Religion and Representation
By CHARLES M. BLOWYears ago, my oldest son told me that he thought those in our small Baptist church had all been brainwashed. How else could they believe in the unbelievable? At the time, I was shocked.
He later softened that position. Although he said that he couldn’t accept all things biblical, he explained, quite eloquently I thought, that he “wouldn’t want to live in a world where a God didn’t exist.” I was impressed.
Then, a few months ago, he told me that he was a deist. I was confused. This time I had to turn to the all-knowing and omnipresent — Google.
Through it all, I’ve been very sympathetic about my son’s spiritual quest, in part because my own religious beliefs are evolving. I have gone from the most devout born-again Christian to a more nebulous, nondoctrinal set of beliefs that do not necessarily align with organized religion. When people ask about my faith, I often reply, “unresolved.”
This is increasingly the face of religion in America — fluid, fluctuant, questioning, nonconformist and in many cases unaffiliated.
That’s why a report this week by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life about the religious composition of the 112th Congress caught my eye. According to the report, the unaffiliated (atheists, agnostics, the unchurched, uncommitted, etc.), at 16.1 percent of the population, is the largest religious group in America without representation in Congress. (Six members, about 1 percent, did not specify a religious category.)
For perspective, there are almost two-thirds as many unaffiliated people as there are Catholics in this country and nearly as many as there are Baptists. Their number is more than twice that of Methodists, and more than nine times the numbers of Jews or Mormons. Yet, no unaffiliated representation. Why?
First, let me get this out of the way: I don’t for a second believe that all those members are religious. I believe some are trapped in the religious closet of American politics where nonbelief is a nonstarter. It’s not only seen as unholy, it’s also seen as un-American. (Although Pete Stark, a California Democrat and a Unitarian, has said that he doesn’t believe in a Supreme Being. One out!)
Second, and perhaps more important, the unaffiliated are simply not unified. They have few advocacy groups or high-profile faces. They don’t congregate, organize or petition like members of organized religions. Politicians don’t feel the need to court them, let alone identify as one of them. Part of the problem is that the unaffiliated are a jumbled lot. Only about a fourth are atheists or agnostics. Many of the others feel strongly connected to religion, but choose not to participate. It’s like a protest vote.
Whether they are organized, cohesive or disgruntled, the unaffiliated are the fastest-growing religious category in America. Nonaffiliation is not un-American. Increasingly, it is America. Eventually, our politics will have to catch up.