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.
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