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USC Off the Beaten Path: The Search for Spirituality

Everything New is Old

A mission statement for our beat
By David Banks, Nick Street, July 19, 2007

Recent data from the American Religious Identification Survey show that people who identify their religious affiliation as “none of the above” now outnumber Episcopalians, Lutherans and Methodists combined.

By Nick Street

Without the Puritans, there would never have been Hippies. No Plymouth Rock, no Summer of Love.

And without the Puritans, there’s no way Wiccans could’ve won the right to emblazon the pentacle on headstones marking the graves of fallen witches and warlocks in Arlington National Cemetery.

“Now hang on just a minute,” you might say. “Didn’t the Puritans burn witches at the stake when they weren’t drowning them in ponds?”

Let me explain.

The roots of American spiritual seeking in the 20th and 21st centuries go all the way back to the 17th century — specifically to our friends the Puritans, who sought a direct relationship with God, abandoned old notions of church and state authority and set out from Europe for a “New World” that was largely unknown to them.

This passion for religious experience unmediated by a priestly caste or the institutions of a state church was, ironically, the essential foundation for our pluralist democracy, including the constitutional provision for the separation of church and state. During the period of dramatic social transformation from 1608 to 1776, the novel Puritan expression of the ideals of individual autonomy and limited central authority gradually shed the trappings of piety as it was incorporated into the Enlightenment thinking of Jefferson and other “founding fathers.”

They fashioned the American notion of liberty as a largely secular—or at least not a specifically Christian—value. And in a radical departure from Puritan theology, they imagined a creator-god as a being who wasn’t overly preoccupied with the daily devotions and peccadilloes of the individuals who populated his creation.

The seedling of spiritual autonomy originally planted by the Puritans continued to evolve and grow in the 19th century, giving rise to radically individualistic movements such as Theosophy and Transcendentalism. Thinkers like Emerson and Thoreau idealized the seeker as someone unfettered by religious convention and communing directly with nature.

Other fresh iterations of Puritan ideas sparked revivalist fervor in places like Cane Ridge, Kentucky, where thousands gathered to witness believers speaking in tongues and to hear the gospel preached by blacks and women — a century and a half before they and other marginalized people began to make their way to the pulpits of mainstream American congregations.

Westward migration and two world wars kept the cultural ferment bubbling and brought new immigrant populations and new spiritual traditions into the American mix. At the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, many Americans got their first glimpse of Buddhist monks and Hindu swamis, infusing Eastern religious practice into the Transcendentalist tradition’s mainly intellectual understanding of South Asian religion. And by the late 1960s, cynicism toward what many seekers saw as bankrupt political and religious institutions sparked what’s sometimes called the Fourth Great Awakening, or the Consciousness Revolution.

Which brings us to the present day — and to the abiding irony of the Puritan influence on American religious experience. People whom the Puritans would most likely have tossed on the flames along with the witches — gay and lesbian shamans, Anglo converts to Buddhism, self-styled Neopagans and New Agers and strong-willed women in Mainline pulpits — continue to strive for a direct experience of divine presence in their lives and to resist the claims of the state and orthodox religious authorities on their loyalty (or at least to their obedience).

In fact, the current generation of seekers may represent the leading edge of a Fifth Great Awakening. Want proof? Recent data from the American Religious Identification Survey show that people who identify their religious affiliation as “none of the above” now outnumber Episcopalians, Lutherans and Methodists combined.

And what’s the fastest-growing religious movement in the country? Evangelicalism? Mormonism? Pentecostalism?

Try Wicca. If you take recent religious identification surveys at face value, the story you get is that number of self-identified Wiccans increased by more than 1,000 percent over the past decade. Two hundred thousand strong, Wiccans now outnumber Quakers and Christian Scientists, and the number of Wiccans in America is currently doubling every 30 months.

We should be thankful both for the Puritan ideals of autonomy and decentralized authority and for the fact that the Puritans themselves didn’t have a hand in drafting the document that preserves those ideals in the American context. The lesson of this bit of American history: a little Puritanism goes a long way.

What’s the fastest-growing religious movement in the country? Evangelicalism? Mormonism? Pentecostalism? Try Wicca.

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