The State of Religion in America

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, August 17, 2014

Luke 6:27-36 NLT

Reading from The Essential Dalai Lama

When you read the sermon title for this morning, “The State of Religion in America,” your first inclination may have been that I would be speaking on the state of Christianity in America, the continual tug of war between Christian Conservatives and Christian Liberals.  But that is not what I have in mind, so you can erase that idea from your mental chalkboard.  Rather, my focus is the state of other world religions in America and how things have changed in recent years so that America’s religious climate is becoming so much more diverse.

On the airplane en-route to Great Falls, Montana, last month, I was reading a recent issue of Christian Century magazine when one short article in particular jumped off the page at me.  Actually, it wasn’t really an article, but a quarter-page, colored graphic of all 50 U.S. states that gave some startling statistics.  The title of the entry was “State of Religion: The second-largest religion in each state as of 2010.”  While Christianity remains the largest religion in every one of our 50 states, the second-largest religion in each state varies according to which area of the country you are looking at.  I was surprised at what I saw, to say the least.

For instance, in the Northeast (New England states plus the states of New York, Pennsylvannia, Ohio, Minnesota, Missouri, and Tennessee), the second-largest religion is Judaism.  That didn’t surprise me at all.  In the middle Atlantic and southeastern and some Midwest U.S. states, for the most part the second-largest religion is Islam.  This includes some 20 states.  The only exception in the southeastern region is South Carolina, where the second-largest religion is the Baha’i religion.  In Arizona, the second-largest religion is Hinduism.  But then the most surprising revelation to me is the second-largest religion in our western states (California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Hawaii, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, and Oklahoma). Would you care to guess what the second-largest religion in those states is?  It is Buddhism.  My first reaction upon absorbing all of this was that line of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz: “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Now, we could take this data and deduce any number of observations, and possibly conclusions, from it.  It could also give rise to any number of questions.

One observation is that the idea that America is a “Christian nation” is a fallacy.  It is true that Christian principles and mores tend to be predominant in our culture.  But to those of other world religions, to hear politicians refer to America as a “Christian nation” must be somewhat offensive.  Often we hear someone talk about returning America to its Christian roots, as though the forefathers of our nation were all practicing, conservative Christians.  Such was just not the case.  Early on our nation had a diversity of religious persuasions, in addition to its diverse Christian population, which included Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Dutch Reformed, Quakers, Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Catholics, just to name a few.  But there were also Jews, Muslims, Deists, Rationalists, and even Agnostics.  And it was the intent of the framers of the U.S. Constitution to accommodate such religious diversity.  To say that our nation’s forefathers had in mind founding a strictly Christian nation is a fallacy, I think.  Religious diversity has been here all along.  But my perception is our nation continues to get more religiously diverse as time goes on.

One big question that the data I shared with you raises in my mind is this: Why is Christianity becoming less dominant, nationally speaking, as other religions like Islam and Buddhism continue to grow in membership and influence?  An article this past week in the Wall Street Journal on Islam in America noted that the Muslim population in the U.S. is expected to more than double by the year 2030, making them as numerous as American Jews and Episcopalians.1  Or to frame the question another way, What is it about these other, growing world religions that is so attractive so as to draw Americans into their folds? Is Christianity failing in some way?  Has Christianity in recent decades or recent centuries strayed from its core, an important core that might be found in other religions who take it more seriously?

Now, I don’t know enough about American Islam to comment on my own question in that regard.  But I have done a wee bit of study in Tibetan Buddhism, and in that regard I can understand why some Americans are being drawn to it.  I have great respect for the Dalai Lama, who is the chief spokesperson for Tibetan Buddhism, and I think he has some things to teach us, if we are open and willing to listen.

As I understand the Dalai Lama’s philosophy and teaching, the heart of Tibetan Buddhism (as he practices it anyway) is compassion.  To quote the Dalai Lama himself, “I believe the purpose of all the major religious traditions is not to construct big temples on the outside, but to create temples of goodness and compassion inside, in our hearts.”2  In this same book the Dalai Lama includes a chapter on the teachings of Jesus, in which he quotes Jesus, specifically Jesus’ teachings on loving our enemies.  My conviction is that the heart of Christianity, as Jesus taught it in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, is also compassion.  In that parable, Jesus said, when the despised Samaritan saw the man beaten on the side of the road, “he felt compassion for him.”  Jesus concluded the parable by saying, “now go and do the same” (Luke 10:33, 37 NLT).  In another place in Luke, as I read for our text today, Jesus is quoted as saying, “You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate” (Luke 6:36 NLT).

So basically the point I wish to make here is that at the core, the teachings of Jesus and the Buddhist teachings of the Dalai Lama are both centered around compassion. So after thinking about it, it is no surprise to me that in our 13 western states, the second-largest religion after Christianity is Buddhism.  But the question that still bugs me is this: Has Christianity strayed from its core and become so obsessed with peripheral issues that it is losing members to other religions like Buddhism that supply what Christianity is lacking?  Or to phrase the question another way, If Christianity as a whole focused on the core teachings of Jesus about compassion, grace, forgiveness, and service to suffering humanity, would there be such an exodus to other religions as we are witnessing in the world today?

These are hard questions that we may not want to hear; but they are, perhaps, questions we need to be asking ourselves.  Such is why I feel that churches like this United Church are so important to our community and our wider world.  It falls to us, and a few select churches like us, to hold forth the banner of compassionate Christianity that focuses on compassion, grace, forgiveness, doing unto others as we would have them do unto us, tolerance, inclusiveness, and service to humanity.  There is far too much exclusiveness and hatred in some churches that bear the Christian name; far too much finger-pointing because all do not believe exactly the way some think you should believe; far too much judging others because of their sexual orientation or other differences that don’t fit into some preconceived mold.

Diversity in religious thought, belief, and practice is a given.  We just have to learn to accept it and deal with it in a constructive manner.  The Dalai Lama concludes that chapter from which I read earlier by saying:

“If we try to unify the faiths of the world into one religion, we will also lose many of the qualities and richnesses of each particular tradition.  Therefore, I feel it is better, in spite of the many quarrels in the name of religion, to maintain a variety of religious traditions.  Unfortunately, while a diversity of religious traditions is more suited to serve the needs of the diverse mental dispositions among humanity, this diversity naturally possesses the potential for conflict and disagreement as well.  Consequently [and this is really the most critical point], people of every religious tradition must make an extra effort to try to transcend intolerance and misunderstanding and seek harmony.”3   He puts it well.

The truth is, we are not going to change the religious makeup of America.  Things are what they are, as they say.  But we do need to learn how to view the growing religious diversity in America.  And we do need to be open-minded enough to think that we might actually learn something from other world religions, if we would let ourselves.  Hear me loud and clear: I am not suggesting that we need to become Buddhists or anything other than Christians.  The Dalai Lama doesn’t believe that either.  He doesn’t try to convert anyone to Buddhism.  Rather, his aim is to encourage every person to be true to the religion they profess, and to be the very best of that religion that they can be.

So the last point I would make—and the most important—is we need to be sure that we are being true to the core teachings of the faith we profess—compassion, love, forgiveness, grace—and in such a way that others will be drawn to our Way instead of being turned off and turned away.  Amen.

 1Wall Street Journal, A3, August 15, 2014.     2Dalai Lama, The Essential Dalai Lama: His Important Teachings.  New York: Viking, 2005.  P. 250.     3Ibid, p. 252.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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