The Poison Seeds Spread by Dying Congregations

Just as a certain presidential candidate has gone to the extremes of negativity in a desperate attempt to keep his campaign alive, so parallels can be seen on the religious front.

By Matthew Streib

For five four months, I’ve been bicycling across the country, part of a yearlong tour of religious sites that are inspiring and uniquely American. Like in a garden, I expected to find some thorns in the spiritual roses. Instead, I’ve found weeds choking out some of the most deeply rooted faiths. And it’s not what people think.

For years, the religious community has bemoaned the decline of America’s most steadfast faiths. Mainstream Protestants and Jews have generally been waning in numbers, and even Roman Catholics wouldn’t be doing so well without immigration. Often, it’s attributed to the rise of individualism and buffet-style spirituality, where Americans want to pick and choose the tenets of their own faith. But I see something else—a disturbing tendency to badmouth any and all differing belief systems.

This ill-mannered unspiritual behavior, the religious equivalent of “country first” politics, seems to be coming from these same faiths that are having attendance problems. Wherever I go, I’m looking for expressions of the spirit, personal accounts of the divine in people’s lives. But over and over I find that too many of the faithful are less interested in talking about their own experiences than in haranguing others for encroaching on their turf.

Whether it’s a Hasidic rabbi in Woodstock, New York who rails against Tibetan Buddhists who are “trying to destroy the Jewish people,” a fundamentalist Christian tour guide in Zion, Illinois who refuses to even talk to anyone who doesn’t accept Jesus as a personal savior, or United Church of Christ members in Northampton, Massachusetts who complain incessantly about close-minded conservatives who can’t see the light, the need to co-opt God is apparently an inevitable, and insufferable, fly in the ointment of old-time religion.

I don’t see this tendency among the growing faiths. Mormons spend too much time testifying to be too critical. Buddhists like to say to that their practice can be combined with other faiths. And Muslims, so worried about being misinterpreted in today’s unfriendly political atmosphere, have internal scripts about the similarities between Islam and the other monotheistic faiths.

One some level, it makes sense. When faced with dwindling attendance, many congregations want to shore up the walls to minimize losses. But focusing on the faults of others hardly seems like a winning solution.

I’m probably the epitome of the religious wanderer. I grew up with no real faith of my own, never attending religious services and not knowing the Bible from the dictionary. Neither, however, could I relate to my family’s avid secular humanism. So, since I can remember, I’ve been exploring various interpretations of the divine.

On this trip, however, rather than finding faith, I repeatedly find myself sweating in a seat and checking my watch while my conversation partners foam at the mouth. Is this the community that spiritual seekers are hoping to find?

It’s easy to scapegoat in terms of faith, to think that congregations are dying because of preying missionaries and assaulting doctrines. But where does that leave you spiritually? In treating religion like a battlefield, petrified congregations become their own illusory enemies. And in combat, no army is without casualties.

History doesn’t remember belligerent faiths fondly, and tables can turn much more quickly in the modern age. Who wants to go to the church of the Crusades, when the devastation it wreaks can be seen in a short period of time? If we’re in a religious war, all the combatants may be losing.

The congregations that are compelling and attractive are the ones who let the core of their faiths shine, and wouldn’t dream of building walls to keep their light in.

Negative focuses are the dandelions in the spiritual garden, whose thorny leaves overgrow and strangle the true blossoms of religious faith. Entering into intellectual religious wars because of defensive fears is a battle destined to be lost. Other religions are never going to disappear, so while the religious warrior may be temporarily energized, it’s a false high, based on the false hope that a faith focused on negativity will inspire armies of new converts.

Faith-bashing distracts from the real purpose of religious institutions—to build and help the greater population. People want to go to places of worship that are caring, coherent, and dynamic in their relationship to God. We will never get to paradise as long as the crab grass of religious intolerance has a stranglehold in the Garden of Eden.


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Matthew Streib has a master's degree in religion and journalism from the Medill School of Journalism and has written for USA Today, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune. You can read more about his journey at

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