Obama should change

Barack Obama should look at some recent polling to find a way out of his jam with the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright. To be in harmony with his adoring public, Sen. Obama (D-Ill.) should shop around for a new minister who doesn’t make hate-filled statements about the nation Obama seeks to lead. Obama can surely find someone, somewhere in a Chicago pulpit, who preaches a less angry version of the Gospel Obama embraces. Like many other Americans, he needs to pick a new pastor.

The polling Obama needs to review comes from The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Pew researchers recently completed an impressive mega-poll of 35,000 Americans. Unless you are totally oblivious to the news, you’ve doubtless read or heard about a few of the interesting findings from this Religious Landscape Survey, like black Americans being most likely to have a religious affiliation, or the Midwest most closely resembling the nation’s overall religious outlook, or Protestants and Jews being the oldest religious adherents.

But the single most startling finding of the study is the rapid churn in religious affiliation. The survey finds that roughly one in four Americans (28 percent) have left the faith of their youth. If you count switches from one flavor of Protestant to another, Pew concludes that “44 percent of adults have either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith, or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether.”

This is an important sociological as well as theological development. When I attended graduate school in the 1970s, I was taught that religion was the single most commonly transmitted characteristic from generation to generation. Therefore, I was told, if you want to know someone’s cultural background (like nationality or ethnicity) without asking directly, inquire about their religion. When all Italians were Catholics, tricks like this worked. But that was long ago. I suppose today, you’d have to ask the faith in which they were reared to learn anything useful.

But many Americans are setting aside their heritage to find a religious home that suits them. They may simply be looking for a church that’s closer and more convenient to their residence. Or they may be seeking a particular theological perspective that is lacking in their old church. Others are looking for a bigger church, or a smaller church, or a church with daycare, or a youth ministry for their kids. There are a thousand reasons for this change. But I am betting that “liking the minister” is high on the justifications for switching to a new church.

Religion is supposed to be a lot more than entertainment, but the appeal of Sunday morning for many Americans hinges on pastoral performance in the pulpit. Just peruse the Religion section of any American daily newspaper on Saturdays and you’ll see it in ads for churches. Many highlight their preacher above all, especially the newer evangelical mega-churches. Pastors like Rick Warren and Joel Osteen are stars of the show.

Theologians warn against this sort of church-shopping. They want the devout to accept a fulsome faith informed by the ages, not just the current preacher. But sound advice like that is disregarded in a world where consumerism even creeps into the church. Truth is whatever the current pastor defines. Even the official website of the Rev. Wright’s denomination says that historical theology is insufficient, so it’s “the responsibility of the church in each generation and community to make faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.” If that’s the official policy of Obama’s church, it’s time he finds a congregation of his own generation with a pulpit that makes honesty of expression a priority.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.