The news broke on Sunday that church attendance is down. In the mainline church, this hardly seems like news. It’s something we’ve known for a while. It’s something we’re dealing with every day. The fact that this drop in attendance is focused on less-educated whites might be new insight. I’m not so sure. It seems to have something to do with this new book that belief in God has been in the decline in the United States. This book by Mark Chaves makes the point that this has something to do with the fact that US citizens have lost respect for religious leaders. Of course, I haven’t read it and probably won’t even pick up a copy. But that’s what I read on Huffington Post.
Both of these news articles reflect on the past. There is something that we’ve lost culturally in the US but neither successfully names what that lost icon is. It’s just gone. And now, we’re left with poor leaders in our religious institutions who it turns out are completely human. They struggle with lust and greed. And well, that’s not what we expect from our leaders. Not in the church, the synagogue or the mosque. Or even in the Senate, the House or the White House.
Let’s look back, shall we? Let’s remember what we have thought of our leaders over time. Well, there was that guy in World War I. He was dynamic speaker and motivated a whole generation. His ideas were a little off but we’ve always been a little nervous about leaders since then, haven’t we? We had a series of presidents that led us into wars we didn’t want to fight. My parents generation still hasn’t overcome the scars and wounds around Vietnam. In the church, at about that same time, we were told to just think positively. That worked for some but others were frustrated because they wanted the kind of change that they had heard preached by social gospel. At the same time, political definitions were intensified. And then, about when I was born, we got the me generation. Everyone was for themselves. We didn’t need any leaders. I’m making broad leaps in this history and I’m not a historian. This is my version entirely. But, that’s when the Roman Catholic news hit. The priests were trouble. Our leaders couldn’t be trusted because no one seemed to have the right answer. That’s how I think that we’ve gotten to this point in history where our political and religious definitions are so extreme. We just don’t know how to trust our leaders.
This actually terrified me in Obama’s first campaign. He named the Messiah that would come and cure all of our ills. It was chilling to watch. And it wasn’t going to work. We don’t trust each other enough in this country to let any one leader effectively lead so many differing perspectives. I don’t think something is lost because it’s the reality I’ve known my whole life but I also don’t think that you can accurately make assumptions about people based on surveys. Chaves obviously disagrees with me. He’s comfortable claiming that if you’re religious in 2011, you’re probably a Republican. That may be a majority, but what about those people that don’t fit in that number? What does it even say about those people within that number? Do all Republicans in our country necessarily think, vote and worship the same way? I’m not sure this really says anything interesting other than the fact that political people go to church. That shouldn’t be news when we vote our faith. We should vote with the conviction informed by our sacred traditions but that doesn’t mean we get to determine how everyone else votes. I fear this is why we have a crisis in leadership. We look at the numbers. We think we know the whole story. We miss that those numbers are actual people and people rarely do what you expect them to do.