Culture of Choice Creating Religious Enclaves
The Pew Report puts numbers behind what many already feel: Americans have become very flexible in their religious allegiances. The numbers are astounding: 44% of adults have switched from their religion or denomination of birth. This mobility liberates individual believers, but it also erodes religions. It threatens to deprive believers of the richness of their traditions and to contribute to the growing sectarianism in American religious life.
On the plus side, mobility frees believers to seek more engaging and challenging religious lives when the communities they were born into fail them. In the process, they can embrace the doctrines and rituals of their communities of choice as adults who consciously question and seek to understand. This culture of choice pressures all religious communities to become more intentional. Religious seekers ask demanding questions. Why are you here? What do you stand for?
As attractive as these liberations are, they also bring severe erosions.
In a culture of choice, religious communities lose their deep traditions: the subtle insights passed on between generations; the little rituals that make a way of life; the nuances where hard truths are tempered with mercy. These are learned by watching one’s grandparents, not by listening to a sermon or reading a mission statement.
Nuances are lost to seekers’ need for clear, straightforward answers. This is particularly hard on large and ancient traditions. Mega-churches have very clear and often complex doctrinal statements. But they don’t need to hold a global church together, or maintain continuity with centuries of teaching. Communities whose insights go back to Maimonides, Aquinas, Luther or Wesley, and whose breadth encompasses continents find their complexities and nuances hard to summarize for easy consumption.
The culture of choice brings a second challenge. Religious communities are increasingly composed of people who choose to be together. Even when people do not change denominations, they change congregations at will. Even Roman Catholicism which long represented a more settled, geographical model of community is becoming increasingly congregational as more Catholics commute to the parish of their choice.
As a result, religious communities lose internal diversity, becoming enclaves of the like minded. Our great living religious traditions did not develop as monologues, they grew out of debates around shared insights carried out over generations. When traditions collapse into monologues they cease to critically engage and challenge the world around them.
When religious communities become enclaves of the like minded, they also cease to school us in getting along with others amid disagreement. Religion is being remade according to a consumer model where we choose what we want and don’t want to be bothered by anything else. Those who disagree are expected to leave for communities that match their convictions. As a result, religion both mirrors and contributes to the divisiveness in American society.
The challenge for religious communities is to embrace the vitality brought by religious choice while holding on to their deeper traditions of belonging—the bedrock beliefs that communities are gathered by a God much bigger than their local membership, who calls them to engage with others even in the face of passionate disagreement. The outcome of this challenge is as important for American society as it is for any religion.
Vincent Miller is Associate Professor of Theology, Georgetown University, and Visiting Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies, University of Dayton. He is the author of "Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture" (Continuum, 2004).
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