Careful What You Wish For

Michael Metzger

There’s an old adage—be careful what you wish for. You might just get it. Take the rise of the ‘religious nones.’ They might represent what evangelicals have long wished for.

In a recent New York Times column, Peter Manseau, author of “One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History,” notes how his eclectic spiritual path has led him to become a ‘religious none.’ Nones are those who check no single box when it comes to religion. They check “none of the above.” According to the new Pew study on the changing religious landscape, they now account for nearly 23 percent of all Americans.

Nones are not necessarily atheists or agnostics. They instead report having little use for religious affiliation. As Manseau notes, nones “believe in God, pray at least occasionally and think of themselves as spiritual people.” Manseau is one of them, having been formed in the evangelical camp for a period of time. That’s why many ‘nones’ might be the result of what evangelicals have wished for.

The modern evangelical movement arose in the early 1800s during a period of religious upheaval. A growing portion of the American population was leaving traditional ways behind. This became the Second Great Awakening, led by evangelicals called “New Lights,” as opposed to “Old Lights” who held to traditional beliefs found in Old World European traditions. The new evangelicals sought to replace what one minister called the “old rotten and stinking routine of religion” with hugely popular open-air revivals, building on long-simmering dissatisfaction with existing worship styles.

The man often credited with praising disaffiliation was the itinerant evangelist George Whitefield. He could stand on a balcony in Philadelphia and reach a crowd of 30,000 with his unamplified voice according Benjamin Franklin. Whitefield was famous for crying out to the sky, asking “Father Abraham” (God) who is qualified to make it to heaven?

“Any Episcopalians? No.” Whitefield preached. “Any Presbyterians? No. Any Baptists? No.” Who then is in heaven? Whitefield provided God’s answer: “We don’t know those names here.” Heaven is populated with people of no religious affiliation. Thus was born the “my personal relationship with Jesus” movement. Little need for church. No need for religious affiliation. A disdain for “organized religion.” For Americans seeking to upend European traditions, modern evangelicalism caught on like wildfire.

This largely explains the phenomenal growth of non-denominational churches. As one writer put it, they’re in sync with American individualism, largely yielding a faith that’s pietistic, privatized, and pragmatic. The alliteration might be excessive, but the analysis is spot on. Put another way, Tim Keller says much of American Christianity as highly individualistic and consumerist. In a nutshell, it’s a faith unfettered from older expressions of Christianity that bound believers to institutions.

Sociologist Robert Bellah noted this unhealthy individualism in his book Habits of the Heart. Americans in the 1970s and ’80s were devising spiritual identities apart from traditional categories, what Bellah called “expressive individualism.” It was most evident in evangelicalism, where a woman called Sheila said she was born again and believed in God, but did not go to church and trusted her own internal voice to direct her on a spiritual path. Bellah labeled this sort of faith “Sheilaism.”

Manseau believes that many of today’s ‘nones’ are yesterday’s “Sheilas.” They’re spiritual descendants of those evangelical New Lights who preferred the independence of unaffiliation. If he’s right, it means religious ‘nones’ don’t come just from pagan pasts—they also hail from an evangelical expression of Christianity that’s 200 years old.

Given the rapid rise of religious ‘nones,’ Manseau believes they could constitute a Third Great Awakening. Ironically, the seeds were sown in the Second Great Awakening with the modern evangelical movement. If Manseau is right, modern evangelicals are simply getting what they wished for.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike


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  1. Very insightful, but why stop there? Go another 300 years back and consider the influence nominalism and relativism had on the earliest reformers. The gentle whisper of apostasy is heard by only a few before it becomes a shout heard at the pulpit by many. The writings of Hilaire Beloc allude to this, as well as the damage done through the enlightenment.

  2. Mike,

    I think you’re right about both the Second Great Awakening and about Whitefield, but strictly speaking I think Whitefield was part of the first GA, not the second. Charles Finney was one of the leading lights of the SGA, I believe. Historical hair-splitting aside, I think your point is well taken.

  3. I realize I’m being cynical but I wonder about survey reporting and what are the questions being asked. Sure, there are nones. But is that so bad? What’s worse – people giving lip-service to institutional connection or people refusing institutional connection and therefore select institutions must choose to re-think how they’ll do business? I’d rather the latter. If modern survey methods bring out better honesty? Fine, then 23% is a real number. Or are modern survey methods bringing out a 15 minutes of fame from the disgruntled who say they’re nones but they’re really more open and easier to engage with than institutionally bound deadwood we’d otherwise count as non-nones who we think are with us – but they really aren’t?

  4. Dave:

    You are right about Whitefield and I am wrong.

    I stand corrected. Thank you! Good to have friends who catch my mistakes.


  5. Mike,

    Thanks for the post. I think you are on target with this piece, as usual.

    Being on one of the single adult dating websites, I see how women classify themselves spiritually. It’s not equivalent to a formal scientific survey, but it does give me a data set to consider. Many of the women classify themselves as “Christian/Other,” rather than “Christian/Protestant,” even though they also state that they attend a church we would classify as Protestant in doctrine. In many cases, I believe that is a result of ignorance, but in others, I believe it fits the category you describe, not wanting to be attached to any denominational group. That doesn’t disturb me, since they often base their beliefs on the Bible. (This may be the group you categorize as “nones,” though I tend to think of the next group as the ones truly fitting that title.)

    What does bother me is the number of people who describe themselves as “Spiritual but not religious.” Some who use it are those who don’t want to be associated with “Christian” though they seem to have relatively main-stream Protestant Christian beliefs. That also doesn’t bother me, since I too tend to say I’m a “follower of Jesus Christ” rather than a “Christian” to avoid misunderstanding or native connotations that “Christian” has these days. However, most who call themselves “Spiritual but not religious” are expressing their individualism by defining their own belief system, picking and choosing a little of this and a little of that. That does concern me. They often will state what sort of church background they come from, and may attend a church regularly or not, though they can’t point to anything that defines what they believe now. My impression is that choosing to define their own belief system allows them freedom from any accountability and enables them to justify behaviors that might otherwise be labeled as sin.

    Though the roots of freeing oneself from “organized religion” may be old, I consider this movement even older than that. It’s based on the pride of men/women, to be our own masters, free from others telling us what to do and believe. The fact that more and more are jumping on the bandwagon of highly individualized “faith” appears to be springing from the fact that it is more accepted and even popular to have that view. It opens the door to accept the increasingly popular sexual trends and sounds more loving to them, since it does not “judge” anyone else’s beliefs or actions as wrong. Few will deny the importance of some form of spirituality, but the recognition of a creator who also cares enough about them to have absolute standards is increasingly missing.

    Does this indicates a gap in our current church teachings? Are so many of us living such anemic faith that we don’t shine the light of truth brightly enough? Is it resulting from a failure to hear and understand on their part? Are the false teachings of this world so much more effective now than they once were? I wonder…

  6. Mark: I too wonder about these things. It might be less a gap in knowledge as amnesia. We have forgotten how older Christian traditions operated. And few recognize how recent much of our framing of the faith is.

  7. Lots to think about here. Sad to think so many think so little about God.
    Marilyn Drea sent me Gazette article about your new home. WOW. Lovely. Wish I had been on the Garden Tour. Many blessings as you use it for sharing God’s love.

  8. The tension is between individual temples of the Holy Spirit and collective ones. When a collective temple doesn’t exist locally then individuals are in a position of collecting as they are able. Sadly with levels of personal, institutional and structural abuse existing, responses are made accordingly. IMO the awakenings were responses to institutional and structural dominance. Something that Christ’s on life reflected. Clearly vision can be dependent on revelations of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

  9. Tension between self-control and common unity.
    Association and dis-association. Membership and non-membership. Inclusion and exclusion.Rhythms of grace and intensity of expectations.

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