Almost without it being realized, American religious thought, belief and commitment have undergone significant changes in the past half century. This trend is paralleled by an increasing unwillingness to share in our nation’s burdens and benefits, such as serving in the military, paying one’s fair share of taxes or raising the minimum wage. This reluctance appears rooted in a pervasive self-centered mind-set of "what’s in it for me?" Whether or not this has anything to do with the growing loss of membership across most religious denominations I wouldn’t venture to speculate. But these attitudinal changes and dwindling church membership and religious commitment are at least correlated.
In his 1979 "Malaise" speech President Jimmy Carter called attention to our nation’s growing tendency toward self-absorption and unbridled acquisitiveness. Since he apparently was one of the few politicians to notice this drift, or at least with the guts to publicly acknowledge it, the speech made him appear isolated and probably contributed to his political downfall that culminated in a landslide loss to Ronald Reagan the following year. But Carter told us the truth, we just didn’t want to hear it. But were these attitudinal changes rooted in Washington, Wall Street, the nations religious institutions or all three?
Inspired by a resurgent racism set off by Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights legislation, the 1960s saw a revival of conservative fervor in both American politics and religion. Originating in the former states of the Old Confederacy, a revived evangelical fundamentalism began to permeate the greater American religious scene by the early 1970s. This trend emphasized not what we could do for humankind in the name of Jesus, but what Jesus could do for us. The emphasis was on personal salvation and material success to the exclusion of traditional Christian caring and outreach. Instead of driving the money changers from the Temple, in a sense the money changers took over. The new "me movement’s" intellectual leaders were William F. Buckley, Jr., Jerry Falwell, Barry Goldwater and Pat Robertson. This trend reached its zenith with the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan.
The fundamentalists’ raw right-wing political power facilitated the takeover of the National Rifle Association by the gun lobby crowd. Drunk on dollars from the firearms industry, extremist NRA members, though comparatively few in number, found they could exert disproportionate power by causing trouble for the Association’s leadership through disruptive tactics during meetings. This strategy then spilled over into the Republican Party as it became more and more the exclusive province of the political and religious far right. The takeover was hastened by the wholesale exodus of Southern Democrats to the GOP in reaction to the civil rights legislation of the late 1960s.
These aforementioned trends, along with the concurrent increasing loss of membership and commitment in our major religious bodies, particularly among the younger generations, give me uneasy feelings about out our nation’s future. But does anybody really understand what’s going on? Or does anybody really care?
George B. Reed Jr., who lives in Rossville, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.