Tuesday, June 24, 2008

When It Comes to Religion, It Seems to Be a Toss-Up

This month the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a 268 page report entitled, The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. It is not surprising that the trends it reports reflect a continuing shift in the views of Americans relative to matters of religious beliefs and faith.

The response to one question is particularly revealing regarding the blurring of distinctions among the various “faiths” held by Americans. The question asked was:

“Now, as I read a pair of statements, tell me whether the FIRST statement or the SECOND statement comes closer to your own views even if neither is exactly right.

(a) My religion is the one true faith leading to eternal life, OR Many religions can lead to eternal life.

(b) There is only ONE true way to interpret the teachings of my religion, OR There is MORE than one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion.”

In an age when brand loyalty is marketed and emphasized, one might think that Americans would be particularly loyal to their own faith of choice. However, only 24% of those polled believe that their religion is the one true faith leading to eternal life. Even among Evangelical Churches, only 36% said their religion is the only one that leads to eternal life.

The Pew Report found that, “Seven-in-ten Americans with a religious affiliation say that many religions can lead to eternal life. In fact, majorities of nearly every religious tradition take the view that many religions can lead to eternal life, including more than eight-in-ten Jews (82%), Buddhists (86%), Hindus (89%) and members of mainline Protestant churches (83%), and nearly eight in ten Catholics (79%). Fewer members of evangelical and historically black churches (57% and 59%, respectively) agree with this, as do 56% of Muslims.”

While this was but one finding of a very extensive report and doesn’t appear in the report until page 58, it is garnering many of the headlines relative to this survey; headlines such as:New Findings About U.S. Religious Life (Christian Science Monitor), Most American Say Many Religions Can Lead to Eternal Life (Dallas Morning News), Christians: No One Path to Salvation (Time), and – perhaps the most telling of a cultural shift in this area – Survey Shows U.S. Religious Tolerance (New York Times).

Neela Banerjee of The NY Times astutely reports, “[It]reveals a broad trend toward tolerance and an ability among many Americans to hold beliefs that might contradict the doctrines of their professed faiths…The findings seem to undercut the conventional wisdom that the more religiously committed people are, the more intolerant they are, scholars who reviewed the survey said. ‘It’s not that Americans don’t believe in anything,’ said Michael Lindsay, assistant director of the Center on Race, Religion and Urban Life at Rice University. ‘It’s that we believe in everything. We aren’t religious purists or dogmatists.’”

David Van Biena, of TIME, drew a similar conclusion but emphasized the breadth of this stating, “Even more remarkable was the fact that 57% of Evangelical Christians were willing to accept that theirs might not be the only path to salvation, since most Christians historically have embraced the words of Jesus, in the Gospel of John, that ‘no one comes to the Father except through me.’ Even as mainline churches had become more tolerant, the exclusivity of Christianity's path to heaven has long been one of the Evangelicals' fundamental tenets. The new poll suggests a major shift, at least in the pews.”

Clearly, with the influx of Eastern religious views during the past several decades and a simultaneous withdrawal of the Church from the marketplace, Americans have become softened to the idea of religious pluralism. We have been conditioned to be a tolerant society, particularly when it comes to matters of religion and faith. And tolerance, it seems, has been redefined as accepting any belief as valid, even if it is in conflict with your own belief.

So, what this survey reflects, in part, is that Americans have concluded to hold one’s personal faith as the only “true way” would not be acceptable in a “tolerant” society. Michael Lindsay is correct in saying we believe everything. However, we should add, we’ll also believe “anything”. Unfortunately, this survey also indicates this is becoming increasingly true in the Church, as well.

While we have no problem promoting our favorite soft drink, fast food, movie, etc. as being the best on the market, political correctness demands that we do not hold to such a hard and fast commitment to our faith. It appears that when it comes to religion “brand loyalty” is being thrown under the wheels of “political correctness”.

Monday, June 16, 2008

One Nation Under Who…or, Should We Say, What

Over the years, the Gallup Poll has conducted a number of polls regarding religious trends in the US. One question they have asked annually for several decades is: “How important is religion in your own life?”

In 2007, an all-time low of only 56% of respondents stated religion is “very important”. While this is not a dramatic decrease from recent years (the percentage who gave this response has hovered in the upper 50s to lower 60s since the 1990’s), contrast it with the 1950s when those responding “very important” was consistently in the upper 70 percentages.

Another question polled annually has been: “At the present time, do you think religion as a whole is increasing its influence on American life, or losing its influence?”

Again, in a 2007 poll, those responding, “losing its influence” was 62%, the highest percentage since the early 1990s when this number reached 68%.

These are interesting numbers when considering a poll taken last month by Gallup found 78% of those polled said they believe in God and 15% said they believe in a universal spirit. Thus, those acknowledging a belief in the divine totaled 93% with only 6% responding they do not believe in either (1% had no opinion).

It would seem logical to think that with such a high percentage believing in God, or a universal spirit, those who believe religion is having a greater influence would be much more significant. However, the polls indicate that most Americans do not think the belief, or faith, of those who express a belief in God, or a universal spirit, is having a recognizable influence on society.

One factor contributing to this view might be that the belief in a universal spirit, as opposed to a personal God, is on the rise. In the last decade, there has been a decrease in those who believe in God (86% in 1999) while those who believe in a universal spirit (only 8% in 1999) has increased. This means there has been approximately a 9% decrease in the belief in God and an increase of almost 200% in the belief in a universal spirit during that same period.

This certainly might impact how Americans view the influence of religion, since those who believe the divine is a universal spirit, tend to separate “religion” from what they view to be the much more all-encompassing, “spirituality”; in fact, they tend to believe that “religion” should not be the focus at all since they think it tends to divide people and create problems.

Therefore, while they may not see religion as having an influence they would believe what they hold to as the higher “spirituality”, pervasive in this country, is making a difference. Thus, were the question framed as, “Is American spirituality increasing or losing its influence”, this segment of the populous might have a different response than that regarding religion.

What this poll is probably most indicative of is the diminishing role of the Church in American society. In a 2007 Gallup poll, Americans who indicated they were a member of a church or synagogue revealed an all-time low of only 61% (this was 70% in 1992). Without question, the Christian church is being seen as having less and less relevance in our society. Perhaps this can be mostly attributed to the church having lost its voice in the marketplace of ideas over the last 40-50 years.

As it was in the founding of this nation, the Church is an important part of our society. It is imperative that it again finds its voice and becomes the influencer that it is meant to be. Until that happens, the polls will continue to reflect that this “one nation under God” has lost its way.

That’s one person’s opinion, what’s yours?

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Three Little Pigs and a Barbque Sandwich

Do you remember as a child reading the story of the three little pigs? Recently, I was driving to a meeting and I began thinking about this story. Actually, I was driving past a barbeque restaurant and thinking about how great it would be to stop and get a pork sandwich – inside chopped, oozing with sauce, a side of potato salad and baked beans and....you get the picture; barbeque pork naturally leads one to think about pigs which leads to reminiscing about those most famous of pigs – the three pigs (or, perhaps, Porky the Pig for some).

But, I digress. Anyway, you know the story, the three pigs each build a house to protect them from the big bad wolf – one of straw, one of sticks, and one of brick. The ones of straw and sticks were quickly disposed of by the strong winds blown by said wolf; but, the one of brick withstood the winds and protected the little pig that constructed it. The moral, of course, is to build with strong materials that will withstand the attack and protect you from that which would harm you.

In other words, the building materials we use in life are important, as is the foundation that we build on. Long before the story of the three little pigs, Jesus had taught this lesson to those who would follow him. He didn’t speak of three pigs, but of real life situations. Here is how he put it:

"Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash." MT 7:24-27 (NIV)

This is why the Crosswinds Foundation was established, to help recognize that the cultural winds are blowing and to help build our faith and culture with the best materials on the right foundation – Jesus Christ. It is this same Jesus who is the “Foundation” in Crosswinds Foundation.

Just like the big bad wolf, it is not a question of whether the rains and winds will come; the question is, will the faith, beliefs, values, and practices that we hold and pass on to our children withstand the cultural winds that blow against them? The answer depends on the foundation on which we are building and the materials that we are using.

Jesus words are clear; believers are not simply to rest on the foundation but to build on it by living out the words of Jesus in the culture. We should not fear the cultural winds but withstand them. While the winds can be quite strong, let us not forget that the foundation is stronger and secures us in the midst of the storm and will prevail.

The big bad wolf huffed and he puffed but he could not blow the house down. Why? Because the foundation and building materials were too strong. Should our faith be any different?

Our forefathers established the “foundation for faith and culture” of this country on Christ and His teachings, so much so that we have long referred to ours as being a Christian Nation. I think most would agree this is no longer the case.

Cultural winds have been blowing a new course – shifting the very foundation and fabric of our society. Beliefs and practices that forty years ago would never have been part of who we are, as a people, have now been mainstreamed into our society. One of the reasons for this is that somewhere along the way, the voice of the Church was lost to the discussion; thus, in many instances, these social, political, and philosophical changes went unchallenged.

As believers, it is essential that we turn this around and again become intentional in shaping the conversation in the marketplace and to be the influencers of the culture that Christ intends us to be. Jesus was very clear on this:

"You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men. "You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. MT 5: 13-16 (NIV)

We cannot be salt unless we are engaging the world. We cannot be light unless we are where there is darkness.

And he huffed…. And the rains came down
And he puffed….And the winds blew
But he could not blow the house down… Yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.

I ain’t afraid of no big bad wolf…are you?