The institutionalization of “spiritual but not religious”

New York’s newest mayor, Bill de Blasio, is the latest poster child for the fast-growing “spiritual but not religious” movement in America, and represents a substantial shift in the way spirituality/religion is reflected within American institutions like government.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio Photo by Sally Morrow/RNS

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio
Photo by Sally Morrow/RNS

“His election could reflect a new kind of American politician — one who is shaped by religion and religious values but is not expected to talk about or bow to religion as in years past,” writes  in an article published by Religion News Service.

In other words, de Blasio seems free to be spiritually-minded without using his religious affiliation in order to leverage votes or political favor.

Mayor de Blasio represents a substantial trend in American spirituality. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly one in every five Americans identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Of those, nearly 60 percent say they disagree with some religious teachings or religious leaders, that attending worship services was not important, or that religious leaders were “too pushy.” Another 17 percent said they were too busy to attend worship services, while 15 percent indicated that they had barriers that prevented them from attending services, like work schedules, health problems, a lack of transportation, or other mobility issues.

My guess is, the group that said they were too busy was probably the most honest group. We all prioritize our lives and find a way to do the things that are most important to us. The fact is, communal religious activities just aren’t a priority for many people anymore.

Whether that’s good or bad is for others to decide. But, it’s important for religious leaders to recognize that de Blasio’s election signals a new reality in America. There was once a time when Americans would have shunned a politician who refused to participate in corporate religious activities, but that day is done. Societal change happens in the tiniest increments, and for de Blasio to be able to fly his “SBNR” flag as part of his campaign, rather than having it whispered in the dusty recesses of his campaign headquarters, means this change is already too far a long to prevent. That means an increasing number of candidates who profess the same faith system, as well as those who profess no faith system at all.

That’s not a bad thing. After all, government should be run by people with diverse points of view. But what does that mean for the Church? For the first time in American history, the Church will not be able to rely on other institutions to support its mission. The proclamation of the Gospel will soon be left entirely to the church, its leaders and its members. Historically, the Gospel message could be found within the larger narrative of American life, so much so that it was often taken for granted, until someone came along and reminded us that “In God We Trust” was printed on our currency with the same ink that gave form to presidential likenesses. Nativity scenes in the town square will likely continue to vanish, and more and more businesses will open on Easter. Within the next generation or two, schools may even do away with Christmas and Easter breaks.

But historically, the Church thrived when left to its own devices. Christians proclaimed their messages with fervor when they were the minority, and even when they were persecuted for doing it. Maybe this cultural shift will result in a stronger, more vibrant Church in America.

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