Sometimes when I'm attending a meeting of a Religious Right group and feeling all of the anger in the room, I think to myself, "There are some seriously unhappy people here. What is it about America that has these folks so riled up?"
Sure, they're angry over the Supreme Court's rulings on church-state relations, and they don't like the rise of feminism and gay rights. But there's another dynamic at work. The Religious Right's beef with our country is, I think, more fundamental: They don't like the fact that more and more, people are straying from their version of religious orthodoxy and adopting a "do-it-yourself" spirituality.
And make no mistake, that is exactly what is happening. Today's Washington Post reports on a study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The story is headlined, "Survey finds complexity in U.S. religious beliefs."
That's putting it mildly.
The Pew Forum reports that "large numbers of Americans engage in multiple religious practices, mixing elements of diverse traditions. Many say they attend worship services of more than one faith or denomination – even when they are not traveling or going to special events like weddings and funerals. Many also blend Christianity with Eastern or New Age beliefs such as reincarnation, astrology and the presence of spiritual energy in physical objects."
Because of the nature of my work, I often find myself talking to people about religion. It's not uncommon for someone to say something like, "Well, I'm a Presbyterian, but...." This is followed by an explanation of the aspects of Presbyterianism the speaker does not follow, a reminder that the speaker sometimes attends services elsewhere with a spouse or partner or some other qualifier.
People feel free to engage in such "spiritual editing" and blending of traditions because we in America enjoy complete religious freedom backed by the separation of church and state. It's none of the government's business what your theology is, so you're free to do your own thing.
Some people definitely don't like this concept. Last month, when I attended the unveiling of the "Manhattan Declaration" by a group of ultra-conservative religious leaders, I was struck by their attitude. It seemed to have more in common with the Middle Ages than 21st century life.
Although they would deny it, I believe Declaration signers think their interpretation of faith is correct and, therefore, everyone should have to follow it – and they're not above writing their theology into law if they can get away with it.
Listening to the speakers demand a return to their preferred version of orthodoxy, I couldn't help but think, "What's really bugging these guys is that a lot of people just don't want to listen to them – and don't have to."
There's a lot to ponder in the new Pew survey. But my take away is that Americans feel increasingly comfortable defining religion and spirituality for themselves. This bothers the Religious Right and all of those who believe that a valid expression of faith can only occur within the narrow confines of a certain dogmatic system.
For those who want rigid orthodoxy, it's there for them. The rest of us have a host of other options. I'm pleased to learn that the American people are increasingly demonstrating by their actions that they understand and appreciate that right.