“Experiencing the love of God is the heart of religion.”
The Heart of Religion, Oxford University Press
FOR MILLIONS OF AMERICANS (and most regular ReadTheSpirit readers) today’s headline and these scholars’ findings aren’t news. We know that faith is good. We know that, at its best, religion promotes love and that love is expressed in kindness to others.
But, in recent years, this assumption has been called into question by religion-spouting terrorists and angry, faith-fueled political operatives trying to force the rest of us to follow their particular set of religious rules. As a result, skeptics have tried to slap a “TOXIC” label on religion as a whole—and generally faith has been seen sparking explosive confrontations in America’s public square.
Now comes one of the most impressive arrays of scholars ever to study religion in America, concluding that on balance the overwhelming effect of religion is an expansion of believers’ compassionate love for others. What’s more, the scholars found this isn’t the type of “love” that amounts to a cheap, greeting-card sentiment. Rather, the scholars are concluding: Huge numbers of Americans report that they have personally experienced God’s love—and, as those experiences increase in people’s lives, their levels of benevolent service increase along with their faith. Their thought-provoking findings are in Oxford University Press’s new book: The Heart of Religion: Spiritual Empowerment, Benevolence, and the Experience of God’s Love.
HEART OF RELIGION: WHY THIS MATTERS SO MUCH NOW
Let’s set aside the violent abuses of religion claimed by terrorists and violent extremists. Instead, simply reflect on some of the major American evangelical voices still echoing from Election 2012. New York Times Religion Writer Laurie Goodstein just published a front-page story headlined Christian Right Failed to Sway Voters on Issues. In the opening paragraphs, she quotes a prominent spokesman in America’s second largest denomination, the Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Mohler’s post-election assessment of faith in the United States? “Millions of American evangelicals are absolutely shocked by not just the presidential election, but by the entire avalanche of results that came in. It’s not that our message—we think abortion is wrong, we think same-sex marriage is wrong—didn’t get out. It did get out. It’s that the entire moral landscape has changed. An increasingly secularized America understands our positions, and has rejected them.”
However, millions of other Christians not only voted for President Obama, but reject Mohler’s claim that “our message” as Christians is a specific rulebook written by evangelicals. Millions are left in the head-spinning wake of top religious leaders like Mohler—and many others across the evangelical spectrum—claiming that Americans are rejecting their verison of Christianity. Into this confusing array of voices comes this groundbreaking study documenting a truly universal message of Christianity in America: God’s love translated into benevolent service and compassion for others.
The scholars also explain that religious leaders are not entirely wrong when they make claims like the one Mohler just voiced in the New York Times. Evangelicals may, indeed, feel that expressing God’s compassionate love means campaigning on social issues like the ones that sent Mohler into the trenches of poplitical activism this past year. This religious experience of God’s love expressed in benevolent action is so widespread in American life—it’s everywhere we look—there will naturally be some conflicts over where individual religious groups focus their well-intentioned actions, the scholars found.
HEART OF RELIGION: WHAT DOES THE NEW STUDY SAY?
Here are some headline passages directly from the new book, The Heart of Religion.
First, from the chapter titled “Why Should We Care about Godly Love?”
Encounters with God’s love are quite common in America. They can be transformative, both for individuals and their communities. At times the effects reverberate throughout the world. Our national survey reveals that 8 out of 10 Americans claim to have had such experiences, at least on occasion. Eight-one percent of respondents acknowledged that they “experience God’s love as the greatest power in the universe” and 83 percent said they “feel God’s love increasing their compassion for others.”
Then, later in the same chapter, the scholars write: Our work shows that emotionally powerful experiences are key, and they often reshape beliefs. Our interviewees generally moved in one direction: discarding a judgmental image of God picked up during childhood socialization in favor of a loving and accepting representaiton of God that is more consistent with their direct, personal, and affectively intense experiences. Creeds evolve as people repeatedly encounter the loving presence of God in the midst of a suffering world.
But perhaps our single, most important finding concerns the extent to which experiences of divine love are related to a life of benevolent service. For many Americans, the two are inseparable. And, indeed, repeated experiences of divine love can provide the energy for a “virtuous circle” in which a positive feedback loop fosters increasingly intense and effective acts of benevolence. This holds across religious and social groups. Whether liberal or conservative; male or female; young or old; black, white or Latino; or Amish, Episcopal, or Pentecostal—powerful experiences of God’s love motivate, sustain and expand benevolence.
This is a very different message about the defining characteristics of Christianity in America than the messages Americans are hearing post-election from many of the religious leaders showing up in our news media. The message does not necessarily conflict with the claims some of these religious leaders—like Mohler, above—are making. But it does place an outburst like Mohler’s bitter comment to the NYTimes in a much larger context. At the root of all this passion is a Christian desire to do good.
And Please Note: If you are already considering ordering a copy of The Heart of Religion to discuss in your congregation, it is true that the scholars’ initial rounds of research focused exclusively on Christianity in America. Christianity comprises such an overwhelming majority of the population that the scholars based their initial work on in-depth exploration of this one widespread faith. The scholars hope to follow up and study whether they find parallel principles at work in other religions. For now, however, this first book looks at America’s largest faith group.
HEART OF RELIGION: WHO CONDUCTED THIS STUDY?
This is a landmark in scientific research into the effects of religion in our daily lives and our national culture. The project involved two dozen scholars—ranging from social scientists to theologians and ethicists. Their research is ongoing.
Four years of work went into this book-length report on the researchers’ most striking conclusions. Funding came largely through a John Templeton Foundation research grant made to the Department of Sociology at the University Akron—a school already well known for studies of American religious life. Along the way, other universities launched related research projects, studying specific issues raised by the core team of scholars. Eventually, more than a dozen universities were involved nationwide.
Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.