The Pew Forum Report on Religion

By now, practically everyone has heard of the recent (Feb. 25, 2008) release by the Pew Forum of its latest study of religion in the United States, and particularly the news that the study revealed that the crossover rate, that is, the number of people changing from one church, or denomination, or even from one major religious tradition to another is much higher than was expected.

        In a way, this data should not be all that surprising. Almost from the very beginning, and certainly after the great frontier religious “awakening” in the 1840s, change and conversion have been most characteristic of the religious climate of America. This has been so much the case that it has even been often said that “in America, even the Catholics think like Protestants!” Indeed, one of the bugbears bothering Rome about American Catholicism from that time on was an ill-defined “heresy” which people in the Vatican called “Americanism.” That, along with increased mobility (especially since World War II) the average American moves several times, holds several jobs, and all too often, has more than one spouse in the course of a lifetime—all this contributes to the climate of constant change within American religion.

        No doubt our religious leaders here in the USA will spend a lot of time—as they should— trying to figure out what this report means for their particular church or denomination. In fact, I suspect more than one book will be written about these findings.

        Nevertheless, I would like to focus on only one aspect of the subject, and that is whether this phenomenon is good or bad, or, even if not all that clear-cut, why it is of major importance.

        In general, I think the tendency is good, or at least can be, if it represents a genuine attempt to become closer to God or is motivated by the quest for ultimate meaning. The idea that a person remains a Catholic or a particular kind of Protestant, or for that matter, a Muslim or a Jew or anything else simply because one was “born into it” or raised that way is a pretty sure indicator that such a person will most likely remain spiritually immature or religiously retarded. If nothing else, the realization that one just might or at least feels free to look elsewhere seems to be a precondition for taking one’s inherited faith more seriously. Without the possibility of choice, no real commitment is possible.

        That being said, however, I think it must be admitted that many conversions are motivated by lesser considerations, some of them quite understandable, such as the desire for family unity while others, equally understandable (such disagreement with certain moral demands), are more problematic. In fact, sometimes people who are really serious about religion are drawn to churches that are more demanding. But often the reasons for joining a particular church or denomination seem to be rather more superficial, like the popularity of a particular preacher, the diversity of its outreach programs, or even the style of its services, which in some cases has turned into more into entertainment than worship. Not that such factors are unimportant (numbers don’t lie), but in themselves they would hardly seem to merit the “ultimate commitment” demanded by the “ultimate concern” that constitutes real faith as described by the  theologian Paul Tillich.

        If Tillich was correct—and I believe he was—then it seems to me that a mature faith demands a certain openness to the possibility of change based on the realization that at any single point in life we can never say that we have found all the answers. To think we have them all, and that no further quest is necessary, is at its best, presumptuous, or at its worst, at least mildly delusional.   Yet this same demand to seek the truth above all else would also demand, at least it seems to me, that we first must delve as deeply as we can into the riches of our inherited religious traditions before we presume to find the answer elsewhere. Otherwise we run the risk of avoiding the ultimate reality that underlies all existence and is the goal of all genuine religion.

R W Kropf  3/2/08                                               PewReport.doc