As a religious historian, I know that our understandings of religion—both in the present tense and in its historical development—are shaped by where we stand. For me, the vantage point is the Pacific Northwest, liberal (some prefer progressive) Protestantism, and life-long membership in a church which the New York Times has referred to as a small, liberal leaning denomination. In recent years, I have written comments on American religion from this standpoint, which I intend to update and publish on an occasional basis in this, my online journal.
In 2005, I attended a conference on Religion in the Pacific Northwest sponsored by the Northwest House of Theological Studies, in association with First United Methodist Church of Vancouver, Washington. The planners had hoped that sixty-five people would attend. Instead, double that number showed up.
Headliner was Patricia O’Connell Killen, a Roman Catholic scholar at Pacific Lutheran University, in Tacoma, Washington, and co-author of Religion in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone. Her presentations accented the theme of the book, which is that this region has always been distinguished by the high percentage of the population unaffiliated with churches. At the time of the study, the people who answered questions about religious preference with “none” was higher in this region than in any other part of the United States. Killen stated that the Pacific Northwest was a bellwether for the rest of the country that seemed to be moving in the same direction.
In Oregon, Washington, and Alaska, 37.2% of the population can be called adherents; they claim connections with a church and participate enough to be counted. A slightly higher percentage, 37.8%, are identifiers who claim to belong but do not participate. The rest are nones: people who make no claim at all to religious affiliation. A high percentage of them, however, affirm that they are interested in spiritual matters.
Killan’s presentations reminded me of Thomas Luckmann’s 1970 book, The Invisible Religion: The Problem of Religion in Modern Society, in which he claimed that in Europe and North America the religious process of creating a social, moral identity, which had always been done within a religious institutional context, is now being done individually. Perhaps, we now see that scenario unfolding in the Pacific Northwest.
Killen reported that the nones are demographically conventional, mostly male, and irreverent in politics and religion. This finding seems consistent with what most pastors have known, that men tend to stay away from church even when their wives are actively religious.
She also noted that since 1970 the population of the Pacific Northwest has increased 70% and the adherence rate has remained steady at a percentage in the mid 30s. Only Roman Catholics (11% of the population and 30.2% of adherents) and Mormons (3% of the population and 8.1% of adherents) have grown more rapidly than the population. She grouped two sets of churches (Holiness/Wesleyan/Pentecostal and Other Conservative Christian), which together reported 23.3% of adherents, as having advanced during the period of the study. The United Church of Christ and my denomination, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), have lost ground significantly, while the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ have grown significantly.
Killen suggested reasons for the relative strength of certain churches: Catholic and Mormon Churches mediated salvation and Pentecostal and post denominational churches provided a palpable experience of God and practical help in life. Two explanations for the weakness of religion in the Pacific Northwest were offered: the challenge of the natural environment and the fact there has never been a dominant religion in the region.
It should be noted, however, that religion is but one of the institutions in the Pacific Northwest that struggle to retain adherents. Carl Abbot, long-time professor at Portland State University, has noted that in Oregon the mediating institutions—churches, labor unions, and political parties—are all weak. The mediating middle between individualism and interest in the public good is fulfilled, he suggests, by interest groups such as environmental organizations.
Killen’s constructive comments were worth pondering. Drawing upon theologian Edward Farley, she suggested that the church is invited to rethink how story, symbol, and ritual work. We are to help people center, sort, and embody. Second, our congregations as institutions need to work at brokering attachments for people, especially in these days when social relations are disrupted and fractured. Third, churches need to help people as they make their spiritual journeys. She refers to Henri Nouwen who wrote that we are to help people turn loneliness to solitude, hostility to hospitality, and illusion to prayer. Fourth, we should work seriously at the task of connecting the old religious task (helping people find forgiveness) to the new task, which is to help them find healing and energy.