Currently, the dominant metaphors for speaking of the place of religious institutions and actors within contemporary American life are either geological or commercial in nature.  Some, like the recently published Pew Study, speak of a shifting religious landscape within the country, while others discuss an American religious marketplace.  

Each of these metaphors captures something important.  Discussing a shifting religious landscape usefully illustrates the dynamism of religion in America.  Depending on the elements and, of course, the play of light and shadow, landscapes shift and change, leaving us with the knowledge that what was once one thing can appear to us now as something strikingly different.  These shifts take time, of course, but attending to this dynamism and the inner mechanics of change is important.

But the image of the American religious marketplace is more illuminating.  For one thing, the image of landscape actually downplays what should be highlighted – namely, that the aggregated numbers are the result of multiple individual and familial decisions.  The geological image leaves too much to providence or chance.  We can return to the same beach on subsequent days (or years) and recognize that the scene is different, but we find it hard to pin the sum total of those shifts to any particular moment or event, much less any human decision.  

A marketplace, on the other hand, places the individual and his or her religious faith at the center, highlighting the interplay of two of the most distinctive features of religion in America (as compared to other societies) – namely, that Americans are simultaneously more devout than most, and more likely to change their religious affiliations than most.  By and large, Americans are fervently committed to their religious faith precisely until that moment when something better comes along.  And this market – the market for what Paul Tillich called “objects of ultimate concern” – is particularly volatile.   

This week’s Culture Briefing presents three pieces for your consideration.  The first two are related to the aforementioned Pew Study and the volatility of our religious marketplace.  Here we provide the executive summary of the report as well as a brief account of five key findings that the report captures.  

Though the full report is worth your attention, the two pieces we’ve included here capture one of the oddities of our contemporary moment: with the report’s publication, two groups who often see themselves as rivals – conservative evangelicals on the one hand and the so-called “nones,” who are “spiritual but not religious,” on the other – each had reason to be hopeful about their place within the broader American religious scene.  

In the case of evangelicals, though they now hold a smaller percentage of the population than a mere 8 years ago (when Pew last surveyed the population), their raw numbers have increased by roughly two million people.  This is of some real encouragement to evangelicals.  And yet, the rise of the “nones” is, as the report shows, widespread throughout various parts of the country. According to the Pew report:

Religious “nones” now constitute 19% of the adult population in the South (up from 13% in 2007), 22% of the population in the Midwest (up from 16%), 25% of the population in the Northeast (up from 16%) and 28% of the population in the West (up from 21%). In the West, the religiously unaffiliated are more numerous than Catholics (23%), evangelicals (22%) and every other religious group.

While future iterations of Culture Briefing will take a closer look at the “nones” in order to give some historical and cultural account of belief in what one author has called the age of “normal nihilism,” our final piece this week is a review of one of the many recent scholarly looks at the relation of religious belief to commercial capitalism in America.  In the first of what we hope to be many, Clay Cooke, New City Commons Research Fellow, reviews Timothy Gleoge’s recently published Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism.  

Cooke’s review presses us to think critically about how the logic of consumption has permeated the basic dynamics of belief in our current moment.  The fact that the metaphor of a marketplace in matters of religion is even plausible to us indicates the degree to which we all, regardless of the object of our belief, have adopted patterns of religious consumption whether we are conscious of such or not.  Gleoge’s work presses us to see the institutional underpinnings of this shift leaving evangelicals to determine just how their religious lives have, can, and should be tethered to the logic of the market.