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.
Just as important, Schmidt explains, these seekers were not simply inward-turning or solipsistic. Many of the guiding lights of this spiritual awakening, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman, fought vigorously for abolition and other forms of social justice. They were active opponents of American militarism, notably during the Mexican War. Among a later generation of spiritual seekers was Harvard University psychologist and philosopher William James, author of the influential book The Varieties of Religious Experience. He believed that the mystical experience energized social activism, contributing to what he called "the moral fighting shape."
One of his later admirers, the Quaker Rufus Jones, embodied the ideal of the mystic-activist in his own commitment to international relief work.
At its best, Schmidt suggests, American spirituality has not only been a source of personal enlightenment and transcendent meaning. It has also been a driving force behind social transformation and assorted uplift and reform efforts. But Schmidt does not soft-pedal many of the tradition's weaknesses. The seekers' effort to find a common core behind all world religions, summed up in the ambitious agenda of the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, revealed how difficult it was for them to understand other religious traditions except through the vocabulary of their own vaguely liberal Protestant Christian tradition. (Was the melange of Indian traditional practices and beliefs called Hinduism even really a religion in the sense that Christianity was?) Also, seekers found it hard to square their quest for spiritual freedom and autonomy with the requirements of surrender and obedience found in almost any religious tradition. As Schmidt notes, "Those sorts of questions about identity, freedom, tradition, authority, and obedience haunted religious liberalism and modern forms of spirituality at nearly every turnand still do."
Without saying so directly, Schmidt puts his finger on an aspect of American spirituality that increasingly made it seem like one of the feckless pursuits of those overeducated and spoiled "elites" who cultural conservatives say corrupted the moral fabric of the nation during the past 40 years. After all, it is hard to deny that many forms of spirituality blended all too easily with the hyperindividualism and hedonism of the '60s, reducing the good to what feels good. Facile uses of Asian religions and esoteric brands of mysticism also went hand in hand with Americans' growing preoccupation with the therapeutic quest for physical, mental, and, yes, spiritual wellness.
But while it is easy to point out the connections between spirituality and the me-oriented therapeutic culture, conservative criticsand even Schmidt himselffail to note the extent to which America's more religiously conservative evangelical tradition also became imbued with some of those same therapeutic values. Today's evangelical megachurches can often seem like nothing more than vast well-being clinics, serving their clients' every needs, from the financial to the romantic. Some of the more popular evangelical preachers dilute the stricter side of the Gospel (except for those somewhat difficult-to-locate injunctions against same-sex marriage) to emphasize a happy, feel-good message. At the very least, American evangelical culture might share more with American spirituality than participants in the former would like to admit.
That would suggest that other factors, including consumerism and educational decline, might have more to do with a crisis in values than Buddhism, yoga, or any other spiritual pursuits that American seekers have explored in order to connect with forces beyond the self.
But does America's many-flavored spiritual tradition provide a real opportunity for liberals seeking to reconnect with the religious energies of this nation? Can Democrats play the spirituality card in the way that Republicans have played the evangelical card? It seems questionable. The very diversity within the American spiritual tradition would make it difficult for "churchless" seekers to band together to have the kind of collective political clout that evangelicals now have. On the other hand, America's evangelicals have traditionally been a varied lot. Shrewd leadership, both within the Republican Party and within the diverse evangelical community, helped forge a powerful and well-coordinated political alliance that is arguably the most powerful in America today.
Religion in America, a regular feature of usnews.com, probes issues of faith in the United States.