instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Not just one of many

Peter Nixon mentions an article by Beliefnet editor in chief Steven Waldman about the American-ness of the religious backgrounds of Howard Dean (baptized Catholic, raised Episcopalian, now Congregationalist) and Wesley "I'm a Catholic but I go to a Presbyterian church" Clark. Waldman writes:
But if Dean and Clark are therefore spiritually promiscuous, they have excellent company. Twenty to 30 percent of Americans now practice a faith different from the one in which they were raised, according to sociologist Robert Wuthnow. And a much higher percentage have switched houses of worship.
Peter comments:
I'm much less convinced than Waldman that the "consumer" approach to religion and spirituality is a positive thing. But there is no question that Dean and Clark are, on this issue at least, solidly in the American mainstream.
Something I think Waldman overlooks is that two of those he mentions as critics of Dean and Clark -- Tim Russert and Deal Hudson -- are Roman Catholics.

I don't think you'd mistake an article on Catholicism by Tim Russert for one by Deal Hudson, but the fact is that moving to and from the Catholic Church is still a Big Deal to many Catholics, in a way that perhaps moving from one Protestant denomination to another is not to many Protestants. For good reasons and bad, Roman Catholics really aren't just one of many Christian confession in the U.S., and although as time goes on we as a group become more distinctly American and less distinctly Catholic the divide between "Roman Catholic" and "Non-Roman Catholic" lessens, it's still there.

Waldman also writes:
Another misconception that has crept into the media analysis of the candidates' religious statements is the idea that Americans approach religion with the mind-set of theologians. Thus, Dean and Clark were maligned not only because they shifted a lot but because they seemed to do so for superficial reasons....
But again, this isn't unusual behavior. Americans often choose houses of worship, and denominations, based on a combination of both the doctrinal and the practical and emotional. Which church has the best choir? Which is closest to home? Whose preacher is the least boring? Where do my friends go? How does the service make me feel?
Put it that way, I wonder whether Catholics actually do approach religion with the mind-set of theologians, at least relative to Americans as a whole. We may choose parishes based on choirs, convenience, and preaching, but how many Catholics leave the Church for such "practical and emotional" reasons? Yes, a lot of people do leave for emotional reasons, but aren't they generally deeply felt emotions like betrayal or outrage, rather than musical sympathies?

I'd guess most of the people I know who have left the Church left because they simply do not believe the extravagant claims She makes regarding herself. Their disbelief may not often arise from particularly deep theological reasoning, but it does seem to be at least roughly theological in character.

Waldman's final paragraph includes these sentences:
Every religion seems absurd to those who don't believe in it. Each person's spiritual path makes more sense to them than to anyone else.
I agree with the first statement, if not read too literally. The second one, though, is not necessarily true. Many person's spiritual paths only make sense as paths toward or away from God, and the person on the path can't always tell which direction he's moving.