ELON, N.C. (WGHP) — As the chaplain and dean of multifaith engagement at Elon University’s Truitt Center for Religious & Spiritual Life, Rev. Kirstin Boswell thinks about faith and its rituals, daily.

“I think the value of it ritual is important. Ritual provides a framework for us throughout the seasons of our lives,” she said.

And as the founding dean and professor of divinity emeritus at Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity, Bill Leonard is right there with her in thinking about the value of a directed faith.


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“That’s why I think communities of faith are so important. Because they help us know that we’re not in this by ourselves,” said Leonard. “And they also put us into a community of ideas and communities of energy and ideas that form us. One of the great phrases around today is the quest for spiritual formation, not just spiritual experience, but the way in which that spiritual experience forms us as human beings.”

But America has seen a steep decline in formal religious faith – at least of the type this country knew in its first 200 years. Since 1999, the percentage of Americans who say they belong to a church, synagogue or mosque has dropped from 70% to 45%, according to the polling firm Gallup. That’s after the number remained in the 70s since Gallup started measuring that question in the 1930s.

Some attribute the falling away from faith to scandals in churches of various sects.

“I think that it has definitely shaken people’s faith in organized religion,” said Boswell. “I don’t necessarily believe that it has shaken people’s faith in having faith though.”

“There’s almost always the issue of authority that rears its head and the effort to control what faith means or to climb a particular kind of purity that has to be followed in the faith,” said Leonard. “But then that will often run its course because people go looking for the basics that help us get through the night, that help us understand something of where we are and find meaning in what we are, and ritual is a is a major factor for that.”

 It’s all enough to make a faith leader worry about where American society is headed.

“I’m worried about it from a different standpoint,” said Boswell. “I am not worried about the shift that I see away from organized religious tradition. And the reason being that I do think that there is a way to stop the bleeding, so to speak, in that regard. I think that it’s interesting: research has shown that during the course of the pandemic, I believe it was three out of five Americans had some sort of interaction with a chaplain during that time period in a way that was helpful and sustaining for them. And the chaplain did not necessarily have to be of their particular religious tradition, and many of the people who reported these encounters were people of no faith tradition. I do think that there are ways for us to continue to provide that support.”

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There are reports that younger people – Gen Z, in particular, who are age 24 and younger – don’t take to religion because they see it as judgmental.

“Certainly in my role as a chaplain and higher ed, that’s one of the things that I hear the most I would say from students,” said Boswell. “And the students that we work with here at the Truitt Center for Religious and Spiritual Life often we’ll say things like, ‘Wow, you know, this is such an open place. I mean, I could really just come as I am.’ And that is a surprise to them, which is unfortunate.”

See more on this debate in this edition of The Buckley Report.