The constitutional separation of church and state laid the foundation for the American "free market" of religion. The "establishment" clause formally deprived any one religion of the special advantages of state support or sponsorship. The "free exercise" clause granted each American the right to affiliate with any religion or none at all. With the passage of the first amendment, religion in the American setting became strictly a voluntary matter. Consequently, ordinary citizens' religious choices could exert a kind of market pressure on churches. Religious communities had to work harder to cater to the needs and sensibilities of adherents or risk losing them. When there was a market "niche" that wasn't exploited by existing religious communities, new religions could spring up overnight to fill the void, expanding the range of religious choices available to Americans. Furthermore, there was only a small step between a religious free market, and a religious smorgasbord. Americans could not only pick and choose religions as they saw fit. They could pick and choose religious ideas. They could customize themselves a personal religion that mixed and matched spiritualities, teachings, and practices, if they so felt inclined. And they did.
There is some evidence that Americans, had, in fact, almost always taken this approach to religion. Even in Puritan New England, there were hinterlands where European settlers lived beyond the reach of colonial religious authorities. Throughout the American colonies, governments were weak and religious institutions underdeveloped, and, on the eve of the American Revolution, the vast majority of Americans -- an estimated 85-90% or more -- were unchurched. That alone increased the odds that religion would become, for most Americans, an individual affair.
Catherine Albanese, in A Republic of Mind and Spirit (Yale University Press, 2007), pointed out that historians have tended to overlook the ways American religion has always been fluid and individualistic. Previous generations of religious historians have focused on religious institutions, and the religious history of a people always looks more pristine and uniform when you look at it from that viewpoint. But when you look at it from the viewpoint of individual choices, religious life assumes a more amorphous quality. And American religion, she argues, cannot be properly understood without accounting for this metaphysical freedom and fluidity. Folk magic, transcendentalism, spiritualism, "new thought," and the "new age" are manifestations of spirituality that have always thrived outside of religious institutions, providing an alternative to religious establishments, and even becoming forums for counter-cultural movements of protest against religious complacency.
I witnessed an example of this the other night, while attending an after-show discussion at the Illusion Theater of Bare, a musical about two gay teens who fall in love in a Catholic boarding school. One of the things I loved about this musical was its serious treatment of spirituality. The first act began with a mass, and interspersed throughout the production were heartfelt prayers, priestly confessions, heart-to-heart theological discussions, and even a vision of the Virgin Mary! In the Q&A, I asked the cast to comment -- if they could -- on the importance of spirituality in the coming out process. What ensued, I thought, was very revealing.
An Episcopal priest, who had been invited by the show's director to be present for the discussion, launched into a lecture about how there were gay friendly churches (his own, for one), and he encouraged gay youth to seek out those gay-friendly institutions and get connected to them. He didn't really answer my question about spirituality. A young man raised his hand and began to talk about how "his generation" just didn't believe in religious institutions any more. I detected more than a hint of frustration in his voice; I don't know if he was directly responding to the priest's statement. But he talked about how Internet communities were creating forums where people could explore spirituality and religion totally free of the constraints created by religious institutions. People didn't believe in God anymore, he said, but they weren't uninterested in spirituality. There was, he observed, actually a hunger to connect spiritually, but on folk's own terms -- with or without churches, with or without traditional "God talk."
The Internet has in many ways accelerated cultural processes that are eroding the power of all institutions -- secular and religious. Five hundred years ago, the printing press played a similar role in medieval society, providing a democratizing forum for discussion that was difficult for the powers-that-be to control. The Internet is a thousand times more volatile than the printing press, both intensely individualistic but also profoundly connective, creating forms of immediate and interactive global community that never could have been imagined possible.
I don't think there will ever come a time when human culture can dispense with religious institutions, or when the more fluid, metaphysical approach to spirituality could ever replace religious institutions. But I think the metaphysical fringe will continue for the foreseeable future to exist in a kind of yin-yang relationship with religious institutions -- critiquing and being critiqued by them, and giving energy to and receiving energy from them.