Give Me That Old-Time Religion

The American Religious Identification Survey released yesterday by Trinity College has found that (brace yourselves) “secularity continues to grow in strength in all regions of the country.”

Did we really need a report to figure that out? I could have just turned on my television—if it weren’t permanently set to the 700 Club—to reach the same conclusion. I mean think of all that time and money we could have used to find out something important, like, as Christopher Hitchens argues, studying the mutation patterns of fruit flies or “setting up barbed-wire, hair-snagging stations” to get a count on the number of grizzly bears.

(I guess that’s so Stephen Colbert, notorious for his hatred of bears*--and his devastating good looks--will know just how many more he needs to kill. *Note: If you follow the link, you will find an entire web page devoted to Stephen’s Teddy Ruxpin phobio. And, I thought that I had cornered the “How to Waste Your Time on the Internet Without Really Trying” market.)

But this post is supposed to be about religion, not bears or fruit flies, which we all know are decidedly un-Christian. God tells us the only animals that will be in heaven are (1) the lion laying down with the lamb and (2) my goldfish Silver. (I was color-blind as a child. Or, it could have been that “Goldie” had already been taken by my sister’s fish. We were creative like that.)

Still, I must say that the fact that America is becoming more secular doesn’t really worry me. I’m relocating to the French Riviera once this blog skyrockets me into fame, fortune, and utter narcissism. What worries me is that "secularity continues to grow in strength" could just as easily be said about America's churches. "My brothers and sisters, this should not be."

As William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, told Lou Dobbs, "The three most dreaded words are 'thou shalt not.'” He goes on to say it’s not that these people (who claim not to be religious in the survey) are atheists, it’s just that they don’t want to be told what to do with their lives. Newsflash: you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. Anyone who wants to “believe in God” without accepting that there are some “shall” and “shall nots” that go along with the territory is like a person who knows he has a million dollars in the bank but refuses to use it because he doesn’t want his life to change for the better.

In too many churches, people (undoubtedly some of the 75 percent who identified themselves as religious on the survey) can walk into a service having just partied like it was Saturday night(because it was) with no sense of irony or conviction. Now, I’m not going to say I haven’t done it myself, but I felt bad as hell when I did. Why? My church wasn’t afraid to tell people “thou shalt not.” It wasn’t worried about maintaining attendance. It was worried about maintaining souls.

And, to anticipate the charge that I’m preaching fire, brimstone, and judgment, let me insert disclaimer here: I believe anyone who walks into a church should feel welcomed and loved no matter what they may have done the night before. They shouldn’t feel condemned, but they shouldn’t feel comfortable either. Somewhere along the way, they need to hear a “thou shalt not.”

I daresay if churches would begin to work a little more “thou shalt not” into their Sunday morning sessions, there would be a night and day (or would it be heaven and hell?) difference in our churches. More importantly, once those 75 percent share love--and then some "thou shalt nots"--with the other 25 percent, the country's secular landscape might begin to change.

UPDATE: Although evangelicalism was the only sect that did not show a decline in numbers in the American Religious Identification Survey, Michael Spencer thinks the writing is on the wall. He offers this chilling (yet hopeful) assessment of the future of the evangelical world.

"We need new evangelicalism that learns from the past and listens more carefully to what God says about being His people in the midst of a powerful, idolatrous culture."

Undoubtedly, to be successful, this "new evangelicalism" must take a firm stance on some of those old "thou shalt nots."


  1. A post about religion. Quel intolérant. Seriously though, did you not get the memo that:

    We believe everything is OK
    as long as you don't hurt anyone
    to the best of your definition of hurt,
    and to the best of your knowledge.

    We believe in sex before, during, and
    after marriage.
    We believe in the therapy of sin.
    We believe that adultery is fun.
    We believe that sodomy’s OK.
    We believe that taboos are taboo.

    We believe that everything's getting better
    despite evidence to the contrary.
    The evidence must be investigated
    And you can prove anything with evidence.

    We believe there's something in horoscopes
    UFO's and bent spoons.
    Jesus was a good man just like Buddha,
    Mohammed, and ourselves.
    He was a good moral teacher though we think
    His good morals were bad.

    We believe that all religions are basically the same-
    at least the one that we read was.
    They all believe in love and goodness.
    They only differ on matters of creation,
    sin, heaven, hell, God, and salvation.

    We believe that after death comes the Nothing
    Because when you ask the dead what happens
    they say nothing.
    If death is not the end, if the dead have lied, then its
    compulsory heaven for all
    excepting perhaps
    Hitler, Stalin, and Genghis Kahn

    Of course that needs to be updated to reflect George W. Bush. And yes I shamelessly stole that from Ravi Zacharias who reprinted it with the permission of its author Steve Turner.

    I'm subscribe to Paul's dangerous doctrine of Christian liberty. In the wrong hands it becomes a Rasputinesque call to illicit behavior, but properly understood the idea of all being permissible but not all being beneficial allows for a greater tolerance, as does the knowledge that we cannot save anyone, but it is Christ living through us who saves. The flimsy grasp on doctrine I think hurts the application of it.

    You know I can belabor this point, so I'll attempt to prevent this long comment from becoming interminable, I mentioned this to Slublog yesterday, I think it was yesterday, via Twitter, the decline in self-identified religious affiliation is due (in my not so humble opinion) in no small part to the way far too many of the faithful failing to exhibit the humble servanthood of our Savior.

  2. And allow me to revise and extend, I agree completely with your last paragraph. Explaining the shall nots in the context of God trying to keep us from hurting ourselves wouldn't hurt either. Again some degree of doctrinal understanding would go a long, long way.

  3. The religion of secularism has just as many "thou shalt nots" as any other, the only difference is what they're based on. And secularism operates solely through guilt and peer pressure. Where's the love man?

  4. Excuse me for preferring some of the more pleasant "shalls," e.g., be fruitful and multiply . . .

  5. Anonymous10.3.09

    Enlightened Thought

    Shame on you! Do not ever fight,
    Everybody may be right.
    Stifle "unprogressive" rants...
    Objective truth has no appeal.

    It won't matter what my eyes see,
    only how I want to feel;
    My own heart would "take a chance",
    Define on its own what is "real".

    [Unless you are taking from me]
    "Just Cause" may lie or steal;
    Don't take that self-righteous stance...
    On your "moral absolutes" ideal.

    What right have YOU to say what is "wrong";
    Have cliques where some "don't belong"?
    Why can't each do his own thing...
    Without the strait-laced repressing"

    Hang the "Do unto others" sort!
    My desires are of greatest import;
    Do self-affirming mental chants...
    I define what is "progressing"!

    J David

  6. Anonymous10.3.09

    Power To The [Enlightened]

    Why not analyze just in abstract,
    Is that not a more sensitive tack?
    Why be bound to linear logic,
    White-male driven - so pedagogic?

    I so enjoy clustering concepts;
    Non-exclusive, radical precepts,
    that recognize no authority...
    Where all my wants are majority.

    Most laws are male-WASP domination,
    For independence termination.
    Perish race/gender chauvinism!
    Let's reconsider anarchism!

    No, I am not being selfish here!
    Yes, my thinking is totally clear.
    No color, or male-envy thing...
    I am NOT bitter about everything.

    "Nurturing" and "guiding" gently,
    Teaching youth to dream intently;
    Non-aggressive in our approaches...
    Discouraging win-focused coaches!

    What right have you to say what's "wrong",
    Or have cliques where some may not belong?
    Why can't everyone win their own thing...
    Rather than chauvinist repressing?

    Hang all the "Do unto others..." sort,
    My desires are of greatest import.
    Join in self-affirming mental chants...
    It's time for us to wear the pants!

    J David

  7. Anonymous10.3.09

    Oh, and "sect" is a very wrong word to use in application to evangelical denominations.

    "Lions lying down with the lambs" is referring to the re-created earth during the Millenial reign of Christ after the apocalyptic destruction of the one whose last days we are presently seeing.

    J David

  8. Oh, to be in that happy zone between condemnation and comfort, Suzanna. I'll just stick to the NFL on Sundays; Roger Goodell still loves me no matter what I've done the night before (and yes, it's probably what you're imagining).

    The rise of secularism doesn't bother me personally but then I'm not worried about going to Hell when I shuffle loose the mortal coil. Now the rise of Twitter: what kind of a god would allow that?

  9. Lucky for Bill Donohue, God didn't say, "thou shalt not have seconds."

  10. When I taught the 10 Commandments in Sunday School, one of the interesting facts I learned was that something like 30% the priests in the Church of England did not believe in the 10 Commandments. That's fine. That's their right. But what isn't right is to label that religion "Christianity."

    Christianity isn't one of those things you can "meet in the middle" about. It has a set of truth claims that you may affirm, or deny, but you don't dilute them without sacrificing the essential character of the religion.

    Secularism is troubling, because if you believe in transcendent deity and cosmic justice, that more people are going to suffer without the resources of true religion. Shame on those of us with true religion who do not clearly point our neighbors toward that wicket gate, that shining light.