Religion is in trouble in the United States. The word, that is.
Sociologists say we are increasingly divided over religion’s place in public life but that when it comes to language, Americans are moving in one direction: toward a new vernacular.
We’re no longer “religious.” We’re “holy.” We’re “faithful.” We’re “spiritual.” We talk about what “the gospel compels us to do” or “gospel living.” Or “sabbatical living” and “God-oriented behavior.”
This is true across the ideological range, but for different reasons.
On one side are people such as prominent liberal scholar Diana Butler Bass, author of last year’s “Christianity After Religion,” who says the word “religion” is laden with negative, hurtful and political baggage. The 20 percent of Americans who now call themselves unaffiliated with any religious group see religion as much too focused on rules.
On the other side are people such as super-popular shock pastor and writer Mark Driscoll, an evangelical conservative whose sermons have such titles as “Why I hate religion.” He preaches that the institutional church has wrongly let people feel good about themselves for their actions (such as going to church) instead of what they believe (which should be the Bible’s literal truth, in his view).
A member of Driscoll’s church produced one of 2012’s most-shared videos, “Why I love Jesus but hate religion,” watched more than 25 million times. Set to cool music, it opens with a young man asking, “What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion?” Later, it characterizes most churchgoers as hypocrites and religion as a Band-Aid and “like spraying perfume on a casket.”
Last month, the president of an “ex-gay” ministry blamed “religion” for the failure of his organization, Exodus International, which had claimed that its programs could make gay Christians straight.
“I believe the major failure of Exodus is that it promised to be completely different from the religious system that caused so many of us so much pain and yet became a religious institution of rules and regulations focused on behavior, sin management and short on grace,” Alan Chambers said in announcing Exodus’s end.
Jon Acuff, a popular evangelical motivational speaker, wrote in his blog a couple of years ago about a quest for new language, and he remarked on what he does if someone he doesn’t know describes him as “into religion.”
“Like any good Christian, I immediately said what we’re supposed to: ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, I’m not into religion, I’m into Jesus. I’m a Christian,’” Acuff wrote in Stuff Christians Like.
Hundreds of Christians responded on his blog with words they use when asked their religious preference on Facebook. “Jesus is in charge of Everything.” “Jesus is my saving grace.” One person cited John 3:16, which says God gave his “one and only son.”
What’s going on? Is this about semantics or something more important?
Experts say a bit of both. Polling shows young Americans are considerably less apt to have religious affiliations than earlier generations were at the same age. They attend religious services less often, and fewer say religion is important.
But more than nine in 10 people believe in God, according to a recent Gallup poll, a statistic unchanged for decades, and there is a booming market for transcendent and spiritual experiences.
“People are walking away from institutional expressions of church. They’re trying to renegotiate man’s relationship to God,” said David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, a major research firm on religion.
Kurt Fredrickson, professor of pastoral ministry at the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary, said on one hand, the push-pull about institutionalism has been going on forever.
“The bottom line is: Christianity is a religion. You can’t get away from it,” he said.
On the other hand, Fredrickson said, many people are walking away from anything they associate with institutional religion.
“There is this question: If Jesus was here, would he be stuck here in this dull, boring institutional setting?” Fredrickson said. “He’d be out there doing good and telling people about God’s love. Now we’re saying: Would Jesus like this? Before, we just said: This is the way it is.”
William D’Antonio, longtime Catholic sociologist and researcher, said the percentage of Catholics who say they are “religious” has dropped from 74 to 60 percent in just the past five years.
“It’s more than semantics. [Decades ago] we really, really believed if you didn’t go to Mass, you’d go to hell. There was a belief that the church had a structure that would get you to heaven if you followed the rules. . . . Now more and more people look to their conscience, however it’s formed, to decide for themselves.”
Although some reject the word “religion,” others simply ignore it.
“Tomorrow, I’ll speak to a room full of teens, and I won’t use the word ‘religion’ once,” Acuff said.
But would he call himself religious?
“I’d say yes, and then, ‘What do you mean by the word?’ “