"Today, I quit being a Christian."
With those words last week on Facebook, Anne Rice delivered a wake-up call for organized religion. The question is whether it will be recognized as such.
"I remain committed to Christ as always," she wrote, "but not to being 'Christian' or to being part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to 'belong' to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else."
You will recall that the author, famed for her vampire novels, made a much publicized return to the Catholicism of her youth after years of calling herself an atheist. Now, years later, she says she hasn't lost her faith, but she's had it up to here with organized religion.
"In the name of Christ," she wrote, "I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life."
If that was not nearly enough for atheist observers, one of whom berated her online for refusing to completely give up her "superstitious delusions," it was surely plenty for people of faith. But Rice is hardly the only one who feels as she does.
According to a 2008 study by Trinity College, religiosity is trending down sharply in this country. The American Religious Identification Survey, which polled over 54,000 American adults, found that the percentage who call themselves Christian has fallen by 10 since 1990 (from 86.2 percent to 76 percent) while the percentage of those who claim no religious affiliation has almost doubled (from 8.2 to 15) in the same span.
Small wonder atheist manifestos are doing brisk business at bookstores and Bill Maher's skeptical "Religulous" found an appreciative audience in theaters. Organized religion, Christianity in particular, is on the decline, and it has no one to blame but itself: It traded moral authority for political power.
To put that another way: The Christian Bible contains numerous exhortations to serve those who are wretched and poor, to anger slowly and forgive promptly, to walk through this life in humility and faith. The word "Republican" does not appear in the book. Not once.
Yet somehow in the last 30 years, people of faith were hustled and hoodwinked into regarding the GOP platform as a lost gospel. Somehow, low taxes for the wealthy and deregulation of industry became the very message of Christ. Somehow, hostility to science, gays, Muslims and immigrants became the very meaning of faith. And somehow Christianity became - or at least, came to seem - a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party.
Consider that, after the election of 2004, a church in North Carolina made news for kicking out nine congregants because they committed the un-Christian act of ... voting for Democrat John Kerry.
Who can blame people for saying, If that's faith, count me out. Has atheism ever had a better salesman than Jerry Falwell, blaming the Sept. 11 attacks on the ACLU or Pat Robertson laying Haiti's earthquake off on an ancient curse?
But what of those who are not atheists? What of those who feel the blessed assurance that there is more to this existence than what we can see or empirically prove? What of those who seek a magnificent faith that commits and compels, and find churches offering only a shriveled faith that marginalizes and demeans?
Its response to those people, those "seekers," will determine the future of organized religion. And it might behoove keepers of the faith to keep in mind the distinction Anne Rice drew in her farewell:
Christ didn't fail her, she said. Christianity did.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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