Godless Washington

Call this the anatomy of a USA Today quotation.

There I was minding my own business when I received a call from Cathy Grossman, religion writer for USA Today, saying she was writing an article on ‘godless Washington’. Accustomed as I am to a culture war climate in which godless Washington is usually a reference to political shenanigans in our nation’s beloved capital city, I was happily surprised to learn that she was talking about the godless State of Washington, a state I am proud to call home.

It is not that I am happy or proud that my home state is regularly cited as the least churched state in the union, but that I was pleased a religion writer was interested in the issue of our region’s decreased interest in religion combined with its increased interest in spirituality.

In her now published article (USA Today, Charting the unchurched in America, March 7, 2002), Ms. Grossman points out that Americans almost all say religion matters, yet more people than ever are opting out. 14% of people in our nation now say they embrace no religion (compared with 8% in 1990), yet interestingly, the unchurched volunteer time and money to charitable causes, including religious ones.

After interviewing a Ralph Leitner about Easter with his kids in the great outdoors, where ‘you can’t help but be spiritual out there,’ I am quoted as follows: ‘But that can be pretty thin gruel for soul food,’ says Christian radio talk-show host Dick Staub, 53, who was born and raised in the West. His show focuses on those junctures ‘where belief meets real life’.

‘Lots of people will tell you they are on a spiritual journey,’ says Staub, a regular churchgoer. ‘Then along comes a moment when something happens — your mother dies or your child has cancer or Sept. 11 happens — and there you are wandering around saying, ‘Whatever.’ People want help connecting, creating community and seeing God in other people. But religious institutions have been discredited, so they are trying to do it outside the churches.’

While grateful for Ms.Grossman’s inclusion of my remarks in her article, let me make a few clarifying comments.

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–When I talk about organized religion I usually refer to the marginalization of religion, which is slightly different from ‘discredited’. To discredit usually means valid accusations have been brought against the ‘discredited institution’. While I believe many religions institutions have been discredited, the ‘marginalization of religion’ refers to religion’s perceived place outside the center of people’s lives. The church has been assigned to this place by all sorts of people who, rightly or wrongly, do not find organized religion relevant to their personal lives or to our broader society.
–Which leads to my next comment. I think today’s spiritual journey is almost always a search with three dimensions. People are looking for individual meaning and identity, community and for the transcendent (God).

Ms. Grossman’s quote in which I referred to ‘finding God in each other’ was actually a reference to Rabbi Harold Kushner’s (Why bad things happen to good people) answer to my question: what do you think of people who say they are on a spiritual journey but are uninterested in religion? His response was that to truly find God one must be part of community, because God is often revealed in interaction with other people of faith. Kushner’s point is that religion is an individual’s spiritual search with others in community, while today’s spirituality is often a self-oriented search, which without religious community will never satisfy or lead them to a full understanding of God.

So to clarify, I do believe God is revealed through others, but the transcendent God, while reflected in humans, is also a separate being who desires a direct relationship with humans, who are created in His image, but are not God! This is an important distinction because so much of today’s new age search begins with the notion that we are all god and to find god I must only look within.

The reasons the State of Washington is so un-churched are diverse and complex but for organized religion to connect with people it must at least connect to the three deep needs I mentioned earlier: to understand personal identity, to enjoy relationship in community and to discover a personal connection with the living God. George Barna says that young people are leaving organized religion for precisely these reasons: they don’t find the teaching is helping them sort through their personal life issues, their best friendships are outside the church and they simply do not feel they have connected with God in the church worship services.

This much I know. Those of us who are actively involved in church in ‘godless Washington’ need to be concerned about and take action to help spiritual seekers in our state who are looking for what we say we have found.

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