How Do Americans Really Feel About God?

Last year, I appeared as a guest on right-wing pundit Laura Ingraham's radio show. She and I were debating the merits of comprehensive sexual education, and something I said really set her off. "Do you even believe in God?!" she screamed. I could almost see the blond flyaways standing up on their offended little ends.

Not usually flummoxed by blowhards like Laura, I have to admit I was thrown off. I took a deep breath and then answered, "I think, like most Americans, I have a complex relationship with the idea of God."

"Most Americans," she spit back, "are Christian!"

I had a hunch that her take on Americans' religious perspective was spuriously simple, but it was comforting to read the findings of a new report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life titled "Faith in Flux" that proves it. Building on a similar report last year, the Pew Forum looked at "the fluidity of religious affiliation in the U.S." and found that roughly half of U.S. adults have changed religion at some point in their life. Further, the number of Americans who identify as unaffiliated with a particular religion -- now hovering around 16 percent -- has grown more rapidly than any other religious group in recent decades.

In recent years, the story of American religion has been hyped up in fire and brimstone thanks to our previous president, a self-proclaimed born-again Christian, and the massive evangelical movement that influenced him to enact policies that were consistent with religious perspective: the global gag rule, abstinence-only sex education, and marriage-promotion programs, just to name a few. But those days are over. These policies, to borrow some vocabulary from religious folks, have been an abomination -- imposing one narrow definition of morality on a broad and diverse group of people the world over. Talk about not walking humbly with your God.

It wasn't divine intervention that ousted George W. Bush from office. It was millions of Americans -- some Christians, some Jews, some Muslims, some confused -- who wanted an ethical, not necessarily a religious, president. Pew reports that in 2008 Democrats and Barack Obama made significant gains among Hispanic Catholics, Hispanic Protestants, and other minority Catholics and Protestants. A majority of black Protestants, seculars, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and Asian Christians also voted Democratic. A new day dawned in Washington -- one where humility and a sort of quiet faith replaced the ego and fanaticism of yesteryear.

Americans didn't just reject the politics of the religious right. They rejected the hubris and simplistic nature of strict religion. The "Faith in Flux" report declares: "About half … became unaffiliated, at least in part, because they think of religious people as hypocritical, judgmental or insincere. Large numbers also say they became unaffiliated because they think that religious organizations focus too much on rules and not enough on spirituality, or that religious leaders are too focused on money and power rather than truth and spirituality."

Americans are testing the waters of a new kind of religious complexity. This isn't the New Age spirituality of The Secret or the rabid atheism of Ivy League intellectuals. It isn't the over-the-top bar mitzvah or quinceañera. This is the steady, patient movement of citizens who are searching for the center again, Americans who want to believe in the goodness of a country and its people, folks who are affiliated with fairness and kindness over any one institution of worship.

The report, which indicates that one-fourth of adult Americans have changed their religious affiliation from what they were raised with, also explains, "The unaffiliated population is a very diverse group. Not all those who are unaffiliated lack spiritual beliefs or religious behaviors; in fact, roughly four-in-ten unaffiliated individuals say religion is at least somewhat important in their lives."

My family seems like a fairly apt case in point. My father defected from Catholicism in his 20s when he decided that the only way he could get into heaven was by getting hit by a bus directly after confessing his sins. (Catholicism has suffered the greatest net loss in worshipers.) He, like so many fight-the-power children of the '60s, tried on Buddhism directly after his bell-bottom pants and has never taken it off. My mother rebelled against her mother's pious Episcopalian ways and treated feminism like a religion, although if you ask her today she will usually describe herself as something like a humanist-naturalist-Christian-ish feminist.

And me? Well, as I told Laura, I'm still figuring things out. Being raised in Colorado Springs, Colorado -- home of Focus on the Family and the New Life Church -- taught me that I didn't want to be part of a certain brand of zealotry. Even so, I have often been jealous of my evangelical Christian cousins who seem so much more sure about right and wrong than I am, so comforted by the capacity to "give it up to God." My parents didn't raise me with any rituals or religious education. In fact, they love to tell the story of when I was 6 years old and saw a painting of the crucifixion in an art museum and hollered, "There's that guy with his foot problem again!"

Strangely, Barack Obama's election was the closest thing to a religious experience that I've ever had. My faith was renewed in a country that, at times, has felt beyond saving. My heart swelled with the sense of interconnection that I've only heard described in spiritual terms. I certainly don't think he's a god, but I do think that the hope and sense of responsibility and community that he's been able to inspire in people is profound.

Ultimately, it is our collective humility -- brought on by economic collapse and years of reckless domestic and foreign policy -- and the wisdom born from it that will be our salvation. As President Obama himself would attest, it's time to stop looking to leaders to save us from ourselves and start building a sustainable, equitable future that's made of something stronger than religious fervor or blind patriotism. Americans are ready to rebuild our country, not from commandments on high but from earthly values like kindness and reason.