On Fresh Air, the longtime public radio interview program whose coverage of religious issues runs the ideological gamut from A to B, host Terry Gross today interviewed R. Marie Griffith, a religious studies professor who has a new book out about sex, morality, and Christian politics. It’s an interesting interview. Around the 19:30 point, Griffith — who was raised Southern Baptist, but in adulthood became Episcopalian — describes her religious belief like this:
I think I would have to say that I’m one of the millions of Americans who would say I have one foot in and one foot out, to be honest with you. I mean, I’m not a regular churchgoer, and yet I really identify with the Christian tradition, and I think there are countless numbers of us out here who are pretty secular in many ways, and yet deeply identify with the progressive side of our tradition.
Why are we not more regular churchgoers? There’s a lot of social scientists out there asking that question. We’re busy. We get involved in other activities. We work very hard during the week and we want our Sunday mornings to sleep in. You know, all kinds of reasons that we may not be active, the way many Jews who very strongly self-identify as Jews may not be active in synagogues. So I think there’s a large swath of us there. But what I do carry with me very much are the values that I think I was raised with that have to do with caring for others, caring for the poor, living a life of compassion, de-emphasizing material things, you know, all sorts of values that I think matter deeply to me. If that means I’m still a Christian, then I am. But some people would ask me, “Are you a Christian?” and they mean are you born again and believe that Jesus is the only way to heaven, and I would have to say no.
Well, look, we can discuss whether or not Prof. Griffith meets the definition of “Christian,” but what interests me about her response is the belief that she can be a Christian without going to church or living in any way differently than a morally aware secular liberal. Jews at least have the ethnic component of their identity, which endures even if they abandon the religious aspect (but how enduring that will be in an era of widespread intermarriage with Gentiles is a very important question). What does it mean to “deeply identify” with a religious tradition when you’d rather sleep in on Sunday morning than trouble yourself to go to church?
This is not just a liberal thing. There are plenty of conservatives who “deeply identify” as Christian, even though they rarely if ever show up at church, and live lives that are no different from morally aware secular conservatives.
I think the Christian religion in these cases is more of a sentimental thing to them than a living faith, or perhaps a psychological hedge against meaninglessness. It is true that only God can judge each person’s heart. The point I want to make here is that faith is not only what you believe, but what you do. If you prefer not to be active in religious life, that’s your free choice, but you shouldn’t fool yourself about your religious status. If you don’t practice your faith, in what sense can it be said to exist?
Your kids aren’t going to have this problem.