In This Issue
- On/File: August 2007
- Findings & Footnotes: August 2007
- Churches switch sides in Venezuela’s culture wars
- For UK, Australia, English-speaking Imams wanted
- Current Research: August 2007
- Jewish young adults unaffiliated but not disengaged
- New generation embracing ‘Crunchy Catholicism’?
- Conscious dying — the new age’s last spiritual practice?
01: A New Sanctuary Movement is taking shape that could put churches near the center of the American debate on immigration. A small but growing coalition of churches, synagogues and other houses of worship are seeking to rehabilitate the 1980s sanctuary movement by that name, where congregations took in illegal immigrants escaping political violence in their countries. This time, the movement is challenging the immigration system itself, as the nation debates how to deal with the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the USA. The congregations say the immigration system mistreats immigrants and breaks families apart and wants to end raids of job sites that have led to the arrest of thousands of undocumented workers.
Congregations from New York to San Diego have begun to view supporting illegal immigrants — and occasionally sheltering them from deportation — as a moral and religious duty. Churches in Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, Chicago and New York are helping and housing immigrants, and such denominations as the Presbyterian Church and the United Church of Christ have given the movement their unofficial support. The movement’s leaders acknowledge their protection is mostly symbolic because the government has the legal authority to send agents into a church and detain immigrants, although they’re betting the government won’t. So far, only a handful of immigrants across the nation are getting financial, legal and other help from the movement. (Source: USA Today, July 8)
02: Ann Holmes Redding is one of the first Christian clergy to claim both a Christian and Muslim identity. Redding, an African-American priest in the Episcopal Church, caused a wave of controversy in an already fragile and contentious church body when she claimed to be “100 percent Christian and 100 percent Muslim.” The bishop of the Seattle diocese where Redding is a priest has publicly supported her position, but the Rhode Island bishop who ordained and supervises Redding, has suspended her for one year. Redding first became interested in Islam through interfaith contacts she had with Muslim leaders who spoke and prayed at her church, St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle. (Source: World, July 21)
03: The new partnership of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) and the British relief group Muslim Aid, aims to foster credibility for both Muslim work in Christian countries and Christian relief efforts in Islamic societies. The new arrangement codifies what had been a grassroots relationship dating back to the relief efforts surrounding the tsunami in Sri Lanka in 2004. Both groups will now work together in funneling financial and personal resources as needed in specific hotspots around the world. So far the initiative has caused little protest among Muslim or Methodist constituents, mainly because these groups’ strict humanitarian agendas forbid any proselytizing or evangelism. (Source: World, July 21)
04: One of the leading French Muslim movements, the Union of Islamic Organizations of France (Union des Organisations Islamiques de France, UOIF) is representative of transformations undergone by Islamism, both in Muslim home countries and in the diaspora, according to French researcher Samir Amghar. Originally a minor player on the French Muslim scene, the UOIF won wide support after siding with Muslim girls expelled from schools in 1989 because they insisted on wearing headscarves. Since the 1990s, the UOIF increasingly looked for ways to gain legitimacy and respectability.
Overcoming suspicions, it became accepted from the late 1990s as one of the partners in discussions between the French government and French Muslim organizations. The UOIF belongs to the international networks of the Muslim Brotherhood. The history of the UOIF reflects wider developments within Islamic movements across the Muslim world. Its adhesion to Western political discourse since the 1990 parallels the adoption of democratic values by the moderate segments of Islamism in several Muslim countries.
The UOIF was a leading proponent of the creation of the European Council on Fatwa and Research in 1997. While remaining faithful to Muslim orthodoxy, the council’s purpose is to “contextualize” Islam in a Western environment. In contrast to its initial views, the UOIF no longer considers the West as a temporary place of residence for Muslims, expecting to return to their home countries after political changes would take place. It now sees its role as the training of the future Muslim elite in France and primarily targets the Muslim middle class, such as students. Professional success and careers are valued and encouraged.
The UOIF has become less attractive for jobless and lower-class Muslims in the French banlieues: those segments among young French Muslims tend to find Salafis or the Tabligh (a pietist group with roots in Pakistan) more appealing. (Source:La Vie des Idees, May-June; http://www.repid.com) —By Jean-Francois Mayer
01: The July issue of The Annals of The American Academy of Political and Social Science is devoted to the issue of the new pluralism in American religion.
The issue, guest edited by Wade Clark Roof, is divided into sections on general history and theory, region and religion, minority and immigrant experiences, and institutional patterns (such as interfaith relations between religious groups). Particularly noteworthy is the article by Mark Silk, which looks at the interaction between region and religion based on the research project he has supervised in this area. Silk concludes that the Midwest may be the most conducive region for a new pluralist society since it places less emphasis on an ethnic ascribed identity and makes room for the evangelical voice while encouraging community values.
Other articles look at the role of segmented assimilation (partial and selective assimilation among immigrants), the rise and significance of interfaith families (finding that evangelicals are the most likely to live in such households), and the role of the “Emergent“ (or postmodern) Christian and Jewish congregations (as expressed in the Synagogue 3000 movement) in forging new interfaith relations. For more information and a synopsis of the issue, visit the website:http://ann.sagepub.com.
02: The Spring/Summer issue of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin features a special section on “God and Evolution.” While that topic has been well-covered in most publications, the articles are of interest because they suggest how liberal theologians are appropriating evolution in a somewhat different way than that of traditional Darwinism.
The articles stress the concept of a “theology of cooperation” (and are drawn from a Harvard research project by that name), which challenges the traditional Darwinian touchstones of competition and sexual selection. It is particularly on the matter of gender where the new divide is evident. In one article, Biologist Joan Roughgarden of Stanford University argues that Darwin and his successor’s concept of sexual selection, which holds that males are naturally aggressive and females passive, has little empirical basis.
For more information on this issue, write: Harvard Divinity Bulletin, 45 Francis Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138.
Christian churches are increasingly divided about the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, but not necessarily along traditional Protestant and Catholic lines, according to sociologist David Smilde. Writing in the current Sociology of Religion Newsletter (Spring), a publication of the American Sociological Association, Smilde notes that Chavez has long sought to draw support and activism from churches as well as indigenous and other cultural groups for his revolutionary government.
But the kind of support has shifted with the times. In the mid to late 1990s, Chavez was especially friendly to the evangelical churches while the Catholic Church criticized his removing church subsidies, allowing abortion, and granting greater freedom to Protestants and other religious minorities.
By 2004, after an unsuccessful coup, several neoPentecostal churches were receiving funds from the government and throwing their support behind the Chavez government. But the country’s evangelical council criticized such partisanship, leading to new divisions within these churches. A move by Chavez to expel the evangelical New Tribes mission from Venezuela’s Amazon region in 2005 led to new alienation among evangelicals from the Chavez government. In the 2006 run-up elections, evangelical leaders received a nationally televised visit from the opposition presidential candidate.
The Catholic Church, meanwhile, has toned down its opposition to Chavez, “thanks, in no small part, to new, less confrontational church leaders,” writes Smilde. He concludes that, as in other Latin American countries, the “religious discourse and engagement with religious groups will continue to be a critical element” in Venezuelan politics.
In their efforts to find ways to integrate Muslims in Western societies, governments increasingly insist on the need for ministers of Muslim congregations in the West to be familiar with local culture and fluent in local languages. Such expectations also match those of young Muslims in the diaspora. In the United Kingdom, a Labour peer, Lord Ahmed (who became UK’s first Muslim peer in 1998) said that foreign imams who do not speak English after being given a certain period of time to learn it should be banned from giving sermons in local mosques, according to BBC News (July 6).
Recent research conducted among 300 mosques by Chester University, which BBC News commissioned, found that only 6 percent of imams in the UK speak English as their first language. In contrast, a number of radical groups address young British-born Muslims and their needs in English. 45 percent of imams have been in the UK for less than five years, and only 23 percent for more than ten years. More than half of them preach in Urdu. Professor Ron Geaves, who wrote the report, says that imams are well-qualified by traditional standards, which usually means quite conservative training.
In much of the Muslim diaspora, clerics continue to be largely recruited from their places of origin. This is what disturbs a growing number of young Muslims in Australia. Kurander Seyit, publisher of an Islamic newspaper in Sydney, describes the practice of importing imams as outdated, reports Phil Mercer in VOA News (July 26). This leads to culture clashes. The need is felt not only for fluency in English, but also for an understanding of the local society and its way of life. With a few exceptions, imams seem to be considered as a calming influence on young Muslims in Australia: hence the need to “be able to talk about what young kids want to talk about”, Seyit adds. — By Jean-Francois Mayer, RW Contributing Editor and founder of the website Religioscope (http://www.religion.info)
01: Muslim Americans most closely resemble white evangelicals and black Protestants in their level of religious commitment, according to an analysis of recent surveys from the Pew Research Center. Among American Muslims, black Protestants and white evangelicals, large majorities (72 percent of Muslims, 87 percent of black Protestants, and 80 percent of white evangelicals) say religion is “very important” in their own lives. These high percentages set all three groups apart from Catholics (49 percent) and mainline Protestants (36 percent).
The percentages are also similar when answering whether they identify themselves first by being American or by their faith. They all chose their faith over nationality; in fact, Muslims (at 47 percent) were more likely to identify themselves as Americans first than the other two groups The belief in a literal scripture was also similar among these groups. The real difference came in political orientations, with the Muslims far more politically liberal than evangelicals, though close to the black Protestants. Then again, on social-moral issues, Muslims and evangelicals again showed strong similarities.
An analysis of press freedom in 190 nations shows a high degree of correlation between this liberty and the religious composition of these countries. In the Journal of Media and Religion (Vol. 6, No. 1), Coleen Connolly-Ahern (Penn State Univ.) and Guy J. Golan (Florida International University) study the rates of press freedom, as measured by the Freedom House Annual Survey of Press Freedom, in 192 nations, along with the percentages of Christians and Muslims and the overall percentage of religious diversity in these nations. The researchers find significant correlations between these religious variables and freedom of the press. The greater percentage of Christians in a nation, the higher its levels of press freedom.
In contrast, the results also suggest that the greater the percentage of Muslims in a nation, the lower the amount of press freedom in the nation. When other variables, such as type of government and national wealth, were taken into account, the religion factor still had significant influence on press freedom. Even when the Muslim nations were a democracy, they had less press freedom than non-majority Muslim nations. (Journal of Media and Religion, 10 Industrial Ave., Mahwah, NJ 07430)
02: In predominantly Muslim nations there is a continuing decline in the number of people saying that suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilians are justifiable in the defense of Islam. The Pew Gobal Attitudes Project finds that in Lebanon, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Indonesia, the proportion of Muslims who view suicide bombing and other attacks against civilians as being often or sometimes justified has declined by half or more over the past five years. Wide majorities say such attacks are, at most, rarely acceptable. The case is different in the Palestinian territories. Fully 70 percent of Palestinians believe that suicide bombings against civilians can be often or sometimes justified, a position starkly at odds with Muslims in other Middle Eastern, Asian, and African nations.
The decreasing acceptance of extremism among Muslims also is reflected in declining support for Osama bin Laden. Since 2003, Muslim confidence in bin Laden and his strategy has fallen; in Jordan, just 20 percent express a lot or some confidence in bin Laden, down from 56 percent four years ago. Yet confidence in bin Laden in the Palestinian territories, while lower than it was in 2003, remains fairly high (57 percent) Views about Hezbollah and Hamas varies among Muslim publics. Views of both groups are favorable among most predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East and Asia.
And Palestinians have strongly positive opinions of both militant groups. But majorities in Turkey have negative views of both Hezbollah and Hamas. The survey also finds that, amid continuing sectarian strife in Iraq, there is broad concern among those surveyed that tensions between Sunnis and Shia are not limited to that country. Nearly nine-in-ten Lebanese (88 percent), and strong majorities in Kuwait (73 percent) and Pakistan (67 percent), say Sunni-Shia tensions are a growing problem for the Muslim world, and are not limited to Iraq. (For a copy of this report, visit: http://pewglobal.org/reports/display.php?ReportID=257)
Many young American Jews are “institutionally unaffiliated, but Jewishly engaged,” according to a new study by social scientists Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman. As cited in the magazine Jewish Currents (July-August), the study confirmed earlier surveys findings that most Jews under 35 are not affiliated with synagogues and other major institutions of Jewish life. The study notes that these younger Jews feel “demographically disenfranchised” as the existing organizations cater to married parents of school- aged children. But Cohen and Kelman go on to argue that this generation is “Jewishly engaged,” though their mode of participation is “fluid and episodic, inclusive, non-coercive, engaging, and socially focused.” Such Jews tend to cross boundaries “between Jews and non-Jews….They view their primary objective as strengthening Jewish social networks… [and are] performance-oriented, blurring the lines between education, engagement and entertainment.”
The authors cite several contemporary Jewish projects that embody such concepts, including: Ikar, a Los Angeles spiritual community; Storahtelling, a dramatic company teaming up with synagogues to provide new rituals and theatrical productions; and Jdub Records, which promotes younger Jewish artists. Cohen and Kelman conclude that such a “new wave of creativity reflects…emerging modes of Jewish identity and community.”
(The report can be downloaded at: http://www.acbp.net)
Along with a conservative theological emphasis, there is a new stress on masculine spirituality among seminarians and other educators in American Catholic churches, according to the cover story in the conservative Crisismagazine (July/August). Todd Aglialoro writes that a new generation of Catholic men are rebelling against what they see as pastoral or “feminine” -based catechesis and seminary formation that are soft on the masculine virtues that have flourished in American Catholicism since Vatican II. One of the major influences in the masculine spirituality phenomenon in the church was the late Pope John Paul II and his “theology of the body,” which stressed gender differences. The new emphasis can be seen in popularity of Lionheart Apparel, a men’s clothing line featuring Christian symbols and slogans, such as papal crucifixes, and Miraculous Medal tattoos.
Meanwhile, the Houston-based family ministry Paradisus Dei has established a rigorous 68-week program mining the “social and biological sciences in search of a comprehensive vision of gender differences and roles–of what makes a man a man…”
In seminaries (often criticized by conservatives for serving as enclaves for homosexually inclined men), rectors and other officials are noting the beginnings of a “renewal” of masculinity both in appearance and a masculine spirituality that stresses male leadership and waging a “battle to fight on the [church’s] behalf,” rather than seeking to change the church. Such attributes are already finding their way into parish religious education programs that teach “hard or `crunchy’ doctrine, [such as] a return to transcendence [over imminence],” and viewing Jesus more as Lord than as a friend, according to Aglialoro A common thread running through most of the sources Aglialoro interviewed is the use of martial language and imagery. They spoke of “battle against the temptations and obstacles the modern world puts before men…” Even some seminary rectors “stressed the need to adapt the military virtues of discipline, valor, and self-sacrifice to the work of spiritual combat.”
(Crisis, 1814 ½ N St., NW, Washington, DC 20036)
Death has become an important issue in the New Age movement, and its longtime concern with spiritual transformation can now be seen in the practice of “conscious dying.” Trends in the diffuse New Age movement have closely tracked the life stages of its baby boomer pioneers–from middle age concerns with holistic healing to ruminations about life’s end as this generation turns 60. In the current issue of the Journal of Contemporary Religion (May), sociologist Raymond L.M. Lee writes that the New Age movement has always had teachings and techniques concerning death, such as explorations of Near Death Experiences (NDE), and the general belief that the soul leaves the body at death for higher spiritual planes.
In fact, the NDE discourse along with teachings from Tibetan Buddhism have inspired the New Age to increasingly focus on the process of dying as a transformation of consciousness. This involves the belief (largely taken from Tibetan Buddhism) that one’s consciousness can be manipulated during the dying process so that it is transferred to higher spiritual realms. There are now a number of manuals that draw together New Age and Tibetan Buddhist teachings on dying, such as Megory Anderson’s book Sacred Dying. To achieve such a consciousness transformation, one such technique, known as “deathing,” leads the dying person through chanting, breathing and visualization exercises. Lee concludes that conscious dying is a new form of “individualized spirituality, since it…does not specifically require religious commitment” or being part of any community. Its self-help approach is particularly suited to the New Age.
(Journal of Contemporary Religion, Institute of Education, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL, UK)