From the June, 2001 issue of Touchstone

Religion Without Salvation by James Hitchcock

Religion Without Salvation

By now it has sunk in that, for all its secularization, the United States is perhaps the most religious country in the Western world. Recent confirmation of this comes from a poll showing that 41 percent of Americans, a remarkably high proportion, say that they have taken Jesus as their personal savior, an increase of six percent over 1991.

But there is something odd about this figure, because during the same decade regular church attendance, Bible reading, and participation in adult religion classes have declined by an at least equal percentage.

This is a problem of Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox. Catholics attend church in about the same proportion as Protestants, but they are far less likely to read the Bible or enroll in adult-education courses. On the other hand, Catholics remain less likely than Protestants to get divorced, and the highest divorce rates are found in what are ostensibly the most “born again” parts of the country. (My favorite statistic shows that in half the counties in Oklahoma there are more divorces than marriages!)

How to account for this discrepancy between religious faith on the one hand and commitment to religious practice on the other? George Barna, who took the poll, thinks it shows that American religiosity does not have deep roots and that church members “have traded spiritual passion for empty rituals, clever methods, and mindless practices.” He calls, in effect, for massive evangelization.

In many ways this is undoubtedly true, but it was ever thus. Throughout the history of the Church, except perhaps for the earliest times, spiritual leaders have always been aware of the weaknesses of popular religion, and the entire history of Christianity could be written in terms of various attempts, many of them successful, to awaken the slumbering spirit.

But in earlier times even people who were not devout tended to take part in formal religious activities, which in some cases led to genuine conversions. Now such people are much less likely to do so, if only because attending church is no longer a socially encouraged activity. I think the biggest reason why people cease attending church is not that they question this or that doctrine or practice (it is always possible to find a church to fit one’s specifications) but that they simply don’t feel like giving up their Sunday mornings. They have nothing against church, they just always find something else to do.

One proposed solution is to make church more interesting than golf, the Sunday newspaper, the talking heads on television, the park, or whatever else it is that people do on Sundays. But that, I am afraid, is a lost cause. The McLaughlin Group, highly paid professionals that they are, will always be more “stimulating” than even the best preacher, and how can any church compete with the great outdoors or with football?

The fatal flaw in the situation is revealed in the fact that such a discussion is even taking place, because it omits what everyone until recently merely took for granted—that people should go to church, no matter how unexciting they may find it, because they believe it is true, believe that they are sinners in need of redemption and that the Church offers that precious gift. If one does not believe that, attending church has no meaning. If one does believe it, staying away imperils one’s soul.

But the reader will have noticed that it is precisely among those who do accept Jesus as their Savior that there has been a notable slippage in religious activity, so this argument only goes so far. The rest of the explanation, I think, is in a curious way precisely an overemphasis on Jesus as “personal” Savior.

The deepest heresies are usually those that are largely unconscious, and in our time the greatest threat to genuine Christianity comes from the assumption, often shared by the devout as well as the lukewarm, that religion has to do with feeling good. Accepting Jesus as my Savior gives me a sense of peace, a conviction that I am right with God. But often that sense remains the only criterion of faith.

“Cafeteria Christians” pick what they want from the Church and leave the rest, and their principle of selection, as in a real cafeteria, is merely what they think is tasty. Few go through the line loading up on the spiritual equivalents of lettuce and steamed broccoli. Even many ostensibly devout people do not think their faith can make demands on them. Taking part in formal religious activities is merely an “option,” to be exercised entirely according to the individual’s subjective sense of need.

True, we all need a savior; but Jesus Christ is our Savior because he is also Lord, and “all things whatsoever” our Lord has commanded us we must do. Even when we don’t find them exciting, fulfilling, affirming, or comfortable, we will find them, in the end, saving.

James Hitchcock, for the editors

James Hitchcock is Professor emeritus of History at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He and his late wife Helen have four daughters. His most recent book is the two-volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton University Press, 2004). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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