Politics & Policy

God-Lite Doesn’t Cut It

Americans like a stouter brand.

A new poll tells an old story: Americans are deeply religious, especially compared to Europeans. “Religious devotion sets the United States apart from some of its closest allies,” according to an AP-Ipsos survey. “Nearly all U.S. respondents said faith is important to them and only 2 percent said they do not believe in God.” Western Europeans are the “least devout” among the people surveyed (countries include the United States, Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, South Korea, and Spain).

I certainly found this to be true while working on my new book, Exodus: Why Americans are Fleeing Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity. In interviews with believers a consistent theme emerged. They believers rejected the God-lite of progressive Christianity. They desire the absolute God of tradition.

Writer Andy Ferguson encountered the lesser god while taking a class at a West Coast Episcopal seminary. Andy sometimes argued basic Christian beliefs with a professor. After one such discussion he repaired to the lunchroom, where he was approached by a fellow student. “We have finally figured out what your problem is,” the classmate said. “You are the only one here who believes in God.” Andy thought it over and concluded: This guy is right. Thus began a journey that recently took him into Catholicism. In economic terms he had switched brands. It’s highly unlikely he’ll be switching back.

Andy’s not alone. The most recent “Religious Congregations and Membership” study, published in 2000 (the study is conducted each decade) by the Glenmary Research Center, tells the statistical story. Progressive churches are progressing, it seems, ever closer to oblivion. The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (11,106 churches) has experienced a decline of 11.6 percent over the previous ten years; the United Methodist Church (35,721 churches) was down 6.7 percent; and the Episcopal Church (7,314 churches) lost 5.3 percent of its membership. Also, the United Churches of Christ (5,863 churches) declined 14.8 percent while the American Baptist Churches USA were down 5.7 percent.

The denominations showing growth included the deeply conservative Southern Baptist Convention, a collection of 41,514 churches, whose overall growth rate was 5 percent. The traditionalist Presbyterian Church in America (as opposed the mainline Presbyterian Church U.S.A.) experienced an impressive 42.4 percent increase, while the Christian and Missionary Alliance rose 21.8 percent. Meanwhile, the Evangelical Free Church was up 57.2 percent, and Pentecostal denominations also boomed. The Assemblies of God, with 11,880 churches, saw 18.5 percent growth, while the Church of God, with 5,612 churches, saw growth of 40.2 percent.

What is behind this traditionalist rise and progressive decline? The New York Times, in its summary of the survey, noted, “Socially conservative churches that demand high commitment from their members grew faster than other religious denominations in the last decade….” Glenmary director Ken Sanchagrin told the paper he was “astounded to see that by and large the growing churches are those that we ordinarily call conservative. And when I looked at those that were declining, most were moderate or liberal churches. And the more liberal the denomination, by most people’s definition, the more they were losing.”

God-lite is thin beer indeed. One group of theologians has whittled the traditional God down to 30 percent of his original power: He cannot affect the past or future and isn’t holding all that many cards in the present. This 30 percent god may not be powerful enough to fix a parking ticket. For many Americans he is certainly not worth rolling out of bed for on Sunday mornings.

To be sure, many American Christians hold views that do not always jibe with traditional belief. Yet a substantial number of Americans–over 70 percent–believe in an “all powerful, all knowing” God who rules the universe. While they may entertain heterodox thoughts they flock to churches whose pulpits are built on the Rock of Ages.

One such church is the Orthodox Church, an introduction to which was provided by the lovely and patient Frederica Matthewes-Green. Frederica and her husband were dedicated Episcopalians; he was indeed a priest. Yet they eventually concluded, with the help of progressive Episcopalian bishops, that their church had passed the point of no return and as a result they moved on to Orthodoxy.

Until meeting Frederica, my knowledge of this church was minimal, generously speaking. But I was captivated by a short essay on composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), who returned to Orthodoxy in his 40s. This essay told of how the great composer, on entering church, prostrated himself on the floor before the altar and prayed–for two full hours. That accomplished, Stravinsky rose, received the sacrament, and then resumed prayer, this time with his head touching the stone floor. God-lite was clearly not the object of such devotion.

I found Orthodox services to be highly mystical, at least compared to typical Protestant gatherings. There’s a relic in the altar, incense in the air, and the music makes full use of the minor modes. Frederica also made a hash of the notion that traditionalist believers such as herself “flee into orthodoxy.”

These Christians (for the record, I consider myself an itinerant Presbyterian, with an emphasis on the itinerant) have set themselves a demanding path. They reject the cult of the autonomous, unencumbered self. They profess a belief in sin, and especially sexual sin, which wins them little admiration. They submit themselves to a God stern in His ways and harsh in his judgments, a God to which they will be accountable one fearful day.

This God is also a great and perplexing mystery. He brought man into being for reasons unfathomable, and with the full knowledge of what would befall this creature made in His image. There would be endless calamity, murder, and proud disbelief. By their reading man would reject the greatest offering, His Son, who would suffer to an unimaginable degree. Every trial and tear was known at the foundation of time, and still He created and still He came.

This is a serious God. This is not a lodge brother. This appears to be why Stravinsky prayed with his head to the stones.

Elsewhere, the pull of religious traditionalism creates other interesting stories. Many readers of the New York Post, for instance, were one morning shocked to read that former Beatle John Lennon had become a devout fan of none other than televangelist Pat Robertson, to the point of falling to his knees and touching the television screen, apparently in hope of receiving a supernatural lift from the flickering image. In the book Nowhere Man, Robert Rosen adds to the story, telling us that in the late 1970s Lennon had taken to watching Billy Graham on TV. “At first he watched only for entertainment,” Rosen wrote. “Then, one day, he had an epiphany–he allowed himself to be touched by the hand of Jesus Christ, and it drove him to tears of joy and ecstasy. He drew a picture of a crucifix: he was born again, and the experience was such a kick he had to share it with Yoko. John and Yoko sat in front of the TV watching Billy Graham sermons. Every other sentence out of John’s mouth was ‘Thank You, Jesus or Thank you, Lord.’”

On first reading this I thought it merely proved that living with Yoko had driven poor John around the bend, and some critics dismissed these stories as fabrications. Yet Lennon would not be the first popular icon to pursue, for a time at least, the traditional version of Jesus. Bob Dylan’s conversion to Christianity is well known, and appears to be intact. And last year, the London Spectator informed readers that Keith Richards, famed dope sponge and Rolling Stones guitarist, had seen the light, perhaps thanks to the influence of wife Patti, whom biographer Christopher Sandford calls a “devout Lutheran” and who attends a weekly Bible study and “won’t stand for swearing around the house.” At the time of their marriage, Patti’s parents told reporters that Richards is an “enthusiastic disciple of Christ” who had “embraced Christ as a way of life.”

And everyone thought Saul of Tarsus was a tough nut to crack.

The journey toward traditionalism many be unsettling to some progressives, especially when they take into account the growing number of pilgrims making that trek. But some stories of transformation will touch most of us no matter what our beliefs. Let me end with one.

A Guardian story written last year by Jason Burke tells of the evangelizing of surviving members of the Pol Pot regime. Hundreds had been baptized by evangelical pastors over the past year in the southwest mountain city of Pailin. “At least 2,000 of those who followed Pol Pot, the guerrillas’ former leader who died six years ago, now worship Jesus.” Seven out of ten of these converts, according to a local pastor, took part in the extermination and forced labor campaign.

There is a quote from one convert, now in his 50s, that goes to the heart of the matter: “When I was a soldier I did bad things. I don’t know how many we killed. We were following orders and thought it was the right thing to do. I read the Bible and I know it will free me from the weight of the sins I have committed.” Thus the old time religion gained a new refugee, and another hard journey led to the foot of that ancient cross, where a large crowd continues to gather.

Dave Shiflett is the author of Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity.

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