Too Many 'Nones'?: Religious Right Bothered By 'Do-It-Yourself' Spirituality

How dare Americans presume to interpret holy books and articles of faith for themselves, unaided by TV preachers, dogmatic clergy or other go-betweens?

A new survey about religion in America has the Religious Right all worked up.

Researchers at Trinity College in Hartford noted a sharp rise in the number of Americans who, when asked to state their religious preference, replied "none." According to some polls, this bloc of Americans now accounts for about 15 percent, and Trinity researchers say it may rise to 20 percent by 2030.

A Religion News Service story on the Pew Forum's Web site is headlined, "One in 5 Americans may be secular by 2030," but I'm not sure that's right. It's a common mistake to assume that the "nones" are secularists or religious skeptics. In fact, as the Trinity study shows, many of them are believers but aren't comfortable in established houses of worship. They practice a kind of "do-it-yourself" spirituality.

Americans feel comfortable adopting beliefs like this because they live in a country that guarantees religious liberty by separating church and state. Free from state-imposed orthodoxy, Americans are able to pick and choose among religions. If a person doesn't like what's going on at one house of worship, there are plenty of others to choose from – or walk away from them all.

It's not surprising that some Americans have soured on entire denominations. It can be hard to find the right fit, and more and more people, it seems, are happy to piece together an individualized spirituality that draws on many sources.

This practice is by no means limited to "New Age" devotees or religious liberals. A conservative Christian I know has told me that he just isn't happy with the churches around him. His solution is to pray and study the Bible at home. I'm sure he's not the only one.

I have to wonder if church-based politicking hasn't played a role in the rise of the "nones" as well. Several polls have shown that Americans are uncomfortable with politics emanating from the pulpit. People go to a house of worship to get close to God or share fellowship with other believers – not to be told which candidate to support or hear a lecture on public policy.

Yet the Religious Right keeps egging pastors to politicize their pulpits and to sermonize constantly about abortion, same-sex marriage and now even health-care reform. No wonder people are voting with their feet.

Although the "nones" are getting more attention now, there's nothing new about them or their ideas. Remember that Thomas Jefferson, unhappy with the interpretation of the Bible being promoted by many of the clergy of his time, "rewrote" the New Testament by cutting out certain passages and pasting together what was left to create his own version!

This trend terrifies the Religious Right, of course. How dare Americans presume to interpret holy books and articles of faith for themselves, unaided by TV preachers, dogmatic clergy or other go-betweens?

Leaders of the Religious Right just don't get it. The intolerance, near-fanatical insistence on adherence to a narrow dogma and obsession with politics are driving many away – yet they just keep it up.

Here's a recent example of Religious Right intolerance: Last Friday, about 3,000 Muslims gathered on Capitol Hill to pray for our nation. It's the sort of event evangelical Christians have held many times. Yet several Religious Right groups went ballistic, issuing dire warnings that a peaceful prayer rally was intended to "Islamicize" the United States. (That would be a neat trick for a religion that accounts for less than 1 percent of the population.)

The day of the rally, fundamentalist protesters, led by rabid anti-abortion leader Flip Benham, showed up and harassed attendees. One rally speaker had to ask them to stop shouting during the prayers.

"We would never come to a prayer meeting that you have to make a disturbance," Hamad Chebli, an imam at the Islamic Society of Central Jersey, told the protestors. "Please show us some respect. This is a sacred moment. Just as your Sunday is sacred, our Friday is sacred."

Of course Benham and his gang had a constitutional right to hold a counter-protest, but that doesn't mean it was a smart thing to do. The illiberal protest – and the Religious Right's whining about the Muslim gathering generally – only served to showcase the intolerance of a movement more and more people want nothing to do with.

In a way I suppose I should urge the Religious Right on. The more its leaders and foot soldiers yammer, the less people seem interested in being drafted into their misguided far-right political movement.

I can't help but think that's a good thing.