In This Issue
- Findings & Footnotes: February 2004
- Militant Islam challenging Vatican’s interfaith strategy?
- Lutheranism finds more than a niche in Russia
- Britain’s Anglican Cathedrals heading toward extinction?
- Current Research: February 2004
- National parks feel church/state tensions
- Post 9/11 American Muslim community faces new divisions
- New informality drives ‘Cowboy Church’ growth
- Religious soft-sell moves to the internet
- New TV drams reveal ambiguous spirituality
- Same-sex unions growing, but conservative?
- Religious left-center sees new organizations
- George W. Bush’s new kind of liberation theology?
01: In 1993, a group of leading Mormon theologians and scholars (known as the “September six” in the media) were excommunicated for their heterodox views.
Ten years later, the independent Mormon magazineSunstone devotes some of its December issue to the religious journeys of these “heretics.” In a singular and unique tradition such as Mormonism, the question of where the excommunicated goes for a religious life is complex, judging by these accounts. Most of the writers still feel in some ways connected to the Mormon tradition, yet they have often ventured far from the official church.
Former Mormon theologian Paul Toscano admits that he has lost his faith, while feminist scholar Maxine Hanks has become a priestess in the Gnostic Church (while still writing and teaching about Mormonism). Historian of early Mormonism D. Michael Quinn is religiously uninvolved while Lavina Fielding Anderson still faithfully attends her Mormon ward despite being prohibited from partaking of the sacrament.
For more information on this issue, write: Sunstone, 343 N. Third West, Salt Lake City, UT 84103-1215
The Vatican and the Catholic world in general is taking a more critical attitude toward Islam, reflecting new concerns about Muslim immigration and fundamentalism, reports Commonweal magazine (Jan. 16).
The change in tone was evident in a recent article of the Vatican-approved Jesuit newspaper La Civilta Cattolica, which stressed Islam’s “warlike face” and its obsession with conquering Europe. The article blamed the growth of militant Islam for restricting religious freedom and anti-Christian violence. Although the article made few waves, its “striking departure from the Vatican’s usual stance [of interreligious dialogue] signals, if not a shift in official policy, then a minority voice that should be taken into account. If nothing else, it reflects the complex reaction to Muslim immigration in Italy and in the rest of Europe,” writes Benedicta Cipolla.
About the same time the article was published, Italy was embroiled in a controversy over the court ordered removal of crucifixes in public schools. A Muslim had filed suit against the schools for displaying the Catholic symbol, resulting in public protests as well as the pope indirectly condemning the legal action at a meeting with European interior ministers. While praising the “unity in diversity” that immigration contributes and calling the church to account for its own intolerance in the past, the pope added there should be legal recognition given to a country’s religious heritage.
Behind these developments is the growing concern of Catholic officials over the state of interreligous dialogue with Muslims. Bernardo Cervellera of the church-run AsiaNews adds that “In the years following Vatican II, dialogue, the new discovery, was emphasized, and there was hope of an…opening up of Islam. Instead, the phenomenon of fundamentalism and terrorism has become a problem that threatens religions, dialogue, and the international community.”
(Commonweal, 475 Riverside Dr., Rm. 405, New York, NY 10115)
From nearing extinction in the 1980s, Lutheranism is now growing rapidly in numbers and influence in Russia, representing a “serious spiritual and intellectual challenge to Russian Orthodoxy,” writes sociologists Sergei Filatov and Aleksandra Stepina.
In the journal Religion, State & Society (December), the writers note that Lutheranism has had a long and (unlike Catholicism) generally unconflicted history in Russia through the influence of Germany and Scandinavia. Today, however, the Lutheran churches are remaking themselves and becoming more Russian in the process. Today most Russian cities have Lutheran churches and in some areas, the Lutheran presence in numbers is about equal to that of Orthodoxy.
Churches originally established to minister to Russia’s once-large German population are now drawing the Russian intelligentsia for their liberal and rational approach to the faith (which includes the uncommon practice of women’s ordination). More widespread are new Lutheran churches with a strongly liturgical and doctrinal approach borrowing Orthodox and Catholic rituals (and often rejecting women’s ordination). Usually belonging to the Church of Ingria (once tied to Finland but now independent) and the indigenous Biblical Lutheran Church (founded by a theatrical producer) , these churches are viewed as more modern and democratic than the Orthodox churches.
In the various Russian republics, such as Mordavia, the Lutherans use of liturgies in the native languages — which the Orthodox Church has resisted — has had wide appeal. Filatov and Stepina conclude that “the Lutheranism that has taken shape in Russia provides a way of bringing disparate phenomena together: the liturgical and mystical Russian religious tradition and the requirements of reason; the attraction of classical culture and evangelism; faithfulness to a Christian tradition stretching back centuries and a commitment to democracy and human rights. It also provides a way of reconciling Russian patriotism, loyalty to national culture and westernism.”
(Religion, State & Society, Keston Institute, 38 St Aldates, Oxford OX1 1BN, UK)
Britain’s Anglican cathedrals are in a state of decline due to a lack of tourists, rising maintenance costs and internal leadership problems, according to reports.
Although of immense cultural and historical importance, many cathedrals lack funding and are facing mounting debts, reports The Observer newspaper (Jan. 11). While Anglican cathedrals are virtually required to remain open all the time, the “triple responsibility of maintaining a living heritage of music and liturgy, maintaining the built heritage, and offering witness to the Christian faith is proving an intolerable burden for many cathedrals,” says one official. Half of cathedrals are running a deficit, while the others are in a state of disrepair. The decrease of tourists over terrorism fears and the rising costs of health and safety insurance are the main reason for the financial problems.
Several of the most prominent cathedrals are also experiencing a leadership dearth in the midst of these financial difficulties. Jonathan Petre of The Telegraph newspaper reports that to the alarm of senior clerics, the allure of one of the most prestigious ecclesiastical posts since Anthony Trollope wrote Barchester Towers seems to be waning.”
Suitable candidates to fill the post of dean of these cathedrals are put off, say insiders, by the financial and other scandals which have embroiled cathedrals over the past 20 years. The Anglican news service Virtuosity(December 10) cites the newspaper as reporting that the longest vacancy is at the 13th century Salisbury Cathedral, where there has been no dean since the retirement of the Very Rev Derek Watson nearly 15 months ago. Wells Cathedral, which dates from 1180, has had no dean for eight months, Norwich for six, Rochester for five and York Minster for three. The delay in appointing new deans when cathedrals are under huge pressure has caused growing frustration among senior clergy.
The Dean of Canterbury, the Very Rev. Robert Willis, chairman of the Deans’ Conference, said he has “never known this many vacancies”. The Very Rev Trevor Beeson, the former Dean of Winchester, said: “Ten years ago the job was very attractive. But it has become exceedingly busy and responsible now and it could involve a great deal of administration. Many clergy just don’t want to become involved in that.”
01: A new study of Internet users finds that one-third of all Americans connected to computers have used them to access religious and spiritual information.
The study, conducted by the Pew Research Center, found that 40 percent of Americans use the Internet to search for political information and 66 percent for medical information. But the sharpest increase in usage has been in the religious domain: “religion surfers” on the net doubled in number from March 2000 to November, 2002 from 18 million to 35 million. The survey found that although religious usage of the Internet dramatically increased after September 11, much of the new growth has continued during the 15 months after that event.
The survey also found that those accessing web-based religious information were evenly distributed across educational and socio-economic groups — a change from earlier surveys which suggested users were from the lower rungs of each group (the age breakdowns — most use from the 30 to 49 age range and least from the 18-29 age bracket — have remained the same). The latest survey suggests that the more experience one had on the Internet, the more likely one was to search out religious material online, suggesting such traffic may continue to grow.
02: A recent survey suggests that denominational commitment, if not identity, is still holding strong among many ministers, even where that may not be expected.
The survey, conducted among 567 ministers by Ellison Research, found that 58 percent agreed strongly with the statement “You feel committed to your denomination,” with another 33 percent agreeing somewhat with that statement. But just 38 percent strongly agreed that their denomination is an important part of their church’s identity. Interestingly, Pentecostal and charismatic ministers known to be among the most “postdenominational,” were particularly likely to feel their denomination formed an important part of their churches’ identity (along with the Lutherans).
Meanwhile, the strongly connectional and centralized United Methodists were the least likely to feel this way. Although there have been many anecdotal reports of churches discarding their denominational names in promotions and on their signboards (Grace Church instead of Grace Baptist), the survey found that just 11 percent of churches did not reference the denomination in their name. But 41 percent did not agree that their current denomination is the only one they would considering pastoring in; the Lutheran clergy were far more likely to say they would only consider pastoring in their current denomination.
There was a significant level of frustration about the divisions in their denominations and the lack of ecumenical cooperation. Fifty three percent of respondents agreed that there are “too many differences of opinion” among churches in their denomination, with Baptists the most likely to make this complaint and Pentecostals/charismatics the least likely.
03: A new study released by Dartmouth Medical School, the YMCA and the Institute for American Values finds that belonging to churches, civic groups and strong families as well as holding religious belief are two key factors in addressing emotional problems among American youth.
The study, entitled “Hardwired To Connect,”was conducted by a team of 33 doctors, mental health and youth counselors who reviewed recent research on the brain, human behavior and social trends. In First Things (February), University of Virginia sociologist Bradford Wilcox writes that the study is unique because of the team’s (many of whom came from elite universities) emphasis on the religious factor in meeting youth needs.
The report documents dramatic declines in youth mental health, as indicated by a quadrupling of the suicide rate between 1955 and 1990; by 2001, almost 20 percent of high school students had contemplated such thoughts. Participating in what the study called “authoritative communities” — congregations, strong families and other civic groups — provide a sense of direction and connection needed by such at-risk youth. Also unusual was how the report made its recommendations based on biology as much as sociology, addressing the importance of belief in the development of the brain during adolescence.
(First Things, 156 Fifth Ave., Suite 400, New York, NY 10010)
04: An analysis of six international surveys on religious beliefs and practice find a direct relationship between faith and economic outcomes.
The study, conducted by Harvard researchers Robert Barro and Rachel M. McCleary and appearing in the American Sociological Review, found that religion affected economic outcomes by fostering attitudes and habits, such as thrift, openness to strangers and honesty, that encourage economic growth. The study, cited by the New York Times (Jan. 31), finds that beliefs in heaven and hell may further affect these traits by creating perceived awards and punishments relating to lifetime behavior.
The research also suggests that at a certain point, increases in congregational attendance tend to depress economic growth, which could mean that such activity may be using up a person’s disproportionate share of resources. The study’s findings are not exactly breakthroughs (German sociologist Max Weber discovered similar dynamics to economic and religious behavior over a century ago), but Barro and McCleary’s analysis of a large set of data (including surveys by Gallup and the World Bank) is the most systematic look at this subject, setting the stage for further investigations.
U.S. national parks are the site of new church-state conflicts, particularly as the government attempts to redress legal actions that are considered to violate religious freedom.
The New York Times (Jan. 18) reports that church-state separation groups are charging that there is a trend of the Bush administration and its Republican appointees in the National Park Service (NPS) to seek to protect religious content in the parks. In the past year, there was legal pressure to remove plaques with Bible verses in Grand Canyon as well as a creationist book on the shelves of the park services’ gift stores. The NPS stepped in and ordered the plaques to be returned and also approved the creationist book.
Church-state separation groups and a national alliance of public environmental workers say such efforts are evidence of a new program of “faith-based parks” promoted by the Bush administration with the support of conservative groups. Another case currently in court involves the presence of a cross in the Mojave Desert, which was erected 70 years ago when the area was in private ownership.
Rather than uniting American Muslims, September 11 and the subsequent pressure on the Muslim community has only resulted in greater divisions. The journal Society (January/February) cites the English-language Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahran Weekly which investigated the current state of the U.S. Muslim community.
Although some estimates put the number of American Muslims as high as eight million, they are divided into a host of ethnic groups — Arab, South Asian and African-American — so that each faction promotes its own agenda and interests.
With little consensus on issues and cooperation between the groups, the Muslim community is in a vulnerable position, according to Aminah McCloud of DePaul University. Thousands of Muslims are under detention and others subject to FBI, CIA and Homeland Security scrutiny, but “Muslims do not even have an organized group of lawyers [to help them].”
Groups such as CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations) may protest against anti-Muslim prejudice, but it doesn’t have political clout because it lacks a base among African-American and South Asian Muslims. Meanwhile, when South Asian-American Muslims tried to raise funds for a radio program in Chicago, they found little support among Arab-Americans and African-Americans. A unified Islamic community with political clout could be an influential factor in deciding the winner in the upcoming presidential elections, but McCloud doubts that Muslims can overcome their divisions anytime soon.
(Society, 390 Campus Dr., Somerset, NJ 07830)
The growth of “cowboy” ministries across the U.S. that emphasize informality and Western themes are drawing a segment of the traditionally unchurched, reports the Boston Globe (Jan. 25).
“Today, nondenominational cowboy churches are springing up across the country, built on the notion that the romanticism associated with that lifestyle can draw churchgoers of towns and cities in the way it reached cowboys of rural communities. Cowboy ministries are a varied sort, but all present themselves as a down-to-earth alternative to the formal services they say might turn off many churchgoers,” writes Amy Green.
Some of these churches, such as the Thousand Hills Cowboy Church near San Antonio, TX., include Western activities, such as rodeos and horsemanship and seek to minister to actual cowboys. The Fellowship of Christian Cowboys, with 75 chapters, also ministers to cowboys at rodeos and other places they gather. Other churches have “urbanized the concept,” such as the Nashville Cowboy Church (co-founded by Johnny Cash’s sister), and seem geared more to tourists who enjoy the music and informal style.
But most of these churches tend to work among those disillusioned with denominational politics and a formal church style and desiring a return to a focus on the Bible.
Those seeking to Internet users with religious messages are using a soft-sell approach that downplays powerful religious symbols and rhetoric, reports the New York Times (Jan. 31).
As Americans increasingly surf the net for religious purposes [see the new Pew study in the Current Research section], evangelists seeking converts through this medium are realizing that overtly Christian material is likely to reach people who are already Christian. The new Internet evangelists use a minimum if any religious references and symbols and instead their sites may offer information on fitness, diet, beauty, sex or celebrities.
The sites, which often don’t have church ties and may be founded by individuals, only indirectly direct visitors to churches or study groups or provide a link for donations or offer books, writes John Leland. Even what is considered “R-rated culture” is not off limits to the new kind of Internet evangelism, with some sites discussing gangsta rap and racy films in order to get people’s attention. One example of the soft-sell approach is http://www.mops.org, which is the site for Mothers of Preschoolers.
The site offerms mothers advice and chat rooms for discussing practical matters such as money, and medical needs and also organizes more than 3,000 groups that meet in churches. The group, which has 115,000 members, provides space on its site for Christian testimonies and outreach.
While the trend of depicting spiritual and religious themes on American television has been unfolding for several years, this season’s shows reveal a more sophisticated if ambiguous approach to faith, reports TV Guide (Jan. 24).
Such older popular shows as Touched by An Angel, Highway to Heaven, and 7th Heaven tended toward the sentimental or “featured God’s agents as lending a helping hand to folks in trouble.” The newer shows, such as Joan of Arcadia and Fox’s Tru Calling, take a more daring approach that raises as many questions as they answer, writes Mark Nollinger.
These shows are deliberately non-specific about the spiritual force animating their characters. In Tru Calling, talking corpses seek help from a morgue attendant who has the power to relive past events. The upcoming Wonderfalls depicts a Gen-Xer who does good deeds a the behest of talking toy animals. Even the “more orthodox God depicted on Joan of Arcadia is pretty open-minded, telling Joan that “it’s not about religion. It’s about fulfilling your true nature.”
One Christian critic says that the new shows in part represent a critique of the church. Other observers and even a producer cites the impact of September 11 on the American psyche for the emergence of these new kinds of shows.
Same-sex union ceremonies are increasingly common in congregations and tend to be viewed by participants and officiants as close to traditional marriages, reports the New York Times (Jan. 30).
The newspaper reports that although 37 states have passed laws banning same-sex marriages and many churches prohibit same-sex ceremonies, observant gay couples are sidestepping legal and denominational barriers as they seek to consecrate their unions in churches and synagogues. Although no denominational records are kept on same-sex union ceremonies, “members of the clergy across the country said in interviews that the ceremonies were becoming more common in their churches and synagogues,” even in churches that officially disapprove of such rites, reports Laurie Goodstein.
Churches accepting such ceremonies are also becoming more active in spreading their usage; the United Church of Christ is holding workshops for clergy on conducting these services; and the Anglican diocese of New Westminster, British Columbia shares same-sex rites via e-mail to interested clergy from other denominations. Goodstein notes that although denominations approving of these ceremonies typically refer to them as “unions . . . more and more of the couples and members of the clergy are simply calling them marriages. The services are nearly identical to the marriage rites traditionally used for heterosexual couples.”
Many in the churches and synagogues supporting same-sex unions and marriages argue that they are conservative measures that will enhance monogamy and marriage in society. But using Norway as a case study, an article in the Weekly Standard (February 2) argues that approval of same-sex unions has had the opposite effect in church and society.
Stanley Kurtz writes that those in the forefront of pressing for same-sex unions in Norway’s Lutheran state church tended to be among the least critical of Prince Haakon, heir to the nation’s throne, who publicly chose to live with his girlfriend, a single mother. Kurtz adds that “it was the conservative clergy who criticized the prince, while the liberal supporters of gay marriage tolerated his decision.”
He finds that gay civil unions (known as registered partnerships) in Scandinavia tend to send the “symbolic message” that nontraditional families, including cohabitation and unwed childbirth, are acceptable options, validating the “belief that choice trumps family form.”
In an effort to counteract the influence of the religious right, new groups are emerging from the direction of the religious left and center. The National Catholic Reporter (Jan. 23) notes that the fledgling Center for American Progress plans to energize the secular and religious left through using techniques such as media publicity first honed by the right.
Former staffer with the Clinton administration John Podesta says the group plans to focus on foreign policy as well as to “engage and reengage with religious people who come from the progressive tradition.” The recently formed Clergy Leadership Network has received wide publicity for its attempt to bring religious leaders into the activist fray.
The network, headed by former National Council of Churches official Albert Pennybacker, seeks moderate and liberal clergy support and does not plan to address abortion, as it may be too divisive. Instead, issues involving the economy and church-state relations will be stressed; like the Center for American Progress, the network sees itself as speaking up for religious people who have been disenfranchised by the Bush administration and the religious right.
Meanwhile, the moderate Catholic group Your Catholic Voice (YCV) has undergone a noteworthy transformation. First founded as the Catholic Alliance in the mid-1990s as a Catholic sister organization to the Christian Coalition, the group has distanced itself from a religious right agenda. The group has criticized gun rights and has made “solidarity with the poor and needy” one of its pillars. Yet one of YCV’s first actions was to send a petition to lawmakers urging opposition to same-sex marriage.
(National Catholic Reporter, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111-1203)
Several critical works on George W. Bush and his adminstration try to peer into the president’s soul and find out how his religion is affecting foreign policy. In his new book American Dynasty (Viking, $29.95), political analyst and strategist Kevin Phillips asserts that Bush’s evangelical faith is key to understanding his approach to world affairs.
Phillips even traces Bush’s religiosity as moving from a Wesleyan (Bush is a United Methodist) emphasis on `personal transformation’ to describing a Calvinist `divine plan’ laid out by a sovereign God for the country and himself.” This sense of providence would be increasingly invoked by Bush after 9/11 and during the war in Iraq, according to Phillips. Bush has infused a distinct form of religion into American foreign policy that is likely to remain a powerful force in statecraft for years to come, according to Boston University political scientists Andrew J. Bacevich and Elizabeth H. Prodromou.
In the foreign policy journal Orbis (winter), Bacevich and Prodromou note that even before Bush’s election, religion had been assuming a new role in U.S. statecraft, particularly with the movement of evangelicals pressing for international religious freedom. But it was not until after 9/11 that Bush brought his personal evangelical theology stressing the unfolding of God’s will in world events and the presence of good and evil to bear on foreign policy.
“There ensued a marriage of the president’s no-nonsense evangelicalism with the muscular, highly militarized utopianism of the neoconservative (and largely secular) Right. The union imparted a particular twist to U.S. grand strategy, creating an American variant of liberation theology,” write Bacevich and Prodromou.
Bush’s evangelical views on the providential mission of America to the world and clear delineation between good and evil “coincided neatly with the neocons secular worldview,” leading to a number of neoconservative appointments to the White House. In the National Security Strategy, the foreign policy manifesto of the Bush administration, this intersection of worldviews is clearly evident. The neoconservative views on democratic capitalism being the “single sustainable model of national success” and the obligation of extending the “benefits of freedom across the globe” were framed and heavily invested with Bush’s religious language and imagery of “ridding the world of evil” and restoring “human dignity.”
The writers conclude that the president’s “religiously informed alliance with the neoconservatives since 9/11 is likely to leave a formidable legacy…it will reinforce the ongoing tendency to instrumentalize religion. That is, politicians, capitalizing on Bush’s successful amalgamation of religion and statecraft, will be further emboldened, from time to time, to cite concepts such as America’s Providential mission or the persistence of evil in the world to arouse support for a particular initiative.”
(Orbis, 1528 Walnut St., Ste. 610, Philadelphia, PA 19102)