Published December 6, 2005
The Faith Angle Forum is a semi-annual conference which brings together a select group of 20 nationally respected journalists with 3-5 distinguished scholars on areas of religion, politics & public life.
“Spirit Wars: American Religion in Progressive Politics”
Key West, Florida
Dr. Leigh Eric Schmidt, Professor, Department of Religion, Princeton University
Michael Cromartie, Vice President, Ethics & Public Policy Center; Senior Advisor, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Leigh has written a very important new book that has been called to our attention. It’s called Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality from Emerson to Oprah. The publisher is Harper, San Francisco. His topic today is called “Spirit Wars: American Religion in Progressive Politics.” And we’re delighted that Leigh Eric Schmidt could be with us. Thank you, Leigh.
DR. LEIGH ERIC SCHMIDT: I want to begin with two groups of questions that I’ve asked myself as I’ve been working on American religion, spirituality and liberalism. So I’ll start with the kinds of questions I’ve asked myself, and then, when it’s your turn, we’ll get to the questions I should have been asking.
The first group of questions I’ve asked myself are: what are the historical sources of contemporary juxtapositions of religion and spirituality? Once juxtaposed, what are the consequences of their oppositional rendering, as in the now-popular notion of American seekers self-identifying as spiritual but not religious? Is spirituality, in effect, being used to designate good religion, a term that suggests creative individuality over institutional constraints, or borrowed experience over creedal formality, ecumenical flexibility over doctrinal fixity? Or is spirituality taken to be a bad word, shorthand for narcissism, fashionable dabbling, unmoored individualism, therapeutic blather and New Age kookiness?
What accounts for how loaded spirituality has become as a construct in contemporary culture, attracting the suspicion of pundits from the right, left and center? To give a specific example, how could an otherwise level-headed and long-eminent interpreter of American religion, Martin Marty, declare in the pages of The Christian Century earlier this year that the spirituality-versus-religion debate is a defining conflict of our time? What made him think that the world of “religionless spirituality,” as he called it, poses such a threat to the old-time faiths of liberal Protestantism that he ostensibly represents? That’s the first group of questions.
The second group of questions I put to myself: are American liberals too wedded to secularism? Does the political left need to get religion in order to compete more effectively with the moral-values crowd on the right? How central have religious elements been to the formation and perpetuation of American progressivism? That is, have liberals forgotten or even intentionally obscured their own religious roots? What kind of future do faith-led progressives have in American culture? Is Reverend Jim Wallis’ hopeful prediction that spiritual progressives are on the rise and that they will ultimately wrest the values debate from both the religious right and the secular left mere wishful thinking, more naïve optimism from a cohort that should have learned the lesson of political and religious realism long ago?
And if the spiritual left were to grow in influence, where would its ranks come from? Where besides Wallis’ modest evangelical constituency at Sojourners? Are there really enough Unitarians, Quakers and Reform Jews around to have a go at Karl Rove’s legions? Or, put differently, was Senator Barack Obama being another liberal innocent when he suggested in the wake of the 2004 election that, in his words, “It shouldn’t be hard to reconnect progressive politics with religious vision. Martin Luther King did it. The abolitionists did it. Dorothy Day did it. We don’t have to start from scratch,” he said.
What I plan to offer is a series of reflections that allow us to move back and forth between those two groups of questions and the larger issues of how Americans imagine spirituality relates to progressive politics. I’ve organized these reflections around four points or propositions. Proposition number one: Don’t let the baby boomers fool you. They, or should I say, we, are not the archetypal generation of seekers. They did not invent the cultural turn to spirituality as opposed to religion. The plot line for stories on spirituality, in other words, need not be about the 1960s having gone to seed or come to flower. They do not need to be organized around notions of a new cultural trend or a surprising transformation of the religious landscape. Granted, news stories cannot be organized around a theme; the same old thing is happening again. Still, it seems to me that the discussion of the current American interest in various spiritual practices, whether meditation, yoga, centering prayers, silent retreats, or even channeling, have been hampered by the trend-spotting impulse.
For example, I talked this week to Colleen O’Connor at the Denver Post about a trend she had spotted in a belief.net story, which was on the metrospiritual, as a counterpart to the metrosexual. And she was writing a feature story for the Post’s Style section on the trend, the increasing number of metrospirituals out there, which as far as I could tell is someone who shops at Whole Foods and really likes Richard Gere.
To take another example, some of you have probably followed Lauren Winner, an evangelical writer who is now known especially for being part of the chastity movement among evangelicals. One of the interesting things I saw was the folding of Lauren Winner’s Sexless-in-the-City Christianity into The New York Times‘ “Sunday Style” section, which was an interesting place to see it. In fact, if I were to indulge in trend-spotting myself, I would suggest that the tendency to group spirituality with style in media coverage has been increasing, and that this grouping only reinforces the worst fears in critics, whether it’s Martin Marty or David Brooks, evangelicals or the academic left in cultural studies. Stepping back to map the process by which spirituality and style are now being joined, would in itself be a worthwhile endeavor.
A little historical perspective on the current American infatuation with spirituality helps, I think, to complicate the sociology of a generation of seekers thrown into a newly-dynamic spiritual marketplace. As a term of consequence in American culture, spirituality was initially born of the romantic aspiration and ethical passion of Emersonians, Whitmanites and other religious liberals of the 19th century. In 1800, the word “spirituality” had little resonance in the evangelical Protestant vernacular of personal devotion that then enthused much of the American religious landscape. The word showed up in the title of only one American publication before 1800, and even in that case, spirituality fronted a collection of hymns, in which it referred to a quality of corporate Christian worship, not the interior lives of individual pilgrims.
During the ensuing century of transcendentalist ferment, spirituality gradually shifted from an abstractly metaphysical term denoting an attribute of God or an immaterial quality of the soul to one highly charged with independence, interiority and eccentricity. “The ripeness of religion is doubtless to be looked for in this field of individuality,” Whitman wrote in Democratic Vistas in 1871, “and is a result that no organization or church can ever achieve. I should say, indeed, that only in the perfect uncontamination and solitariness of individuality may the spirituality of religion come forth at all. Only here, and on such terms, the meditation, the devout ecstasy, the soaring flight.” Or as the Harvard poet and philosopher George Santayana remarked succinctly in 1905, “This aspiring side of religion may be called spirituality.”
Spirituality was a hard term to pin down, all the more so once it took transcendentalist flight. Despite the airy and expansive quality that came to be conferred upon spirituality as an idea in these Emersonian and Whitmanite circles, it had certain defining characteristics. First of all, there is a tendency to redefine spirituality in terms of mystical experience or epiphanic awareness. There has always been a mystic tradition in Christianity, but what happens here is that the term mysticism is more of an 18th century creation and the category before that time is always mystical theology as a branch systematic theology within Christianity. In the 19th century there is more and more of a sense that mysticism is a global, universal phenomenon, something found in all religions. It is not just Christian. You’ll find it if you read Sufi texts or Buddhist texts. There is more and more of a cosmopolitan notion of what this experience might be and awareness might come from. There are some universal practices that tend to be valued above others — practices of silence, solitude and sustained meditation. There is a belief in the immanence of the divine. There is a perverse enshrinement of the Quaker inner life-ism that happens in the 19th century. In the 17th century in New England, the Quakers were executed for their obduracy as missionaries. By the 19th century, Emersonians were saying the Quakers were the greatest people in the world. William James said the Quakers are impossible to over-praise. It didn’t stop him from trying to over-praise them, but it was impossible to do it.
As I suggested, another crucial component is their cosmopolitanism. Seekers deeply want to appreciate religious variety. They’re not content, as one of them says, to have one religion. They want to have a little bit of all religions. They want the piety of the world. They want the gems of sacred wisdom wherever they can gather those gems. But even as they’re appreciating that diversity, there’s also a sense that they’re looking for the underlying unity in all religious traditions.
Another characteristic of this tradition is their ethical earnestness in the pursuit of justice producing reforms. There is no doubt that this is not simply a turning inward, that there is also an act of political commitment, which I’ll talk about shortly. And the final element of this is an emphasis on self-cultivation, artistic creativity and adventuresome seeking. Their understanding of religious identity is shaped around this posture of seeking as much as finding. There is much more of an emphasis on the seeker’s curiosity than the finder’s clarity as a kind of posture that one takes into the religious world.
So this liberal re-imagining of the interior life and its fruits had sweeping and enduring effects on American religious life. We are still reaping the fruits of 19th century religious liberalism in current debates about religion and spirituality. I came across this after I finished my research. This fellow from New Hampshire got in touch with me, and I consider his message an excellent example of how these trends continue to play themselves out. His name is Kent l Bucknell and in some ways he looks like a prototypical ‘60s seeker. He joins an ashram in the ‘60s, but ultimately founds a private school in New Hampshire based on this truly Emersonian vision. I’ll just read a passage of this homemade book about his pilgrimage that he sent me once he had read my book, “As a child of the ‘60s, I really thought we had, through reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead and importing cow dung incense, invented turning to the East. It turned out, however, that we were simply following a well-worn path blazed more than a century before by America’s best and brightest. This discovery was most heartening and brought much inspiration in its wake.” And his leading examples are Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott.
Bucknell has also become a collector. He has put together this incredible collection of books. For example, he owns Thoreau’s personal copy of his manual of Buddhism that Thoreau, when he died, willed to Bronson Alcott. So he’s anchored his search in this deeply transcendentalist sensibility. He seems to me an ideal presentation of the ways in which 19th century religious liberalism keeps playing itself out, and that it’s good to get behind a ‘60s narrative into these deeper resources. Someone like this is unusual in embodying it so fully, but I think that it would not be bad to think about other cases or look for them.
I look for stories like Bucknell’s to suggest the seriousness of the seeker. In some ways, one of my favorite quotes on this is from Christopher Isherwood, who not successful himself at being a saint — at least if saintliness is measured by a mastery of sexual ascetism. He nonetheless makes a good point about seekers he encountered in the 1930s and 1940s once he moved to Southern California: “Some of the seekers had unquestionable integrity and courage, even perhaps saintliness: a man who had become a clergyman because he had a vision of Christ when he was fighting in World War I, a Japanese who had been persecuted by his countrymen for his pacifism, an ex-burglar who had practiced mental nonviolence while being beaten up by prison guards. As for the rest, many might have been called cranks, but almost none of them fakes.”
A second proposition after that mixed first proposition is: Don’t trust the cultural critics who dismiss this conjunction of liberalism and spirituality as twin forms of banality and narcissism. The Isherwood quote speaks to that. The liberal or progressive redefinition of the spiritual life carried important social and political weight in the 19th century, and it still does. The plot line here, in other words, need not reproduce the prevailing narrative of suspicion. Perhaps most familiar from the lament of Robert Bellah and company is Habits of the Heart, an account that aimed to expose the deep corrosiveness of American individualism, the cultural slide into therapeutic navel-gazing, and the fraying of religious community through Whitmanesque self-doting. The effort among 19th century spiritual progressives to distinguish the subterranean fire of spirituality from the temporary journeys of all religions, to use Whitman’s phrasing again, carried a prophetic task: regularly hammering away of social, economic and religious inequities.
Take the political import of the liberal redefinition of religion to emphasize mystical experience as religion’s ultimate form of expression. This would often be seen as one of the prime examples of the way in which religious liberals privatized religion and drained it of public consequence. They start emphasizing mystical experience, an epiphany you find sitting on mountain heights rather than by going to church in a solid, steady way. This emphasis on mystic experience is often seen as the way in which this romantic tradition runs into excessive self-expression, and in that way plays havoc with civic and religious connections.
Almost invariably though, that emphasis was joined to social ethics. In theory and practice, religious liberals vowed an ethical mysticism. Progressives indeed could be rather tendentious on this point. The Methodist, John Wright Buckham, for example, insisted in 1915 on a social mysticism of active service to others, a spirituality that engaged the industrial crisis and the economic order. Without that component, Buckham would not count a person’s piety under his heading of “normal mysticism.” In many ways, that conjunction remains a guiding theme in current spirituality literature on the left. An obvious case in point would be the Quaker community in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, Pendle Hill, which has been around since the 1930s, where they still use the slogan of ethical mysticism borrowed right out of the late 19th and early 20th century and carried on through certain Quaker intellectuals who have been associated with that community.
I think you can hear echoes of this sense of ethical religious experience from the University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson, who is connected with the Dalai Lama and who runs various studies about the effectiveness of meditation. What is interesting about these studies at Wisconsin that he’s conducting is that they are not content to prove these monks or hermits are better, in the Dalai Lama’s phrase, at “calm abiding.” That’s not enough. But rather, what they’re really interested in is a more sustained compassionate affect — of “loving kindness” that it really produces; meditation produces compassion, sympathy and loving kindness, not just calm-abiding.
One of the things this result suggests is a liberal hopefulness about human nature — that somehow, in studying meditation, deep in the mind are these reservoirs, a potential for compassion. Deep in human nature is this reservoir of compassion that one can draw out through this spiritual practice of meditation and that is the kind of liberal sensibility I take from that.
We’ll take one more historical example: the renowned psychologist of religion, William James, who as much as anyone was responsible for redefining religion in terms of the supposedly solitary and unborrowed experience of the mystic. When asked directly in 1904, what he meant by spirituality, he responded, “susceptibility to ideals but with a certain freedom to indulge in imagination about them, a certain amount of other-worldly fancy.” Now, that is the kind of whimsical, individualistic answer that would make today’s critics cringe, especially if they heard it from some avatar of the New Age.
Yet for all of James’ vaunted privatizing of religion, he always remained very much interested in the fruits of faith, the inner resources of saintliness. What kinds of interior lives produce the energy and dedication of the saints, he asked, their extravagance of human tenderness? Without deeply felt forms of religious experience, James wondered, how would Americans ever confront their material attachments and regain the moral fighting shape? Naturalistic optimism, James wrote, is “flattery and sponge cake” in comparison to the hopes and demands that the spiritual life is capable of fostering. A Whitmanite individualist, James allowed the churches no monopoly on religious experience or social conscience. A wide-awake pragmatist, he also thought liberals and progressives turned away from the spiritual at their own peril.
Proposition number three: Thomas Jefferson may have been right about the Unitarians after all. In a moment of irrational exuberance all his own, Jefferson predicted in 1822 that Unitarianism of the newly-minted denomination of Liberal Christians in New England would come to dominate American religious life as a great force of Enlightenment. “I confidently expect,” he wrote from Monticello, “that the present generation will see Unitarianism become the general religion of the United States.” That ascent, of course, did not come close to happening, and now it sounds downright laughable as a prediction. In a nation of about 150 million church members, there are just over 150,000 Unitarians.
Looked at another way, say, from the far reaches of romantic and liberal influences within the current spirituality boom, disaffected Unitarians and their varied kin have had a sweeping effect on American religious life and the spiritual aspirations of vast numbers of Americans. Almost by definition, religious liberals are not good at belonging to churches, so the numbers often look paltry, whether you’re looking at Unitarians or Quakers or the thinning ranks of liberal mainline Protestants, dwindling numbers of Episcopalians or Hillary Clinton Methodists — as opposed to George Bush Methodists. Church membership statistics are a notoriously tough way to gauge religious influence. For example, at the time of the American Revolution, by almost all accounts, church membership levels were no higher than 15 percent. So one consequence of that is to say well, it was a terribly unchurched religious environment with almost no religious influence, yet very few historians would say , just based on the low level of church membership, that somehow religion wasn’t of much consequence in 1780 or 1790. There have to be other ways of thinking about these kinds of numbers.
And I think this is especially true of religious liberalism. The diffusion of religious liberalism as a set of cultural sentiments and political affinities seems especially hard to measure by formal membership numbers. Crucial in that regard is this growing demographic of seekers who are by definition fluid in their sense of religious identity and affiliation. The popular image of the U.S. as a wildly religious country is true enough, at least by comparison to Western Europe. But there has always been a robust unchurched or unaffiliated population, at least 35 percent of the population now, and at least that much through most of the 20th century. That is a major pool for religious seekers, questioners and freethinkers.
The current estimate on seekers is that it constitutes about 20 percent of the population. The recent Newsweek/belief.net poll put it at more like 24 percent. But I prefer a study that came out recently from UCLA. It was a Templeton-funded survey. This UCLA study on spirituality and higher education did a survey of over 112,000 freshmen at 236 colleges and universities across the country in 2004. The demographic breakdown was like this: There were 42 percent of students who reported being secure in their religious identity. That was led by Mormons, Southern Baptists and Seventh Day Adventists. However, 48 percent fell into a category of seeking, doubting, questing or conflicted. Now, the small remainder reported being uninterested in either religion or spirituality, happily skeptical, or indifferent.
Now, who ended up being the ideal type for that 48 percent constituency? The Unitarians, who along with Buddhist students embodied the distinctive pattern of scores that most dramatized the spiritual seeker or spiritual quest valences while at the same time polling highest on the commitment to integrate their spirituality with a social ethic of caring and interfaith ecumenicalism. As a denomination, Unitarians, even in their Emersonian incarnation, are in no danger of fulfilling Jefferson’s prophecy. But as an embodiment of a much more diffuse set of religious impulses in American life, they appear to have a lot of fellow travelers.
The bottom line is that the demographic of seekers has grown across the culture and it appears to be especially vibrant among college students, certainly a crucial cohort for predicting cultural change. Such patterns, I would think, give those who look for the ranks of the spiritual progressives to grow in the coming years, grounds for at least cautious hope.
Proposition number four: Give the politics of meaning a second chance. Back in 1993, Hillary Clinton embarrassed the secular left by engaging Rabbi Michael Lerner’s progressive vision of a politics of meaning. Lerner, editor of the liberal Jewish magazine Tikkun, and currently a spokesman for an interfaith network for spiritual progressives, had captured Clinton’s interests with his notions about how the material work of liberal progressivism needed to be joined to the larger pursuit of what he called an “emancipatory spirituality,” one that spoke expressly to questions of individual meaning and collective purpose. The liberal world, Lerner claims, has developed such knee-jerk hostility to religion that it has marginalized those many people on the left who actually do have spiritual yearnings. Certainly a good case in point was the scorn that Clinton received from the New Republic, among other outlets, for seeming to let her own spiritual quest show in her much-covered 1993 speech at the University of Texas. Dismissing her discussions about the politics of meaning as the arrested development of a 1960s college student, most commentators were not particularly impressed by Saint Hillary’s talk about the needs of the soul. One report had it that the First Lady had been picking through the intellectual dumpsters of New Age mystics for the Austin address.
At minimum, I think political progressives need to defend their spiritual ken, even if they don’t like candles, incense, yoga mats and organic produce, and hence have no desire to embrace the spirituality talk of Lerner and company. They hardly need to pile on. The piling on, I promise, will take care of itself. Even Jim Wallis, who has a capacious sense of his religious alliances (and he certainly includes someone like Lerner) cannot resist drawing the lines against the creedal modernism of liberal theologians and the humanistic avatars of New Age philosophers. It would behoove progressives of whatever stripe, it seems to me, to cultivate their alliances, not try to protect their own secular bunker from the occasional Quaker Buddhist practitioner or Berkeley-based philosopher that walks in. Face it: What mileage is there for Democrats in playing up Howard Dean-like secularism?
There are many places where these alliances could work themselves out: the environmental movement, for example. There is a strong religious component in that movement. It is front and center in Jim Wallis’ work, so it has an evangelical component. But it’s also definitely on the left. One of many examples of this is the Emerson and Thoreau tradition, and how much it has nurtured environmental consciousness in a spiritual and political way.
On feminism and the rights of women: I don’t see why today’s political progressives or secular left progressives should be embarrassed by the feminist spirituality movement. Take your allies where you can get them. And the restructuring of economic inequities, child labor laws, livable wages, improvement to public benefits and housing, all great liberal social gospel causes at the turn of the 20th century. I think Wallis and Lerner are on absolutely solid ground in claiming this history in those commitments for spiritual progressives.
Wallis claimed in God’s Politics: “Perhaps the most mistaken media perception of our time is that religious influence in politics only equates to the politics of the religious right. The biggest story that the mainstream media has yet to discover is how much that reality is changing.” Granted, Wallis’ claims about the rising power of progressive religious forces are self-serving. But it does seem that there is indeed a lot more room for covering left-of-center religious voices. To be sure, the politics of meaning lacks the sexiness of the hot-button issues that keep religious conservatives in the news. But even when conservatives aren’t eroticizing their appeal, they seem to get a disproportionate amount of attention.
A case in point is this latest go-around about Christmas. In a former life, I did a lot on holidays, so this typically interests me. House Speaker Dennis Hastert insisted recently that the Capitol-decorated tree be referred to as a Christmas tree, not just a holiday tree. And the right is mobilizing on the notion that Christmas as a religious observance is under siege, that secular liberals and civil libertarians are dead-set on purging Christ from the holiday and thereby Christianity from the public square. Indeed, the same groups, the Rutherford Institute, the Liberty Council, the Alliance Defense Fund and the American Family Association [AFA] that lead the charge against the recognition of same-sex unions are the most vociferous defenders of the traditional values of keeping the word Christmas in the holiday season. Reverend Donald Wildmon and the American Family Association threatened late last month to boycott Lowe’s for selling holiday trees rather than Christmas trees, and at least, according to the AFA’s own web site, Lowe’s quickly changed their banner to Christmas trees. The story about “it’s okay to say Christmas” has already been widely publicized, and we still have almost three weeks to go in the Christmas season.
The question I would ask is: Why don’t progressive critiques about Christmas get any traction by comparison? John Podesta’s group, the Center for American Progress, has their own message about Christmas. Christmas is really about good news for the poor and the downtrodden. This is a recurrent refrain in the social gospel tradition. On this issue, why does the religious right get attention in a disproportionate way to a progressive voice like Bill McKibben, an environmental writer who a couple of years ago wrote a book on the $100 Holiday, trying to encourage Americans to a greater environmental consciousness, and to use the holiday for more progressive purposes. So what makes Hastert’s gesture to the AFA newsworthy and Podesta’s counterpoint not? And I daresay more American Christians believe that the deeds are the more important matter here, not the words.
JAY TOLSON, U.S. News & World Report: Just to be the devil’s advocate for a moment and speak from the other side — or the angel’s advocate depending on your politics. The word elite seems to me, the dominant word to bring in as a critique of this tradition, even going back to its origins. This was the exercise of a bunch of elites, the elite cream of America, the intellectual elite, the people who were most aggressively and successfully reviled by the political right in recent times.
Particularly as this tradition was caricatured in the ‘60s, but to some extent accurately captures ‘60s expression in New Age forms, it was seen as a cultural influence emanating from the elite that resulted in disastrous social consequences throughout the rest of society. In other words, the perception is that among the nonelites, particularly the working poor and the Black underclass, this sort of self-indulgence, self-centered, free-form, loose-from-morality ethos was a terribly destructive cultural force, and is largely responsible for all the ills associated with the ‘60s with huge capital letters. All the books that were written about the ‘60s by conservative critics focused on these features — the therapeutic culture at its extremity, the me-ism at its extremity, the moral vacuity of this movement.
As powerful and pervasive as this tradition was in your very interesting historical analysis of it, it doesn’t seem that that critique of it emerged until around the ‘60s, and why is that so? What qualitatively happens within the spiritual tradition to make it suddenly seem to be from the conservative perspective a hugely dangerous force? Is it what happens possibly within the spiritual tradition, or what has been happening in the larger society to make it seem so? And is it really the fault of spirituality or something else that is going on in the rest of society that makes spirituality and all that is associated with New Ageism seem largely responsible for it? And is this what you’re trying to say we have to think our way out of now?
DR. SCHMIDT: It is definitely a widening impulse, so in some sense, maybe after the 1960s it gains critical mass and therefore gets more attention. It is true that sociological studies bear this out, that up through World War II, the number of denominational switchers is pretty small, maybe 1 in 15 people who grow up one thing and switch out to something else. By the end of 1980s, the numbers have gone up to 1 in 3, so there is a big shift here to an erosion of the solidity of religious identity. The turn to spirituality is part of that, the kind of redefinition of religious identity in terms of seeking. It is clearly part of that. I do think there is always a class component to the critique of this, and it is especially prominent on the academic left in the cultural studies circles. They are just sure that is all it is — pampered upper-middle class people who just have some time on their hands and are turning to this for its cachet. You know they aren’t going to become Pentecostals, but they’re happy to become kabbalists or Buddhists or something that has cache. It resembles David Brooks’ sense that there is a bohemian aesthetic operative, but that bohemian aesthetic is joined to a certain class. I think that is a powerful critique. I think there is a lot of that out there.
What I want is for us to begin to look at people who do not fit the mold, because I think we know the mold. I want to see the people who can challenge it. And I think those people are out there. I found enough historically to know those people are out there, and so I consider it partly a responsibility of those who comment on the contemporary culture in a consistent way to find some of those people and to describe those who dabble and explore that dimension of it; but also find the people who have been at it for 30 or 40 years and who tie it in significant ways to a tradition, have a strong sense of community, a strong sense of political commitment., I think someone like Christopher Isherwood, who would probably be seen as a bohemian decadent in all kinds of ways is still an interesting figure and a challenging figure, because of his role as a writer. He is someone who is out there in the development of a self-conscious gay subculture. While it would be easy if you are reading his work on his journey through Vedanta to say he is not able to take any of this very much to heart, there is still a larger importance to that story. It would be easy to say, oh look, here’s bohemian decadence at its worst. But I think even there, we need the larger moral purposes his work is serving and some of the larger commitments there.
I think we have to grant a certain amount of the elitist critique. I just don’t think you can work against that, I don’t think you could refute it totally. But one could work against the grain of it and begin to complicate the picture, which is what academics love to do.
MR. TOLSON: I think they were unfairly blamed for making the culture therapeutic. I think you could defend against that charge, for example.
DR. SCHMIDT: I have talked about this. It is a pervasive element of American culture, this culture of the therapeutic. And I just cannot imagine liberals and romantics are any more responsible for that than evangelicals at the end of the day, or others. It is pervasive. It is something that we are all immersed in. The people who are just so angry about New Age capitalism and New Age therapy should just take a good long look at the Christian Booksellers Association. We have to look at both if we’re going to criticize. We can’t just make the New Age (which is a label I try not to use), the fall guy when we are all implicated in deeper ways than that. It’s not just the aroma therapists whom we can burn.
KATHLEEN PARKER, Tribune Media Services: Before I ask a question, I thought I would answer one for you. You wonder why the Christian right is getting so much attention over the Christmas tree story and I think it’s the “O’Reilly Factor” too. As for other factors, I wonder if this may be premature. It may be too soon for you to make a judgment about this, but I’m just curious to know what you think the 9/11 factor is among this group who are identifying themselves more as spiritual than religious, because we were witness to a pretty vivid demonstration of, shall we say, the dark side of organized religion. And I wonder, since you have contact with college students, whether you see or sense that is a factor in their moving away from organized religion.
DR. SCHMIDT: I think that is an important part of it even in a broader sense. 9/11 certainly could be a catalyst for it, but there is in this tradition a deep suspicion of organized religion as something that is dangerous. This is a point that they’ve made repeatedly: that there is a coerciveness to established churches. These institutions are coercive and part of what we want is to be free from them. In the 19th century, one thing free thinkers loved to do when they were writing about religion was to write histories of the Inquisition. They were just enthralled by it because they’re just sure this is where religion leads to that kind of violence against others.
And 9/11 underlines those liberal freethinking suspicions of what religion will do if it gets power, or it reveals a certain dark secret about religion. That is a catalytic moment in our own time for thinking again about those issues that are deeper and recurrent. It does give a certain energy to re-exploring those freethinking critiques. A fair number of freethinking tracts came out in the wake of 9/11 about the end of reason, the dangers of religion and how we should all just try to outgrow this.
The freethinking position is okay, I suppose, for a certain number of people: that 10 percent in the college poll that was happy being indifferent. But then there was 48 percent who were just left questioning. For those people, it’s just probably not enough to beat up on religion’s dark side. Then those people start asking: If the institutional dimension of the religions is dangerous, what else might we do? Where else are we going to go to ask these existential questions?
WILLIAM SALETAN, Slate: My question is the flip side of Kathleen’s question. I come from a Jewish family. There are five kids in my family. One of us went off and for a time became a Unitarian. Now, he’s sort of Jewish/Buddhist/Unitarian. He’s the only one, the only person I know who has done that. And this goes to your third point. Given that 48 percent of us are sort of like Unitarians, why are there so few Unitarians?
And does that say anything on the liberal side, the side of looser religion about the weakness of that? Are feminism and environmentalism too disparate? Is there enough there to make anything happen?
DR. SCHMIDT: I haven’t talked to any Unitarians or people in Unitarian organization about that study. I’d be intrigued if they picked up on it and noticed some potential here for advertisements: Hey, we’ve got it all. But, yeah, it does seem to go back to this sense that religious liberals, because of their suspicion of institutions, do not make good belongers/members. There are only 150,000 Unitarians and a couple hundred thousand Quakers, and not so many UCCs [members of United Church of Christ] and not that many Bahái’s and so on. Those groups have this set of affinities, and they’re out there for Democrats or people like Podesta. They are tapping into those affinities; they’re out there in that 48 percent group. You do not have to mobilize them. They don’t have to be parts of denominations. They do not have to join the Interfaith Alliance, but there are affinities.
It’s clear from the kinds of things they believe in or are thinking about, that they seem to line up pretty well with the people who actually then take that step, that small number of people who take the step and actually come to belong to one of these congregations. That seems to me to be the issue; those affinities might be enough in terms of getting people into a voting booth or mobilizing people to cast certain votes rather than other kinds. You tap into this set of affinities around a group of political issues: environmentalism, feminism, economic reforms, Native American religious freedoms, civil rights. It could be a set of affinities that may be much harder to get at than the institutional measurements.
NAOMI SCHAEFER RILEY, The Wall Street Journal: I’m just confused. Which of those groups do you think are not voting for Democrats? Howard Dean’s secularism is not anti-Unitarian or anti-Buddhist. He’s happy to welcome all these groups. I don’t know what you would have the Democrats do that would encourage any more of them in, and then I think you run immediately into Jay’s problem, which is that it does start to look like a group of elite cultural studies scholars at a certain point that Middle America doesn’t want to vote for, which seems to be exactly the problem that they’re having.
DR. SCHMIDT: Now, this is right; this is always the danger. I think it is part of the reason the boundaries have to be kept in place. The last thing the Democrats need is to seem like the haven of goddess-worshippers or something. This is not going to play in Peoria. I don’t think Howard Dean is anti-Unitarian, but I do think he doesn’t know very much about religion.
MR. CROMARTIE: We’re sure of that.
DR. SCHMIDT: The scandal about claiming the “Book of Job” was his favorite New Testament book — maybe that should have been a positive. There is a lot of religious illiteracy out there. Maybe he should have been able to speak to that demographic, the people who think Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.
E.J. DIONNE, The Washington Post: I have two questions. The Kerry campaign put out buttons that said “People of Faith for Kerry/Edwards.” They didn’t put out buttons that said “Aroma therapists for Kerry/Edwards.” Is there a contradiction here, because basically Democrats are interested in this because they want to bump up their share of the Catholic and evangelical votes by 5 to 10 points, and if they can do that, they can probably win elections; and if they don’t do that, they’ll have trouble getting well above 50 percent. What you’re suggesting, which may be true, is that the most authentic expressions of liberal religion are in fact outside the framework of evangelicals or Catholics or any sort of traditional view. I would suspect most of those votes are already there, so an emphasis on spiritualism, spirituality of this sort probably will not do anything to change the electoral map.
The second question is related to that. I’d like you to talk a little more about how a deeply individualistic kind of spirituality ends up marrying up to a more communitarian view of politics or economics. I suppose you could reply that the best example of that is Quakers who have been doing this for a long time. But I’d like you to talk a little more about what seems on its face a contradiction, but maybe isn’t as much of one as I think.
DR. SCHMIDT: In terms of bumping up these percentages, I mean there is an alliance between religious liberals of let’s say the Emersonian variety and the Catholic left. There are all kinds of tensions there, but there are also potential alliances, and I think Kerry tried to do that belatedly. I still remember Jerry Brown doing that pretty effectively in California, although I know that will seem like a really extreme example: Governor Moonbeam. But I always thought as a liberal Protestant, he was quite impressive at it. He was a Catholic who really spoke the social gospel message.
MR. CROMARTIE: But it didn’t take him very far after that.
DR. SCHMIDT: Yeah, but governor of California is pretty good.
MR. DIONNE: Social Catholicism is quite different, (maybe it’s not as different as I think) from the kind of movements you’re describing.
DR. SCHMIDT: Historically, a group that I really would be interested in as a model for this is the Congress of Religious Liberals organized in the 1890s. It didn’t go very far and it wasn’t really organized for political purposes. They wanted to get a group of all kinds of different religious liberals. If they could find Catholics who would dare hang out with them, they would have done that.
This tradition has a deeply pluralistic sense of religious identity, and that does resonate with folks who still have a very clear sense of themselves being Christian as well. Hillary Clinton is always a lightning rod in this. What she was trying to do was speak authentically out of her own liberal Methodist background. People tend to see her as simply calculating, but I actually think it goes pretty deep for her. I don’t think that should sound phony, but for some reason it still reads that way. And I’m curious about that.
SUSANNAH MEADOWS, Newsweek: There wasn’t the awareness of the 2004 elections. But now if she gets ready to run again, she’ll trot that out and I just wonder if it will work, because not everyone is going to know about her background.
MR. DIONNE: How much of that also was a backlash against Michael Lerner himself? In other words, a lot of the hit on Hillary was by way of hitting Michael Lerner?
DR. SCHMIDT: Right, Michael Lerner had a tendency to take way too much credit in that.
MR. CROMARTIE: And still is.
DR. SCHMIDT: Granted. He would say things that just enflamed more conservative commentators. He talked about Hillary’s presidency and things like that. He was more connected to Hillary Clinton’s sense of things than Bill Clinton. So that just confirmed everyone’s suspicions about who was somehow running the show.
I just wanted to answer the question on individualism and community. This is a central tension. For religious liberals, rather than simply siding with self-reliant individualism, they’re deeply, deeply conflicted. A big part of what it means to be a religious liberal in the 19th century is to try to hold together their sense of creative individuality and a larger sense of community that they are all talking about. They theorize solitude endlessly, but they’re always coming back to these themes of sympathy and connectedness and community. So a big part of what it means to be a religious liberal in that period — and I would think beyond that into the 20th century — is to be caught between your emphasis on creative individuality and your desire for beloved community. It is unfair to represent them only as individualists. I think you have to represent them as deeply struggling with it.
I ended my research with the Quakers, and I suppose that tilts it all into that kind of group that somehow successfully holds it together, that there is a living community of people who manage to be inner-light mystics and social gospel both at the same time. I give Rufus Jones and Thomas Kelly in some sense the last word. That’s intentional, to show that this can happen.
MR. DIONNE: I propose, to Jay’s point, there should be more Quakers as well as more Jews.
DR. SCHMIDT: Yes, I agree.
JASON DePARLE, The New York Times: What does a religious liberal look like? What about Bill Clinton in his less fallen moments? How about the 1993 speech in Memphis about what Martin Luther King would say if he came back and saw people killing each other? Isn’t that the prime modern example? My question is, how does the groups he’s describing as class religious liberals, the spiritual seekers and the like link up with that, because Clinton was very much talking out of a profoundly Christian tradition when he gave the speech? But in a way that attracted other elements of the spiritual coalition on the left.
DR. SCHMIDT: They have to have a moderate Southern Baptist like Carter, Clinton or Gore — or more this Hillary Clinton Methodist, John Edwards Methodist. That’s where it’s going to come from because then you’re able to connect enough. They’ll know the hymns. And yet you also know what these larger values are in this pretty big seeker group. Think in terms of tolerance, pluralism, cosmopolitanism, experience, creative individuality.
JANE LITTLE, BBC: The challenge to the seekers and also to mainstream religion is that believing without belonging doesn’t say it, because there’s an active seeking for these communities or alliances happening. And there’s also a seeking for a label. They’re rejecting New Age because it’s not new, and there’s a lot of talk about paganism in the pagan and Buddhist and Hindu roots. They’re looking for these new labels. One term in Britain right now is holism, which is seen as a nice holistic philosophy. But then there’s a danger that in becoming an ism, it becomes the very kind of solid-wall dogmatic religion that it militates against. As this spiritual revolution happens, how do you see the mainstream religion responding? As I see it, religious leaders struggle with ridiculing, ignoring or embracing it just as Western medical doctors for a long time struggled with complementary medicine. Do we ignore it? Do we embrace it? Do you see mainstream religion starting to embrace this kind of movement within it as Western medicine has embraced complementary medicine?
DR. SCHMIDT: There are certainly signs of that. There are places where these things have come together. And I think the thing that strikes me still is that the leading spokesmen for mainstream Protestantism have been just so relentlessly hostile.
JOHN TIERNEY, The New York Times: There’s a conflict between individualism and this sort of progressive politics. It seems to me that in the past, the people you talk about — the Transcendentalists and the civil rights movement — that individualism coincided. They were trying to get the government to stop impinging on individuals. And now, this left-wing politics is more about getting the government to impinge on individuals. Where people see this contradiction is that they want all this freedom in their personal lives, but they want the government to tell everyone else what to do. And I find both the religious left and right scary. But the right seems to be slightly more coherent, because it tends to be more about wanting our churches to do things, whereas the left wants the government to do something. Where is there a role for a church or religion if you’re asking the government to do it for you?
DR. SCHMIDT: I guess that’s another sign of the weakness of their religious institutions, that they need the government to step in because they don’t have enough critical mass. You’ve got 30,000 Southern Baptist churches or something out there and how many Unitarian congregations. So they are not a vital voluntary sector in that way. This has been a tension, a contradiction in the development of liberalism. The idea is that in the 19th century, there was much more valuing of individuality over larger social projects in the government, and this slow slide or ascent into a more activist sense of liberal alliance with the government. They want more of an interventionist state. And so they switch course and it is over about a 40-year period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that really gets them going from reining in their own individualism and becoming much more interested in restructuring the institutions of government for greater social and economic equity. So that’s again a tension point or contradiction point in the development of liberalism, and it’s still there.
MR. TIERNEY: You didn’t really want the big welfare states. You wanted the Catholic Church to be doing it.
MR. DIONNE: The states intervene on pornography, abortion, anti-sodomy laws. I think each side has its uses for the state.
DR. SCHMIDT: Dorothy Day is a good example of the ambivalent relationship between a Roman Catholic version of the left and liberal Protestant versions of the left. In some ways, she is a Protestant seeker growing up and very much fits the mold. But, like some others, she finally says, you’re not going to get anything done in this kind of Protestant seeking mode, and becomes this deeply sacramental Catholic. There are patterns for that in the 19th century too. Two of the leading Transcendentalists decided that, at the end of the day, they wanted to be Roman Catholic rather than keep going down the Emersonian path. Again, do you hold this kind of Catholic left in this larger coalition or do they really represent a tradition that is fundamentally critical of where liberalism went? I think there are deep enough disagreements there that it’s really an open question, whether the Catholic left wants to be in this coalition.
MS. MEADOWS: My question was also about the seekers. Leigh, is the number of seekers outside of college growing or is it just that UCLA study? And if so, why do you think that number is growing?
DR. SCHMIDT: It is a growing demographic from what I can tell. Say in the ‘90s the sociological studies were coming in around 18 percent, and now it seems to be coming in a touch above 20 percent, so it does seem to be. I can show you some of the studies where they were doing this. And it also depends on how you define the category. There are four or five studies in the last decade that have shown this to be at around the 20 percent threshold. I do not know the methodology exactly in the Newsweek/belief.net poll that showed 24 percent, or how the category was exactly defined. But it looked to be a number that was even slightly higher than some of the other recent studies. So it seems to be a modestly growing demographic. The UCLA study, which was a massive social survey, showed a really large percentage here.
DELIA RIOS, Newhouse News Service: It would be good to know what happens to those college seekers, if they end up reverting back to the traditions they grew up with or do they keep seeking?
DR. SCHMIDT: The good thing is Templeton has given UCLA money to follow this over time. So their survey was of 2004 incoming students. They’re following up over time. Certainly your hunch would be that college is particularly a time of exploration and that people, especially once they get married and have kids are more likely to settle down, and become more conventional in expected ways. I mean I don’t want to make out the UCLA study to be unusually good. There are things about it I would definitely have done differently. And in some ways, I read it and I think the Transcendentalist club could have written the study. The categories they were using seemed so beholden to this liberal religious tradition that they were going to produce a certain result. I mean the way they’re using the category “spirituality,” what they associate with spirituality could have been drawn from that list of characteristics I said were characteristics on 19th century. That said, I think it is still interesting that they came up with this. And it is a massive survey so it is comprehensive, in terms of the kinds of institutions they’re looking at, including Christian colleges and colleges that are regionally diverse.
MS. MEADOWS: Do you have ideas about why the group is growing?
DR. SCHMIDT: It seems to be a lot of long-term social trends here. There is the ever-increasing phenomenon of globalism. More and more is known about different religions and more encounters with them that make these engagements with other faiths and other traditions just a reality for more people. There are people that think the massive expansion of religious studies programs since World War II has had an effect on people, in terms of their knowledge of other religious traditions, and encouraging new ways of thinking and questing. The prevailing model in religious studies now does not reinforce this questing mentality. But certainly in the post-World War II period there was a way in which this was reinforced with a sort of Huston Smith-like way of thinking about the field, as a branch of existentialist theology and seeking. And the fellow who wrote me from New Hampshire is a case in point. When he was an undergraduate at Yale, he took a class on modern Hinduism, and encountered Swami Vivekananda and Gandhi and so on. It was the material that embarked him upon this search.
CATHY LYNN GROSSMAN, USA Today: How do you see the influence of interfaith marriage? There are a growing number of people who say, we’ll just let our kids pick and choose. They have never been given any doctrinal basis from either faith on either side. It’s all the parties and none of the theology. How much does that have an impact?
DR. SCHMIDT: My colleague, Robert Wuthnow has done studies on this. They show that interfaith marriage is a factor. That is a part of the increasing level of switching; it does work in that way. That does create an environment of automatic questioning. Well, what am I? That does seem to be positively correlated. There was a historical study by a historian at Penn State named Ann Rose, who studied marriage in the 19th century that suggested interfaith marriages only increased the seriousness of religious commitment for people involved in them, because in order to navigate an interfaith marriage in that period, they had to really be serious about what they were doing. So that was a contrary voice that suggested a different kind of correlation.
MS. SCHAEFER RILEY: My first question is about the seekers. I’m wondering what kind of faith they are vacillating among. Are they thinking about being an evangelical? Are they thinking about being a Catholic? Or are they just sort of deciding between Buddhism and Unitarianism? So that’s my first question for you. And the second is that you mentioned this issue of globalization. I was struck recently, by an odd story about — speaking of interfaith marriage — a woman who converted here in the United States to Hinduism, which was the religion of her husband. And then the two of them went to India and she was barred from entering a Hindu temple, because the folks of the temple said, what do you mean you’ve converted — you’re either a Hindu or you’re not. You can’t just choose to be part of this. I wonder just how weird this American conception of being a spiritual seeker is to the rest of the world.
DR. SCHMIDT: On that last point, there is a global conversation that opens up at the end of the 19th century and continues. Some people call this the development of a kind of Guru English, where there is an emergence of cosmopolitan religious figures in India, in Sri Lanka, who participate in this birth of a larger liberal religious culture. They’re happy to participate in it. They cast themselves as liberal Hindus or modern Hindus and they participate in this. So they have a sense of this that makes them very much at home when they get here to the United States between 1890 and 1920. They can work in this milieu really well, partly because they’ve been schooled to it already through exposure in India, and partly it’s endemic to their own reform movements to think in these cosmopolitan ways and to engage seekers in that way. It’s not only an American export, in other words. It’s not only American theosophists showing up in Sri Lanka.
MS. SCHAEFER RILEY: What about the seekers? What are they seeking among?
DR. SCHMIDT: In this UCLA study, the Unitarians and the Buddhists seem to be the ideal type, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a much wider group of folks they’re polling in other options. They are seeking among a lot of things. I think part of their seeking includes a question of whether they want to go back to whatever they came from, if they can. That’s always part of the option. Is there something in my own background that I want to return to? Do I even want to return to it in a kind of hyper-intensified way, a kind of return to orthodoxy of one kind or another? There have been enough ethnographic studies to show there is a certain component of that, whether it’s in Judaism or Christianity.
DAN GILGOFF, U.S. News & World Report: It seems like the Democrats realize that they have a problem connecting with faith voters and there seem to be two possibly contradictory impulses. One is to hear someone like Jim Wallis and to cloak liberal policy positions on issues like poverty or environmentalism, and to make the argument that those liberal policy positions are actually founded on a moral basis, or possibly even typically founded. Then the other is to do more what Hillary Clinton is doing and that is to actually move more to the right or more toward the center by talking about abortion or running someone like Bob Casey Jr. against Santorum in Pennsylvania. I’m wondering if you see those two as an either/or choice. The Democrats need to either choose to stick with liberal policy positions but couch that better in language or traditions that might actually be quite sincere. Or do they need to move more toward the right because it seems like they have the seeker crowd pretty well sealed up. To what extent should they be listening less to the seeker crowd and going more toward kind of peeling off some evangelicals, as E.J. was talking about earlier?
DR. SCHMIDT: I’ve always thought of Jim Wallis’ evangelical constituency as relatively small. There isn’t the sawdust trail here of evangelicals ready to move right down the aisle to the Democratic altar. You know, I don’t know how many you can peel off. On this opposition between the Hillary Clinton move to the right and Jim Wallis cultivating the solid left-oriented positions, I actually see a lot of common-ground rhetoric shared by Wallis and Hillary Clinton. When Wallis talks about the abortion issue (he’s always seen as left on economic issues and right on social/family issues) when he talks about abortion, he’s talking about it in a common-ground rhetoric that Hillary Clinton would agree to or Bill Clinton would have agreed. I’m referring to the notion that we would never criminalize this. But we do work in concerted ways to make abortions as rare as possible. That’s his rhetoric. That seems to me to be what Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton say when they’re talking about abortion. I think it has been consistent. It’s that common-ground rhetoric that is out there.
MARC GUNTHER, Fortune: My question is why you’ve chosen to see the future of the spiritual left or religious liberals among the seeker group rather than the traditional, mainline, Protestant, rich tradition of a spiritual left that goes back to the social gospel and includes Martin Luther King, William Sloane Coffin and people like that? Is it your judgment that that tradition is just irrevocably condemned to decline and wither away?
DR. SCHMIDT: There has certainly been erosion in most of the denominations that we think of as representing those traditions — Congregational, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist. The numbers have declined, often dramatically in the last 40 years, and there have been very few cases of a turnaround to point to. Now, I do not think I have studied this in a way that only moves over to the Emerson side of the spectrum, and with the folks who decide to leave the ministry, leave the church, cultivate the soul and forget the institution. Certainly, I study a fair number of people who think that way. But I’ve studied a lot of other people who stay in the ministry, stay with the churches. They share a lot with their Emersonian enquirers, but they also never give up on their ministry. And I do include social gospel people such as Walter Rauschenbush, Vida Scudder and Jean Addams.
Here’s the answer to that: I think they are absolutely, vitally important. In terms of having a following, they are more important than the Transcendentalists numerically. But I think that you have to be able to get into these other kinds of groups, that there has been a tendency to think of liberalism equals Protestantism, at least among people who study religion. So that when you study these people, my colleagues say, oh, you’re just studying liberal Protestants again. And that’s taken to be a bad thing in my field. Because for so long everyone thought the dominant group was liberal Protestants. I keep saying liberals were more than just Protestants. So part of it was that kind of tactic.
Do not just think of this as a movement that only includes Protestants. Do not only think of Harry Emerson Fosdick, Walter Rauschenbush and all the guys you already know. This is a bigger movement. It involves alliances across lots of different groups — Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu. It has a much more parliamentarian identity than you’re allowing. I think that’s probably really motivated my scholarship. But I don’t want to see the Howard Thurman to Martin Luther King side of this tradition somehow shunted aside or the Walter Rauschenbush, Howard Thurman, Martin Luther King side.
DR. EDWARD J. LARSON, University of Georgia: I have just an observation and then a question. You mentioned the polls about seeker groups that may be open to different ideas at the college level. I’ve noticed that very much at the college level. I think there is something about the college period where everyone is — all the students think this is a time to think about other things and to try to decide what one believes and thinks. I’ll get students and they can range from the president of the Baptist Student Union all the way to the president of the Carl Sagan Society. Yet when you talk to them privately they really are all open and thinking about where they might be in the end, despite where their beliefs are now. And some of them certainly moved toward a New-Age spirituality, but I just don’t know how much that is true after college.
I don’t see a great seeker group in high school and in the older age after college. Certainly, some people have already moved to that group and remain granola crunchers and deeply spiritual and listen to those PBS stations on Sunday morning the “whole earth” station that it becomes on Sunday morning and get a lot of meaning out of that. But I don’t see a lot of other people moving. I don’t see that as a real dynamic period, and I was sort of wondering if you thought that polls looking at what college students at UCLA are thinking about in different areas, in different colleges, not just UCLA, would really tell us if there is that continual sort of movement in those directions at a later period.
And, really, the other question I had from the very beginning that came out of the earlier comments was there has always been this tradition, within American liberal political thought that’s highly rational and highly, I would almost call, anti-religious. You can go back to the election of 1800 where everyone building on both sides as religion versus revelation, which was not a true, fair characterization of either Adams and Jefferson, but it’s how it was billed and how it was viewed and promoted. And there is that Jeffersonian tradition that religion — despite what he said in the ‘20s — of Unitarianism. There is that association with him that goes through Tom Paine and runs right up through Ingersoll and many other people. And that runs into a tension that I don’t know how it really plays out. There is this secular tradition that liberty requires reason and secularism, to use Grace’s redefinition of the term yesterday.
DR. SCHMIDT: This is actually a point I would modestly disagree with Grace on. She was painting a French-Enlightenment freedom from religion versus American Enlightenment where it was freedom for religion. And there is a stronger tradition of freedom from religion on the American side. Americans are often said to lack an anti-clerical tradition. It is not as robust as France’s anti-clerical tradition but it is there and it is certainly part of a Jeffersonian, Madisonian vision that you really are doing this not just because you want to create a free market of possibility for people to attach themselves to what denomination they want to attach themselves, but precisely because religion is a divisive social and political force and we have to protect the state from it. Wallis’s critique is that there is still too much freethinking secularism out there. The Democrats, as he sees it, need to be able to rein that impulse in. That’s the battle for the left to figure out. Are they, as I think was said yesterday, “liberal fundamentalists”? How aggressive is that secularism going to be? I think this is what has to be worked on, has to continue to be worked on. You’re reaching out to people like Jim Wallis and others in the spiritual progressive universe and also trying not to raise the hackles of those people who have a deep sense of why secularism is so important.
MR. CROMARTIE: I hear there is also a real negative response to Wallis — not among the right but people on the Democratic Party side — that he’s running into some headwinds. Have you heard any of that?
DR. SCHMIDT: No, I’d actually just seen the kind of popularity he’s managed to gather around this of notion of a revitalized religious left.
MR. CROMARTIE: Well, there is some blowback coming back.
DR. SCHMIDT: In Wallis’s case, he has to talk the talk of biblical historical faith. He’s going to go nowhere in his own constituency if he doesn’t maintain very clearly, that he’s against creedal modernists and so on. He’s got to say some nasty things about liberal theologians from time to time just to make it clear that he really is trying to speak to evangelicals. So I think if liberals want to be his ally they’re just going to have to swallow some of that because otherwise he really has no one he’s speaking for. That’s what everyone suspects anyway, that there aren’t that many evangelicals he’s speaking for.
MS. SCHAEFER RILEY: I’ve already reviewed it in print so people know what I think. But I’m just amazed that an evangelical would even look at this book. It just reads like the Democratic Party platform with a little faith added in here and there. And I just can’t see what the crossover appeal is here. Is there any? I could see why religious people would be criticizing him for sort of doing the same thing they accuse the religious right of, which is sort of selling out faith for politics. But I don’t know what the Democrats’ problem would be. I mean, he’s perfect for them; he just sort of repeats their platform and then says, and Jesus tells us to do this.
So I’m amazed.
MR. DIONNE: It just seems very clear to me that Jim is sort of marinated in the evangelical tradition. Whether you agree with his politics or not, this was an authentic move for him and he moved to a kind of evangelical pacifism 30 years ago, and he’s been a voice in the wilderness on this for a long time. And so “God’s Politics,” whatever its merits as a book, I think is an authentic expression of what Jim’s believed for 30 years. And a lot of religious liberals would use the same biblical passages in the same way that Jim has. It’s what Catholic social thought is. Catholic social thought is a highly articulated set of positions that, on a lot of these issues, are similar to the ones Jim takes.
DR. SCHMIDT: As I think you pointed out about Wallis, he’s not one who found this out after the 2004 elections; he’s been working on it for 30 years. Some of these people just say, oh, my goodness; we lost this election based on religious values and moral values. We better get religion. Wallis has been writing this kind of book — several times.
LIBBY COPELAND, The Washington Post: We were just talking about the growth of the seekers, if indeed that’s going on, and one thing that occurred to me — and it’s possible I’ve spent too much time in Whole Foods,
DR. SCHMIDT: A metrospiritual it sounds like.
MS. COPELAND: Well, it’s not really spirituality; it’s packaging. It’s the magazines that you see at the checkout counter. And I wondered to what extent that has brought it into the mainstream. It has exploited something that was already there but also brought it into the mainstream. And it made me think of Oprah and her acolyte Dr. Phil, and I wondered to what extent some of this seeking doesn’t exist versus religion, but as a layer on top of religion. In other words, people have their religious sense, and then on top of it they have this sort of late 20th or early 21st century sense of, oh, and then also I’ll have a little pinch of this. And so to put it as an alternative is not really an accurate way of looking at it, that it will never be considered an alternative to traditional religion; it’s just sort of a flavoring.
MR. CROMARTIE: If I could add just to that, it’s the same thing that David Brooks talked about in “Bobos in Paradise,” in his wonderful chapter on the spiritual life of Bobos, what he calls “flexidoxy.” People who say, “I want a little bit of authority here but not here, and I want some tradition here but I don’t want that tradition to speak on this.” And so he calls it, the new theology of the Bobos, as a flexidoxy that is adaptable.
DR. SCHMIDT: It’s clear that there is a lot of blending out there that people can just add in. This is also a part of what people have been mapping as this growing impulse. I would historicize that impulse that people have been looking for dollops of this and that. It comes out of the transcendentalist way of thinking about, hey, there’s spiritual gems out there; let’s collect them, let’s find them, let’s seek inspiration from them.
I think that’s always part of it. The way we have to think of it is as a creation of consumer capitalism that we encounter through shopping, through this New-Age capitalism, as some people call it, and so we have to mobilize a certain amount of suspicion accordingly of just how deep it goes, what’s the impact of it. I would say, again, after we’ve written the stories on the Whole Foods phenomenon, the metrospiritual phenomenon, if that’s the label that beliefnet is putting on it, that we also look for those people who are a little bit more off the radar screen and spend some time with them. Just like people who seem to do good field reporting on evangelical organizations spend time at Patrick Henry College or Liberty University or go out to Focus on the Family, we find some of these places and we spend some time with these people and see if it doesn’t go a little bit deeper. Maybe we’ll find out it doesn’t, but I’m guessing, based on the history I’ve done, that there is more substance than we would suspect from the magazines in the checkout line at Whole Foods.
CLARE DUFFY, “NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams”: Whole Foods, is a rockin’ grocery store; that’s it.
Really, that’s the only reason I go there. I think Libby [Copeland] is saying this is not a substitute for religion; it’s how you can feel somewhat better about just being a consumer — a self-absorbed consumer.
You can feel a little better because, well, I’m buying stuff that’s free-range, hormone-free, whatever, ethically harvested, but it’s not an expression. I mean, yoga — it’s a way to feel slightly better about really a very self-absorbed pastime — i.e. working out at the gym and checking yourself out in the mirror.
It gets grafted on with this sense of “Oh, I’m at one with the universe and the inner light in me goes to you.” Is it really spiritual? I don’t know. In some ways it’s just a way to feel a little bit better about our essential self-absorption and not more than that.
DR. SCHMIDT: Well, it is that question of the corporate side. Whole Foods has taken certainly a lot of flak about just how successful they’ve been as an entity, as a venture. How do they continue to express their green values amid their massive success? I think that’s certainly a serious question to ask.
I’m not interested in studying what’s going on at Whole Foods. I don’t care what’s going on in Oprah’s magazine. I’m not saying that it’s not worth our attention. I’m just saying that’s not what I’m looking at. Those aren’t the people I’m looking at. I think that there are people that are a lot more serious than that out there, and that there is a more substantial religious liberalism than that. We are not going to stop paying so much attention to the Dr. Phil phenomenon, but we can supplement it with, or pay some attention to other people who, for whatever reason, fall off the radar screen.
MS. LITTLE: I actually think it’s a perfect place to study this phenomenon of holism, or whatever you call it. You have the people who — like those people who go to church just to wear a nice hat — are there for different reasons, but you also get a lot of people who link environmentalism to their health, to their spiritual philosophy, to their connectedness with other people. And so I think it’s a perfect place to study this phenomenon.
MS. GROSSMAN: Where can we actually find some hard-edged statistics that will track the more serious seekers? I do agree that you can’t go by what the college kids are saying because there is a tremendous wash-through. I think that the American Religious Identification Survey, which simply asks once every 10 years, “What is your religious identity, if any?” Last time they also asked people if they would ever change their religion. They have tremendous data on switchers from the 2001 series. That seems to me to be one place to go for something concrete, but do you have any other concrete way to sort through the spirituality-as-style folks from the spirituality-as-substance folks?
DR. SCHMIDT: You know, it is just an overlapping group too; there is a continuum. My colleague, the sociologist Robert Wuthnow, has done sociological surveys that are relevant to these kinds of questions. He’s done two books on spirituality: one called After Heaven and another one called Creative Spirituality. And After Heaven does have some demographic material. He works toward a perspective: Let’s look at the people who are practice-oriented. And he finds a lot of these people. As a sociologist, he’s working more on surveys rather than ethnographic data. He doesn’t have as much qualitative material as a journalist or ethnographer would generate, but he does have some pretty detailed accounts. His solution is to focus on the people who are practice oriented: the Methodist who has been meditating for 20 years, or the Episcopalian who has been going to a monastery or Catholic retreat house. He wants to get us looking at the practice-oriented seekers, the people who have been doing this for a while, for whom there has been some serious time investment. And then we start thinking about how those people behave and what their values are. I don’t know if he can break apart that demographic in any precise way for you. He can’t quite say, of 18 percent of people who are seekers, I think 2 percent are serious. I don’t know anyone who has quite gone there. Wade Clark Roof at Santa Barbara, who has also done some sociological surveys on this, goes further in judging most of these people to be serious seekers.
MR. CROMARTIE: His book is called?
DR. SCHMIDT: A Generation of Seekers, or another one is called Spiritual Marketplace.
ADRIAN WOOLDRIDGE, The Economist: I want to defend a little what Grace Davie was saying and your interpretation of it, because surely what she was saying, or at least what de Tocqueville is saying in Democracy in America, is that there is a different relationship between the body politic and religion in the United States from Europe that can be found in the United States’ enlightenment values, individualistic values, Republican values and religious values, which tend to be roughly aligned; whereas in Europe they are opposed to the state. It’s an anti-state thing. And what Jefferson is saying is not that religion or the free market and religion is a bad thing in itself, but religion, when it is tied to power, is a bad thing. He was happy to see a free market in which enlightenment ideas would compete with religious ideas; and I presume that he even thought that enlightenment ideas would win.
And what seems to happen to America in the ’50s and ’60s is that you move from a sort of Scottish enlightenment notion of religion, on the left at least, that may the best man win and that it may probably be secularism, to one in which you just have a real confrontation that there is an inevitable antithesis between reason and religion and we’ve got to drive religion out of the public square, partly because it is corrupted, but also because it’s just silly.
DR. SCHMIDT: That makes sense as a narrative, in that there was a certain moment of secular liberal ascendancy, and that’s evident in those Supreme Court decisions about Bible reading and prayer in the public schools. And often that was tied to a sense that this is just the beginning. Let’s get rid of military chaplaincies; why aren’t the churches taxed? There is a sense of aggressive secularism that I do think you could say enjoyed a particular cultural authority for a time, but I’m not sure that is so true anymore. I would think that liberals, to some degree, are really rediscovering religion as a part of their own history and to some degree repenting of their own aggressive secularism. I find that side to be a bit more on the ascendancy now.
DR. LARSON: Even that period you’re talking about now of this apparent ascendancy of secularism tied to the spread of the First Amendment in public schools and local activities was historically not just because of the success of the secularist left, but tied into that long strain of separation of church and state that is connected to anti-Catholicism. It is reflected in the Blaine Amendment and pushed by the most active Protestant — the equivalent of the religious right, out of New Jersey, who was the forever senator and secretary of State and every other job under Grant, and all those people, and Blaine and the attacks on Catholicism and the attacks on government support for it. And then it follows through into Protestants United For Separation of Church and State and it is represented in the Supreme Court justice who carried it through the day with Hugo Black, who comes out of a very strong Baptist tradition.
So it was a linkage between what the Southern Baptists were trying to do then, of pushing separation and an anti-Catholicism with the secularists to making a coalition that would put that over the top. And that makes it a very different sort of breakdown from simply a triumph of secularism.
DR. SCHMIDT: A colleague at Notre Dame, John McGreevy, who has worked a lot on Catholicism’s relationship with liberalism, has shown persuasively that this is the blot on the liberal escutcheon. There is a deep anti-Catholicism that runs through so much of it. Anti-Catholicism is definitely on both sides of Protestantism. But liberals, of all people, should have been able to somehow be in a vanguard of advancing more pluralistic concepts and finding ways of combating anti-Catholicism rather than playing into the worst fears of the American public about Catholicism, and they often weren’t. They were often the ones aiding and abetting the cause.
I think there are places where one gets a sense that some of these liberal religious associations, like the Free Religious Association in the 19th century, are at least trying to figure out how they’re going to include voices that seem to be contrary to their own, including evangelical voices and Catholic voices. They never quite pull it off, but they’re at least asking that question: Is a liberal institution truly liberal if it’s excluding the excluders? I mean, that’s the kind of question they have to put to themselves: Do the liberals need to find a way of being pluralist enough to include those with more exclusive sensibilities? And they can’t ever quite resolve it.
Speakers at Pew Forum events are given an opportunity to review and approve their remarks. This transcript also has been edited for clarity, spelling and grammar.