December 22, 2012
One Nation Under God?
By MOLLY WORTHEN
THIS week millions of “Chreasters” — Americans who attend church only on Christmas and Easter — will crowd into pews to sing carols and renew their vague relationship with the Christian God. This year, there may be fewer Chreasters than ever. A growing number of “nones” live in our midst: those who say they have no religious affiliation at all. An October Pew Research Center poll revealed that they now account for 20 percent of the population, up from 16 percent in 2008.
Avoiding church does not excuse Americans from marking the birth of Jesus, however. Most of us have no choice but to stay home from work or school — and if you complain about this glaring exception to the separation between church and state, you must be a scrooge with no heart for tradition. Christmas has been a federal holiday for 142 years
Yet Christianity’s preferential place in our culture and civil law came under fire this year, and not simply because more Americans reject institutional religion. The Obama administration subtly worked to expand the scope of protected civil rights to include access to legal marriage and birth control. Catholic bishops and evangelical activists declared that Washington was running roughshod over religious liberty and abandoning the country’s founding values, while their opponents accused them of imposing one set of religious prejudices on an increasingly pluralistic population. The Christian consensus that long governed our public square is disintegrating. American secularism is at a crossroads.
The narrative on the right is this: Once upon a time, Americans honored the Lord, and he commissioned their nation to welcome all faiths while commanding them to uphold Christian values. But in recent decades, the Supreme Court ruled against prayer in public schools, and legalized abortion, while politicians declared “war on Christmas” and kowtowed to the “homosexual lobby.” Conservative activists insist that they protest these developments not to defend special privileges for Christianity, but to respect the founders’ desire for universal religious liberty — rooted, they say, in the Christian tradition.
The controversial activist David Barton has devoted his career to popularizing this “forgotten history” through lectures, books and home-school curriculums. Mr. Barton insists
that “biblical Christianity in America produced many of the cherished traditions still enjoyed today,” including “protection for religious toleration and the rights of conscience.”
Bryan Fischer, spokesman for the American Family Association, told me that he saw the “nones” as proof that “the foundations of our culture are crumbling.” The Pew poll, he said, “is one of the signs.” A couple of weeks after we spoke, he told
a radio audience that God did not protect the children killed in the Newtown, Conn., massacre because of the Supreme Court decisions banning prayer and Bible reading in public schools. “God is not going to go where he is not wanted,” Mr. Fischer said.
How accurate is this story of decline into godlessness? Is America, supposedly God’s last bastion in the Western world, rejecting faith and endangering religious liberty?
The truth is that “nones” are nothing new. Religion has been a feature of human society since Neanderthal
times, but so has religious indifference. Our illusions of the past as a golden age of faith tend to cloud our assessment of today’s religious landscape. We think of atheism and religious apathy as uniquely modern spiritual options, ideas that Voltaire and Hume devised in a coffee house one rainy afternoon sometime in the 18th century. Before the Enlightenment, legend has it, peasants hurried to church every week and princes bowed and scraped before priests.
Historians have yet to unearth Pew studies from the 13th century, but it is safe to say that we frequently overestimate medieval piety. Ordinary people often skipped church and had a feeble grasp of basic Christian dogma. Many priests barely understood the Latin they chanted — and many parishes lacked any priest at all. Bishops complained about towns that used their cathedrals mainly as indoor markets or granaries. Lest Protestants blame this irreverence on Catholic corruption, the evidence suggests that it continued after Martin Luther nailed his theses to the Wittenberg church door. In 1584, census takers in Antwerp discovered that the city had a larger proportion
of “nones” than 21st-century America: a full third of residents claimed no religious affiliation.
When conservative activists claim that America stands apart from godless Europe, they are not entirely wrong. The colonies were relatively unchurched, but European visitors to the early republic marveled at Americans’ fervent piety. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote
in 1840 that the absence of an established state church nurtured a society in which “Christian sects are infinitely diversified and perpetually modified; but Christianity itself is a fact so irresistibly established that no one undertakes either to attack or to defend it.”
De Tocqueville visited during a wave of religious revival, but he underestimated the degree to which some Americans held Christianity at arm’s length: the “infidel”
Abraham Lincoln declined to join a church, and his wife invited
spiritualists to hold séances in the White House.
Nevertheless, America’s rates of church affiliation have long been higher than those of Europe — perhaps because of the First Amendment, which permitted a religious “free market” that encouraged innovation and competition between spiritual entrepreneurs. Yet membership, as every exasperated parson knows, is not the same as showing up on Sunday morning. Rates of church attendance have never been as sterling as the Christian Right’s fable of national decline suggests. Before the Civil War, regular attendance probably never exceeded 30 percent, rising to a high of 40 percent around 1965 and declining to under 30 percent in recent years — even as 77 percent still identify as Christians and 69 percent say they are “very” or “moderately” religious, according to a 2012 Gallup
We know, then, that the good old days were not so good after all, even in God’s New Israel. Today’s spiritual independents are not unprecedented. What is new is their increasing visibility. “I like the fact that we’re getting more ‘nones’ because it helps Christians realize that they’re different,” Stanley Hauerwas, a Protestant theologian at Duke Divinity School, said when I asked for his thoughts on the Pew poll. “That’s a crucial development. America produces people that say, ‘I believe Jesus is Lord, but that’s just my personal opinion.’ ”
The temple of “my personal opinion” may be the real “established church” in modern America. Three decades ago, one “none” named Sheila Larson told the sociologist Robert Bellah and his collaborators that she called her faith “Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.” Americans are drifting out of the grip of institutionalized religion, just as they are drifting from institutional authority in general.
THIS trend, made famous by books like Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone
,” has encouraged both the theological mushiness of those who say they are “spiritual, not religious” as well as the unfiltered fury that has come to characterize both ends of the political spectrum. “It seems like we live in a Manichaean universe, with vitriolic extremes,” said Kathryn Lofton, associate professor of American studies and religious studies at Yale. “That’s not unrelated to the lack of tempering authority. ‘Religious authority’ is no longer clergy in the pulpit saying ‘Vote for Eisenhower,’ but forwarded URL links or gossip exchanges in chat rooms. There is no referee.”
For a very long time, Protestant leaders were those referees. If individual impiety flourished in centuries past, churches still wielded significant control over civic culture: the symbols, standards and sexual mores that most of the populace respected in public, if not always in private. Today, more and more Americans openly accept extramarital sex, homosexuality and other outrages to traditional Christian morality. They question the Protestant civil religion that has undergirded our common life for so long.
The idea of Protestant civil religion sounds strange in a country that prides itself on secularism and religious tolerance. However, America’s religious free market has never been entirely free. The founding fathers prized freedom of conscience, but they did not intend to purge society of Protestant influence (they had deep suspicions of Catholicism). Most believed that churches helped to restrain the excesses of mob democracy. Since then, theology has shaped American laws regarding marriage, public oaths and the bounds of free speech. For most of our history, the loudest defenders of the separation of church and state were not rogue atheists, but Protestants worried about Catholics seeking financing for parochial schools or scheming their way into public office to take orders only from mitered masters in Rome.
Activists on both the left and the right tend to forget this irony of the First Amendment: it has been as much a weapon of religious oppression as a safeguard for liberty. In the 19th and early 20th century, when public school teachers read from a Protestant translation of the Bible in class, many Americans saw benign reinforcement of American values. If Catholic parents complained, officials told them that their Roman dogma was their own private concern. The underlying logic here was not religious neutrality.
The Protestant bias of the American public sphere has mellowed over time, but it still depends on “Christian secularism,” said Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, a political scientist at Northwestern University. This is a “political stance” premised on a “chiefly Protestant notion of religion understood as private assent to a set of propositional beliefs,” she told me. Other traditions, such as Judaism and Islam and to some degree Catholicism, do not frame faith in such rationalist terms, or accept the same distinction between internal conviction and public argument. The very idea that it is possible to cordon off personal religious beliefs from a secular town square depends on Protestant assumptions about what counts as “religion,” even if we now mask these sectarian foundations with labels like “Judeo-Christian.”
Conservative Christian activists hold those sectarian foundations more dearly than they admit, and they are challenging the Obama administration’s efforts to frame access to contraception and same-sex marriage as civil rights immune to the veto of “private” conscience. Alan Sears, president of the legal advocacy organization Alliance Defending Freedom, sees an unprecedented threat to religious liberty in the harsh fines facing employers who refuse to cover contraception in their insurance programs. “It is a death penalty. It is a radical change,” he told me. “It’s one thing when you’re debating about public space, but it’s another when you say, if you don’t surrender your conscience, you’re out of business.”
Barry Lynn, the director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (an organization that until 1972 was named, tellingly, Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State), sees things differently. He worries about what might happen if an unpredictable Supreme Court agrees to hear conservative Christians’ challenges to the contraception mandate, or their pleas for exemptions
for charities that accept federal grants but discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring. “The court could create something vastly more dangerous than corporate free speech: a ‘corporate conscience’ claim,” Mr. Lynn, a lawyer and an ordained minister, told me. “These cases could become as significant for the redefinition of religious liberty as Roe v. Wade was a rearticulation of the right to privacy.”
These legal efforts are less an attempt to redefine religious liberty than a campaign to preserve Christians’ historic right to police the boundary between secular principles and religious beliefs. Only now that conservative Christians have less control over organs of public power, they cannot rely on the political process. Now that the “nones” are declaring themselves, and more Americans — including many Christians — see birth control as a medical necessity rather than a sin, Mr. Sears sees a stark course of action for the Catholic and evangelical business owners he represents: “Litigation is all that our clients have.” Their problem, however, is more fundamental than legal precedent. Their problem is that America’s Christian consensus is fragmenting. We are left groping for something far messier: an evolving, this-worldly, compromise.
Molly Worthen is an assistant professor
of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
America's Religious Past Fades in a Secular Age
Unthinkable to the Founders: One in five Americans today has no religious affiliation.
By DAVID AIKMAN
A hypothetical Martian with a deep interest in America's political and cultural history would be surprised and perhaps amused at the religious composition of those running in the current presidential campaign.
The incumbent president is an adult convert to Christianity after being raised by a mother he has described as agnostic but interested in many faiths. His opponent is a Mormon, a faith tradition entirely indigenous to America and less than two centuries old. As for the two vice-presidential candidates, both are Catholic. This is the first presidential election in American history in which neither of the two presidential candidates or vice-presidential candidates was brought up as a Protestant.
According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, American Protestants recently became a minority of the country (48%) for the first time—not just since the American Revolution, but since the establishment of the first English colonies on American soil. Even more notably, the same Pew research revealed that 20% of all Americans now say they are not affiliated with any religion.
At one level, this is a victory for religious pluralism—or, to use the politically correct term, diversity. At another, when one in five Americans has no religious affiliation, it is a commentary on the diminished importance of the moral underpinnings that characterized the United States for most of its existence.
At the country's founding, even skeptics and Deists like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin paid great respect to the morality and values that the vast majority of Americans accepted as God-given standards by which to live. These were standards rooted in Christian belief and teachings. Jefferson, as is well known, was a man of the Enlightenment who was genuinely skeptical about the supernatural claims of Christianity. Even he, however, believed in the need for virtue in national life as an essential ingredient for the safe continuation of the republic.
The Founders shared a conviction about the necessity for national virtue, and most equated this directly with Christianity. Benjamin Rush (1745-1813) said that Christianity was "the strong ground of republicanism. Many of its concepts have for their objects republican liberty and equality, as well as simplicity, integrity and economy in government."
Happily for all of us since then, the Founders rejected the folly of the state's promoting any denominational brand of Christianity. After much early and often noisy opposition from Protestants at the popular level, Catholics came first to be tolerated and then eventually to be welcomed into the national tapestry of faiths. Just as the leaven of the Gospel message of love pricked Protestant Christian consciences to accept Catholics, so did the Gospel's message move Americans to address, and at last erase, the wicked national stain of slavery.
Meanwhile, at the popular level, individual lives were being changed and entire communities swept clean of corruption and squalor through the phenomenal social effect of the Second Great Awakening (from approximately 1800 to 1850), a Christian revival movement that swept the country. A teacher traveling through Kentucky in 1802 at the height of the revivals there reported that "it was the most moral place" he had ever visited. In South Carolina, after similar revivals, he observed: "Drunkards have become more sober and orderly—bruisers, bullies and blackguards meek, inoffensive, and peaceable."
It is hard to believe today, when a secular orthodoxy clanks its way peevishly through academe, the media and popular culture, that it was broadly accepted by most Americans throughout the 19th century that America was at heart Christian—not in any formal or legal sense, but in the values and morality that most people wanted to observe.
The German-trained historian George Bancroft, in his magisterial "History of the United States of America," said that he thought America was a Christian nation established and sustained by God for the purpose of spreading liberty and democracy in the world, an idea that lies at the heart of American exceptionalism. In fact, the belief that America was called by God to be "a new Israel" and a blessing to the world goes right back to the Puritan preacher John Winthrop. In his famous shipboard sermon, "A Model of Christian Charity," on the Arabella in 1631, Winthrop made the much-quoted statement about America: "We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us."
The eyes of all are still upon America, but it is a markedly different place. As the secularization of that city upon a hill continues, it is not hard to imagine a presidential race one day that involves candidates who practice no religion at all. Mr. Aikman, a former Beijing bureau chief for Time magazine, is the author of "One Nation Without God: The Battle for Christianity in an Age of Unbelief" (Baker Books, 2012).
A version of this article appeared October 26, 2012, on page A11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: America's Religious Past Fades in a Secular Age.
By MICHAEL I. MEYERSON
Americans of all political stripes invoked the Declaration of Independence this Fourth of July week. Some read the document and found, as Harvard Prof. Alan Dershowitz has, that it "rejected Christianity, along with other organized religions, as a basis for governance." Others saw the same language proving the opposite, that our nation was founded on "Judeo- Christian values." Such definitive statements do not tell the full story. The American Framers, in their desire to unite a nation, were theologically bilingual—not only in the Declaration of Independence but beyond.
That document was the work of many hands. As is well known, the first draft was written by Thomas Jefferson. That version began with a religious reference that largely remained in the final version, stating that the United States were assuming the independent status, "to which the laws of nature and of nature's god entitle them."
The phrase "Nature's God" is not a product of traditional religious denominations, but is generally associated with 18th-century Deism. That philosophy centered on what has been called "natural theology," a belief that while a "Creator" started the universe and established the laws of nature, the modern world saw no divine intervention or miracles.
The most famous religious phrase in the Declaration—that people are "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights"—was not included in Jefferson's original draft. He had written that people derive inherent rights form their "equal Creation." The iconic language was added by a small committee, including Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.
"Creator" was a theologically ambiguous word. Most Deists used it, but it was also commonly spoken by the most orthodox religions of the day. Timothy Dwight, a Congregational minister who served as president of Yale College from 1795-1817, delivered a sermon stating that the Bible contained "as full a proof, that Christ is the Creator, as that . . . the Creator is God."
Often overlooked in discussing the Declaration of Independence are two more religious references, both added to its closing paragraph by other delegates in the Continental Congress. The delegates described themselves as "appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions," and they affirmed their "firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence."
These phrases were widely regarded as being far more traditionally religious than the earlier language. Ashbel Green, a Presbyterian minister and Jefferson critic who served as chaplain of the House of Representatives in the 1790s, cited these sections to assert that had they not been added, Jefferson would have permitted the American call for independence to be "made without any recognition of the superintending and all disposing providence of God."
But even after the congressional editing, the language of the Declaration wasn't limited to a particular faith. Deliberately designed to be as inclusive as possible, it was a quintessentially American achievement—specific enough to be embraceable by those with orthodox religious views but broad enough to permit each American to feel fully included and equally respected.
George Washington maintained this adroit balance when he became president. In his first inaugural address, written with the assistance of James Madison, Washington declared that it would be "peculiarly improper to omit in this first official Act, my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the Universe."
Even Jefferson and Madison, often described as believing in a total separation of religion and government, continued the practice of using inclusive religious language. Jefferson urged in his first inaugural, "May that infinite power, which rules the destinies of the universe, lead our councils to what is best," while Madison stated that, "my confidence will under every difficulty be best placed . . . in the guardianship and guidance of that Almighty Being whose power regulates the destiny of nations."
The Framers didn't see such nondenominational language as divisive. They believed it was possible—in fact desirable—to have a public expression of religion that is devout, as long as it recognizes and affirms the variety of belief systems that exist in our pluralistic nation. Mr. Meyerson, a professor of law at the University of Baltimore School of Law, is author of "Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America," recently published by Yale University Press.
By DAVID GELERNTER
Presidential elections are America's season for serious chats around the national dinner table. The sick economy, health care and the scope of government are the main issues. But another is even more important. Who are we? What is the United States? Recently Gov. Mitt Romney urged us to return to "the principles that made America, America." But too many of us don't know what those are, or think they can't work.
Yes, Americanism evolves, and by all means let's change our minds when we ought to. We should always be marching toward the American ideals of freedom, equality and democracy, as we did when we ended slavery, granted women the right to vote, and finally buried Jim Crow. But if we forget our basic ideals or shrug them off, as we are doing today, we no longer deserve to be great. Without our history and culture, we have no identity.
Almost no one believes that our public schools are doing a passable job of teaching American and Western civilization. Modern humanities education starts from the bizarre premise that students must be cured of the Europe-centered, misogynist, bigoted ideas of the past. Many American children have never heard a good word for the United States, the West, Judaism or Christianity their whole lives.
Who are we? Dawdling time is over. We have failed a whole generation of children. As of fall 2012, let all public schools be charter schools, competing for each tax dollar and student with every other school in the country. Of course this is a local issue—but a president's or would-be president's job is to lead. There are wonderful teachers, principals and schools out there, and a new public-school system based on the American ideal of achievement will know how to value them.
No principle is more American than equality. Every generation has strained closer to the ideal. We have seen the near eradication of race prejudice in a mere two generations—an astounding achievement. We are a nation of equal citizens, not of races or privileged cliques. Affirmative action has always been a misfit in this country. A system that elevates individuals because of the color of their skin, their race or their sex has no place in America.
Yet a boy born yesterday is destined to atone (if he happens to be the wrong color) for prejudice against black women 50 years ago. Modern America is a world where a future Supreme Court justice, Sonia Sotomayor, can say publicly in 2001, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion [on the bench] than a white male who hasn't lived that life."
Once a justice has intuited, by dint of sheer racial brilliance, which party to a lawsuit is more simpatico and deserving, what then? Invite him to lunch? Friend him on Facebook? This is not justice as America knows it.
Next Independence Day let's celebrate the long-overdue end of affirmative action, and our triumphant return to the American ideal of equality.
Modern American culture is in the hands of intellectuals—unfortunates born with high IQ and low common sense. Witness ObamaCare, a health-care policy, now somehow deemed constitutional, that forces millions of Americans to buy something they don't want.
Bilingualism was the intellectuals' response to one of the best breaks America ever got, a common language to unite its uncommon people. Resolved: The federal government will henceforth conduct its business and publish its statements in English, period. There is plenty of room in this country for new immigrants of all races and religions who want to learn America's culture and be part of this people; none for those who dislike all things American except dollars. Resolved: The federal government will henceforth enforce its own immigration laws.
America's creed is blessedly simple. Freedom, equality, democracy and America as the promised land, the new Jerusalem. What Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he invoked "the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life."
President Obama rejects this creed. He doesn't buy the city-on-a-hill stuff. He sees particular nations as a blur; only the global community is big enough for him. He is at home on the exalted level of whole races and peoples and the vast, paternal power of central governments.
The president has revealed no sense of America's mission to move constantly forward "with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right." Lincoln's sublime biblical English uses the parallel stanzas of ancient Hebrew poetry. That is who we are: a biblical republic, striving to live up to its creed. The dominion of ignorance will pass away like smoke and we will know and be ourselves again the moment we choose to be. Why not now? Mr. Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale, is the author of "America-Lite," out on July 4 by Encounter Books.
A version of this article appeared July 2, 2012, on page A11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: What Is the American Creed?.
Three books about religion Friday, November 12, 2010; 10:31 AM
Religion is an endless source of lively conversation and disagreement, especially in the political arena. From private houses to statehouses, Americans have very different views about religion and how it should affect civic life. Here are three books that suggest answers. 1America's Four Gods: What We Say About God - & What That Says About Us by Paul Froese and Christopher Bader
(Oxford Univ., $24.95). The authors, both associate professors of sociology at Baylor University, undertook a daunting task: to unearth what Americans believe about God by crisscrossing the country, canvassing thousands, joining worship services and speaking with religious communities. The study found correlations between what people think of God and how they live their lives. Is He authoritative, benevolent, critical or distant? (Or is He a She?) The authors conclude that "our picture of God is worth a thousand queries into the substance of our moral and philosophical beliefs."
When the church itself needs saving By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 23, 2010; 9:31 PM
St. Augustine's was facing a death sentence.
The little Episcopal church on the Southwest Washington waterfront had seen the signs. Since its founders proudly founded St. Augustine's as a racially integrated church in 1961, membership had wilted from 180 to 28. Key members passed away or moved. Paint peeled off the ceiling. Mold grew in the basement. The church couldn't pay its bills.
"It was literally dying," the Rev. Martha Clark said of her parish's state in 2007, when the regional bishop gave St. Augustine's three years to become self-sustaining or be shut down.
That's where Bob Gallagher came in. A former Episcopal priest, the gentle 60-year-old is a professional church-savior, a consultant who travels the country trying to resuscitate houses of worship that are losing people and passion. With large swaths of organized religion in decline across the nation
, Gallagher's dance card is full.
His initial meetings at St. Augustine's were emotional. He confronted people who had been focused on paying the mortgage with more wrenching questions: Do you really
have a reason to be in this neighborhood, or could you move somewhere cheaper? What does it mean to be an Episcopalian? Could you merge with a church from another denomination? Do you agree on worship styles? Who
"I remember being in tears," said Virginia Mathis, 64, a St. Augustine regular for 30 years. "He's pushy in a gentle way."
Wrestling with dramatic changes in how Americans practice their faith, many clergy members are willing to wait months to get guidance from Gallagher or someone like him. These consultants have become a small industry, roaming the country to challenge the definition of "church."
When they work with congregations, they put everything on the table ¿ including whether the pastor and the church building are even necessary. Perhaps worshippers could meet in a movie theater instead. Or consider sharing a pastor with some other church. Or ditch their Sunday morning services for a time more people would find convenient.
Consultants routinely press their clients to stop being so fixated on their real estate, routines and rules. They argue that there are plenty of people who don't have any interest in sitting in pews and listening to sermons. The challenge is to come up with a way to engage them.
"The role of the church and the clergy is dying, but I think it needs to," says Tom Brackett, another minister-consultant
who works on church development for the Episcopal Church. "The church doesn't have a mission. We are part of God's mission."
Some parts of organized religion are struggling more than others. Researchers see steeper declines in religious involvement among white Catholics, mainline Protestants and non-Orthodox Jews. But even in faiths that have been growing in numbers, such as nondenominational Christianity, experts say younger Americans are much more estranged from organized religion than young people were a few decades ago.
Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam argues in a new book, "American Grace," that organized religion is suffering ¿ particularly among people in their 20s and 30s ¿ from being too closely tied to divisive political issues, and that it will take decades for that association to wear off.
"The marketplace for religion has changed very dramatically," he said, "and I don't think new sermons or new hymns or new seating will help until the overall public association between intolerance, as young people see it, and religion fades."
But many churches can't afford to wait decades for people to come back, so they're hiring consultants.
The church-saving industry is a blend of theology, therapy and a whole lot of MBA. Consultants talk about pastors' emotional intelligence and use high-tech demographic profiling to better appeal to ¿ and serve ¿ the neighborhoods that surround churches.
Churches are too focused on how many people are sitting in the pews and not enough on who's outside their doors, the consultants say. They preach getting to know the schools, businesses and community groups and forming partnerships with them.
They point to role models not in other churches but at MIT's business school or in the franchising department at McDonald's. Their manuals are loaded with flowcharts and talk about strategy and "critical mass."
Phyllis Tickle, a grandmotherly former publishing executive, has a 1 ½-year-long waiting list of mostly mainline Protestant seminaries and clergy conferences where packed rooms will hear her rewrite the concept of church.
"Are you willing to unscrew the pews?" she says to crowds like one earlier this month at a Virginia Theological Seminary convocation in Alexandria. "How much riffraff are you willing to allow in here? How much liturgical dancing? How many easels?"
The church-saving business also sells course materials designed to boost church membership, such as Alpha USA. The course is presented to small groups, often in homes, by leaders trained never to press their own theological views or "right answers" on a culture that finds the hard sell to be a turnoff.
"If we talk about the idea of Jesus being a savior, we say, 'How does that make you feel?'?" said Gerard Long, a former banking executive who runs Alpha USA, which is used primarily by evangelical churches.
Long, Tickle and Brackett are stars of the church-saving circuit, trying to rescue organized religion and catch up to a culture where many are dubious about whether God cares about buildings and sermons from a pulpit.
At St. Augustine's, Gallagher refused to rule anything out, including a developer's proposal to turn the church, which was designed to look like the Biblical ark, into a riverside wedding chapel; transforming the basement into studio space for artists; changing seats in the sanctuary from rows to a circle; and scrapping the 8 a.m. Sunday service, which drew eight people a week.
But mostly, he pushed parishioners into a kind of group therapy ¿ weekend meetings in the basement where congregants were told to stand up and write their answers to hard questions on poster board, in front of everyone. Can you survive on your own as a congregation? Why should you?
One exercise revealed that many people knew Muslims' daily practice ("prayer five times a day!" multiple voices shouted out) better than that of their own Episcopal tradition.
One night, Gallagher broke about 20 people into small groups to discuss what fed them spiritually. Being in nature, one young woman said. Intellectual debates about God, her husband added. Coming to church for communion, a retired woman said.
Over several months, a consensus emerged: St. Augustine's members wanted a specifically Episcopal presence on the quickly developing Southwest waterfront. They wanted to be in a church building and be a model of racial diversity.
To reach out to their community, they established monthly arts events and lectures. And they encouraged young new residents who weren't interested in worship services to use the Sunday morning breakfast for the homeless as their own communion time.
Other consultants push for more radical solutions. Tickle says she won't work with any church that isn't open to dismantling itself.
The rejection of institutionalized religion by many Americans is, in her view, evidence of a major upheaval she believes happens in Christianity about twice a millennium. Right now, she says, "church" is a middle-class institution in an economy that's becoming increasingly polarized.
Long works with churches that are growing primarily through home church groups and online worshippers who never set foot in a church building. His Alpha USA curriculum is meant to attract people who want to debate questions such as whether the mere notion of God is delusional.
"When the church is inward-looking, it's dying," Long said. "In the developing world, where it's outward-looking, it's exploding."
St. Augustine's is making progress. Membership is up by a few dozen, the church no longer relies on the diocese to pay its bills, and the congregation is considering development options that could produce a financial cushion.
But old-timers remember their congregation before such strains, and the place where they first worshipped: A seafood restaurant.
Moses, the Patron Saint of Washington By Bruce Feiler
Sunday, October 18, 2009
When the Supreme Court began its new term this month, the justices went to work in a building overflowing with Moses. The biblical prophet sits at the center of the structure's east pediment; he appears in the gallery of statues leading into the court and in the south frieze of the chamber; the Ten Commandments are displayed on the courtroom's gates and doors.
Similarly, when the House of Representatives gathers, the members meet in a chamber ringed by 23 marble faces, including those of Hammurabi and Napoleon. Eleven look left; 11 look right. They all look toward Moses, who hangs in the middle, the only one facing forward.
Elsewhere in the nation's capital, the prophet is ubiquitous. He stands in the Library of Congress. He appears in front of the Ronald Reagan Building. Images of his tablets are embedded in the floor of the National Archives. And nearly every occupant of the White House, from George Washington to Barack Obama, has invoked the Israelite leader to guide Americans in difficult times.
Moses is the patron saint of Washington -- and a potent spiritual force in nearly every great transformation in American history, from the nation's founding to the Civil War to the civil rights movement.
Why did a 3,000-year-old prophet, played down by Jews and Christians for centuries and portrayed in the Bible as a reluctant leader, become such a presence in American public life?
Because, more than any other figure in the ancient world, Moses embodies the American story. He is the champion of oppressed people; he transforms disparate tribes in a forbidding wilderness into a nation of laws; he is the original proponent of freedom and justice for all.
His part in the American story begins with the Pilgrims. A band of Protestant outcasts who felt oppressed by the Church of England, they saw themselves as fulfilling the biblical story of the Israelites, the descendants of Abraham who were enslaved in Egypt and freed by Moses, then journeyed toward the Promised Land. When the Pilgrims set sail on the Mayflower in 1620, they carried Bibles emblazoned with Moses leading his people to freedom.
By the time of the Revolution, Moses had become a staple of proponents of American independence. In 1751, the Pennsylvania Assembly chose a quote from the five books of Moses for its statehouse bell: "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants Thereof -- Levit. XXV 10."
After the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 -- under that future Liberty Bell -- a committee made up of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams set about designing a seal for the new United States. Their recommendation: the Israelites crossing through the parted Red Sea, with, as their proposal described it, a ray of fire "beaming on Moses who stands on the shore and, extending his hand over the Sea, causes it to overwhelm Pharaoh."
To beleaguered colonists seeking freedom from the superpower of the day, the story of another oppressed people achieving freedom was a powerful precedent, especially since it was taken from the ultimate source, the Bible.
When the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, though, they quickly descended into lawlessness, with the 12 tribes bickering and complaining about their leader. The solution was to bind them under a new law, a new covenant: the Ten Commandments. (The Bible says the Israelites "re-enslaved" themselves.) Similarly, "God's new Israel," as America was called, entered a period of disarray after the Revolution, and the result was also a commitment to stricter law: the Constitution.
The critical figures in each instance, Moses and George Washington, were warriors as well as lawmakers. Reluctant leaders, both resisted the temptation to turn their nations into monarchies. The analogy was not lost on the new nation. Two-thirds of the eulogies on Washington's death compared him to the biblical prophet. One orator even likened Washington's death before the completion of the District of Columbia to Moses's failure to reach the Promised Land.
The American promised land, however, featured an element of Egypt: slavery. Here again, Moses proved influential. Forced to adopt Christianity, African slaves across the South found kinship in the story of an enslaved people who escaped their masters. Harriet Tubman sang slave spirituals about Moses as coded messages when she led people to freedom on the Underground Railroad. As her fame grew, she adopted the alias Moses, triggering a wave of posters: "Wanted Moses: Dead or Alive."
On Thanksgiving in 1862, as the Civil War raged, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who used the Exodus as a major theme in "Uncle Tom's Cabin," visited the Washington barracks of fugitive slaves who had joined the Union army. After the blessing, the room sang the most famed spiritual of all, "Go Down, Moses," which Stowe's sister dubbed the "negro Marseillaise."
And when Abraham Lincoln died on the threshold of the promised land of victory, he, too, was compared to Moses in many eulogies. "What was the work which Moses was called to do?" asked a Connecticut preacher. "It was nothing less than to deliver his race from slavery. The work before our late beloved president was the same. God called him to free the nation."
Political figures weren't the only ones likened to Moses -- so were national icons. Uncle Sam was compared to the prophet for leading immigrants across the Atlantic; Old Glory for going into the wilderness during the Civil War. And the country's greatest symbol, the Statue of Liberty, was designed to mimic Moses when he came down from Mount Sinai with shafts of light around his head and tablets of law in his hands. On the statue's opening day, Cuban patriot Jose Martí described her as walking "as if to enter the Promised Land."
The presence of Moses in American iconography grew in the 20th century, even as the Bible declined in influence. Woodrow Wilson was compared to Moses for creating the League of Nations, and Franklin Roosevelt for defeating Hitler. Lincoln Steffens's 1926 book, "Moses in Red," called the prophet the founder of communism, while Bruce Barton published a book calling him the greatest capitalist who ever lived. And the builders of the Supreme Court in the 1930s used Moses as the ultimate exemplar of the rule of law.
But it was Cecil B. DeMille who truly elevated Moses to his status as a hero of the American century. His film "The Ten Commandments," released this month in 1956, turned Moses into a Cold Warrior. The Israelites were mostly played by Americans; the Egyptians by Europeans. DeMille himself appeared at the opening of the film to denounce Soviet-style tyranny. And he persuaded Paramount to place 4,000 stone Ten Commandments monuments on courthouse lawns around the country. The publicity stunt became the basis for a 2005 Supreme Court case that approved such displays as long as they had secular purposes.
Today, the Hebrew prophet is as resonant as ever. Early in his presidency, Bill Clinton explained his support of "don't ask, don't tell" by informing a group of senators that Moses went up Mount Sinai and came back with "God's top 10 list." "I've read those commandments," he said. "And nowhere in those Ten Commandments will you find anything about homosexuality."
George W. Bush said in an Oval Office interview that he was inspired to run for the presidency by a sermon in Texas in which his preacher said Moses was not a man of words but still led his people to freedom.
And Barack Obama said in 2007 that while the civil rights pioneers were the "Moses generation," he was part of the "Joshua generation" that would "find our way across the river."
Most striking about Moses's enduring appeal is that a figure introduced into America by white Protestants proved equally appealing for blacks as well as whites, immigrants as well as the native-born. Moses fits the American story because he embodies the courage to escape hardship and seek a better world. He keeps alive the ministry of hope.
He also encapsulates the American juggling act between freedom and law. Moses represents independence, but as the deliverer of the Ten Commandments, he also represents the discipline of being a people of laws. From the Mayflower's "covenantal people" to Bill Clinton's campaign promise to build a "new covenant," American leaders have invoked the Mosaic covenant to project a sense of cohesion and common purpose.
Finally, Moses is a reminder that a moral society is one that embraces the outsider and uplifts the downtrodden. "You shall not oppress a stranger," God says in Exodus 23, "for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt." In that sense, the prophet represents the ideals of American justice.
Yet while leaders often invoke Moses, they, like him, may not see their hopes come to pass. When the Pilgrims' dream of creating God's kingdom failed, for example, their leader, William Bradford, retired and wrote mournful poems comparing himself to Moses. And the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., on the night before his assassination, invoked Moses's heartbreaking death in the wilderness. "I've been to the mountaintop. . . . And I've looked over. I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land."
King's message reminds all the justices, lawmakers and presidents who come to work amidst the Moses images in Washington today: The ultimate goal for a leader is not to reach the land of milk and honey yourself, but to make it possible for others to get there. email@example.com Bruce Feiler
is the author of "Abraham" and "Walking the Bible," which was made into a PBS miniseries. This essay is adapted from his new book "America's Prophet: Moses and the American Story."