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A stained glass window glows, restored and then donated to the Museum of Divine Statues, is seen beyond a statue reclaimed from St. Propcop Church of Cleveland at the museum in Lakewood, Ohio on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2011. (Amy Sancetta — AP)
“The National Day of Prayer belongs to all Americans. It is a day that transcends differences, bringing together citizens from all backgrounds,” insists the Web site for the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a private, non-profit organization with no official relationship to the annual congressionally-endorsed observance on the first Thursday in May.
The NDP Task Force is closely affiliated with the conservative evangelical group Focus on the Family, however, rendering its interreligious pronouncements suspect to many non-Christians, progressive Christians, and, perhaps especially, the growing population of the religiously unaffiliated—the “nones” who comprise twenty percent of the population overall and a third of adults under age 30.
Most nones believe in God or a higher power, and a plurality pray regularly. According to Pew’s research, some 51 percent of those who say their religious affiliation is “nothing in particular” and 19 percent of those who say they are agnostic or atheist pray at least once a month. That’s less than the 88 percent of religiously affiliated Americans who pray at least monthly, but it’s not nothing in an America where institutional religion has been declining for decades.
There is no growth or revitalization movement in within America’s Christian majority these days. Megachurches are shrinking, some sliding into bankruptcy. Leaders of the “Emergent Church” movement have aged well beyond the sorts of enthusiastic younger Christians they inspired in the 1980s and ’90s. Conservative evangelicalism is sowing dissent that makes clear that younger adults haven’t merely misunderstood fundamentalist doctrine. They get it. And they don’t much like it.
Likewise, Catholic leaders quashed revitalizations associated with liberation theology, and conservative charismatic Catholicism has waned as well. The clergy abuse scandal and a perceived hostility toward women have also put off many Catholics. Across all denominations, what many see as failure of both reason and Christian charity toward lesbians and gays has soured more and more Americans on religion.
The majority of nones come from Christian backgrounds, carrying hurt, anger, or boredom with their childhood faith along with fragments of belief, ritual, and everyday spiritual practice that they weave into approaches to meaning-making within which prayer has a continuing significance.
My research shows that prayer stands alone among traditional practices like attending church and reading scripture tracked by pollsters as “spiritually meaningful” for nones. For many nones, prayer offers an openness and flexibility that makes it functional for those who have left the religions of their childhoods but who don’t’ want to—or can’t—forget them entirely.
“I pray because I always have,” says a none from Missouri who left an evangelical church he found “shut off from the love I found in the Bible.” Prayer, he told me, “is where religion is most true for me. You know, it’s not a show of how holy I am.”
He added, “it’s more than just something going on in my head. It’s about me in relationship to others through God. I don’t go to church anymore, but I still need that focus in my life—that it’s not all about me. I pray for myself and I pray for others—that things can be better for them. That I can be better for them, too.”
Other nones move further from religious roots in their prayer—or at least they try to.
“I still pray to ‘Jehovah,'” a none from Northern California reported with some embarrassment. Raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, she left in college. “I know it’s ridiculous. I don’t believe in any of that anymore,” she insisted. “But even all these years later, when I find myself in the kind of still, contemplative place that would have been ripe for ‘calling on Jehovah’ in my early life, I speak that name in my mind. I used to correct myself. But now I don’t bother. I know it’s just a container in my memory for a certain kind of experience I’m having.”
What is that “certain kind of experience,” we might wonder? Is it something that can be shared across a nation understood as a network of individuals whose differences the religiously unaffiliated would just as soon not transcend, not mark over with an imagined, mostly Christian, homogeneity?
This is certainly true of a Hawaiian none brought up in a widely interreligious extended family—Mormon at home, Methodist at grandma’s, Buddhist among some cousins, native Hawaiian religions among others. “What works for me is the mix of it,” he said. “Everyone’s trying to work out what it all means in their own way, but we all sit down to dinner together.”
“I love all of them,” he said, “but never too much. If I get too attached to one thing or another, I let it go for a while. I don’t want to get caught in any one net.” This engagement with a diversity of spiritualities along with an open questioning of any of them characteristic of meaning-making for many nones.
Still, the he assured me, “I’ll pray with anyone. I’ll kneel down with you. I’ll make an offering at your temple. I’ll celebrate the rains and the harvest. That can’t be bad, right?”
I suspect not. Maybe prayer—the last holdout among traditional religious practices valued by a majority of Americans—can teach us something about the spirit of a nation defined by the religious differences it has struggled to honor throughout its history.
On a National Day of Prayer in a time of profound religious transformation, we might see the prayers of nones as part of a generous, tolerant religiosity that truly does belong to all Americans, believers or not.
Elizabeth Drescher, PhD is a lecturer in Religious Studies and Pastoral Ministries at Santa Clara University. Her forthcoming book “Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones” will be released by Oxford University Press in 2014.