Religious America is in decline

Aug 1, 2021
As a Catholic I often feel that the church tries to speak the Gospel but church structures have remained monarchical and unaccountable. Most often, when confronting serious problems like clerical sexual abuse, it still adheres to policies promoting secrecy and protecting the church’s reputation.
Confronted with an ongoing Covid-19 & DELTA pandemic, life-endangering anti-vaxxers, and far right agitators, many people today feel both confused and powerless. They find it much easier to look for someone to blame when they see no coherent meaning or divine purpose in the world. Perhaps it comes as no big surprise that the religious landscape of the United States continues to change at a rapid pace. The big loser is institutional Christianity: Catholicism in first place but Protestantism as well. The basic explanation is lost credibility. In the church increasing numbers of people find less support and meaning.
Tucker Carlson of Fox News has led the anti-vaxxer charge among the right-wing set, ignoring the fact that 99.5% of those people who died of COVID-19 in the last six months were unvaccinated. Far too many disoriented people are reverting to the mythic “good old days” or, even worse, to racism, xenophobia, and white Christian nationalism. Consider QAnon, which has shifted from being an Internet message board hoax to becoming a quasi-religion. QAnon offers its followers convenient explanations for their social anxieties as well as evil villains to blame. Some QAnon cultists claim to be Evangelical followers of Christ. But QAnon beliefs and behavior are totally incompatible with healthy and authentic Christianity.
Patriotism has become divisive rather than inclusive. The spread of violence throughout society is frightening. In my favorite US city, Chicago, over the 2021 Fourth of July weekend, at least 100 people were shot, including five children age 13 and younger.Last week closer to my current home, dikes broke and raging rivers burst through their banks in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany: killing people, submerging towns, leaving all of us shellshocked at the intensity of the destruction. Now the big clean-up….Not far from my house a dike needs to be rebuilt.
In my US homeland last week, the northern Rocky Mountains were bracing for another heat wave, as wildfires spread across 12 states in the US American West. We seem neither prepared to slow down climate change, nor able to live with it. Too many people still say that climate change is a myth created by liberals. “Truth” often becomes unrelenting rhetoric.
Perhaps we need to teach and relearn the wisdom of life. We are now facing a crisis of meaning. Our world seems so complex. We seem so small. Historically, Modernism, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, believed that reality is ordered. Times changed. Postmodernism, in the mid-to-late 20th century, proclaimed there is no order at all.
We are now moving into post-Postmodernism. People are searching for values and for authenticity. We are entering a new age. Living in a transitional age can be scary. It can lead to cynicism, anxiety, and pandemic violence. But it can also be a hopeful time. New avenues? New perspectives? The  writer Linda Kinstler asked in The New York Times this week: “Can Silicon Valley Find God?” Many people, actually, would like to find God.
As an older student of history, I am convinced that one of the greatest qualities we must bring to the present malaise is a sense of history. Extremes, good times, and bad times have been interwoven throughout history. During the best of times, they balanced each other. We are not in that balance today. The opposing players in our highly polarized society are incapable of self-criticism or appreciating the other players. Does humility still exist? Many people feel that the traditional institutions in our society are impotent and incapable of communicating believable patterns of wisdom and truth.
A power and confidence vacuum has opened the doors for the far right to seize and exploit the language of religion. That is not a very good position from which to proclaim the Good News of Jesus the Christ. As a Catholic I often feel that the church tries to speak the Gospel but church structures have remained monarchical and unaccountable. Most often, when confronting serious problems like clerical sexual abuse, it still adheres to policies promoting secrecy and protecting the church’s reputation. No. I am not anti-Catholic; but I often have to remind people of that, because some find it so convenient to label and box me in.
The church should first of all listen to the Gospel: “Put new wine in fresh wineskins, and both are preserved” (Matthew 9:17). Authentic Christianity is not passive but active. It is not secretive but out in the open. It is energetic and alive, helping people move beyond despair, by providing credible and supportive help and guidance.
Time for rebuilding. We need new imagination and new configurations. We need to remember that Jesus spent much of his ministry trying to reform religion. It is still an ongoing process. Disorder is only a temporary stage calling for reconstruction. Sometimes I think that even though the church proclaims the Christ, it is, in fact, afraid of Christ. I call it self-protective institutional idolatry.
As the Franciscan spiritual guide, Fr. Richard Rohr (b. 1943), stresses in his book The Wisdom Pattern, reconstruction — transformation — has to be based on a positive and fully human experience of God as a loving Presence. “When religion is punitive and acts as if it can lead someone to God through threat and coercion,” Richard stresses “this is junk religion.” Just like junk food, it only gratifies momentary desires but feeds neither the intellect nor the heart. And it contributes to more hatred and violence.

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