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Religion as a ‘Personal Identity Accessory’

By Rick Lawrence
Vibrant Faith Executive Director

Dr. Nancy Going and I have been leading a four-week book club for our Vibrant Faith Catalyst community (https://vibrant-faith-catalyst.mn.co), focusing on Dr. Christian Smith’s new book Handing Down the Faith: How Parents Pass Their Religion On to the Next Generation. Among the many, many eye-opening and upending observations from Dr. Smith’s research is a buried treasure. Years ago he coined the phrase Moralistic Therapeutic Deism to describe the functional belief system of most Americans, and that descriptor infected the way the Christian community talked about the “state of the faith” in America. And, in Handing Down the Faith, he’s come up with another phrase to describe our common cultural relationship to our Christian faith—one that I think will similarly infect the way we understand and engage our current reality…

“The last century… saw a basic transformation in the nature of religion away from being a community solidarity project into something else: religion as personal identity accessory.” 

What Dr. Smith is targeting, guided by the insights he’s gleaned from more than 230 in-depth interviews and data from three nationally representative surveys, is a shift in the way we corporately relate to faith formation, church, and spiritual growth. That shift is taking us away from a communal context for growing into a discipling relationship with Jesus and toward an individual expression of identity—just another way to describe our particular mix of personal interests and passions. It’s like telling your friends that you love downhill skiing and are hooked on Ted Lasso. These things are personal passions, not communal commitments. And, says Dr. Smith, this shift has been fueled by the “‘seeker church’ and mega-church movements that flowered in the 1980s.”

I’ll let Dr. Smith take it from there, in this significant excerpt from his book…

When religion is reconstituted as a personal identity accessory, its practical purpose is not to promote right living grounded in good beliefs, but to offer practices and techniques that promote coping with life and the making of “good choices.” Religious people may not recognize this core function and may even deny it, but essentially that is what religion in this model mostly does. The human self in this version of religion is not an object with a nature in need of formation in the good, but a subject of self-development seeking to identify, affirm, and enact “authentic” life concerns. These may take various forms, as the individual decides upon them, but authenticity and good personal “fit” are essential elements. Religious congregations do not disappear in this model, but their function is transformed. Congregations are no longer centers of local community life but rather more like supportive associational resources aiding members in pursuing their authentic life concerns, coping with life, and making good choices. Membership is not determined by a mix of ascription and chosen association conditioned heavily by geographic and social limits, as with the communal solidarity project. Membership is instead a matter of personal preference dependent on how well the various options on offer meet one’s felt needs. Community solidarity is replaced by consumer selection.

The basis for the acceptance of religious teachings and observances (religious epistemology) when religion is a personal identity accessory is not revelation and tradition, but each individual’s personal “opinion” about what is helpful and right, that is, his or her subjectively felt preferences. “Scripture says…” is replaced with “Well, I feel that…,” “To me…,” and “I just don’t think I can get on board with…”

Religion’s appeal in this context shifts from being the place where one learns revealed and traditional truths that shape persons to live good lives as defined by the religion. Instead, its appeal is in promising to improve people’s quality of life here and now by providing a “foundation” for individuals, a “grounding” for values, good choices, emotional coping, and improved personal relationships. Religious communities in this scenario become no longer authoritative centers of communal solidarity but associational resources from which parents may draw help in their task, if desired (although, as we see later and elsewhere, most religious parents hold relatively low expectations of their religious congregations and leaders).
(Excerpted from Chapter 4 of Handing Down the Faith, by Christian Smith and Amy Adamczyk, Oxford University Press – April 22, 2021.)

The implications of what Dr. Smith is observing and describing are profound for those of us in ministry leadership. I highly encourage you to order his book, read it, then gather your congregation’s staff and lay leaders to lean into its findings with curiosity, creativity, Spirit-dependence, and determination…

Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith. He’s the general editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible, and author of 40 books, including The Jesus-Centered Life and the new daily devotional Jesus-Centered Daily. His new book, The Suicide Solution, was just released.

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