How has the way Americans practice religion changed across time?
On March 30, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat traced that history in a lecture sponsored by the Center for Freedom and Western Civilization.
Douthat received his bachelor of arts at Harvard University in 2002 and, in 2009, became the youngest columnist in New York Times history. Since then, he’s stayed with the Times as a conservative columnist. His stories cover politics and religion — two topics that informed his talk.
Douthat began his discussion at the beginning. From the time of the American Revolution to the Eisenhower era, brick-and-mortar churches were the center of the American public’s religious scene. At that time, “American churches grew stronger and stronger, in terms of how many people were members,” says Douthat.
Then, there was a shift. In the 1960s, both churchgoing and association with a political identity — such as Methodist, Presbyterian, or Catholic — began to decline. Douthat offered several reasons for this shift, the first being money. He claimed that the coming of a new, wealthy age formed a less religious public.
“No society before, in recorded history, had ever been as rich as America after World War II,” says Douthat. “One of the persistent themes of the New Testament is that as you live in greater comfort, you’re less likely to think about uncomfortable things like your death.”
Next to money, the invention of communications technology also led to a shift in religious practice. The coming of radio and television opened worlds of thought in once-isolated communities. And it raised a few questions.
“The world and all its dizzying diversity is suddenly beamed into people’s homes,” says Douthat. “And it’s not that it makes people stop believing in God. It makes them stop believing that their parents’ first congregation could possibly have any kind of monopoly on theological wisdom.”
The political landscape was changing in the ’60s, too — political polarization drove the religious public’s new life:
“As the two parties polarize, it becomes harder for any institution to find a place to stand where they aren’t branded as a conservative first and a Christian second, or a liberal first and a Christian second,” says Douthat.
Political affiliation takes on a new importance, and it becomes a piece of one’s identity.
“In that landscape, you get a phenomenon where people disaffiliate from religion as a political statement,” says Douthat.
According to Douthat, religious faith has now entered a secular age. So, what happens now? Each factor (money, technology, and politics) shaped a public that practices religion in a new way. Douthat refers to one modern form of practice as self-help spiritually.
“The idea [of self-help spirituality] is that there is a God who can help you in your everyday life, in this modern landscape,” says Douthat. “In this view, God is there to help you navigate your childhood trauma, personal relationships, and fulfillment.”
To exemplify self-help spirituality, Douthat referenced modern media such as The Oprah Winfrey Show and Eat, Pray, Love, in which religious themes guide self-actualization. Douthat also mentioned astrology. “Astrology has made a comeback as a cultural force, with ambiguity as to whether people fully believe in it,” he says.
And whether religion acts as a guide or the center of one’s life, the new landscape has a space for all.
“You have the continuous influence of church-based religion, therapeutic self-help spirituality, and people who are, either in a non-literal or a very literal way, trying to wake Jupiter from his slumber, and ask him for help,” says Douthat.