How the breakdown of formal religion does not lead to a decrease in religious dogmatism and how political affiliation determines the American moral outlook
Martin Luther, the poster boy of the Reformation, is famous for rejecting the formal trappings of the Catholic Church such as the Magesterium (the teaching authority of the Church), sacraments, the intercession of priests, and most famously, ritual behaviors like the rosary. Although he sought to dismantle the authority of the church, the centerpiece to Luther’s theology was sola fides, justification by faith alone. This theology teaches that there is nothing a human can do to earn salvation. Salvation is the choice of God. People must have faith to be saved, but they cannot choose faith. God chooses to grace them with faith.
In other words, Luther exchanged the infrastructure and bureaucracy of the Catholic Church for a system in which people would ostensibly read the bible and study it themselves, but ultimately in which they had no control over their own salvation.
Jean Calvin took this a step further by introducing the idea of predestination. He taught that humans did not have free will. They were saved or damned according to God’s will. Not even devotion to God or belief in the saving grace of Jesus could save a damned soul. Like Luther, Calvin did not believe people’s behavior saved or damned them. However, he did believe that one’s behavior might indicate what God had already chosen. Thus a damned person behaved in damnable ways and a saved person conformed to Christian behaviors.
What was interesting about the Reformation was how it was pitched as freeing man from the shackles of the Church, but in reality, those who lived under Protestant rulers often were much more constrained in how they could act and what they could say publically. For example, in Geneva, Calvin had rules about the length and color of a woman’s dress and the penalties for blasphemy were much harsher than when Geneva was under Catholic rule.
During the English Reformation, a similar increase in behavioral oversight occurred. Puritan leaders outlawed the theater and on Sundays ‘frivolous entertainments’ such as sports were banned. As in Geneva, there were laws about women’s clothing colors and lengths, and cosmetics and other adornments were forbidden by law. The length of a man’s hair was also regulated. All saints days and Christmas were banned as pagan, but also because they encouraged sloth, gluttony, revelry, and drunkenness.
In Puritan New England it was illegal to not attend church. Falling asleep in church or otherwise not being attentive during the day-long service led to fines and possibly time in the stocks. A sea captain in Connecticut who kissed his wife in public the Sunday he arrived home was arrested and put in the stocks.
As the colonies became more developed and more diverse, many of these laws stopped being enforced. After the revolution, the U.S. Constitution granted Americans the right to choose or not choose their own religion and how they would adhere to it. In other words, civil authorities were not supposed to be involved in violations of religious law. Of course, many religious laws were civil laws such as laws against sodomy and adultery.
The United States went through several periods described by religious leaders as ‘irreligious’ or in a period of ‘religious declension’. The response to declension was usually a combination of formal and informal efforts to increase religiosity. The first Great Awakening of 1730, the second Great Awakening of 1800, and the Christian fundamentalist movement of 1910 are examples of this.
According to polling data gathered by Trinity College (TheARIS Report), the Pew Foundation (The Pew Religious Landscape Survey), and Gallup (Religion survey), the United States is currently in a period of religious decline. Increasing numbers of Americans describe themselves as ‘not religiously affiliated’ and only about a quarter of Americans attend weekly religious services.
At the same time, there has been a rise in the United States in fundamentalist Christianity. In 2008, 35% of Americans described themselves as either ‘evangelical’ or ‘fundamentalist’.
The moderate middle is disappearing from America. Some religious leaders fear the increase in American secularism will lead to widespread immorality. Others report that their churches are enjoying an uptake in membership as moderate Christians chose churches with a more fundamentalist message.
What is interesting to me about the decline in formal religion is how it has not led to a decline in religious dogmatism. On the contrary, several studies indicate the opposite. According to a Gallup Poll, more Americans in 2010 believe abortion is immoral than they did in 1995. According to a Red Cross poll on the rules of war, more people under the age of 18 support torture, retaliatory killings of POWs, and withholding basic needs from enemy civilians than do people over the age of 18. And according to Gallup, 40% of Americans reject evolution. This number is slightly higher than American views on evolution thirty years ago. Similarly, thirty years ago about 38% of Americans believed the Bible to be literally true while today that number stands at 31% - not a huge drop when compared to other changes in the religious beliefs of Americans in a smaller period of time.
Of course, there are some studies that may indicate the opposite trend. Gallup reports that 10% more Americans today agree that homosexuality is morally acceptable than ten years ago. In addition, more Americans today believe it is possible to find salvation even if you are not Christian than ten years ago.
Thus, it is safe to say that about 40% of Americans are just as religiously dogmatic as in years past despite their decreased association with formal religious organizations.
The real consequence of the breakdown of formal religion is the shifting of the message of morality from religious leaders to other authorities. Megachurch pastors, broadcast personalities, and political parties are foremost among the new gatekeepers of behavior and belief, but among these three gatekeepers, it is the political parties that wield the most influence over people’s beliefs and behaviors. Association with political parties has replaced associations with church denomination.
The Pew Religious Landscape Survey stated in 2008 that it is religious affiliation that seems to determine political affiliation. However, I would contend the opposite is occurring as Americans are far more likely to switch religious affiliation than political affiliation.
For example, among Americans who support the death penalty, those most in favor of it identify with the Republican Party. Within that group, a higher percentage of people who attend church seldom or not at all favor the death penalty. It is especially clear how party influences Americans when you look at how Catholic Republicans, whose church is vocally against the death penalty, support it.
The Catholic Church also is against war, but Catholic Republicans are not. Their beliefs reflect their political party more than their religion.
According to the National Center for Science Education, about 25% of Catholics are creationists, rejecting their Church’s own support of evolution. That same organization reports that 50% of Americans who do not attend religious services still believe in creationism over evolution.
Let’s look at another example. Protestant Churches have not traditionally been against contraception. However, since the GOP decided to take up the Bishop’s anti-contraception cause in regards to what PPACA would require health insurers to cover for free, many Protestants support the Church’s stand on contraception.
On the other side, Catholic Democrats are more accepting of abortion rights, gay marriage, and no-fault divorce than their fellow Catholics in the Republican party.
Religious dogmatism has become moral dogmatism. Moral dogmatism is currently defined by political affiliation, not religious affiliation. In other words, even though 60% of Americans report not attending church regularly, they still retain strong views about moral beliefs and behaviors. These views are promoted by their political affiliation.
So, on the one hand, church leaders who worry over the increasing number of Americans who don’t attend services regularly and who don’t identify with a particular religious tradition should not fear that these people are without moral guidance. They are being guided, just not by the churches. Of course one could argue that the political parties, the GOP in particular, are ruled by churches, but there are far more Republicans than regular church-goers in the United States. In addition, much of the GOP's message is contrary to traditional Christian teachings as is much of the Democratic Party's message. To argue that one party is more in line with Christian teachings than the other misses the point. Neither party represents Christianity. However both parties have shaped how Christian teachings are understood by the wider public.
Church leaders should not worry about the loss of moral guidance. They should worry about losing control of the message. The breakdown of formal religion in the United States has led to some interesting interpretations of Christian teaching such as Prosperity Theology, deeming the majority of the poor as ‘undeserving ’ of aid, and the close association between Christianity and war-mongering and acceptance of torture. By aligning themselves with political parties, religious groups made a deal with the devil. They may have gained political power, but they’ve lost their moral authority.