In This Issue
- On/File: April 2001
- Findings & Footnotes: April 2001
- Taliban reasserts militancy
- Majority of religions re-registering in Russia
- US recruitment creating Christian brain drain in Third World?
- Religion finds some attention in foreign policy planning
- Current Research: April 2001
- Gay-based MCC finds mainline acceptance
- Evangelicals founding sexual recovery ministries
- Unificationists make new effort to gain black church support
- Responses to social service initiative reveal racial divide
01: The Universal Life Church gained notoriety in the 1970s for its mail-order ordinations it provided to anyone of any faith.
The group is still around and is prospering due to the Internet. By going to the church’s web site and pressing the “enter” key, as well as by paying $20, inquirers are legally ordained, and in most states are permitted to perform marriages, baptisms, funerals and other ceremonies. While the bulk of ordinations are still done by mail, it is estimated that the Internet has increased church activity (including ordinations) by 25 to 30 percent, with 15,000 ordinations being conducted monthly.
Other groups are increasingly offering similar services on the Internet. The ULC has an objective behind its easy ordinations. Daniel Zimmerman, who operates a church web site, says “The secret purpose behind Universal Life Church is to get rid of all religions. If everyone is ordained than it doesn’t mean anything anymore.”
(Source: National Catholic Register, March 25)
02: M. Night Shyamalan’s films, such as “Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable,” present a Hindu-based spiritual perspective and are finding widespread popular appeal.
Shyamalan, a screen writer and director, gained fame through his 1999 thriller, the Oscar nominated Sixth Sense, which tells the story of a young boy who sees ghosts. The India-born Shyamalan attended Catholic schools as a child in Philadelphia but was raised and remains a Hindu. His films tie everyday life to spirituality and draw on such Eastern themes as the preeminence of the spiritual over the physical planes of life.
The Hindu factor is seen most strongly in Sixth Sense where ghosts seek release from karma or the consequences of bad actions to proceed for the next state of evolution, intimating the possibility of reincarnation.
(Source: Hinduism Today, March/April)
01: A new religious freedom report from Forum 18, a Norwegian coalition of non-governmental organizations, is unique in its focus on how nations deal with conversions to other faiths, as well as differing registration systems — in other words, how religions are officially recognized and tolerated by governments.
The report, entitled Freedom of Religion, looks at eight countries — Greece, Egypt, Nigeria, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, India, China, and Israel/Palestine. The report finds that there is a general trend toward more state-affiliation of religion outside of the West. This does not necessarily mean a loss of religious freedom (although even in Greece a pattern of penalizing proselytizing any Greek Orthodox member — virtually every Greek citizen — is in place), but the development makes discrimination against faiths more likely.
The final stage of monitoring and registering conversions and proselytizing is seen in China and Turkmenistan where the state attempts to change religious dogma to make religion tools of state policy. The report is available over the web at: http://www.normis.no.
02: Give Me That Online Religion, by Brenda Brasher (Jossey-Bass, $24.95), provides a provocative look at how religious beliefs and practices are expressed in cyberspace.
Brasher holds that the Internet will transform both the style and content of religion and offers some interesting observations about these changes, some of which are alrelady taking place. Online religion is less parochial and will generate less divisions and violence since it is not tied to locality; the use of humor and satire is finding its way into many religious sites. “Cyberspace makes religious humor just as public as religious seriousness,” she writes.
Especially compelling are Brasher’s case studies in which she provides nuanced accounts of how people experience religion online and make the transition from virtual” to real religious communities (for instance, how one man’s introduction to a virtual monastery on the web led to a renewed Catholic life). Brasher is more controversial in a chapter on the “human cyborg,” in which she postulates that ever-increasing computer-human interaction will make Christian concepts and ethics that were shaped in an agrarian environment outdated. In the place of these religions will be online “popular culture religions” that can better relate to these changes in human identity and community induced by computers.
03: Gershom Gorenberg’s The End Of Days (Free Press, $25) looks at the — often literally — explosive subject of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and the apocalyptic fervor surrounding this piece of real estate for a segment of Jews and Christians. The Temple Mount, the location of the ancient Jewish Temple, is seen as the site for rebuilding the temple, which will hasten the site of the messiah in the case of ultra-Orthodox Jews or, in the case of many evangelicals and fundamentalist Christians, the return of Christ.
Since most of the Temple Mount is Muslim property, even radical Muslims see the attempt to wrest control of the property (among extremists, by blowing up the Dome of the Rock) and rebuild the temple as hastening the advent of the anti-Christ. Gorenberg, a Jerusalem-based journalist, provides interesting vignettes of the players involved in the Temple Mount movement, particularly the strange alliance between some evangelicals and ultra-orthodox Jews.
Gorenberg makes it clear that these groups are attracting growing support (such as the Jewish movement to rebuild the temple), though not enough to build a mainstream movement as much as serve a catalyst for further unrest and violence in the region.
04: RW readers can still get a discount copy of editor Richard Cimino’s Trusting The Spirit: Renewal and Reform in American Religion (Jossey-Bass) The book looks at six case studies of groups attempting to change and revitalize their religious institutions in Protestant, Catholic and Jewish contexts. Each chapter compares the case studies and and analyzes their effectiveness.
The book, regularly costing $21.95, is intended both for those working in congregational and denominational settings as well as for academics, journalists and others interested in this important current in American religion. The back of the book profiles nearly 50 such reform/renewal groups active today.
For a copy, make out the payment of $17 to Religion Watch and send to: P.O. Box 652, North Bellmore, NY 11710.
05: RW readers are invited to contribute clippings of articles on trends in religion to the newsletter as well as original articles.
We are particularly interested in reports on conferences, interviews, and first-hand reporting on emerging trends and issues in religion. Book reviews and summaries of articles — particularly on sources from the Internet — are also welcome. Those familiar with survey research and the sociology of religion are also encouraged to write.
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The recent destruction of pre-Islamic Buddha images by Afghanistan’s Taliban regime suggests that this Muslim movement is reasserting its militancy after a period of tolerance and even cooperation with other nations on issues ranging from historic preservation to women’s rights, reports the Washington Post (March 20).
The widely reported destruction of invaluable Buddhist statues by the Taliban in early March after a religious edict was issued was followed days later by an animal sacrifice (100 slaughtered cows) by authorities. The action, far from repenting of the destruction, was meant to seek Allah’s forgiveness in delaying several days in blasting the statues. Unnamed sources say that following an internal struggle, moderates who tried to establish greater contact with the West during the last year have lost influence to hard-liners.
One source in an Afghan international agency says that the statue destruction was done to “show that they [the Taliban] are the purists, the real face of Islam.”
Although Afghanistan has not showed much change in its restrictions against women’s rights, it had allowed women to work in relief agencies run by foreign charities. But last summer Mohammed Omar, the Taliban’s top leader, issued a decree barring Afghan women from working with foreign agencies. just as he reversed his earlier promise not to destroy pre-Islamic shrines.
Although the Taliban claim they destroyed the Buddhas for strictly religious reasons, analysts see the hardening stance of the regime as a reaction against the sanctions Western nations have imposed on Afghanistan because of the Taliban’s alleged links with terrorism.
The majority of religious organizations that were required to re-register with the government in order to be recognized in Russia have done so, although a significant minority — from the Salvation Army to Buddhists — were turned away from such official approval and may face liquidation.
In 1997 Russia passed a measure requiring all religious groups that had registered prior to that year to re-register before December 31, 2000 or face losing status and possible liquidation by the authorities. Frontier (No. 1, 2001), a newsletter of the Keston Institute, a group monitoring religious freedom in communist and former communist lands, randomly selected various Russian regions to determine how the re-registration process had worked.
A majority of religious groups were found to comply with the law on schedule. For instance in the Kursk region, four groups had failed to re-register, compared to 282 which had done so.
Those groups failing to re-register either never registered at all, were too small to be required to register or had disbanded in the meantime, were in too remote a location to re-register (in Siberia, this was most often the case for not re-registering), or were refused registration or re-registration by the local authorities This latter problem is most often the case with groups with foreign ties. The Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist order based in Moscow but with a Japanese leader attempted to re-register five times prior to June 2000 before deciding to exist on an unofficial basis.
Similar rejection has greeted Jewish, Baptist, and Jehovah’s Witnesses groups. In many cases, they are forced to accept legal status as a “religious group” rather than as a “religious organization,” which means they have fewer rights and more difficulties renting buildings for meetings.
(Frontier, Keston Institute, 4 Park Town, Oxford OX2 6SH, U.K.)
Churches in mission areas around the world are facing a “brain-drain” as their best and brightest church leaders often are lured to the U.S. for more prestigious positions, according to a missions specialist. Pastors, seminary professors and others in independent organizations are being lured to U.S. ministries because they can offer better pay and more comfortable surroundings, says Jim Reapsome in the missions newsletter World Pulse.
Reapsome, whose article is cited in Charisma News Service (March 14), says that world missions are being gradually depleted by the flow of evangelical talent to the U.S., often because of Americans’ “predatory practices” of recruiment.
Reapsome cites the case of Sri Lankan evangelical leader Ajith Fernando as he is continually faced with enticing offers to leave his local ministry and join international agencies or to teach in the U.S. Despite personal risks and much lower pay and standard of living, Fernendo has declined such offers and has stayed in his war-torn country.
Religious participation in global policy planning gatherings is on the rise, although neither religious leaders nor policy makers have thought much about the long term role of religion in world affairs, writes Lawrence Sullivan in the e-newsletter Sightings (March 7).
The recent participation of religious leaders in the World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in Davos, Switzerland was a first. WEF organizer Klaus Schwab “has signaled a serious, civilized role for religious players in Davos . . . The WEF briefed all participants on religion’s relevance: in stabilizing and legitimizing political and economic systems; in reviving activism in the international system; in mobilizing against globalization’s deleterious effects; in building and consolidating peace; in providing critical and spiritual reflections from which emerge social, economic, and ecological values,” Sullivan writes.
The new recognition of the religion factor may be partly defensive. Such international agencies as the UN, World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund have faced steady criticism from religious institutions on issues of religious freedom, women’s issues, immigration, poverty, and the environment. Another event that may have encouraged the WEF was last summer’s Millennial Peace Summit, which brought religious leaders, and such personalities as Ted Turner, to the UN to deliberate on world peace and interfaith cooperation.
But Sullivan adds that this “UN moment has yet to be followed up with constructive working agendas that involve religious leadership.” The problem lies partly with the religious leaders. Sullivan concludes that “Few religious leaders study the issues or express themselves in ways that engage policy makers in business, finance, science, and government.”
01: A survey of 3,000 people in 40 communities across the U.S. finds that those who are active in religious life are more likely to know and trust other people, and socialize with friends and neighbors.
Americans are also more likely to trust people at their church or synagogue than at their workplace or in their neighborhood. Religon Today.com (March 23) reports that 71 percent of people said they trust people at their house or worship, compared to 52 percent who trust co-workers, and 31 percent who trust members of their own race, according to the poll called the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey.
Meanwhile, the German news service Idea (March 13) reports that although one in five Europeans have lost all trust in the churches, 44 percent hold them in high esteem. Interestingly, the more secular nations seem to have the highest levels of trust. The poll, conducted by the German edition of Readers Digest, finds that the churches enjoy the highest reputation in Finland, where 67 percent of the population said they have confidence in the churches. Second in the ranking comes Denmark (61 percent), followed by Poland (56 percent) and Portugal (54 percent).
In Germany, the percentage of trust in the churches has dropped by 15 percent in the last 10 years down to 36 percent. Belgians (26 percent) and Czechs (23 percent) have among the lowest trust rates in the churches. [It may seem contradictory that countries with low church attendance also demonstrate high trust in churches. Sociologists such as Grace Davie find that state churches, such as the ones in Scandinavia, are viewed as public utilities, making it possible to place high trust in them even if they are infrequently attended].
(Idea, Postfach 18 20, D-35528 Wetzlar, Germany)
02: A widely publicized Hartford Seminary study on American congregations is casting more doubt on the view that the claims of being in a post-denominational era are overblown.
Nearly two-thirds of U.S. congregations maintain strong ties to their religious denominations. The survey, of 14,301 congregations in 41 denominations, confirms that the growth of less hierarchical, more charismatic congregations, along with Islam, Baha’i, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is “rapidly putting a new face on American religion” and lessening the dominance of traditional churches. This slowdown includes the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox populations, where new parish development has been cut in half. New Catholic parishes represented 10 percent of all church planting 20 years ago and only five percent today.
Another unexpected finding was that the most growth in new congregations is in the West rather than the South, largely due to migration patterns. Evangelicals make up the largest proportion of new congregations — 58 percent. The study finds that many of the healthiest congregations — displaying both financial stability and growth–use alternative worship styles, such as electronic musical instruments rather than organs– that appeal to younger worshippers.
Such congregations are likely to be evangelical Protestant, with authority based “in the Holy Spirit,” rather than in creeds or reason, according to a report on the survey in the Washington Post (March 14). Another unusual finding was that congregations led by seminary-taught pastors and rabbis are “far more likely” to report a lack of purpose in their ministry, feel threatened by changes in worship, and are less inclined to deal with conflict openly. Those involved in seeker churches and religious marketing may be surprised at the finding that advertising and promotional campaigns more often energize current members and are less effective in attracting new members.
(More findings from the Hartford study are available at: http://www.hirr.hartsem.edu)
03: Ireland’s Catholics are not losing their faith as much as questioning church teachings that assert authority over their private lives, writes Andrew Greeley in America magazine (March 12).
Greeley and colleagues analyze the results from 1991 and 1998 surveys (from the International Social Survey Program) and find there has been no change in the Irish belief in God, heaven, miracles, nor has church attendance declined. Yet on church teachings on sexual and reproductive ethics and confidence in the church, there is noticeable slippage.
The belief that abortion is always wrong is at 40 percent, while confidence in the church organization has fallen from 46 percent in 1991 to 27 percent in 1998. More unusual and unexplained is that the youngest cohort showed the highest confidence in their local priest (70 percent) and were the most likely to say that they feel “close” to Catholicism, that Mary is essential to their religious identity, and that faith affects their moral decisions large and small. “Such judgments are made by a generation that utterly rejects church authority and church sexual teaching and attends Mass much less frequently than its elders,” Greeley adds.
(America, 106 W. 56th St., New York, NY 10019-3803)
04: A large study shows a significant gap between traditional church teachings on the family and sex and the beliefs of the younger generation of British church members.
The study, one of the largest surveys on young people’s religion and family values, with 33,000 respondents, was conducted by the Welsh National Center for Religious Education at the University of Wales. A press release from the university reports that overwhelming numbers of young Anglicans and Roman Catholics reject their churches’ teachings against sex outside marriage and against divorce. Only 15 percent of Catholics surveyed agreed with their church’s teachings against sex outside marriage while 18 percent of young Anglicans believe divorce is wrong.
In contrast, 49 percent of young British Muslims agree with their faith’s prohibition against premarital sex; and 42 percent consider divorce to be wrong. Meanwhile, 47 percent of young members of Christian “sects” (most likely meaning the evangelicals and charismatics) consider divorce wrong.
05: Politicians rather than clerics top a new listing of England’s most influential religious figures.
The list, compiled by a panel of eight “religious experts,” is headed by England’s Prime Minister Tony Blair, followed by Chancellor Gordon Brown and first lady Cherie Booth QC ( prominent Roman Catholic). Alt.Co.Uk (March 5), an online news service, notes that “Clerics from the upper echelons of the Church of England are beaten into low rankings by figures ranging from politicians to athletes, and pop stars to scientists.
According to the panel (including Sir Brian Mawhinney, Rabbi David Goldberg, and Muslim peer Baroness Uddin), the list reflects the country’s `multifaith’ character.” There were only two Anglican bishops on the list, while the Archbishop of Canterbury ranked sixth. The panel concluded that he could not be placed any higher, as he had “little or no impact outside of the church.”
The Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), a largely gay, bi-sexual and transsexual denomination, is gradually moving into mainline Protestantism, reports the Christian Century (March 21-28).
Although the MCC has been repeatedly rejected for membership in the National Council of Churches, the 44,000-member denomination is finding acceptance among mainline seminaries, such as Chicago Theological Seminary and the Pacific School of Religion, where an arrangement may include classes teaching MCC doctrine and church polity. Writer John Dart adds that the MCC’s ecumenical and interreligious officer was recently elected president of the California Council of Churches. The MCC also belongs to statewide councils of churches in Hawaii, Colorado, North Carolina and Oregon.
Although denied official membership, a half-dozen MCC officials sit on NCC and World Council of Churches committees. Another unprecedented step took place last fall when the United Church of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and the MCC jointly planted a new congregation in Berkeley, Calif., that seeks to bring together Christians regardless of sexual orientation.
MCC pastors regularly attend the Robert H. Schuller Institute for Successful Church Leadership, a well-known church growth seminar. Along with such cooperative efforts, Dart finds that the church also has a more confrontational side. It has moved from performing same-sex unions to being on the front lines for gay marriage. The denomination works closely with the interfaith group Soul Force — which is headed by MCC clergyman Mel White — which regularly engages in protests against denominations and congregations that oppose full gay rights.
Dart notes that the MCC is growing and becoming more diverse (with now about an equal percentage of lesbians), with congregations holding a mix of evangelical, liturgical and even New Thought and Unitarian teachings, with churches in the Bible belt being the largest. The MCC still sees itself as a sort of spiritual Red Cross for gays and others, helping people discover spirituality during life crises even if most eventually move on to other churches and traditions.
(Christian Century, 407 South Dearborn, Chicago, IL 60605)
Although evangelicals have been involved in self-help groups for several years, “sexual recovery ministries,” appear to be striking a strong chord among such believers.
The Los Angeles Times (March 30) reports that a “small but growing number of evangelical and Pentecostal churches across the U.S. are starting sexual recovery ministries” for those addicted to pornography and prostitution. Although most churches are uncomfortable with admitting that their members could be addicted to pornography, “anecdotal reports suggest that growing numbers of church members and pastors are being ensnared by addiction to pornography, in large part because they can easily access it anonymously on their computers,” writes Larry Stammer.
For instance, the evangelical men’s ministry Promise Keepers reports that one out of three men who attended its conferences in 1996 admitted that they struggle with pornography. Several programs have been launched to deal with sexual addiction in evangelical churches over the years and most of them are reporting upswings in interest. They include Pure Desire, RSA (Renewal from Sexual Addictions), and the Minneapolis-based Faithful and True.
These programs are similar to secular sexual addiction self-help groups except for the Christ-centered dimension and the “biblical model” that one can be healed of this problem — a belief that is criticized by psychotherapists who hold that an addict is always recovering but never cured.
Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church, is currently seeking to strengthen his movement’s ties with black churches, an effort meeting with mixed success.
In the San Francisco Chronicle (March 13) Don Lattin reports that Moon’s recent 49-city tour of the U.S. is showing a new interest in building a coalition between black churches and his movement, now going by the name the Family Federation of World Peace. Although some black church leaders have gravitated to Moon-backed social organizations (such as CAUSA) since the 1980s, Moon’s recent involvement with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan during last year’s Million Family March and his current tour show a new effort in this direction as he seeks religious unity.
Lattin reports that at an Oakland meeting, black leaders and other clergy defended Moon against charges that he is a dangerous cult leader as they cited his leadership on moral and social issues.
The independent news service Alternet (March 13) reports that Moon has recently surrounded himself with black church leaders, such as Dr. Tony Evans, head of the Texas-based group, The Urban Alternative, and confident of President George W. Bush, as well as with Christian right leaders including Jerry Falwell. But the effort to draw black leaders into the Family Federation’s new ecumenism has run into some roadblocks, reports David Crumm and Alexa Capeloto in the Detroit Free Press (March 13).
In Detroit, a pair of nationally known African-American leaders denounced Moon and his organization for claiming their support of his crusade. Prominent ministers Eddie Edwards and Frederick Sampson claimed they were listed as co-sponsors and supporters of the Detroit crusade when they had no such involvement. The FFP later apologized for using their endorsements.
The pair, plus television minister Glenn Plummer also criticized Moon’s theology claiming he is a new messiah.
The attempt to fund faith-based social services through the government is revealing deep fissures between white and black as well as suburban and urban churches, according to two reports.
The Washington Times (March 26) reports that minority religious leaders who work with the urban poor tend to back the government’s call to expand a 1996 law that allows ministries to use federal welfare funds, while academics and other clergy concerned about church-state separation oppose the measure as merging public money and religion.
“The debate also is highlighting a difference in outlook between suburban houses of worship, which are predominantly white and focused on doctrine and membership, and in black and Hispanic urban ministries,” writes Larry Witham. Surveys on church-run welfare ministries show that black congregations and more liberal churches are far more likely than conservative ones to run such services and accept government funds.
At the same time, the strongest criticisms of government supported faith-based welfare have come from lawyers and lawmakers with “predominantly white mainline Protestant or Jewish constituencies,” Witham adds. In the New York Times (March 26), Laurie Goodstein writes that black clergy are “confronted daily by the needs of the poor [and] are more willing to consider government assistance.” As one black minister said, “. . . if I have to remove the Bible, remove the cross from the wall, remove the Ten Commandments to get that government money, I’ll do it. God is in me, that’s good enough.”
White suburban clergy, meanwhile, are more concerned about freedom from government interference. Goodstein notes that the Bush administration has recognized the emerging gap between these faith groups and, in speeches and a presidential visit with black clergy, has started to frame the initiative as an antipoverty issue.