The American Family Association (AFA), a Religious Right outfit based in Tupelo, Miss., is befuddled by a “head-scratching” new survey of Americans’ religious beliefs issued by Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research. It seems that many Americans accept some core Christian doctrines, but after that they’re “all over the theological map.”
Results like this could only be a surprise to the Religious Right. The rest of us have long understood that America’s tradition of religious freedom has spawned incredible religious diversity.
Surveys like this come out from time to time, and the usual reaction of Religious Right groups is to opine that people are “confused” because they don’t accept a fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity. Indeed, Ligonier Ministries’ summary uses that very term: “The 2018 State of Theology survey reveals deep confusion about the Bible’s teaching, not only among Americans as a whole, but also among evangelicals. There is something very wrong when a majority of Americans can give the correct answers to basic Bible questions and at the same time say that their beliefs are purely a matter of personal opinion.”
But what if these individuals are not “confused” at all? What if they are simply doing what people in this country where religious freedom is protected by separation of church and state have always done: forging their own spiritual path?
One of the more interesting trends in American life these days is the rise of “do-it-yourself” spirituality. More and more Americans are drifting away from established houses of worship, but that doesn’t mean they’re giving up on faith. Many of the “nones” (people who, when asked to name their religion, answer “none”) are still spiritual – they’re just crafting their own theological brew.
While the trend is growing – even among self-identified evangelicals, apparently – it’s nothing new. Roger Williams, the colonial-era religious liberty advocate and founder of Rhode Island, was a seeker all of his life. Williams was a Puritan minister who briefly became a Baptist but ended up doing his own thing because, he concluded, no one could know for certain how God wanted people to worship.
Or consider Thomas Jefferson, who, when asked to state his religious preference, famously replied, “I am of a sect by myself as far as I know.”
This sort of thing bothers the AFA, which asserts, “But when it comes to some of the more difficult truths of the gospel, Americans in general and even evangelicals are slipping. Half of evangelicals, for example, believe God accepts the worship of all religions.”
The problem here is that one Christian’s “truths” are another’s rank heresy. One person’s revealed religion is another’s pack of falsehoods. Some people really do believe there is only “one true faith” – and over the centuries they’ve coalesced around hundreds, if not thousands, of versions.
Many of the fundamentalist followers of the AFA likely believe in a God who demands an exacting form of worship and adherence to a narrow set of ultra-right-wing political beliefs as well, (Indeed, the Ligonier Ministries survey bemoans the fact that millennials are generally accepting of LGBTQ rights.) Theirs is a god of division, of hate, of prejudice. Their god conveniently endorses every far-right political opinion they hold. Millions of Americans – Christians, other believers and nonbelievers alike – aren’t interested in worshipping this god, and thanks to our nation’s legacy of religious freedom, they don’t have to.
People have been arguing about theology for a long time. Many have been killed or oppressed in the process. The United States helped put a stop to all of that with a policy that says when it comes to religion, feel free to make your best argument for whatever team you’re on, but don’t expect the government to back your side – or any side, for that matter.
Thanks to the principle of religious freedom protected by a church-state wall, we have the right to experiment. We can borrow from several faith traditions, merging and blending. We can accept some of what a faith offers but turn away other aspects. We can launch new religions – or we can reject them all.
And, most importantly, we can keep on seeking. We can change our minds. We can adopt new views over time, as Roger Williams did, aware that what he called “soul liberty,” freedom of conscience, is inviolable and absolute.
Today, more and more Americans are emulating Williams and rejecting the narrow, stifling and divisive theology of the Religious Right. I don’t believe these people are “confused.” In fact, I think they know exactly what they’re doing.