God Is Not Dead: Religious Belief Diversifies In Contemporary America

Just in time for Holy Week, Newseek’s cover story, ‘The End of Christian America,’ is making the rounds on the Internet.

Jon Meacham writes a compelling essay on the notion of Christianity as we know it is merely transforming and not dead.

Yet, his work has sent some into a tizzy, decrying the article and stating Christianity in the country is just as strong. ‘

Others take his words too far, saying religion is considered obsolete by the mainstream.

Believing our nation is post-Christian’mdash;let alone post anything’mdash;always strikes me as a bit fanciful, or deluded, at worst.

Can we honestly claim we’re beyond Christianity’s influence? It’s permeated our culture since the nation’s founding and there’s no escaping it.

God is dead? ‘

Please. ‘

As William Faulkner said: ‘The past isn’t dead.’ It isn’t even past.’

Granted, as Meacham’s article notes, the number of self-proclaimed Christians has dropped from 86 to 76 percent since 1990, according to the American Religious Identification Survey.

Americans who don’t affiliate with any faith nearly doubled from eight to 15 percent since 1990 reports the same survey.

Just because one doesn’t advertise one’s faith or self-identify with a branch of Christianity doesn’t mean one isn’t a Christian.

I’m sure there are thousands of Americans who don’t regularly attend church but consider themselves Christian.

For me, it’s about the mind-set: what one believes, not how or where one defines spirituality’mdash;however, that’s a theological matter many might disagree with.

And, is it really shocking that Americans are less likely to affiliate with any one faith?

In a nation where religious freedom is a norm, there is a strange liquidity to religious practice.

You can be a Jew into Buddhist meditation or an agnostic who attends Catholic mass.

If anything, post-Christian America represents religious plurality and a loss of centralized, spiritual authority. ‘

There isn’t a papacy here to standardize religious practice.

Americans can mix and match varying aspects of differing faiths. America’s church is cosmopolitan; all faiths mingle and worship at its altar.

American Christianity is not a singular entity in contemporary society.

Though Christianity in America has always been an oddity. ‘

When you think Italy, you think Roman Catholicism; when you think Greece, you think Eastern Orthodoxy; when you think India, you think Hinduism (though there’s a sizeable Muslim population, too). ‘

As for the United States, it’s Christian.’ We’re a ‘Christian nation’ some would argue.
But what is a Christian?

It looks like a dumb question, but theologians have pondered what it means to be Christian for centuries.

There are serious theological implications over its meaning.

At a reductive level, I would think being a Christian means you believe Jesus Christ is the Lord and Savior. ‘

But is that it?

The Oxford English dictionary defines Christian as: ‘Of persons and communities: Believing, professing, or belonging to the religion of Christ.’

What is the ‘religion of Christ?’

Sure you can read the New Testament, but what on earth do all those gospels and letters mean?

We’re trying to define a lofty, abstract and complex concept; the question has perplexed the world’s greatest scholars and theologians.

Each branch of Christianity has established an answer for the ‘Christian’ question with many variations (hence the different denominations).’

Religion’mdash;at least where Christianity is concerned’mdash;has never really been a singular entity. There have been variations on the theme from the start (just read the four Gospels’mdash;and for fun the ones not canonized’mdash;and explain your concept of Jesus).

Religion in 21st century America is marked by fragmentation.

I’d like to introduce a new definition of religion Meacham quotes in his article from William James’s ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience:’ ‘Religion ‘hellip; shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they consider the divine.’

Two things mark contemporary spiritual belief in the United States: finding peace, a wholeness or self-satisfaction, and a focus on the individual rather than the community.
Individualism’mdash;classic American trait’mdash;allows for greater interpretation and multiplicity of meaning.

And, let’s face it; we’re a country obsessed with being happy, satisfied and self-actualized; couple that with our need to have everything customized, and you’ve got an American religion based upon individual need.

You choose the faith because it satisfies a primal need within you.

God hasn’t talked to mankind through a patriarch or prophet in a long time.

In His silence, it’s up to us to look toward the Divine and claim Him in our silent solitude.

Derrick Austin may be reached at daustin@ut.edu.

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