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Recently, a pastor at an Evangelical church in New York City (we have them) told me about a young man in his congregation who had joined an online dating site. The young man was a Christian believer who wanted to find a woman with the same values. Yet when it came to telling prospective mates about his religion, the young man described himself as “Spiritual but Not Religious.” Wasn’t this misleading, I asked, and bad strategy, besides? If the young man wanted to find a Christian woman, this didn’t seem the way to do it.

My pastor friend told me I was mistaken about what the phrase “Spiritual but Not Religious” means to many young Evangelical Christians. What he said makes me wonder about conventional wisdom on religious identity in America today. And it makes me reflect again on the paradoxes of tradition in American life.

“Spiritual but Not Religious,” my friend told me, is a phrase many young Evangelicals now use to describe themselves, in order to highlight their personal relationship with Jesus. “Religion” suggests rules and customs, the Pharisaical legalism that Jesus condemned. Young Evangelicals distance themselves from all that—from religious traditions, including Christian traditions, which distract believers from what’s really important. My friend sent along this You Tube video from a few years ago, “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus,” to demonstrate the point. The video has more than 30 million views.

As someone who studies law and religion in America, I’m embarrassed to say that this was new to me. I’m familiar with the term “Spiritual but Not Religious,” of course. But when sociologists of religion use the term, they invariably mean the “Nones” – people who say they lack any religious affiliation at all. Only a few of the Nones are atheists. Most believe in God or a divine force, but fashion their own, individual spiritualities from a variety of sources. The Nones reject exclusive truth claims, not transcendence. That’s why the term “Spiritual but Not Religious” fits them so well. It would never have occurred to me that a phrase I took to be a rejection of Christian exclusivity could in fact be a mark of Christian identity.

According to conventional wisdom, the Rise of the Nones is the most important phenomenon in American religion today. A Pew survey last year reported that the Nones now make up about 23% of the American population, a seven percent increase over the most recent prior survey, in 2007. But if what my pastor friend tells me is accurate, their numbers may be greatly overstated. Many people who refer to themselves as “Spiritual but Not Religious” may in fact be committed Christians who, like the young man in my friend’s congregation, wish to signal something about the unmediated quality of their faith. Indeed, Baylor University sociologist Rodney Stark argues that surveys like Pew’s give a false impression of how many genuine Nones exist. Many people who tell pollsters that their religion is “None,” he maintains, mean only that they don’t belong to a specific church.

Now, it’s only an intuition, but I have to think that most people who tell surveyors they are “Spiritual but Not Religious” probably do mean something like “None” rather than “Evangelical Christian.” But surveyors need to make sure. Perhaps they can ask a follow-up question on surveys to make certain exactly what respondents mean. Clarifying the issue would make these surveys much more reliable for people trying to understand the state of American religion today.

The pastor’s story also suggests something about the paradoxes of tradition in American culture. I wrote earlier here that tradition may be ready for a comeback in the West. The rootless quality of life and the vertiginous changes the West faces may lead people to search for stability in custom and received wisdom. Tradition is based in human nature, and human nature ultimately prevails. But American culture makes tradition a difficult sell. Our American political tradition begins with a revolutionary assertion of civic equality—a rejection of custom and heritage in favor of a brighter future, a novus ordo seclorum.

Paradox also characterizes our American religious tradition—a tradition in which Evangelical Christianity, broadly defined, is such an important element. On many cultural and political issues, tradition appeals to Evangelicals; they are the “traditional values” people. But Evangelicalism sits uneasily with the idea of tradition. Evangelicalism stresses personal faith, unimpeded by custom and “human” inventions. Wariness about tradition seems at the core of Evangelical spirituality, a characteristic that separates it from other forms of Christianity, like Catholicism and Orthodoxy, in which tradition has a much greater role.

The popularity of “Spiritual but Not Religious” among young Evangelicals today is a good example. Many young Evangelicals apparently wish to signal their distance from religious tradition, even their own. Tradition for them is not a benign thing; it is a snare to be avoided. True, one might distinguish religious traditions from other sorts. People might minimize tradition in their Christian life but honor it in politics, for example. But I have to think that wariness about tradition in religion influences how people see tradition in other areas of life, too.

I continue to think tradition may be ready for a revival. But I acknowledge the obstacles it faces. In America, it’s not only secular individualists who are suspicious of tradition, but many Christians as well. Tradition will have to overcome not only the objections of skeptics, but many believers, too.

Mark L. Movsesian co-directs the Tradition Project at the St. John’s Center for Law and Religion.

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