Dr. Diana Butler Bass joins Welton on State of Belief this week to talk about her new book “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of A New Spiritual Awakening.” In it, Dr. Butler Bass explores the reasons behind the rapidly changing state of religious affiliation in America. Unlike some, she believes that we’re not in a cyclical revival of religion in this country, nor that the biggest challenge for America’s religious institutions is to return to orthodoxy and obedience.
RUSH TRANSCRIPT: DIANA BUTLER BASS[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: Welcome back to State of Belief Radio everyone, I’m Welton Gaddy. Dr. Diana Butler Bass is a scholar, a public speaker, a prolific writer, and a provocative thinker on the role faith plays in our world today – and with full disclosure, she’s also a good friend of mine. Her past books include A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story and Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith. In February of this year, she published her latest work, titled Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, and we’ve been working to schedule this interview with her for many weeks. I am delighted that Dr. Butler Bass is finally here in our studios, and I’m really eager to explore the ideas she presents in this new book. I think you’re going to enjoy this interview. Diana, welcome! [DR. DIANA BUTLER BASS, GUEST]: Thank you. It’s great to be here. [WG]: In your new book, you draw parallels between the cultural and social upheavals of the 1970’s with a broad spiritual transformation, as well. I think that’s going to be a new idea for a lot of people. Talk about that, if you will. [DB]: It’s a really interesting pattern that we have from previous eras of American history, that religious upheaval, or spiritual upheaval, often goes hand-in-hand with political and cultural change. We tend to separate those two things, I think, in our popular culture right now: we think about religion as being primarily conservative, and that it doesn’t really drive political or cultural change. But in other generations, the two have moved together. And when a spiritual and religious upheaval and transformation twins with political and cultural upheaval, it often results in what we call periods of awakening: these times in which American history actually changes. And an awakening is not just like a revival meeting, where individuals might get changed; but instead, an awakening is a time when American society, as a whole, is transformed. It was once one thing, and it becomes something very different. And this has to happen on all different levels of American life, religion included. And so I argue, in this book, that there has been an awakening going on that started in the 1970’s, but is now gaining speed and may actually be coming to a tipping point – a real conclusion; that American culture is in a place of profound change. [WG]: That makes even more important, I think, the other item I wanted to insert here at the beginning: I was very interested in the statistic you quote that in the early 1960’s, 22% of Americans said that they had had a mystical experience with God; and that that number had gone up to close to 50% by 2009. That’s a huge change in a very short amount of time! [DB]: It is a big change; and it’s one of the markers that points out the fundamental thing that’s happening about faith and spirituality and religion right now: we’re shifting off of religion being primarily about institutional or brand-name identity, some sort of objective set of doctrines or beliefs that you inherit from your parents, and faith has become much more experiential. And so you can see that in that particular statistic. Once upon a time, it would have been odd for a person to talk about having had a religious experience; but now, half of the population will readily admit to a survey-taker that they have had some sort of meaningful religious experience. [WG]: Do these people share any common characteristics? [DB]: We don’t really know that, in it’s entirety. The characteristic that they do share is that they somehow believe that faith is important internally, and that it has the capacity for creating personal meaning, and a sense of vocation and power in one’s life. And when you think about experiential religion, you could be talking about everything from someone who is a Muslim, who has a direct, unmediated encounter with God; to a liberal Protestant like myself, who has always cherished the spiritual aspects of faith, prayer and meditation, and even involvement in social justice – I find to be a very experiential, powerful thing that helps me meet God; to someone at your local Pentecostal church. So you can see that all those people have different theological beliefs, but what they do share is this emphasis on: that faith is about experience, rather than faith being about doctrine, or some sort of external authority. And that is a big change in American culture. [WG]: I want to do some intentional redundancy here, because I want to go back to be sure that everybody gets the distinction that you’re making, that though there have been periods, even cycles, of religious revivals in the nation, that’s not what you’re talking about. You’re talking about this being a possibility of an awakening that goes beyond religious labels and structured belief systems. In fact, you go so far as to describe a – these are your words – “faith beyond conventional religious boundaries.” [DB]: Yes. I think it is a very exciting time, and that distinction between “revivalism” and “awakening” – it’s a very important one for people to grasp. Many folks are familiar, in American culture, with revivals. Baptist churches, Pentecostal churches, lots of different churches have a yearly revival meeting… [WG]: Amen. [DB]: I know you know abut that part, from your tradition. And so the expectation at a yearly revival is that an individual will find themselves face-to-face with Jesus or God again, and repent of their sins, and straighten their life out – and then they’ll be OK for a year until the next revival, when they have to do it over. But a revival is an isolated and ritualized way of repentance and recommitting one’s own self to God. An awakening is not that. An awakening is a cultural revitalization movement, whereby a culture goes through a period of loss, and grief, and the failure of old institutions, and has to then re-understand what it means to be a People, and have a sense of communal mission, what it means to care for one another, and what our stance and mission to the world should be. And it’s very clear that for the last 30 or 40 years, the United States has been going through a period of time where our institutions have been failing, and that there has been a loss of cultural confidence. And we could continue to go that way, but what I think is happening, what I think many of the statistics show, is that we are in the middle of a process, now, of re-visioning what it means to be a faithful person, and faithful community. And we are beginning to think about what that will do for the future. And I think that that means we are moving through this period of cultural revitalization, and will come out on the other end with different kinds of institutions, religiously and politically – and a new sense of mission, and a new sense of confidence about being people in the world. [WG]: That’s a pretty radical statement, because people usually associate religion with security, stability; and you’re saying that, right now, spirituality is evolving. It’s not trying to maintain; it’s actually going to a new frontier. [DB]: Yeah, a lot of people think that religion, or faith, or spirituality should be a protection from change; that you go to church to connect with something that’s old and that never changes. But the reality of it is, from a historical or sociological perspective in the United States, that religion has always been a part of change. And you can look at several large moments of change in history, around the time of the American Revolution, in the years immediately preceding that, religion went through an enormous cycle of change. And it was a lot of the change that happened in religious institutions that actually led to the political upheaval of the American Revolution.
You get something very similar happening in the early 1800’s, and then again at the turn of the 20th century, and I think that we’re in another one of those moments, when religion and politics are moving through a period of transformation to help to make a different kind of American society. And it is a big, energetic statement to make, and it’s a big claim to make. But I’m willing to make it, because I actually feel like it’s visible, and you can see it in the tensions that are present in religious institutions, as well as the tensions that are present in our political life. We’re fighting about the future of what it means to be an American – and when you’re fighting, it means that something is happening. We wouldn’t be arguing if there wasn’t the possibility of a new thing emerging on the other side of this.[WG]: I know that you realize this: that yours is not the only perspective on this, and among the other perspectives are those who disagree. I think it’s really interesting – maybe ironic – that your book comes out at about the same time as New York Times reporter Ross Douthat has written a book called Bad Religion. If you read the beginning of his book, and read the beginning of your book, you all start at exactly the same place. But as he proceeds, he wants to revitalize what has been with a kind of reformation. You’re saying this is not a day for that; this is a day for innovation, for moving into new territory. [DB]: Yes, that is the essential difference between my book and his book. I was sort of shocked when I read his book, because we do – we start with the exact statistics of institutional collapse. Whereas he thinks that the institutional collapse of religion is bad – I don’t love it; I work with a lot of churches, I honor people who have served in institutional religion as much as I honor people who serve in the military – but the truth of it is, is that the old, conventional structures and institutions of religion have collapsed; and every statistic shows us that. And so here I wrote my book, and this New York Times reporter wrote his book, and we start at the same place. But he then goes on and he says what we have to do in order to fix America is to fix these institutions: we need better institutions that are more theologically orthodox, and we need to purify them. And that is the exact opposite of what I say: actually say that when institutions begin to fall apart, that gives us the possibility for innovation, creativity, and something new to be born. So he calls for us to go back; and my book says, “Let’s go forward.” And the basis of what he doesn’t like, experiential religion, is what I find to be the basis of hope for the future. So if anybody ever had us in the same room, boy, would we have a lively argument! Because I look at these experiential movements, and I think that’s the source of a lot of American optimism, a lot of the energy of our culture – when we have managed to move to a new place, and create new ideas and new products for the rest of the world, it comes out of the people who are disenchanted with old institutions, and comes from the people who are willing to take things into their own hands and make their future. And so that’s where I think that religion and spirituality are going: where people can do that kind of innovative work. [WG]: Diana, you’ve been on State of Belief before, so you knew this question was coming at some point: what does all of this that’s happening in the realm of faith and spirituality impact politics and government? Because right now, there are a lot of conservative Christian leaders just throwing fits over both what’s happening in government and in religion, and they want their voters – but also their congregants – to obey them, and to vote in blocs, and there are a lot of politicians pandering to get to these people. So what’s the impact on politics? [DB]: Well, institutional religion, in the past, has served as a gatekeeper to those kinds of voting blocs, and so it used to be that you could go to the local Catholic bishop and say, “Hey, we want our people to vote for this particular candidate; he’s a good Catholic, and he’ll support what you care about.” And so, institutional religion has functioned in that kind of way, that you can get people behind particular candidates, or particular issues. If that kind of institutional religion is still empowered, well that’s the way you can think about it, politically. But if we’re moving towards a culture with this much more diffuse, less institutional and more innovative kind of spirituality, and that people are forming new kinds of communities, there are no gatekeepers; there are, essentially, no voting blocs. And you actually don’t know how all those people are going to vote. And so there is no way of controlling the emerging vision of political and cultural life. There are ways of beginning to see what it might look like: it’s far less hierarchical; it’s very interested in the ideas of connection… [WG]: Faith traditions may change their relationships, be more open with each other… [DB]: Yes, people will be much more open, and there will be fewer boundaries between religious traditions. I’ve sometimes said that the emerging kind of religious pattern is going to be friendlier to movements like Occupy Wall Street, politically; or some of the environmentalist movements. It’s going to be more movement-oriented than it is going to be political party-oriented. So the new faith and spirituality poses somewhat of a threat to the old institutional structures, and I think that it is an udertow of the political argument we’re having right now. [WG]: That’s great. I was just sitting here thinking, as you described that – you know, freedom is a scary thing for someone who likes control. And we’ve got a lot of people in the Churches I know who have managed control, because they get what they want. I think what you’re talking about would scare them to death! [DB]: Yeah – and it has, in the past. One of the most exciting things about looking at awakenings through history is that these kinds of religious awakenings – or I would say spiritual awakenings – in American history have always resulted in less hierarchy, and broadening the circle of democracy. And so these movements have always leveled the playing field, allowed for greater social equality, and brought more people to the table in terms of voice and their power to participate in the political process. And so we could be in a moment – when we are literally in a 50/50 moment. 50% of the people want to go back, like that Ross Douthat book Bad Religion – you know, he clearly wants a different kind of religion, so that we have a different kind of political life, and he sees the 1950’s as being the best example of the greatest America we’ve ever had. And I’m sorry that I don’t share that perspective. But then we have probably 50% of the culture that’s moving in this new pattern of faith and spirituality, and I am certain they are demanding a different kind of political life – they just don’t have the voices yet, or the attention of the media, in order to be able to articulate it quite as clearly as the old structures of political power. [WG]: Well, to be, possibly, heretically simplistic, it strikes me that it is the pull between comfort and hope – and hope demands much more discomfort in moving in its direction. One last question, because we’re just about out of time: what did you learn from this book – in researching it, in writing it – what did you learn that impacted you the most? [DB]: Oh, that’s a great question. I think that there were two things. One, I was stunned by how complete the collapse of conventional religion has been in the course of the last dozen years. I think everyone expected religion to have a rebirth with the new millennium, but it has gone exactly the opposite direction, and more and more Americans feel freer, every single hour, to reject conventional religion. And that was a surprise to me. I think it’s been a surprise to a lot of religious leaders.
And then, I think, on the other side of the collapse has been, for me, a re-commitment – or a re-connection – to my own sense of courage. As I’ve thought about an awakening being a cultural revitalization movement, and seen that this is actually happening across our society, and that the possibilities are great for a renewal of American life – it has given me a new sense of urgency, and courage, and hope for the future. And I think I went into this project, myself, with a little less enthusiasm for those possibilities. And so I’ve actually learned that you can’t just say “hope,” but you’ve got to act out “hope” – and that I’ve got great enthusiasm for encouraging people to make sure that they can act “hope,” not just say it. And if we can act hopefully, I think we can create a new future.[WG]: Dr. Diana Butler Bass is the author of six books on American Religion. Her latest is one that I think you would find very interesting to read: it’s entitled Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. Dr Butler-Bass, thank you so much for being with us today on State of Belief Radio. [DB]: Thank you!
State of Belief is based on the proposition that religion has a positive and healing role to play in the life of the nation. The show explains and explores that role by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America – the most religiously diverse country in the world – while exposing and critiquing both the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.
Each week, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy offers listeners critical analysis of the news of religion and politics, and seeks to provide listeners with an understanding and appreciation of religious liberty. Rev. Gaddy tackles politics with the firm belief that the best way to secure freedom for religion in America is to secure freedom from religion. State of Belief illustrates how the Religious Right is wrong – wrong for America and bad for religion.
Through interviews with celebrities and newsmakers and field reports from around the country, State of Belief explores the intersection of religion with politics, culture, media, and activism, and promotes diverse religious voices in a religiously pluralistic world.
The host of State of Belief, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, leads the national nonpartisan grassroots and educational organizations, The Interfaith Alliance and The Interfaith Alliance Foundation and serves as the Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana. Welton is one of 20 international religious leaders on the Council of 100 Leaders, a group created by the World Economic Forum to improve dialogue and understanding between the Western and Islamic worlds.
While ministering to churches with a message of inclusion, Welton emerged as a leader among progressive and moderate Baptists. Among his many leadership roles, he is the immediate past President of the Alliance of Baptists and is a twenty-year member of the Commission of Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance. His past leadership roles include serving as a member of the General Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Chair of the Pastoral Leadership Commission of the Baptist World Alliance.
Prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, Welton served in many leadership roles in the SBC including membership on the convention’s Executive Committee from 1980-1984 and Director of Christian Citizenship Development of the Christian Life Commission from 1973-1977.
Welton received his undergraduate degree from Union University in Tennessee and his doctoral degree and divinity training from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.