The religious history of America is best understood if we talk about four traditions that have characterized the life of believers: Spiritual, Evangelical, Sacramental and Plural. For 500, these have shaped our nation, but each in its own time and in its own way. They have also shaped the way each of us understands and experiences our own encounter with God.
Twenty percent of the American people today describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” or “religious but not affiliated.” Marrianne Williamson and Depak Chopra are well-known leaders among those in the Spiritual stream. Many are former members of churches, what one person has called the “church alumni association.”
Spiritual folk and their kin have no home among established churches. They consider them restrictive and authoritarian. They seek a higher power either within themselves or in a nature brimming with the presence of the divine.
Their story is told in an interesting way by Robert Fuller in his new book: Religious Revolutionaries: The Rebels Who Reshaped American Religion.
It is not a new phenomenon, he asserts. In fact, it may be the oldest tradition in American religious history. Ann Hutchinson, Roger Williams, Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James are a few of the luminaries in this fellowship. Their influence on American culture is enormous.
I grew up in the Evangelical tradition, among Baptists in the South, complete with revivals, prayer meetings and emotional testimonies of personal transformation.
Without question this has been the most powerful religious influence in American history. It has roots in the Puritan experience in New England but found its real power in the great revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Billy Graham is the epitome of this approach to Christian faith and practice, but he has many ancestors, including Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Charles G. Finney, and Dwight L. Moody. Most testified to personal, life-changing conversions and all called their hearers to such experiences.
Kathryn Kuhlman, Oral Roberts and Pat Robertson represent those who have intensified this emphasis on religious experience. They infused the Evangelical tradition with the Pentecostal/Charismatic teaching that exploded on the national scene during the 20th century.
Next, consider the Sacramental believers: in the beginning, only the Anglicans (what we today call Episcopalians) plus a few Catholics and even fewer Lutherans. These folk find their religious life centered in the public rituals of the respective traditions, along with structured doctrines and social expectations.
Then came the wave after wave of European immigrants: from Ireland, Italy and eastern Europe. They brought with them more of their liturgical ways: more Catholic, more Lutheran, and even a few Orthodox.
Even though he is neither Anglican, Lutheran nor Orthodox (of any kind: Antiochene, Greek or Russian!) but solidly Roman Catholic and living in Rome, the pope nevertheless symbolizes those in the Sacramental tradition, with its elaborate ceremonies for all occasions.
In the century and a half since 1850, Christians in the Sacramental tradition have grown from 5 percent of the U.S. population to 50 percent.
In recent years, we have witnessed the rise of a radically Plural population of believers in America. They are Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and a host of more local brands of religious faith (including Native American, Wiccan and even various brands of voodoo). These have joined the long-standing Jewish community to create viable alternatives to any form of Christianity.
Dianne Eck, professor of religious studies at Harvard University, leads a nationwide study simply called “The Pluralism Project.” She and her research associates have documented the incredible variety of religions in America, enough to support the claim that we are the most religiously diverse nation in the entire world.
A believing people we are, indeed: Spiritual, Evangelical, Sacramental and Plural–all at the same time. Most of us recognize how our own faith and practice is shaped by some or all of these traditions and many of our home-grown religions are an amalgam of all.
Who knows what yet-unforeseen expressions of religious life await us yet.
How precious, then, and powerful is our first freedom, which is codified in the Bill of Rights attached to the Constitution of the United States: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Dwight Moody is a writer, preacher and theologian living in Lexington, Ky.