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Vanderbilt Divinity Dean Sees Church Changes

NASHVILLE — The outgoing dean of Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School says how history views American religious life over the past decade may not be what we expect today.

In a Tuesday community lecture, James Hudnut-Beumler, who is a professor of American religious history, said that several years ago the big news was the rise of the evangelicals, as conservative religious leaders seemed to exercise increasing power and influence.

But more recently, evangelical influence has been declining while religious observers now concern themselves with the rise of the so-called nones, or those who answer “none” when asked about their religious affiliation in polls.

Hudnut-Beumler said many of the nones are not atheists. Many of them believe in God, but their religious beliefs are eclectic, sometimes mixing the teachings of Jesus and Buddha with Kabbalah.

“We know what evangelicals will do in the future, but we don’t know what the nones will do,” he said.

If the nones remain unaffiliated, the U.S. could begin to resemble Europe in its secularism.

“Will America continue to be as religious in the future given the many wedge and identity issues?” he asked.

But religious institutions are changing as they seek to appeal to the nones as well as disaffected young people who may still claim a particular religious faith but are searching for something different.

One response has been in the growth of nondenominational churches or those that may have an affiliation that they don’t advertise, Hudnut-Beumler said. There is also the emergent church, which tries to take back some very old Christian traditions like icons and labyrinths.

“The search is what will last. It’s been going on for 350 years and is present in all major religious brands in the U.S.,” he said.

Hudnut-Beumler said churches have adapted to cultural changes in the past and will continue to do so. The question is whether they can adapt with integrity.

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