-ARROYO, Brooklyn College: (New York) I think you have to take a look at the word "intensity," because I think there is a great deal more intensity in religion, if maybe not as many people are practicing, those that are practicing I think have a higher level of commit, and from my own experience with the Latinos in the U.S., I see that this distinction between what's individual and communitarian is really not that strong. We think family when we think religion. And i would add, I think that barrio religion or neighborhood religion, these close-- closely-knit communities struggling for survival in pockets of poverty is kind of like the normal form of Christianity. I mean, that's the religion that Jesus founded. And so when you look through the renovations of church, both Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa and Wesley and so forth, it's always going back to these roots. And I think that there's an awful lot of dynamism particularly about the communitarian nature of religion with the intensity that one sees in the barrios and the ghettos. And so to the degree that this is the force that moves religion, I think that, in fact, Latinos may be the locomotive, rather than the caboose, for some of the changes that I think are necessary for us to reach the 21st century.
MARGARET WARNER: Robert Franklin, do you see the same thing in the black community, that there is a strong also communal role for religion?
MR. FRANKLIN: Absolutely. One of the extraordinary things going on in the African-American church community around the nation is an effort to reinvigorate the extended family throughout this nation. African-Americans are exceedingly concerned about the erosion of traditional family structures, family values, and now what's interesting is the Church has taken the lead in trying to reestablish, reconstruct the family on the model of the African village. Marian Wright Edelman has popularized this African proverb that it takes an entire village to raise a child. The churches are taking that seriously, and so what you find around the country are churches building family life centers that are providing important personal and family services not only for church members but also for the wider community.
MARGARET WARNER: Martin Marty, let me ask you about the relationship between Americans who do practice their religion and their churches. Has that changed from say 50 years ago in terms of what they're looking for from their churches, what churches they choose, that whole relationship?
MR. MARTY: I think it has changed drastically, and I think that many Roman Catholics who aren't Latino and many Protestants who aren't black would be very envious about what Prof. Stevens-Arroyo and Franklin are just talking about. Certainly there are hundreds of thousands of little communities, and certainly there's a strong impulse again to rebuild the family, but by and large, religion in America has become what we call a "pick and choose" situation. You take your religion a la carte, and once upon a time, what the Pope or the bishop or the priest said, that was it for you. Today, if you happen to agree with them, you will not practice birth control, but 80 percent plus disagree and so they'll practice birth control in the Catholic fold, which is on one level beautiful. It means we have an educated lady. We have a highly independent group of people. We have people who care about their own destiny. But it does make communal living very hard. And I must say that the picture just given us by the other two folks is a dream for the vast majority of Americans who are somehow religious but not really bound into a rich and deep community.
MARGARET WARNER: Dick Ostling, do you think that observation you just heard about, about the changing nature of the relationship between Americans and their church and this shopping around, this sort of "pick and choose" religion, does that say anything negative about how committed Americans really are to religion, or to their religious beliefs?
MR. OSTLING: I'm not sure of that. I think community dynamics are important. I certainly agree, for instance, with the vitality in a Latino neighborhood and so on. And Marty is correct about dynamics let's say in a white suburban situation. Basically, what's happened is the whole thing has turned around so that churches today are supplicants or seekers. They have to seek adherence, rather than people seeking God or seeking a religious fellowship. It's almost like the whole thing has become a marketing game in many situations.
MARGARET WARNER: But you don't think that says anything that questions how deeply Americans feel about their religion, the fact that churches are marketing the fact that they have a better day care center or the sermons are nice and short?
MR. OSTLING: Not really. In fact, if you go back, way back in American history, a pretty small percentage of our population was affiliated with religious congregations. Today, it would be higher, but I think a lot of congregations are really having to scrap and strategize and sweat in order to maintain an even keel.
MARGARET WARNER: And Joan Connell, which churches are the ones who are being successful in marketing themselves?
MS. CONNELL: Well, in terms of marketing, they're the institutions that are open to serving the needs of the people who come to them. But I really think that this kind of marketing issue is not the issue. Religion is an inner experience. You do have the community experience of sharing, and it's wonderful. But it's a very solitary spiritual path that a person treads, and this is everyone's challenge in religious life, in discovering all of this, and really it comes down to one's self and one's idea of the ultimate ground of being, which some people call God, and that is a developing relationship.
MARGARET WARNER: And that's really quite an eternal role of religion. I mean, that's always been a role of religion.
MS. CONNELL: Right. It's beyond day care and support groups. It is the search to satisfy the longing in one's soul.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Stevens-Arroyo, to talk about that issue there that Joan Connell just raised, and aside from the communal aspect, the internal spiritual life, do you think millions and millions of Americans are embarked on that quest?
MR. STEVENS-ARROYO: Definitely. I mean, that's what religion is about. I would just be careful about making it a dichotomy of either/or, either we have a communitarian, or we have this profound search for meaning and so forth. I like to think of religion, at least in my own experience growing up, as kind of like the interlocking wheels on a clock. And you have an hour hand that moves very slowly, and that's your, your cycle through the year, your life cycle. Your hour hand, or your minute hand, rather, is what moves your own particular sense that particular time. And so one moves from the personal to the communitarian and back and forth, but they interlock, and one doesn't move without the other. If you just go off on yourself, it's like a clock with only one hand. You'll never know what time it is. On the other hand, you have to do, have to look for that profound sense. I think one of the problems with this notion of marketing, and I second what was just said, that becomes a kind of in sociology now, a new paradigm to explain everything by marketing, and supposedly the churches that offer more pain get more gain. I'm not so sure of that. But the key issue is: Is there really a premise that the institutions, the churches, the clergy, have bottled up God, that it's--the sacred is right there, and I think that people are searching for this sense of immediacy of contact with something that's beyond that, that summons them to better effort, gives them a guide in life, and they'll go where they can find it. And there's no longer this presumption that only this church or this denomination has the truth. So that may be a helpful development, although I think we are definitely in a transition time. So we're going to have to expect some dislocations.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Marty, what about that point? How much of Americans' religious life is outside the organized church, yet still qualifies as religious?
MR. MARTY: Yes. Oh, I don't want anyone to think that any of us are underestimating the power of religious institutions and their hold. Most people, I feel--think--think of religion as what I call part of the Yellow Pages, alphabetically between chiropractors and cigars is a section called churches, and that's where most of us go, and probably those of us who are talking to you do and holiday time is a great time to be doing that. They're very strong, and I don't think we should portray the clergy as unresponsive. They are in that situation of seeking themselves, and they're trying to find others along the way. But what we have is a vast socialist location, I would say the high rise in the long weekend; when people are in little suburban homes or when they're in little bungalows in the city, they take responsibility for their neighborhood in a different way, and the schools are part of it, and the churches are part of it. When you're in the 64th floor of a building and you know no neighbors, it's not likely you're going to have the same responsibility. Weekends, you used to be there, and this was the center of your life. Today, middle class America, and that's a huge number of people, have their own RV's, are gone for long weekends, and they're just not as responsive. So it isn't always the rejection of the institution. But the fact that you sort of get along without them in some cases doesn't mean that you stop the spiritual quest. And that's why there are so many best sellers. That's why the retreat houses are full, and so on. What I'd like to see with Robert Franklin and others is that this be not only my seeking my goal but that I find my neighbor and the person in need and society in need as a part of that quest.
MR. FRANKLIN: If I might respond.
MARGARET WARNER: Please.
MR. FRANKLIN: One of the interesting things that just happened a couple of months ago in the city of Washington, D.C., was the Million Man March. This is an extraordinary event in the history of the recent American religion, because here was this tremendous flourishing of spiritual hunger, a quest for meaning, for binding together, for community building, that happened for the most part beyond the bounds of traditional institutional religion. And I think that African-Americans are certainly grappling now with what do we make of that expression on the part of so many men, in particular. The churches are now organizing and trying to respond to that expression, because many of those men are, are what I characterize as exodus men. They've left the traditional church. And yet, there clearly is this sense of communion with the divine and the desire to effect reconciliation with their sisters, their brothers, and their families.
MARGARET WARNER: Dick Ostling, I'd like to ask you, or have you start off a little part of this discussion about how much our society either supports religious belief or mitigates against it, and there have been many books on this, but one of them is Steven Carter's The Culture of Disbelief. Now, as he pointed out, to be devoutly religious really means to believe in the supernatural on some level. And he said, you know, the message of contemporary culture today seems to be that it's perfectly all right to believe that stuff, as he put it, but you really ought to keep it to yourself. Is he right?
MR. OSTLING: Yes, I think I'd go along with Carter on that. I'm thinking of this little tot who wrote a term paper about Jesus. You're supposed to write about the person you most admire in history. That's the way the assignment was made. I think it was a fourth grader. The U.S. Supreme Court just refused to accept a case in which she was declined the right to write that term paper because it was too religious. We run into all kinds of odd things like this that happen in American life, a separation of church and state which goes beyond the demands of the law and the Constitution and acts with sort of a hostility or sometimes even contempt. I think that's seen most often in film and in television entertainment. Very often, the religious aspect of life is hard to surface, it's hard to talk about. It doesn't seem to quite belong in the public school or in other areas, and so it's just kind of left off in the ether somewhere.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree, Joan Connell?
MS. CONNELL: Well, I think that there's a great deal of confusion about what is the appropriate role of religion, particularly in the schools, and what the challenge is to all of us in this democracy is learning how to take our beliefs out into the public square, whether it's the city council, the school board, or your child's classroom, and be able to be proud of it, express it, and yet, not, not invade or tamper with the rights of anyone else's beliefs. And that's kind of an unfolding story that is going to be very interesting to watch. Mr. Franklin, do you--
MR. STEVENS-ARROYO: May I please say something, Margaret?
MARGARET WARNER: Please, go ahead.
MR. STEVENS-ARROYO: On this issue--see, I think the real issue is the question of what is private and what is public. For the longest time, what was public was profane, what was private was religious. It was a secret area that people lived in. And what we've witnessed, what with 52 channels and Howard Stern, how can anything be private and sacred anymore? And so I think that really part of the struggle we're trying to do is discover a sense of privacy, a sense of where there are sacred things. And I don't think that public-private is going to work anymore. In our community, Latinos tend to think of everything as family, so it's family, whether it's private or public. Then everything is very open. We're very effusive with our emotions, our displays of affection and so forth. But if you're not family, well, then there's a kind of a distance put there. So I think that we're in a time of change in our public culture, and I don't think that religion has yet found the successful formula for getting away from the sense of well, religion is private and, therefore, it's not public and so forth. I think we have to rethink that, and I think that's part of the dynamism that's going on in Washington and other places, because of the political charged atmosphere about what religious values are all about.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Franklin, where do you see the impact of today's secular culture, popular culture, on religious beliefs? What impact do you think it has?
MR. FRANKLIN: Well, it certainly contributes to a profound skepticism on the part of many people with respect to the authenticity of religious belief. Many people look upon persons who express very proudly their religious identity as somehow a bit kooky. Religious faith is something that should be kept behind closed doors, and so on. So there's a general sort of skepticism out there. There's also been a questioning of traditional forms of religious faith and expression. For instance, one of the things I've been intrigued by in the post Civil Rights Movement era is the declining significance of denominationalism. Increasingly, as my friend and former teacher, Dr. Marty, has observed, as people search about for a religious community to which they can attach themselves, they're far more consumer-oriented than loyalists these days. So this has important consequences for the future shape of these national and international denominational structures.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Marty, how do you see the impact of the skepticism that permeates our culture on religious belief?
MR. MARTY: I don't think the skepticism that hurts it most is hard core. The university professor atheist who demolishes the faith of the students, that's not how it works out very much. I think a skepticism is a good deal more born of the fact that we are--several of my colleagues here have said, in a sense, bewildered by diversity and pluralism. Somebody said it was easy for Christians to send missionaries to Buddhists back when the missionaries told how bad the Buddhists were in Burma, but what do you do when you have a good Buddhist next door? You start calling into question, perhaps, the truth claims that you had yourself. I think what's happened along the way then in this bewildering thing is that the average American who's not profoundly religious or is secular, if you will, looks at religion about the way most orthodox religious people look at astrology--hmm, that's interesting, hmm, millions of people are interested in it, yeah, I guess I'll pay a little attention to it, but it certainly isn't basically true, it can't all be true. I think that's the way, kind of an indifference, kind of a flippant, casual skepticism is more numbing to profound religious belief. There's nothing better for religious belief than to have a real encounter with real skepticism. That's what our culture could perhaps use more of. It would refine both our skepticism and our profound faith.
MARGARET WARNER: But you just so beautifully described that skepticism. How do you jibe that which is pervasive in our culture with 96 percent of Americans telling Gallup pollsters they believe in God?
MR. MARTY: For one thing, I think that the vast majority of people are sincere when they use this word "God." Joan Connell has mentioned the ground of being. We don't really know how to address this in a term to satisfy all the religions. But most people have some sense that there's more to life than just atoms and molecules and random array. And they give that the name "God." When Mr. Gallup, whom you've obviously consulted, asks pollster questions, is this a personal God, is this a thou instead of an it, is it someone you can address, we still have, I think, about four out of five Americans, 80 percent, who are in the game. You can hear this whenever an airplane goes down, whenever people are told to pray, whenever someone dies. In the popular culture, these phrases last, but like a river near which I grew up, the Platte River Mark Twain said was a mile wide and an inch deep, for a lot of people, this is merely something that you say now and then; whereas, profoundly religious people like Moses take the shoes off their feet because they're standing on holy ground, and God comes along. And I think the real challenge of religion is to help people form communities in which that awe that inspires people to nobel action, sacrificial action, becomes a major part in our national life. But I like what Dick Ostling said too. It isn't that we fall and fell from the time when everybody had God down cold, or had the church down cold, there are more members now than there were a century ago and two centuries ago. The question is how profound is their commitment.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, thank you all very much. Mr. Franklin, Mr. Marty, Dick Ostling, and Joan, and Mr. Stevens-Arroyo, thanks again very much.