Religious Identity in America

I have saved an article that is worth considering from a journal called First Things. This article, entitled “Secularizations,” was written by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and published one month after his death in January 2009. What attracted my attention was a reference to the very different levels of church attendance in Europe and the United States. Many people are already aware that church attendance here is much higher than in Europe, among all religious groups. Surveys here indicate that 40% of Americans go to church weekly, but many scholars are challenging this figure, which has held steady in surveys for decades. Even if more Americans than Europeans go to church, if we look around we have to admit that far fewer than 40% of Americans show up in church every week. Fr. Neuhaus says “the interesting question is why Americans who don’t go to church regularly claim that they do. They think they should. For most Americans, it is the normal and approved thing to do. People are sometimes better understood by what they think they should do than by what they do. In Europe, going to church is to be in a self-understood minority; it is to take a stand, even to be countercultural.” He grants that religion in the U.S. is often what can be called “Golden Rule Christianity.” Living under Jesus’ command from the Sermon on the Mount to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – known as the Golden Rule – is a good policy for most people. Neuhaus says this “can be understood as what Robert Bellah and others have called America’s ‘civil religion.’” As superficial as this might seem, it still serves as a unifying factor among people of different religions. Maybe that is why people in our country go to church often and would like others to think they go even more often than they do. Fr. Neuhaus adds that many studies show immigrants who did not go to church in their home countries tend to begin doing so soon after arriving here.

Americans live at two levels of religious identity: the national (“In God We Trust”) and the personal (“the church of your choice”). The idea of choice in religion is very much part of the American experience, so denomination is important to many people here. He says, “A denomination is an elective association that assumes the appurtenances of the (upper-case) Church. The Catholic and Orthodox churches do not understand themselves to be denominations but the Church of Jesus Christ rightly ordered through time. For Catholics and Orthodox, one understands oneself to be baptized, and not usually by choice, into that one expression of the one Church.” I appreciate the author’s clarity here: only members of the Protestant communities can say they are in a denomination; the Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches are not denominations.

Emerging from the importance of choice in religious practice, then, is a phenomenon called bricolage (“tinkering”) by a French sociologist, but which also could be called “patchwork religion.” Among Catholics it is often called “cafeteria Catholicism,” which has a strongly negative tone. It can also be described as “believing without belonging.” Americans, Neuhaus says, are more likely than Europeans “to play bricolage within existing religious institutions, or to start yet another denomination. This is closely related to the way people say they are ‘spiritual but not religious.’ They resist taking their religion as a package deal … insisting that it be tailored to what they describe as ‘their spiritual needs’ … as is evident in the increasing number of Catholics who church shop for a parish of their preference ….”

The next phenomenon Fr. Neuhaus describes is fascinating to me, and perhaps you will recognize it among people you know. He credits Grace Davie with the term “vicarious religion,” and then describes it himself in this way: “This is evident in the ways that Europeans view the religiously committed as substitutes or surrogates in practicing the religion that they generally favor but do not want, for whatever reason, to practice themselves. They do not want to be personally involved in the church but want it to be there in time of need (usually associated with death and dying) or as an institution of moral continuity in the society.” How intriguing! There are people who want the Church to be there, even though they don’t practice their faith. Neuhaus cites the example of Germans, who direct 8% of their income tax to support the church unless they opt out: “the very interesting thing is that most people do not.” If I understand this correctly, they could register as having no religion and then 100% of their income tax would go to the state, but instead most people want 8% to continue going to whatever their registered church is. In Germany, even those who don’t go to church usually support their church. That’s an example of vicarious religion.

Neuhaus gives another example, regarding the Episcopal Church in the United States. He says “people who themselves had little interest in heaven, hell, or God, felt themselves betrayed when [the Episcopal Church] failed to do its vicarious duty in upholding what Christians are supposed to believe. Establishment Protestantism was failing to do its duty. It was letting down the side, with unforeseen consequences for the society as a whole, and that worried people who expected the churches to do their believing for them.” Neuhaus is convinced that the idea of vicarious religion exists in reference to the Catholic Church in America, too: “There are undoubtedly many non-Catholics, and also lapsed Catholics­ – or, as some cleverly say, ‘collapsed Catholics’ – who would be greatly disturbed if the Church failed to keep up the side by continuing to teach what they are not sure they believe, or are sure they do not believe. A Jewish friend remarks, ‘The Catholic Church is the church we mean when we say Church. If it goes, that’s the whole game.’” As if we needed any more reasons to remain firm in our faith!

3 Responses to “Religious Identity in America”

  1. Becky Schaar says:

    Thank you for this. It really hit home for me as I will be starting the RCIA process at your church! Jennifer Vogel is a wonderful, close friend of mine who will sponsor me. I grew weary of the “cafeteria” approach to church. And the more I have prayed and studied on the Catholic church, the more I see it is a coming home experience. (Although I was raised Protestant) Jennifer started me on the journey with her life witness , and then gave me the Scott Hahn book, “Rome, Sweet Home”.

  2. Becky Schaar says:

    Just an update, I started RCIA at a closer Parish, through a series of “signs” that it was the right thing to do.
    God bless you all!

  3. sara says:

    We wish you the best and will pray for you, Becky! Thank you for your update!
    Sara Rogers

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