Religious-based celebrations and rituals around this time of year always bring a great deal of excitement with them, and for good reasons: faith, family, community, sharing and the dawn of a new year.
There is also reason for pause and reflection, though. This is not only because of the impending change of a calendar year, but also because of changes in the broader national landscape.
Religious identification and participation are declining in America. At the same time, the number of persons identifying as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” is increasing. These are overarching findings from a Pew Research Center report earlier this year.
The U.S. is still overwhelmingly religious. Sixty-five percent of American adults today describe themselves as Christian, but that number is 12 percentage points lower than a decade ago when 77 percent of Americans described themselves that way. This is a continuation of a worrisome trend.
In 2018, I had the great fortune of visiting approximately 75 places of worship over the course of approximately 90 religious services. This was during the course of my campaign for a judicial seat in Hinds County. It was a whirlwind of religious services over a sustained period of time.
Almost all these were predominately African American churches. Usually I was the only person present who looked like me. I visited small churches. Big churches. In-between churches. I visited places outside of the Christian faith. A synagogue. Meetings with those of the Islamic faith.
All of these visits were occurring right as I was witnessing social media explode with the #churchhurt movement. The movement rested on the notion that we are justified in walking away from the church if we have been let down by the people in it. Some might argue this general thought process (blaming God for people doing people things) is at least part of the explanation for the decline in American religious participation rates. It was ironic watching this conversation unfold on social media while I was simultaneously experiencing something altogether different.
Like countless others, I have been guilty of holding organized religious institutions to impossible standards. Of viewing them not as hospitals for sinners, but as museums for saints. Of asking why they sometimes do wrong when their underlying commands are to do right. But the mosaic painted by the snapshots of memories from my visits to so many places of worship over one year belies that thought process.
I witnessed youth celebrated for graduations and academic accomplishments. Civic responsibility honored. Women celebrated. Families comforted after the loss of loved ones. Aid to the poor. Food to families in need. Clothes to the unclothed. Housing to those without housing. Youth counseled. Depression and addiction addressed. Adult literacy nurtured. The survivors of the murdered embraced with love. Those recently released from incarceration welcomed into the Halls of God. Love across races. Love across religions. A local community of Jewish people embraced by others from other religions after a horrific act of terror in Pennsylvania.
These things and much more happened in the richest churches. They happened in the poorest churches. And they happened at the places in between.
I saw people who loved, who cared. I saw God work directly through the human flesh. It was a transformative religious and spiritual experience. Show me a community of people of faith, and I will show you a community of people who care. About themselves. About their families. About their communities.
What I witnessed demonstrated to me that houses of faith have an ability to do what social policy cannot – cut right to the core of the human soul.
So maybe one of the things we do in 2020, as suicide and addiction rates continue to increase nationally, and as the number of those who are members in organized religions continues to drop, is perhaps look at them with a kind eye and ask whether maybe, after all, what they are doing is exactly right.
I hope you have a wonderful holiday season, whether a member of organized religion or not, and as we say in my faith, may the peace and love of God be with you.
Matt Allen is a contributing fellow at the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, husband, father, lawyer and member of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral.