Most people aren’t talking about God anymore—but they want to
It is hard to talk about God these days.
It is hard for me, even though I write for America, host a podcast about Vatican news and produce “Faith in Focus With Fr. James Martin SJ,” a talk show centered around spiritual conversations. I just do not have those conversations often myself.
And I am not the only one. A 2017 Barna poll commissioned by Jonathan Merritt, the author of Learning to Speak God From Scratch, found that less than a quarter of all Americans talk about God or religious topics regularly. More than half of those who rarely have religious conversations said they actively avoid the topic for a variety of reasons, including the fear of starting an argument or sounding “weird” or simply being put off by how often religion is politicized.
Less than a quarter of all Americans talk about God or religious topics regularly.
It is true that politicians are some of the last people talking about God publicly—often selectively quoting Scripture passages to support their own agendas. And when politicians or ideologues seem to be the only ones talking about God, it is difficult to want to join that conversation.
In 2018, America’s video team started working on a new show that we hoped might provide an antidote to this problem. It would be called “Faith in Focus,” like the section of the print magazine that features personal spiritual reflections, and would be hosted by James Martin, S.J., himself a prolific spiritual writer. Father Martin would interview both well-known and not-so-well-known guests about their prayer, how they relate to God and how they bring their faith into their work and family lives.
We thought people might be interested in seeing some of their favorite celebrities talk about their faith or that they would be excited to have the chance to appear on the show themselves. What we did not anticipate was that people who came across “Faith in Focus” would be excited about how normal, casual and nonjudgmental these spiritual conversations seemed.
We did not anticipate was that people would be excited about how normal, casual and nonjudgmental these spiritual conversations seemed.
After the release of Episode 2, which featured an interview with Stephen Colbert, we heard from a number of people with a variety of political and religious views—from atheists to a “Jewish agnostic looking for faith” to Catholics looking for a sign of hope—about how they appreciated Father Martin’s conversation with Mr. Colbert. Both Fox News and The Washington Post wrote sympathetically about that episode, with the latter saying “Faith in Focus” “shows a new boldness on the left to not only dabble in faith but to challenge the culture’s awkwardness about the G-word.”
America does not consider the show to be “on the left” or “on the right,” but Michelle Boorstein of The Washington Post raises a good point: Those who are politically liberal tend to shy away from spiritual conversations more than conservatives do. As the producer, it is my hope that “Faith in Focus” will be a forum for thoughtful people of varying political persuasions to speak honestly about their faith. Moreover, I hope that it continues to inspire viewers of all walks of life to reflect on spiritual questions and maybe even to bring those honest, vulnerable conversations into their own lives.
As for me, the process of becoming more comfortable with having spiritual conversations is still slow going, but producing “Faith in Focus” is pushing me to be more and more open about my own faith. For the segment of the show called “People of God,” in which Father Martin video-chats with a Catholic from anywhere in the world about an experience of God that changed his or her life, I get to call each guest before the recording to listen to their stories and get them ready for the show. I find these pre-interviews to be very intimate: There are no cameras or fancy studio equipment; it is just me and the guest, whom in many cases I have never met, sharing stories about prayer and God.
Sometimes, during the best of these calls, I am able to put my concerns about the length of the story or the guest’s internet connection or Father Martin’s possible follow-up questions aside and simply listen to the guests, encourage them and let them know they are being heard. These people of faith astound me with how vulnerable they are willing to be with me, a complete stranger, and they inspire me to have that same openness to sharing my own experiences with others.
I have been trying to do that in other areas of my life. I have talked to friends who I think will be sympathetic about my consolations and struggles in prayer. On America’s news podcast “Inside the Vatican,” I have tried to describe how scandal and missteps in the church can hurt the faith of regular Catholics, myself included.
It is still difficult for me and for many Americans to talk about God. But it is my hope that “Faith in Focus” will help us to start a new conversation.
Watch “Faith in Focus with Fr. James Martin, SJ” at americamagazine.org/faithshow.