Radical religious groups and trends were the focus of a newly inaugurated North American Conference on Radicalism that took place in late January at Michigan State University (East Lansing), which RW attended.
Tricia Jenkins (MSU) and Virginia Thomas studied the “journey from radicalism to mainstream evangelicalism” of the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) in the years following the death of its founder, Herbert W. Armstrong. During the first two years following the reforms, membership dropped by 50 percent. It took years for most members to redefine their religious identity after radical reforms were introduced without much preparation.
The issue proved especially difficult for second-generation members, who had never faced the question of religious choice; many felt like people whose nation had been eliminated. According to the sample of some 100 people surveyed by Jenkins and Thomas, only 9 percent of their respondents chose to join a WCG splinter group, while 39 percent attend a Christian non-denominational church, and 18 percent stayed in the WCG in its reformed state.
Martha Lee (University of Windsor, Canada) and Joanna Taylor (Carleton University) spoke on Christian Exodus, a movement which wants to (re)establish a constitutional order based upon Christian principles and encourages its followers to move to the already conservative counties of South Carolina, with the hopes of taking over the state by 2014. Secession from the USA is seen as an option, but violence is not advocated. The project sounds grandiose, but so far a few hundred people at most have moved and not the thousands which were expected.
Orla Lynch (University College, Cork) researches the Muslim communities in Britain and Ireland, which she described as very complex and multidimensional. Close to two million Muslims live in the UK, but they lack representation. According to Lynch’s observations, Islamic radicalism in London seems very much linked to gang culture rather than to Al Qaeda. There is, however, a risk of recruitment into radical groups of people disengaged from the wider society and easily aroused by events taking place around the Muslim world. But 90 percent of British Muslims are far from radicalism and know little of such groups, according to Lynch..
In his keynote address, Michael Barkun (Syracuse University) spoke on American apocalypticism and conspiracy theories. According to Barkun, we increasingly see “improvisational millenialism,“ i.e. beliefs which do not fit neatly into one either secular or religious tradition. The current apocalyptical terrain has been mainstreamed; it has been brought from the fringe to popular awareness, with the Internet playing a significant role in this process. It is true that fringe beliefs have been partly diluted in the process, but their presence raises troubling questions, Barkun concluded.
The conference introduced the newly-launched Journal for the Study of Radicalism, which is devoted to the study of groups who seek revolutionary (instead of reformist) alternatives to hegemonic institutions, including religious groups: The first issue (Spring 2007) contains an article by Barkun on “The Legal World of Christian Patriots.”–By Jean-Francois Mayer, RW Contributing Editor and founder of the website Religioscope (http://www.religion.info)
(For additional information on the JSR and for subscriptions:www.msu.edu/~jsr)