In This Issue
- On/File: February 2007
- Findings & Footnotes: February 2007
- Islamic TV channels expand audience, face financial challenges
- Escalating fears about Shi’i expansion
- Current Research: February 2007
- American pluralism and Hinduism at odds?
- Style changes and economics hurting black church music
- Baby boomers retiring to mission fields
- Religion sections fold while religion coverage grows?
- ‘Radical religion’ attracts new scholarly scrutiny
- Mormon candidacy stirs new religion-politics debate
01: The exclusive Brethren have long provided almost a textbook definition of a “sect.” Their members lead strict and separated lives that shun “worldliness” and outside attention. But judging by recent events in Australia and other parts of the world, the movement is taking a new interest in politics.
In Australia, the exclusive Brethren have been under investigation for one of its prominent members spending close to half a million dollars on advertisements and pamphlets attacking the Green party and pushing for the reelection of the Howard government. Investigators charge that the campaign was orchestrated by Brethren leaders.
This is a sea change for the Brethren who have generally condemned involvement in worldly politics and still forbid members to vote. Immediately after Howard’s reelection, the Brethren were reported to be advertising in support of George Bush’s reelection with its “America is In Safe Hands” campaign, and then plunged into a campaign against New Zealand’s Civil Union Bill.
The same drive against same-sex marriage led Brethren leaders to mount a similar campaign against Canada’s legislation on this issue.
(Source: Sydney Morning Herald, January 19)
01: The current issue of the Religious Studies Review (October) carries a special feature on Internet resources for religious studies. The section will probably be of interest to others besides religious studies professors as the articles cover web resources on Christianity, Wicca and Paganism, new religious movements, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, religion and the media, and religious statistics and data. For more information on this issue: http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/toc/rsr/32/4
02: Seeking A Sanctuary, (Indiana University Press, $29.95) by Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart is a classic examination of the beginnings and development of Seventh Day Adventism that has been substantially updated in this second edition. The book weaves together the history and sociology of this influential movement, covering everything from Adventist changes in its end-times teachings to its subsequent health teachings, with side trips on Adventist music, education, racial relations, and even an account of Adventist schismatic David Koresh and the Branch Davidians.
Readers will be interested in Bull and Lockhart’s chapter on patterns of growth, which shows that by 2001 only seven percent of the church’s world membership was comprised of Americans. The SDA’s U.S. membership (of 900,985 members) had grown to be 27th largest in the country, but its geography is quite different than other Protestant denominations: it has its greatest concentration in the unchurched West Coast, and its membership is increasingly made up of racial minorities and a diminishing number of whites. Bull and Lockhart conclude with the interesting point that Adventism promotes mobility not so much within wider society as within Adventism. Upward mobility is easier within the church than it is outside.”
03: There have been few attempts by a single scholar to provide what Peter Clarke promises in his book, New Religions in Global Perspective(Routledge, $29.95). Clarke has actually done research on this broad topic on various continents, including Africa, Asia, and South America, and on various religions, including Islam and Japanese new religions.
Here and there, he quotes from interviews he conducted in places as varied as Thailand, Angola, and Brazil. This is not a volume most readers will read from cover to cover, but every chapter can be read for itself. After three introductory chapters, each area of the world is considered, although some are not studied (e.g. Eastern Europe). There are bibliographic references at the end of each chapter, exclusively in English. Some parts are stronger and more in-depth: the chapter on North Africa and the Middle East is less rich than other ones, being limited to a presentation of a few well-known Islamist movements and one Jewish movement.
But the purpose of such a book is obviously not to be an encyclopedia: rather, as suggested by its subtitle (“A Study of Religious Change in the Modern World”), it should be understood as an attempt to illustrate, through a variety of cases, the continuing creativity in the field of religion today, leading to renewal movements within traditional religions as well as to new religions.
And even scholars with an expertise on new religious movements will be rewarded with some discoveries and new insights. The benefit of a global perspective becomes obvious when Clarke considers both Christian and Buddhist reactions to the New Age movement. Examples however make clear how significant the local religious contexts remain for an adequate understanding of contemporary movements. There are attempts at inculturation too, for instance, when Soka Gakkai in Mexico adjusts to local dates (early November) for paying respect to the dead.
At the same time, one should not underestimate how ethnic Buddhism remains vital in a country such as a the United States. Although the concluding chapter deals with the future, Clarke remains cautious. He is (rightly) reluctant to make sweeping statements about “Westernization” or “Easternization,” since “all religions are exposed to the porous pluralism of late modernity.” With the possible exception of some parts of the Muslim world, Clarke expects individualization and privatization of religion to continue.–By Jean-Francois Mayer
04: Both religion and the family have been major areas of life changed and challenged by the forces of modernization, making the new bookAmerican Religions and the Family (Columbia University Press $40), edited by Don S. Browning and David Clairmont, an important volume. The book brings together essays on the tensions between modernization and the family, involving sexuality and marriage traditions, in Judaism, Christianity, Mormon, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Native American religion.
As might be expected, Christianity is divided into several chapters–evangelical, mainline Protestant, and Catholic, as well as African-American Christians. The contribution on mainline Protestantism, by W. Bradford Wilcox and Elizabeth Williamson, finds that there is a contradiction between holding traditional family practices and yet–at least in their leadership–making “progressive” ideological commitments on issues such as feminism and gay rights. The chapter on evangelical families, meanwhile, reflects current research finding a paradox of strict and traditionalist rhetoric on family issues and a “softening” in attitudes and practices that allows for greater equality for evangelical women in marriages and more investment by men in family life.
Other noteworthy findings and subjects in the book include the surprising endurance of American Indian family patterns, even among those in Christian churches; the tendency of Jewish families and religious leaders to be the most adaptive and accepting of modernization, even though it may have detrimental effects on the Jewish dimensions of family life; the defacto feminism in Mormon families and its extreme elevation of marriage, similar in many ways to that of evangelicals; and the uneasy negotiations between traditional family life and modernity underway in American Muslim and Hindu communities.
Islamic TV channels have multiplied in the Middle East in recent years and have been quite successful in terms of drawing a wide audience, but still are experiencing financial difficulties, the Saudi-owned daily Asharq Al Awsat reports in its English edition (January 31). Advertising firms do not regard such channels as appropriate for their products.
This leaves the channels with no other option but to rely on donations. The people in charge of the channels claim that dubious practices keep a monopoly of advertising agencies directing all money to other channels and preventing religious channels from potential sources of income, although their viewers are as interested in new products as everyone else.
Advertising agencies have a different view of the issue. Conservative channels do not accept commercials featuring women, music and singing, and a specific content would have to be developed for inclusion on such channels.
Such commercials may too unusual to most advertisers‘ tastes. Another possibility for generating revenue would be to provide alternative sources of income, such as text messaging to help viewers with consultations on religious issues. But religious channels claim the net profit derived from such services wouldn’t be sufficient.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer
According to reports published in several Muslim countries in recent weeks, Shi’is are currently active in spreading their faith through converting Sunnis. It is difficult to separate fact from fiction, but those rumors provide more evidence of a deep mistrust between these groups, which may also be exploited by various groups for their own ends. In January, Algerian newspapers have reported that local converts to Shia Islam in the Mascara province (Western Algeria) had become active in proselytizing and distributing Iranian propaganda (El Khabar, January 6).
Young people are said to be targeted in such campaigns and several teachers are apparently Shi’i activists. In the city of Chariaa (Tabsa province), parents have complained about the threat of Shi’i expansion in some educational institutions and have warned about the risk of sectarian conflicts if such developments continue (Echourouk, January 22) It is not only Algeria where such developments have been observed, but also in other places far from traditional Shi’i territories. In West Africa, Shi’i groups appeared after the Iranian Revolution in several countries. They have contributed to a wider atmosphere of Islamic revivalism. Over the past few years, there have been several instances of Sunni-Shiite clashes in Northern Nigeria.
This adds new dimensions to the current context of Shi’i assertion in Iraq and fears in the Middle East about a “Shi’i crescent.” In recent interviews, King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia has stated that he is “aware of the Shi’i proselytism and what point it has reached,” while claiming to be confident that the vast majority of Muslims won’t change allegiance. On January 22, Jordanian daily Ad Dustour claimed that the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) had disclosed a Shi’i plan for propagating Shi’ism among Sunnis.
The plan is said to include paramilitary efforts, the promotion of Iranian interests, the elimination of Sunni personalities, and suggests a high level of organization. The tensions in the area make a fertile ground for generating conspiracy theories. Even if there was a Shi’i plan, it is unlikely that an alleged “secret and urgent statement” would have gone into such detail.
In a speech on January 29, the day before the major Shi’i festival of Ashura, Hezbollah Secretary General Hasan Nasrallah himself felt the need to address the issue, in an attempt both to mock the claims (“What will the purpose of turning 50, 100, or 200 young Sunis into Shi’is be?”) and to warn that it would primarily distract people from real threats as well as plant sedition among Muslims, in the best interest of their enemies.
There have been efforts of Islamic ecumenism for decades. Partly for political purposes, the Iranian Revolution also encouraged Sunii-Shi’i dialogue. A “Unity Conference” gathered four times and was succeeded in 1990 by the World Forum for Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought (Taghrib). It will be a difficult task for Iran to reinvigorate dialogue at a time not only when some Islamic groups vigorously denounce Shi’is as arch-heretics, but governments also are afraid of a “Shi’i threat.”–By Jean-Francois Mayer
01: The new U.S. Congress is one of the most religiously pluralistic in American history, with a Muslim joining the ranks for the first time. The e-newsletter Sightings (January 4) reports that along with African-American Muslim Keith Ellison (who raised controversy by requesting to take his oath of office by swearing on the Koran rather than the Bible), there are two Buddhists in Congress, and for the first time in U.S. history, Jews will outnumber Episcopalians.
There are 30 Representatives and 13 Senators who are Jewish compared to 27 Representatives and ten Senators who are Episcopalian. Catholics are the largest group represented in the newly elected Congress (with 129 Representatives and 25 Senators), followed by Baptists and Methodists. Ten Representatives and five Senators share the Mormon faith, with the new Democratic majority leader of the Senate, Harry Reid of Nevada, coming from that faith.
02: There is a growing support for secular politics and nationalism in Iraq despite the escalation of sectarian conflict and violence, according to a recent study. The study is based on surveys conducted by the Iraq-based Independent Institute for Administrative and Civil Society Studies during 2004 and then again in October, 2006. It found that while most Iraqis doubted positive motives for the U.S. invasion, there was also an increasing majority who opposed establishing an Islamic government where religious leaders would have absolute power (like in Iran).
Footnotes (January), the newsletter of the American Sociological Association, cites the study as showing that support for an Islamic government decreased 26 percent in December of 2004 to 18 percent in October of 2006. Such support decreased from 35 to 28 percent among the Shi’i Muslims, and among the Sunnis from 17 percent to six percent.
There was also an increase in the percentage of people supporting the separation of religion and politics. Those who “strongly agree” that Iraq would be a better place if religion and politics were separated increased from 24 percent in 2004 to 43 percent in 2006, with the Sunnis showing the highest increase (from 22 percent to 56 percent). The study also found a more modest decline in support of religious parties during this time, and a growth in favor of such a secular party as the Iraqi National Alliance.
(Footnotes, 1307 New York Ave., NW, Suite 700, Washington, DC 20005-4701)
Compared to other immigrant religions, Hinduism does not appear to experience major problems in functioning in US society. But such is not the opinion of Belgian scholar Jakob De Roover (Center for Comparative Science of Cultures, University of Ghent). In an analysis posted on India Forum (January 22), he claims that “the American model of pluralism is unable to accommodate these pagan traditions.” He sees the recent California textbook controversy, where Hindus claimed that their religion was misrepresented in public school texts, as one more indicator supporting his assessment.
Despite its claims to neutrality, the American model of pluralism has Protestant Christian religious roots: a theological framework became secularized, but Christian principles persist under a secular guise, Roover observes. Those principles are, however, not relevant for Hinduism.
The American understanding of religion puts the emphasis on doctrines, around which denominations are united, each claiming to possess religious truth, but all sharing a common understanding of religion. The Christian notion of God is missing from the Hindu traditions, writes Roover, and doctrines do not play the same role.
The Hindu community in the USA may respond to the challenge by transforming its traditions “into pallid variants of biblical religion.” While this is the most tempting way — and the one adopted by most Hindus today– Roover suggests that it might choose another way and break with a framework inherited from the colonial period, thus promoting a pluralism “liberated from the biblical straitjacket” and from Christian-inspired concerns.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer
Changes in musical styles and economics is adversely affecting the supply of church musicians in black churches, reports the New York Times(January 13). The change in black musical style to rap, not requiring instrumental talent or training, as well as budget cuts in music education has reduced the number of young African Americans conversant with the gospel music tradition.
At the same time, the “commercial market for gospel musicians, especially those who can cross over into pop, has made the five-figure salaries and 24/7 hours of midsize churches seem unappealing, though many megachurches pay upward of $100,000.”
Anthony Heilbut, expert on gospel and soul and jazz, says that “the oddly parallel evolution of hip-hop, with its materialistic world-view, and evangelical Christianity’s increasingly popular strain of ‘name it and claim it’ theology is a main agent.” He adds that: “Modern church theology and hip-hop mesh uncomfortably well because both of them place a premium on Jesus and bling . . . If you want to reach your audience, you have to give them the current sound.
What you grew up with is what they’d call Old School.” Concludes one veteran church musician: “Right now, it’s all about the tightness of the band and spotlighting the best voices. So instead of looking for people who have a heart for ministry, you look for the best musicians. And for them, it’s just another gig.”
There is a growth of baby boomers taking early retirement and entering the mission field, reports Christianity Today (February). Some of these fifty-something missionaries are signing up for a few weeks of service, while others join for several years. The missionary agency Wycliffe Associates has seen a 40 percent increase for several years in a row of baby boomer missionaries.
Such mission personnel agencies as the Finishers Project works with 100 organizations, matching retirees with volunteer mission projects. Todd Johnson of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity says that “Most mission agencies are trying to work with this trend that 20 years ago was unwelcome. Today, most realize it can be useful to their work.”
(Christianity Today, 465 Gundersen Dr., Carol Stream, IL 60188)
Religion coverage appears to be expanding in American media at the same time that the traditional religion sections and religion editors of newspapers are being phased out. Writing in RNA Extra (January/February), the newsletter of the Religion Newswriters Association, editor Debra Mason notes that the trend of religion sections shrinking or folding has been taking place for several years.
The most notable instance of this trend took place in early January when the Dallas Morning News religion section, the largest and most in-depth of its kind, was discontinued. As in the case of other defunct religion sections, commercial advertisers were not willing to buy advertising in religion sections and nonprofit religious groups could not afford the daily newspaper rate. Religious news will now be integrated throughout the paper.
Mason adds that there is also a pattern of religion editors being laid-off–from the Hartford Courant and Wichita Eagle to U.S. News & World Report. Part of the reason for such layoffs are staff reductions taking place as newspapers lose readers. But at the same time, Mason maintains that the religion beat is “far from declining.” Religion Newswriters Association members and subscribers are at an all-time high (540), and more journalists write about than ever before– “not just in daily newspapers, but in places like the Washington Monthly, The New Yorker, The Nation,The New Republic, Atlantic and Harpers.”
(RNA Extra, http://www.rna.org)
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)
The probable candidacy of Mitt Romney for U.S. president has stirred wide–and sometimes wild–speculation about whether a Mormon could or should be elected to that office. The debate over Romney’s candidacy and its implications for American democracy has been featured prominently in the New Republic magazine. In the January 1-15 issue of that magazine, Damon Linker cites surveys showing that close to half (43 percent) of Americans would never vote for a Mormon.
Linker argues that as the public becomes more acquainted with Mormonism and its political implications, that opposition will likely grow. Linker compares the possibility of a Romney (or any LDS candidate) presidency with that of John F Kennedy as the first Catholic president. The fear that Kennedy might have made his political decisions in deference to Rome pales in comparison to a prospective president like Romney and the influence of the LDS church.
Linker writes that the Mormon emphasis on prophecy and continuing revelation (in the form of statements from the church’s president) can override scripture and tradition. Such a position tends to distrust philosophy and natural morality and makes it inaccessible to non-Mormons, causing the religion to be “theologically unstable” and “politically perilous.” In a responding article in the January 29 issue of the magazine, Mormon historian Richard Lyman Bushman argues that Linker’s fears mirror the concerns about electing Mormon senators going back to the early 1900s.
Judging from the historical record, there have been no signs that the church pressures politicians to close ranks as Mormons. He adds that Linker’s argument about the lack of natural law or morality in Mormon teachings ignores how “revelation actually works.” A new revelation by Mormon prophets continually reinterprets and “works outward” from previous revelations. The prophet puts his own authority in jeopardy if he “disregards the past,” Bushman writes.
Meanwhile, although Romney may be losing support among the general population, he appears to be gaining more favor among evangelicals, according to the independent Mormon magazine Sunstone (December). Romney has made a special attempt to court the religious right. In late October he invited 15 evangelical leaders to his home, including Jerry Falwell, Richard Land, and Franklin Graham. Romney has recently urged evangelicals to remember that he shares with them beliefs that Christ was born of a virgin, was crucified and rose from the dead.
Evangelicals have recently started EVANGELICALSFORMITT.ORG, which offers comparisons between Romney’s stated beliefs and those of evangelicals, drawing about 5,000 readers a day. [The growing affinities between evangelicals and Mormons may be evident in political campaigns, where style often trumps substance. RW has noted that Mormon and evangelical books, music, and films have had significant crossover appeal in both communities; see February, 2003 RW].
(Sunstone, 343 N. Third W., Salt Lake City, UT 84103-1215)