Reformed Christians and American Grace

Maybe we take our Reformedness too seriously. You know that bumper sticker capsule, “Reformed and always reforming.” Perhaps it makes us too critical of ourselves, our churches, our pastors, our denominational institutions and the like. Yes, it is true: Our two-services-on-Sunday habit is in tatters. The young people don’t learn the Compendium answers like they once did. Our council rooms include married people who have been divorced. There is hardly anyone home in Home Missions. Christian school enrollments are down. Ministry shares do not receive the respect, much less generate the revenues, that they should. What is “our church” coming to?

Although I cannot suitably answer that question, I want to draw upon a contemporary secular analysis entitled American Grace. The authors support the thesis that the last half-century has been difficult for worshipers and worship institutions in America. Let me describe some of the parameters of the book. This “big book” by Putnam and Campbell is a groundbreaking work of socio-cultural research that was written not only for academics but also for anyone who worships or takes offense at religious worship in America. Their subject is religious behavior in America, with attention to how such behavior intersects with American politics. The bases for what follows are two Faith Matters surveys, the main one conducted in 2006 (3,108 respondents), with a follow-up in 2007 (1,909 respondents). The authors compare their results to those of other surveys and various Gallup polls. To keep the analysis understandable, they present their data graphically and in percentages, with statistical controls and methodological details reported in the appendices and the footnotes.

What is the evidence that worldly influences have injured God’s churches? Survey data indicate that between 1966 and 2010 the percentage of college students who answered the religious preference question by choosing “none” rose from about 6 percent in 1966 to 22 percent by 2010. Religious attendance (weekly or near-weekly) among 18- to 29-year-olds is actually higher among students with some college than among those with no college. Peak attendance for the “some college” group was 32 percent in the mid-1980s, but was down to 21 percent by 2008. Among “no college” young people the decline was from 28 percent to about 17 percent by 2008. Looking at behavior of the opposite kind, the percentage of college freshmen who “did not attend church last year” was about 8 percent in the late 1960s, but increased rather steadily to about 24 percent in 2008.

It is not a humorous matter to inquire about which religious traditions were the biggest losers. The data reported here come from whites only. “Of all respondents whose parents were in a given religious tradition, what proportion have left that faith or rarely attend services?” The biggest losers were mainline Protestants with 61 percent (38 percent switched, 23 percent lapsed) and Catholics at 61 percent (36 percent switched, 25 percent lapsed). Evangelical Protestants were only somewhat better at 47 percent (25 percent switched, 22 percent lapsed). Mormons suffered fewer losses: 42 percent (28 percent switched, 14 percent lapsed).

Surprising to me were results the authors found by inquiring, “Can anyone of a different faith go to heaven? Does that include non-Christians?” They report, “89 percent of Catholics, 82 percent of mainline Protestants, and 100 percent of Mormons say that salvation extends to non-Christians. The percentages are noticeably lower for Black Protestants and Evangelicals, at 69 and 65 percent respectively, but still constitute a clear majority.” One of the authors, Putnam, reported that in a talk with Missouri Synod Lutheran theologians he made this point to a skeptical audience. Questioned about Missouri Synod Lutherans in particular, he pinpointed his data: “86 percent of Missouri Synod Lutherans said that a good person who is not of their faith could indeed go to heaven. Upon hearing this news, these theologians were stunned into silence.”

Putnam and Campbell measured religious intensity–religiosity–using survey responses from individuals regarding six questions (worship attendance, frequency in prayer, religion in daily life, how religion affects “who you are,” strength of belief in “your religion,” strength of belief in God), seeking to override parochialism by measuring relevant responses common among “all religious traditions.” With this index the authors distinguished five quintiles (20 percent of respondents in each) of religious intensity from least to most. This measure allowed the authors to correlate religious intensity with other behavioral variables.

It is interesting, though not surprising, to find that as religiosity increases, religious volunteering also increases. What is surprising is that among Christians generally, volunteering for secular causes is so commonplace. The authors say, “45 percent of weekly churchgoers report non-religious volunteering (in addition to whatever religious volunteering they do), as compared to 26 percent of non-churchgoers.” They report a similar finding about generosity in financial contributions, as one might expect: the higher the religiosity, the higher the giving toward religious causes. In addition, “regular churchgoers are more likely to give to secular causes than non-churchgoers, and highly religious people give a larger proportion of their income to secular causes than do most secular people.”

Those who are part of the evangelical community may be surprised to find that the good neighborliness that is often present among the religiously observant is apparently not derived from the substance of their faith; “it is religious belonging that matters for neighborliness, not religious believing.” But a very encouraging finding is that “the correlation between religiosity and life satisfaction is powerful and robust.” How powerful? The authors’ analogy is pretty muscular: “the difference in happiness between a non-churchgoer and a weekly churchgoer is slightly larger than the difference between someone who earns $10,000 a year and his demographic twin who earns $100,000 a year.” So, it would seem, religiosity does indeed correlate with life satisfaction.

American Grace comprehends much more than I can comment on in this space. However, note two more matters. Evangelical churches, including those of Reformed persuasion, have held their own, and some have even flourished in providing spiritual and cultural nurture to their worshipers in the challenging last half-century. In the American context of socio-cultural and political freedom, their evangelism has countered the pull of the secular world more effectively than have mainline Protestants and Catholics. On a world scale, the United States remains unmatched in weekly attendance at religious services compared to the other industrialized countries of the world.

The more challenging point is that those the authors call “nones,” people who report no religious affiliation, have increased in number to become nearly one-fifth (17 percent by 2008) of American society. What is striking is that these are not “atheists” or “agnostics.” Indeed, the authors only identified five individuals out of 3,108 survey respondents who characterized themselves with those words. Despite being “unchurched,” 47 percent say they are “absolutely sure” of God’s existence. The discouraging thing is that the proportion of nones is rising among young people.

Using a “feeling thermometer,” the authors examined how members of the various groups regard members of other groups–whether they find one another “likable.” (The intergroup rating was between zero and 100; the overall rating for all groups was 55.) Nones rated Evangelicals at 46, less likable than any category but Mormons. Evangelicals rated nones at 50, lower than other religious traditions except Mormons, Muslims, and Buddhists. As I read them, the nones constitute white fields for harvest. Yet Evangelicals and nones are at a social distance from one another. Putnam and Campbell say that nones report their lack of religious affiliation “because they think of religious people as hypocritical, judgmental or insincere.” Should not Reformed Christians proclaim more positively what we are for rather than what we are against? The authors cite as an example Rick Warren and the Saddleback megachurch in Orange County, California. “Warren himself is certainly a social conservative, as he publicly opposes both abortion and same-sex marriage, but those are not the issues he puts front and center.” The message that the nones are tuned to is an emphasis on inclusiveness. What can be more inclusive than the invitation to have forgiveness and salvation in Jesus Christ? Maybe that is the Reformed reforming that needs our attention.

Jack R. Van Der Slik is is professor emeritus of political studies and public affairs at the University of Illinois at Springfield.