As a friend and fellow-traveler of Mainline Protestantism, rarely has a day passed in my adult life that I have not heard, seen, read, or considered evidence for or against secularization in America. I usually find hand-wringing liberals' and gleeful conservatives' arguments about the death of Mainline Protestantism slightly overstated, but the trajectory of declining influence and institutions is indisputable.

Lately I have found this paradox fascinating: Surely there are millions of former and nominal Mainline Protestants who, if asked, would tell you that the ministry and witness of the historic denominations is valuable to society and that they would be sorry to see those traditions disappear. Yet, on any given Sunday morning, those millions of people (myself included) are likely to be found at a shopping center, the Little League field, or catching up on chores at home. The Church Alumni Association prefers brunch over a simple meal of bread and wine as its holy sacrament.

For the record, I don't hold out much hope that the de-churched will return. If they do, it will likelier be for the community than for the doctrine. As the Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann observes, people go to church "to experience joy and to learn how to have more of it." (She also reminds us that Durkheim posited that people do not go to church because they believe in God; they believe in God because they go to church.)

But what of Americans who do not want responsible religious institutions to die but nevertheless have no intention to attend churches, support churches, or in any way make churches an important part of their lives?

Commentators have offered a number of explanations. I'll highlight two here.

In a widely circulated Christianity Today blog post, the Reverend Dr. Ed Stetzer, a Southern Baptist, divides the 75% of Americans who identify as Christian into three broad categories: Cultural Christians, Congregational Christians, and Convictional Christians.  People in the first two categories -- about 150 million Americans -- "are not practicing any sort of vibrant faith." We can lament their departure, but shedding nominals is an important part of the post-Christendom, "convictional" church sharpening its identity to stand against secular society after Christianity lost the culture war. "The Church is not dying," Stetzer says. "It is just being more clearly defined."

On the liberal Protestant end of the spectrum, Dr. Elizabeth Drescher draws on psychological studies about how liberals, moderates, and conservatives perceive and value uniqueness to pose a provocative question: "Are liberals too 'special' to go to church?" She cites research about how liberals' illusions about their own uniqueness can undermine social cohesion. Drescher explains how this dynamic may help churches retain conservatives more easily. "Are liberal Christians," she asks, "affirming themselves to the point that they no longer feel the need too occupy their own communities?"

I want to apply a compelling idea to help account for Americans' continued approval of religious institutions in which they have no desire to participate. I claim no novelty or innovation here, as I'm sure this territory is well trodden by sociologists of religion.

The English sociologist Grace Davie has helpfully explored the concept of vicarious religion. She defines it as "the notion of religion performed by an active minority on behalf of a much larger number, who (implicitly at least) not only understand but approve of what the minority is doing." Arguably, this concept goes a long way toward explaining high public approval of (but low public participation in) institutional religion in Northern Europe and, with some caveats, elsewhere in Europe as well.

Professor Davie concedes that understandings of "vicariousness" must be clarified, but she explains and documents four phenomena where religion functions vicariously:

  • Churches and church leaders perform rituals on behalf of others
  • Church leaders and churchgoers believe on behalf of others
  • Church leaders and churchgoers embody moral codes on behalf of others
  • Churches and offer space for the vicarious debate of unresolved issues in modern societies

The U.S. case is different because churches rely massively on private funding and only minimally on public support (through tax exemptions, mostly). Also, the concept of vicariousness does not translate easily into Americans' individualistic conception of our relationship to God. Yet it is clear enough that most Americans appreciate religious institutions, especially in the immediate aftermath of tragedies like 9/11. Vicarious religion may help account for the resilience of our civil religion.

Americans saw vicarious religion on vivid display last fall when the Archbishop of Canterbury christened Prince George, heir to the British throne and future Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Yet surely Prince William and Princess Catherine are not the only nominally religious parents who bring their children to church or seek rites of initiation like baptism. I suspect there are many families in which most members have lapsed, but one or a few continue on as "designated believers."

Let me be clear: I am not vouching for the efficacy of vicarious religion. I do not claim it accrues any benefits, spiritual or temporal, to what philosopher Charles Taylor calls the "penumbra around the core of orthodox, fully practising believers, whose beliefs shade off into heterodoxy and/or whose practise was partial or fragmentary."  I just find it a fascinating idea that I intend to explore more fully in my writing.

Where do we see vicarious religion in America? Is it a viable framework to account for Americans who wish for religion to survive or even flourish but have no desire to involve themselves in it?

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