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In their search for spiritual values, more Americans are returning to religion. Young people take the lead, but question some church traditions

By Curtis J. SitomerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 5, 1985


WHEN the Rev. George Mann takes the pulpit at the First United Methodist Church in Pasadena, Calif., on Sunday, he will likely be facing an Easter congregation of close to 2,000. The Rev. Mr. Mann, who is senior minister there, says his average attendance is 600 to 700. And he attributes the predicted swell in the ranks on this particular Sunday to the special observance.

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Still, the southern California clergyman sees ``something going on'' in terms of renewed interest in religion today that is more than seasonal. He talks about it in terms of a ``search'' for spiritual values. And he says it is drawing back to the church youth who had abandoned it a decade or two ago as irrelevant to their daily lives.

Others see the same trend: not so much a national surge to religion and church as a seeking for answers.

Bishop Philip R. Cousin talks about ``keener interests'' and ``sharper concerns,'' particularly in young people aged 25 to 35. Bishop Cousin of the African Methodist Episcopal Church is president of the National Council of Churches of Christ (NCCC), the largest umbrella group of Protestants in the United States.

``So many are seeking answers,'' he pointed out in a telephone interview from his Florida base. ``And they are finding out that the only lasting answer comes through an inner peace . . . the anchoring of life that religion gives,'' he says.

Bishop Cousin says a ``threatening world situation, domestic difficulties with economics, [disenchantment] with the drug culture, and various social concerns'' have prodded many people, including the young, to return to a belief in God and traditional religious values.

``The turning to absolutes helps us understand how to relate to all areas of life,'' he says. ``Religion cannot be isolated. It is necessary to have in the marketplace as well as the pew.''

The NCCC's top official also adds that while many of today's young people are accepting religion, they are not doing it without questions. ``Our young people are challenging what previous generations took for granted,'' he explains. ``They are peeling layers of hypocrisy from some of religion's activities and enterprises.''

Rabbi James Rudin, whose work with the American Jewish Committee is aimed at promoting understanding and cooperation among Roman Catholic, Protestants, and Jews, also perceives a renewed interest in religion over the past few years.

``There's a willingness to explore, recapture, reclaim . . . , and take religious values seriously,'' he says. ``It's real, and it's healthy,'' he insists. ``I get a sense, however, that it is part of a return to tradition. Religion is getting a serious look-see,'' Rabbi Rudin adds.

Polls appear to reinforce the view that religion is on the upswing in the US. But the picture is not all bright. For instance, George Gallup Jr. in his last report on ``Religion in America'' stressed a troubling paradox. ``Religion is growing in importance among Americans, but morality is losing ground,'' he stated.

Dr. Gallup explained: ``On the one hand, levels of religious involvement remain high. Nine in 10 [people surveyed] state a religious preference, seven in 10 are church members, and six in 10 attend religious services in a given month. A majority, furthermore, say they are more interested in religious and spiritual matters today than they were five years ago.''

``On the other hand,'' Gallup adds, ``widespread cheating is found on all levels of society, and two-thirds of Americans hold the view that the level of ethics in the US has declined during the past decade.''

He concludes that ``if the churches of America are able to move the populace to deeper levels of spiritual commitment in the years ahead, the effect upon society could be profoundly salutary.''