So another October rolls around along with another tossup edition, which I don’t mean in a negative or flip-a-coin sense. It’s just that where most of the magazine’s months are spoken for, October invites us to go exploring, even at the risk of not knowing what awaits around the next turn.
This year, we fearlessly wade into the sometimes perilous, walk-on-eggshells waters of religion, a subject in which our species can be quite emotionally invested, and on which there is no shortage of passionate opinion. The anxiety of diving into all that might buckle a lesser publication, but we here at Peoria Magazine like nothing more than to take on a challenge.
It’s actually an opportune time, as there has been research and commentary to spare on the state of the church in America. A recent column by Pulitzer Prize-winner Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times ran under the headline, “America is Losing Religious Faith.” New books have hit the shelves with titles such as The Great Dechurching and Losing Our Religion. Gallup has reported that for the first time since it began tracking the issue during the Great Depression, fewer than half of Americans — 47% — say they belong to a church, synagogue or mosque, dramatically down from 70% at the turn of this 21st century. As I’m a big believer in trusting one’s own eyes and ears, it’s pretty obvious that a lot of pews are emptier and grayer.
Interestingly, it’s not that Americans consider themselves less spiritual. What many seem to be rejecting is organized, mainline denominations as they pursue other, more individualized paths to meaning in their lives. That appears to be especially true of younger people. Our reporter Katie Faley, who has a master’s degree in theology from the University of Notre Dame, does a great job of providing some perspective on that in her 20 Something commentary.
The reasons cited for the decline in religious participation are many and varied, from the pandemic to political differences to scandal. We don’t dwell on those matters in this issue but we don’t dodge them, either. In fairness, there has been an erosion of trust in many an American institution — government and big business, certainly, but also the media of which I’m a part. Perhaps we all need to take stock and repent of our sins, as we ask others to.
In any case, to paraphrase the GOAT, Mark Twain, “The reports of religion’s death are greatly exaggerated.” It is premature to write off the pulpit’s influence in American life. Indeed, a quick trip through the online Yellow Pages lists 440 “churches and places of worship” in the Peoria area.
That’s a whopping number for an institution supposedly in freefall, and while we couldn’t get to all of them — we have our earthly limitations, I confess — we have tried to offer a representative sample, presented without favor or judgment.
We live in a great if imperfect nation, one in which we are free to worship as we please or not at all, without official penalty. I attribute that to the particular genius of the Founders, who made the preservation of religious freedom a top priority in our Bill of Rights. Given the sectarian strife sometimes seen elsewhere in the world, arguably most of us have been witness to their wisdom, and accept it.
Ultimately, religion at its best can be a source of comfort and inspiration and a force for good in the world. As a guide for how to live, for my money you still can’t beat the Golden Rule.