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A shifting spiritual quest

Americans have a long – and ongoing – history as spiritual seekers. But the ‘a la carte’ approach to religion expressed by many people today challenges religious institutions to find ways to embrace them.

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In his speech commemorating the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, President Obama signaled that one thing hadn’t changed despite a decade of a “new normal” in the lives of Americans.

“Our character as a nation has not changed,” the president said. “Our faith in God and in each other – that has not changed.”

He went on to quote one of the most moving and comforting passages in the Bible, from the book of Psalms: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear even though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea.”

That text, written well over two millenniums ago (and translated into English 400 years ago for the King James Version), speaks of the need to reject fear and acknowledge God’s goodness, presence, and power.

Its inclusion in Mr. Obama’s speech signals that Americans haven’t forgotten their long history as spiritual seekers.

Yet that ongoing spiritual quest is taking on new forms, some of which can seem troubling at first glance. Polls show many outward signs of religious activity, such as attendance at religious services, creeping downward. A new suspicion of the motives and aims of institutions – whether political, commercial, or religious – is on the rise.

At the same time belief in God and interest in spiritual matters continue to rank highly in polls of Americans of all ages.

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