Protestant Ranks Become More Secular

New study indicates that materialism and daily pressures crowd out a search for truth

Protestants in America have been reexamining their role in US society for several decades - in the face of declining influence, loss of earlier confidence, and a steady erosion of content in their theology and worship.

Now, a major preliminary study of American Protestants, considered the backbone of the American body politic and the largest US religious affiliation, indicates that deeper currents of secularization persist in Protestant ranks, and that Protestants are ''confused and disconnected'' about the direction of the larger society. Most tend to think and act more as ''good Americans'' than as ''good Protestants.''

Funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the $350,000 study, which will be completed next spring, seeks to understand how Protestants who attend church regularly see their role in the US today.

Little search for meaning

Some of the findings are not new. Scholars were surprised, however, to find that what makes Protestant thinking distinct based on Biblical faith did not show up strongly during lengthy interviews. On questions ranging from money and jobs to the future, churchgoers' answers did not connect deeply with their faith tradition, according to scholars - though most churchgoers affirmed that they want to live decent and moral lives.

''These are good Americans more than they are good Christians,'' said Paul Kennedy, a religious sociologist at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., who helped coordinate the research. ''Their answers were not much different than those of anyone else in the neighborhood.''

The in-depth study of 128 Protestants in six US counties across the nation shows most feel America is in a troubling state of decline. They indicate religious priorities take something of a back seat in their daily lives to economic struggles. Also, rather than being divided along ideological lines, most Protestants exist in a large uncommitted center group.

The findings, which will be followed up by 2,000 phone interviews next month, confirm the concerns of some theologians about the inner life of the Protestant mainstream: that deeper questions of faith and a search for meaning and truth are often crowded out.

''There isn't a burning quest to know doctrine, substance, the character of God, the work of Christ,'' says theologian David Wells of the Gordon Conwell Seminary in Hamilton, Mass. ''What you see uppermost in thought are fears of money, stress, workload.... It seems the fires are dying down. Life is getting tougher.''

The findings are expected to inform ongoing church and theological discussions about how the church and Christianity relate to society in the 21st century. Should the church focus even more vigorously on shaping its message for a secular world? Or should it reinforce its own peculiar message and identity among the faithful?

Most striking were Protestant attitudes about materialism and television, said Chris Smith, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. While respondents consistently decried materialism and consumerism, they also defined the problem in ways that excluded their own behavior.

''We found very American assumptions about money and success,'' said Dr. Smith, who coordinated the research. ''Some of us were amazed to find churchgoers criticizing materialism, then desiring bigger houses and better cars.''

Likewise, churchgoers consistently made negative comments about the influence of TV and the media - even while scholars noted that the TV would often be turned on in or around the room where the interview was held.

Most Protestants felt that society is in trouble, though they did not know why. Nor did most, despite their individual commitment to church life, offer a religious vision for responding to social decline. Rather, they were preoccupied with their own lives.

Many of the respondents focused their concerns on education. ''We don't hear about multiculturalism or the passing out of condoms when schools get talked about,'' says Smith. ''The articulations are more like, 'Johnny isn't learning how to read very well.'''

Family considerations focused on economics. ''Concerns were more about maintaining a family in a time of declining living standards,'' says Dr. Kennedy, ''rather than whether the family was trying to live in the kingdom of God.''

The muddled center

Another significant finding is the large, ''muddled'' center of Protestant thinking. Most of those interviewed did not know how to define categories of religious liberal, evangelical, or fundamentalist. Some 35 percent of those who described themselves as ''religious fundamentalists'' also called themselves ''religious liberals.''

''You get a grab bag jumble of answers that often contradict each other,'' says Dr. Smith. ''Average churchgoers are not invested in a culture war. It is not feminism or secular humanism they worry about most. It is the fact that both parents have to work.''

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