A huge majority of Americans say they believe in God. Most identify themselves as Christian, in fact. And from the outside, the American religious landscape looks pretty homogeneous.
Friends, looks are deceiving.
Here's what the summary of the recently released Baylor Religion Survey accurately says:
"American religion seems monolithic. In fact, under the surface American religion is startlingly complex and diverse. Americans may agree that God exists. They do not agree about what God is like, what God wants for the world, or how God feels about politics."
Yes, and we overlook this reality at our own peril.
The truth is that the American religious landscape is always changing, always in flux, always unpredictable. And yet some of the people who study religion in America note that Protestants, once upwards of 75 or 80 percent of the population only a few decades ago, today have slipped just below 50 percent. And it's quite possible that by the end of this century Christians in America no longer will be a majority, just a plurality, of the population.
In the meantime, the traditional idea that Americans are made up of Christians plus a small group of Jews is giving way to the reality that Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians, Shintoists and many other faiths are becoming part of the picture, as, of course, are atheists and agnostics.
And within each faith there are divisions that produce a complex and at times puzzling picture.
As the press release announcing the latest "Wave III" Baylor findings notes, "Entrepreneurs pray more, worriers are less likely to attend religious services, Southerners are more likely to see their work as a mission from God and liberals are less likely to believe in an afterlife — particularly one in which they will be reunited with loved ones." All of this and more is revealed in the Baylor work.
I won't go into that work in more detail here but you can look at the links I've given you and can click here for a Baylor press release about it.
What I ask you to remember is that religion in America is a complex business, no matter how simple it might seem from 35,000 feet.
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WHAT THE HELL?
This report on Catholic teaching and theology concludes that "Over the last half-century hell has moved from being a fixture of the Catholic landscape to something that exists far over the horizon." And, in my experience, this is true not just of Catholics but also of Mainline Protestants, who perhaps never preached hell as much as Catholics used to but who hardly ever mention it now, preferring to share a message about God's love and compassion.