Religion in America: Churchless seekers
Democrats are said to have a religion problem. What that really means is that they have a problem connecting with the beliefs and moral values of white evangelical Christians. So what are Democrats to do?
To woo back some of the 4 in 10 Americans who identify themselves as either evangelical or born-again Christians, some Democratic politicians are heeding the advice of progressive evangelicals like Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine and author of the bestselling book God's Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It.
Wallis makes the sensible argument that liberals need to put aside their somewhat hidebound secularism and acknowledge the importance of faith in our public life. Just as important, he says, they need to challenge the ways conservatives have co-opted Christianity to advance a narrow, moralistic agenda that focuses on divisive issues like abortion and same-sex marriage and neglects the stronger Gospel concerns with poverty, social justice, and peace.
Convincing evangelical voters that a progressive social agenda is more in keeping with the spirit of Christianity than the conservative agenda will not be an easy sell, but it shouldn't be an impossible one. After all, until the past three or four decades, most evangelicals tended to make their political home inside the Democratic tent. African-American evangelicals in general still do.
But even if Wallis's strategy is workable, not all liberals feel comfortable with it. The strongand often literalbiblical emphasis strikes many as too particular and prescriptive for the kind of tolerant, pluralistic society they favor.
Does that exclude these liberals from the socially transformative "spiritual revival" that Wallis calls for? Not necessarily. In fact, argues Leigh Schmidt, a professor of religion at Princeton University, they can lay claim to a tradition of American spirituality that dates from the 19th century, a "churchless" variety of soul-seeking that grew out of religious liberalism and took assorted, sometimes eccentric forms that profoundly influenced the larger American culture and society.
Schmidt's new book on this subject, Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality, is a work of history and not a polemic, but the author admits that he is trying to rescue this tradition from the caricatures to which many conservative culture critics today often reduce it. As those critics see it, spirituality is about everything that orthodox religion is not: Mystical, eclectic, nature loving, and narcissistic, it is rife with psychobabble spouted by what New York Times columnist David Brooks calls "schmaltzy shamans." Unlike real religions, "Oprahfied" spirituality requires few real sacrifices and shows scant concern for family and community in its quest for personal fulfillment.
Schmidt acknowledges that this tradition is the historical antecedent of a host of "New Age" movements, from holistic workshops to Transcendental Meditation, many of which are susceptible to easy ridicule. But he insists that the early 19th-century seekers and their successors, whether romantic Unitarians or Transcendentalists or activist Quakers, were concerned with much more than self-gratification and feel-good nostrums. They were mystically oriented, to be sure, but they sought to find in mysticism a key to what was common to all religions. Cosmopolitan in the best sense, they believed they were shaping "the religion of the future, a universalized spirituality." And far from being easy, their quests often involved the disciplines of self-examination, personal sacrifice, and meditation.