This article was originally written for Mockingbird.
If you have seen the data, you would likely be persuaded that the notion that America is a “religious nation” is no longer a quaint American platitude but a dead and buried belief. The dwindling of religious institutional attendance and membership since the 1940s seems to indicate a fundamental fracturing of our nation’s founding principles. What’s more, the statistics warn that ours is the least religious generation in the history of the United States. With the hoopla currently ravaging the largest Protestant denomination, who would blame them? National decadence and ecclesiastical departure are the twin culprits of this country’s seemingly irreparable divide. What’s left for us to do but collectively shrug at our nation’s religious indifference?
The emergence of the “religious nones,” though, belies the fact that our elemental quandary isn’t a matter of religious retreat but of religious replacement. As Dave Zahl says in his book Seculosity, “The marketplace in replacement religion is booming.”1 We have taken it upon ourselves to fill the void of religious observance through no shortage of rebranded religious schemes (#seculosities). So notes Orthodox priest Stephen Freeman in his latest essay, “When America Got Sick.” He writes:
Having largely lost our religion(s), modernity has seen fit to create new ones. If we wonder what constitutes a modern religion (or efforts to create one) we need look no further than our public liturgies. Various months of the year are now designated as holy seasons set aside to honor various oppressed groups or causes. It is an effort to liturgize the nation as the bringer and guardian of justice in the world, an effort that seeks to renew our sense of mission and to portray our nation as something that we believe in. It must be noted that as a nation, we have not been content to be one among many. We have found it necessary to “believe” in our country. It is a symptom of religious bankruptcy . . .
Perhaps the most prescient and urgent of all the secular liturgies with which we find ourselves enamored are the competing faiths of elephants and donkeys. We’ve catapulted political affiliation to the apex of inviolable absolutes that demarcate friends and foes. “If once upon a time we looked to politics primarily for governance,” Zahl continues, “we now look to it for belonging, righteousness, meaning, and deliverance.”2 We liturgize ourselves on the opiates of partisan doctrine, because isn’t that what good believers do? In so doing, we’ve annexed flesh and blood people for bureaucratic pendants which generalize dissimilar acquaintances into the collective “other.” But this lens by which we understand the world is not only flimsy but false — because, to parrot Zahl’s words, hospital rooms house neither liberals or conservatives, just humans that are in dire need of a physician.3
The difficulty with engineered religions, or causes that serve as substitutes, is that they fail to transcend. Regardless of how great many moments or ideas might be, they easily die a thousand deaths as their many non-transcendent failures come to mind. In the late 1960’s, the singer Peggy Lee registered a hit single, “Is that all there is?” It is a song with the lilt of a French chanson, à la Edith Piaf. It moves through the great moments of life, including love and even death itself, but offers its sad refrain:
Is that all there is, is that all there is?
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is
This is our context, the world of modernity. It is also our sickness, an empty lassitude whose hunger invites never-ending experiments of conferring meaning on our world. The “better world” that modernity pursues shifts relentlessly and changes as though it were directed by Paris fashionistas . . .
Which is to say that American religious fervor is largely a time-sensitive construct. Whatever captures the zeitgeist forms the altar at which we pay homage, and therein do we honor ourselves as both the arbiters and dispensers of justice, charity, peace, goodness, and righteousness. We are not religiously abstinent but spiritually polyamorous. “Our religious crisis today is not that religion is on the wane,” Zahl continues, “but that we are more religious than ever, and about too many things.”4
Anything and everything is or can become a religious matter. A kids cartoon police dog. A breakfast syrup’s mascot. Even apple pie. “What do you stand for? Who are you, Bagel Bites?” That Bo Burnham’s social-brand-consultant bit felt anything but feigned is all the demonstrative evidence needed to illustrate that ours is still a religious nation, only it is the religion of our own choosing and/or making. If you’ll permit me, American religious energy has not gone the way of Blockbuster so much as it has evolved into the bloom of Netflix, offering a bedazzling kaleidoscope of offerings that eventually are left unchosen, unexplored, because you’re thirty now and 10 p.m. is the new 2 a.m.
The fact that the “manufactured religions department” is a billion-dollar industry is proof-positive that we were made to be religious creatures. Eternity has been nestled in humanity’s heart, which is not a glitch in processing that occurred during the forming of our world — like in Tron. No, our eternal restlessness was purposefully implanted in us, in order that our Creator might also be seen as the Eternal Void Filler. Our religious attentiveness, you might say, has been burgled, a crime which God himself has come to rectify. “I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance” (John 10:10).
The religions we manufacture can never substitute for the religion we have been given in the body and blood of Christ — precisely because we’ve been extended the body and blood of Christ. Those sacraments of our remission are, indeed, the primordial root from which every religious shoot has sprung up and flowered. But any religious scheme devoid of remission or absolution is one that will eventually eat itself alive. In fact, prominent evangelical essayist and pastor Tim Keller recently noted that forgiveness is seen as an “increasingly problematic” paradigm, with retribution and anger “seen as more authentic.” What then should we do? To answer that, we return to Father Freeman:
I am often asked, when writing on this topic, what response Christians should make. What do we do about the state? How do we respond to modernity? . . . The proper response to these things will seem modest. Live the life of the Church. The cure of modernity’s neurasthenia is found not in yet one more successful project, but in the long work of salvation set in our midst in Christ’s death and resurrection. Our faith is not a chaplaincy to the culture, or a mere artifact of an older world. The Church is the Body of Christ into which all things will be gathered, both in heaven and on earth. It is the Way of Life as well as a way of life. It is not given to us to control how we are seen by the world, or whether the world thinks us useful. It is for us to be swallowed up by Christ and to manifest His salvation to the world.
Any religion we manufacture, notwithstanding its relative moral or ethical value, will always come up short and leave us feeling uninhabited. This is precisely because Christendom, at its core, is a religion which offers habitation — by which, I mean, its elemental pronouncement is the abiding presence of the Infinite (John 1:14). The gospel is tethered to the reality that sinners are, indeed, the dwelling place of God. What is needed, therefore, to counter the onslaught of secular liturgies is not a new religious gimmick. All that’s necessary are the tried-and-true Scriptures, which are entirely enamored with God’s pure, distilled grace. Like the birds of the morning, we sing the same old song of Christ’s death and resurrection. We proclaim without abatement the words of the cross and the good news of the Great Physician who has tagged the sick to be the express recipients of his illimitable mercy — for therein is true religion, pure and undefiled, found.
David Zahl, Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do About It (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2019), xii.