Wednesday, March 11, 2009

I used to think it was the hormones in chicken that were ruining our culture. I’m not exactly a natural food freak, but given the 90 pounds per person of chicken Americans consume in a year, you have to wonder whether those hormones aren’t responsible for road rage and a willingness to deficit spend and even the early onset of puberty in children.

If not our chicken, perhaps it’s our media. Maybe two generations of MTV programming that glorifies sex and drugs, plus magazine headlines such as one on the cover of this month’s issue of Cosmopolitan - “You, you, you - How to be happier with one tiny change” - have succeeded in reorienting our cultural compass.

I’m always on the lookout for a simple explanation for the general rudderlessness that now seems to define America. Well, my search is over because I finally found it. The culprit is youth sports.

And not just soccer, though it bears the biggest burden of blame. While we’re at it, we can point to Starbucks and the Sunday paper, the increase in popularity of marathon running and, finally, department stores that offer added discounts between 7 a.m. and noon on Sundays.

Soccer, Starbucks and sales now are the stuff of Sunday mornings. What’s less a priority for a growing number of Americans is the practice of an organized religion.

According to an ongoing study from Trinity College‘s Program on Public Values, fully 15 percent of Americans now claim no religion, up from 14.2 percent in 2001 and 8.2 percent when the study was first undertaken in 1990. Among Christians, the study shows less sectarian identification, with a decline in affiliation with mainline Protestant churches and an increase in those who simply claim to be “Christian” or “Evangelical/Born Again.” Since 2001, America’s Catholic population declined significantly in the Northeast and moved toward the Southwest, and in fact, the Northeast now is the nation’s least religious region, no doubt reflecting the increase in popularity of Sunday morning youth lacrosse leagues.

Now that we know we’re becoming less religious, what shall we conclude? Many would shrug their shoulders in a cultural “whatever” on the theory that our constitutional right to religious freedom guarantees citizens freedom from religion if we so choose. And that’s certainly true.

Yet the Constitution doesn’t guarantee us freedom from morality or the exercise of good conscience. Secular society isn’t an amoral society. Or at least, it’s not supposed to be.

But where is morality best developed, where is conscience best formed but in the sacred spaces of our churches and temples and houses of prayer?

The Trinity College study doesn’t say which came first, the hormone-laced chicken or the morally bankrupt egg. Suffice to say we’re seeing the ramifications of a religiously immature and disinterested people who spend Sundays on the soccer field and not in church, and who think that “being good” constitutes a guiding moral code.

Though we might lament the morally corrupt behavior that we now cynically expect in one another, we can’t really say we don’t know its source, not that we have time to consider the issue.

We’re too busy chasing peewee league championships and lingering over brunch and lining up for a “doorbuster” to bother with something as mundane as praising God, however we understand Him, and submitting ourselves to His commands for inhabiting His universe.

• Visit Marybeth Hicks at

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