Christians stressing practical social concern and following the Golden Rule rather than doctrine or activism may represent the majority of American Christians.
That is the finding of a research team headed by Hartford Seminary’s Nancy Ammerman in the recent book Lived Religions in America (edited by David D. Hall, Princeton University Press). These “Golden Rule” Christians. outnumber the familiar categories of “activist” and “evangelical”. The evangelicals (emphasizing prayer, Bible study, and evangelism) comprised 29 percent of the total, and activists (stressing social action and working for justice) made up 19 percent; thus 51 percent saw themselves as “golden rule Christians who are concerned with directly caring for others living one’s Christian values everyday.”
Ammerman and team’s research was gathered from 1,995 individuals in 23 congregations, with balanced representation from women, Catholic, evangelical and liberal Protestant churches. This trend harmonizes well with related movements within church life, with the primary emphasis being on spiritual practices rather than ideology. Ammerman suggests this changing pattern of participation “may in fact be the dominant form of religiosity among middle-class suburban Americans.”
But it is not exclusively white, nor are the priorities defined by age or gender. This form of religiosity is based on Bible reading but not in any literal sense. Golden Rule Christians focus primarily on relationships, especially on the local level. Their goal is not to change the whole political system nor change the beliefs of other people. They express their faith in caring for family, friends, neighborhood, and congregation. They participate often in volunteer activities, soup lines, working at senior centers and the like.
Ammerman makes it clear that their faith is more than a do-good, uplifting kind of morality. Eschewing denominational boundaries, they see themselves as Christians for two reasons. They work largely through congregational structures, “no other organization puts caring for others so clearly at the center of its life” And secondly, they find an element of transcendence, of communing with God, at the core of their activity. Ammerman suggests church leaders would do well to investigate more completely the pervasiveness of this religious commitment among their members.
— By Erling Jorstad, RW contributing editor