In This Issue
- On/File: January 2006
- Findings & Footnotes: January 2006
- Evangelical inroads in Darfur
- Current Research: January 2006
- Stewardship preaching, teaching no longer seasonal
- Pagan studies gain academic clout
- Church identity and flexibility stressed in new Mormon manual
- Textbook disputes drawing in religious activists
- Christian presence in Hollywood gains notice
- Dramatic events drive religion in 2005 and beyond
The Network of Spiritual Progressives comes out of the deliberations and rethinking of pollitical liberals on the need for a role of spirituality in politics following their defeat by George Bush in 2004 and the strengthening of the Christian Right.
More specifically, the network was founded at a Berkeley, Calif., Conference on Spiritual Activism last summer. The network now has chapters in two dozen cities and groups of youth, professionals and members of the Democratic and Green parties forming caucuses. The network is also developing a campaign to identify and label products that are viewed as healthy for people and the planet, “produced in ethical ways.”
Another cause is forming a group to counter “Consumption Frenzy” around the holidays.
(Source: Yes!, December;http://www.spiritualprogressives.org/)
01: Why after 9/11, when many Americans including the government took up a conciliatory posture toward Islam, did evangelicals seem to become the main antagonists of the religion?
That is the question that the article by RW’s editor, entitled, “No God In Common: American Evangelical Discourse on Islam After 9/11,” seeks to address in the December issue of the Review of Religious Research. Without giving away too much, the article finds that new patterns of interaction between Islam and Christianity and greater pluralism in American society are challenging evangelical identity, leading to the erection of new boundary markers between evangelicalism and other religions.
A longer version of the article is on the RW website, at http://www.religionwatch.com/doc/2005-Cimino-Evangelicals-Islam.pdf
02: Against The Stream: The Adoption of Traditional Christian Faiths By Young Adults, by RW’s editor, is now available for the low cost of $6 (hardcover).
The book is a sociological study of the trend of young people turning (and returning) to conservative branches and movements in Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Reformed (or Calvinist) Protestantism. Since this 1997 study, there have been several popular accounts of this trend. Based on 30 case studies of these converts and returnees, Against The Stream is unique in examining how this turn to tradition both challenges and reflects religious consumerism.
To obtain a copy, send payment (made out to Religion Watch) to: P.O. Box 652, North Bellmore, NY 11710.
03: Religion and Society in Central and Eastern Europe is a new scholarly online journal that takes an interdisciplinary approach to the changing religious scene in these regions.
The journal is sponsored by the International Study of Religion in Eastern and Central Europe Association, which in the 1990s has served as a forum for younger and older scholars in exchanging information and theories about the rapid religious changes that have taken place in these countries. The journal will examine the beliefs, practices, organization and trends in both traditional and new religions. Recent articles appear to take a strong historical and sociological approach.
The address is: http://rs.as.wvu.edu
04: Fieldwork in Religion is the title of a new journal recently launched in the UK by Equinox Publishing and edited by Christopher Partridge and Ron Geaves, both teaching religious studies at University College, Chester.
The journal – which seems to be the first of its kind – will be of interest not only to experienced academics, but even more so to young scholars engaging into field research and eager to learn about relevant issues. The purpose of this peer-reviewed journal is to offer a specialized avenue for the publication of empirical research as well as to discuss methodologies, problems and ethics of fieldwork. Slightly less than 100 pages long, the current issue (April 2005) offers four articles, as well as a few reviews. Of special interest is a contribution by Sophie Gilliat-Ray (Cardiff University) on her unsuccessful efforts to obtain research access to four Deobandi Islamic “seminaries” in Britain.
The article does not only describe difficulties experienced, but also reflects on successful strategies when dealing with sensitive topics. As she rightly comments: “By not hearing accounts of failed research (which, of course, are usually not reported!) we are denied a sense of the field as a whole, and the way in which it might be ‘skewed’ by reliance upon studies which have been undertaken and which have not presented insurmountable difficulties.”
Another article by Stephen Hunt (University of the West of England) shares observations about his research on a widespread contemporary evangelical initiative, the Alpha program. The article explains the approach chosen, relationships with the leadership, difficulties encountered, but also unexpected results (such as the modification of the program by some groups at the local level following the publication of Hunt’s study). For more information visit: http://www.equinoxpub.com.
— By Jean-François Mayer
05: The reader of Religion & Public Life In the South: In the Evangelical Mode(Alta Mira, $24.95) is struck by the familiarity of the issues and trends discussed, suggesting how much of contemporary American religion has its roots in the South, as well as how Southern culture is now being affected by the new pluralism.
The book, edited by Charles Reagan Wilson and Mark Silk and part of a series on religion and regionalism, documents how the South is still the most evangelical part of the U.S., particularly focusing on such key institutions and movements as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Christian right. But even in politics, Southern evangelicals are learning that they may influence the vote but often can’t control it, especially on such issues as gambling, and must build coalitions to stay in power.
Other contributions on the changing roles of women in churches (even those not ordaining women have women in leadership roles) and on religious minorities suggest other ways that the normative role of the evangelicals in the region is changing if not being directly challenged. A chapter on the religious demography of the South reveals enough anomalies to complicate the picture further: counties that are largely Catholic, Lutheran or, in one county in Florida, even Mormon.
Veteran scholar of Southern religion Samuel Hill examines how Florida and Appalachia make up the “peripheral South,” with the former state being far more diverse than the surrounding region and the Appalachians holding fast to a localist, familial and non-proselytizing ethos that stands in sharp contrast to the “conversionist evangelicalism” marking the rest of the South.
Religion in the Contemporary South (University of Tennessee Press, $21.95) edited by Corrie Norman and Don Armentrout, covers some of the same ground as the above book, though it tends to focus more on the changes in the region and illustrates these shifts with interesting case studies and field work. Contributor Thomas Tweed finds a catalyst for change in Southern religion coming from Asians and Latinos (representing 14 percent of Southerners).
Bill Leonard writes that Baptist identity is being challenged at different levels, not least of which is the growth of megachurches de-emphasizing denominational identity. Another contribution looks at the growth of Catholicism in the region by studying of the children in two parishes; even these youngsters show a mixing of evangelical style with Catholic piety.
But a study of the struggle of women priests of the Episcopal Church to find acceptance among Southern parishioners is another indicator of the region’s remaining conservatism. Since the book has its origins in an Episcopal Church conference, other chapters look at that church’s longtime minority and now countercultural role in the South. A comparison of liberal and conservative evangelical parishes in South Carolina’s low country raises interesting questions about the meaning of traditional Southern identity.
Partly supported by humanitarian funding, evangelical agencies are making attempts to create a presence in Sudan’s Muslim Darfur area, which has been the site of widespread ethnic warfare, writes French researcher Philip Poupin in a recent article in the French geopolitical journal Hérodote (No. 119, 4th quarter 2005).
The issue is devoted to evangelical activities around the world and their political impact. Poupin’s article is an intriguing piece, based upon research including two clandestine visits to Darfur. There has long been sympathy among US Christians for fellow Christians in Southern Sudan, reinforced by the sensitivity of Black evangelicals for the plight of Black Africans seen as fighting against Arab Muslims.
While the situation in Southern Sudan has improved, the issue of Darfur has been raised by the same circles against against the country’s government Among other Evangelical agencies, Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse is active in Darfur under UN mandate for issues related to emergency relief, food security, water.
Interestingly, in strongly Muslim Darfur, it conducted in 2004 its Operation Christmas Child (distribution of gifts), which recommends that: “at the distributions, boys and girls will be told that their gifts were lovingly packed by Christians… Through Gospel literature and evangelistic programs, they will learn that God loves them so much that He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to earth to shine His light and dispel the darkness.” In South Sudan, a broadcasting program, Peace Radio, has been set up for reaching Darfur.
Its head claims that churches have already begun to appear in Darfur, although.independent confirmation is not yet available, Poupin writes. But the researcher suggests that these evangelical efforts are quite likely to clash sooner or later with intense, Saudi-financed efforts for promoting Islam in Sudan. Competing proselytizers might become a new axis of rivalry, Poupin concludes.
— By Jean-François Mayer
(Hérodote, Institut Français de Géopolitique, Université Paris 8, 2 rue de la Liberté, 93200 Saint-Denis, France, http://www.herodote.org)
01: A recent study suggesting that high levels of religiosity, such as in the U.S., may be correlated with high rates of social problems has become a lightning rod of controversy.
The study, appearing in theJournal of Religion and Society (http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2005/2005-11.html) and conducted by Gregory Paul, analyzed data from 18 nations and inferred that because the U.S. has a high level of religiosity and at the same time a high rate of such dysfunctions as murder, abortions, suicide, and sexual promiscuity, religious belief may play a role in such problems.
Paul’s study comes in for sharp criticism in the conservative Christian Touchstone magazine (December). The writers fault Paul’s study for declining to use standard sociological tools of regression and multivariate analysis supposedly because the “causal factors for rates of societal function are complex” and because the societies studied were similar enough to study without using control variables.
But researchers Scott Gilbreath and Michael Lindsey note that it is common for studies of results across countries to employ multivariate analysis, especially since there are so many socioeconomic variations across the 18 countries that have an impact on social conditions. Gilbreath, a Canadian statistician, adds that Paul states no clear explanation why such countries as Greece, Italy, Finland, Belgium and all of Eastern Europe and Russia were excluded.
The time frame of the observations appears to fluctuate between the 1990s to the early 2000s, but Paul does not list which year pertains to each data observation, which can mean that he uses different reference years for different countries. Pollster George Gallup Jr. concludes that a “mountain of survey data” from his organizations and survey organizations “shows that when educational background and other variables are held constant, persons who are ‘highly spiritually committed’ are far less likely to engage in antisocial behavior than those less committed. They have lower rates of crime, excessive alcohol use, and drug addiction than other groups.”
(Touchstone, P.O. Box 410788, Chicago, IL 60641)
02: Giving to overseas missions among Protestants has declined significantly over the last century, according to a new study. The organization Empty Tomb, a Christian research organization, surveyed 28 denominations and found that for every dollar donated to a congregation, two cents were spent on overseas missions in 2003 — a decrease from seven cents in the 1920s.
03: French-speaking Catholics in Belgium have developed new ways of relating to the Church, with an approach reflecting trends toward individualization.
This is one of the conclusions of a recent survey conducted in Belgium. These are the first results of a “religious barometer” sponsored by Catholic newspapers, with the help of the survey institute, Sonecom, and anthropologist Olivier Servais. The daily newspaper La Libre Belgique (Dec. 14) reports that while three-fourths of French-speaking Belgians have received religious training at a young age, only 48 percent of them still belong to the Roman Catholic Church. However, a surprising 33 percent of the Catholics describe themselves as “practicing.” But this does not mean weekly attendance at religious services: on average, they attend Mass about once a month.
A clear majority of French-speaking Belgian Catholics no longer identify strongly with a local congregation. But two out of five report that they sometimes stop at a church in order to light a candle. According to Olivier Servais, both hardline Catholicism and hardline atheism have declined. There is a reluctance to embrace dogmatic beliefs, but at the same time an aspiration to build a network of relations and solidarity on one’s own terms.
This is a challenge for priests, whose numbers are in decline and who have little time to invest in developing such personal relations with believers. The survey also confirms the rise of Muslim and Evangelical groups. Olivier Servais claims that Evangelical “ethnic” churches (e.g. from Africa or from Brazil) have now begun to attract a growing number of people of Belgian descent.
(La Libre Belgique, http://www.lalibre.be)
— By Jean-François Mayer
Financial stewardship is increasingly a popular theme preached in churches year-round, reports Advance (Dec. 13), an e-newsletter of the Leadership Network.
From interviews with 45 prominent churches from August through November, 2005, Leadership Network found that there is a move away from an annual stewarship season (usually in the fall) to a “more even and consistent treatment of stewardship topics throughout the year.” The newsletter also reports that an increasing number of churches are also sponsoring small-group educational ministries using curriculum from evangelical financial advisors, such as Larry Burkett and the mega church Willow Creek Association.
The study of paganism is moving from an offbeat specialty involving new religious movements to a full-fledged academic field in itself, reportsReligion Bookline (Dec. 21).
The change is most evident in the upcoming publication of “Introduction to Pagan Studies,” the first textbook in the field. The volume, edited by Barbara Davy and Wendy Griffin and published by AltaMira Press, is the first textbook to look at paganism from the religious studies perspective. It is significant because it is an introduction to the study of paganism as a world religion, as “opposed to an artifact of history,” writes Kimberly Winston.
The text is coming at a time when paganism is finding increasing scholarly attention, often from leading academic presses. Such books as Researching Paganisms by Jenny Ezzy and Graham Harvey and Contemporary Minority Religions in a Majoritarian America by Carol Barner-Barry, are also finding crossover appeal, as they are very well received by pagan community.
A recently issued manual of Mormon doctrine for teaching and missionary purposes suggest new church efforts to reassert Mormon identity while taking a more flexible approach in applying the faith to different cultures, reports the independent Mormon magazine Sunstone (September).
The missionary guide, “Preach My Gospel,” was claimed to be a “major change in direction” in LDS missionary teaching by church leaders for its turn away from standardized practices, such as having missionaries memorize their presentations. Writer John-Charles Duffy compares the guide, which is also to be used by parents in teaching their children and in other church meetings, with earlier manuals and notes that earlier efforts to de-emphasize the LDS church’s exclusive claims to authority and revelation are to an extent reversed.
The 1986 system of missionary teaching tended to teach that Mormons shared some teachings with other churches and to use Christ-centered discourse derived from the Book of Mormon. This “evangelical” approach (in part, taken in the 1980s and 90s to assert Mormon Christian credentials in the face of evangelical Protestant attacks against the faith) is still evident in Preach My Gospel, though it is set in the framework of the “Restoration” of the gospel by church founder Joseph Smith and subsequent leaders.
But on other points, the guide stresses flexibility; instead of centralized strategy where the methods of missionizing and teaching are dictated by the church leadership, the process of conveying church teachings must be adapted to local cultures by the missionary. Duffy concludes, however, that despite the recent emphasis on local adaptability, “uniformity and immutability remain the Church’s central governing values.”
(Sunstone, 343 N. Third W., Salt Lake City, UT 84103-1215)
Disputes between religious groups and state public school and university educational boards on the legitimacy of their teachings may be opening a new front of the “culture wars.”
The most heated battle is between the University of California and the Association of Christian Schools, the largest organization of Christian schools in the U.S. The association sued the university for religious bias when the UC rejected Christian texts and courses of one of its schools for failing to meet freshmen admission requirements by integrating faith perspectives into science and humanities teachings. Unlike court cases over creationism and intelligent design, the case “sets competing interpretations of academic merit against each other,” writes Mike Weiss in the San Francisco Chronicle (Dec. 12).
The association and its co-plaintiff, Calvary Chapel Christian School in Riverside, argue that government officials are dictating and censoring which viewpoints may or may not be taught. The university counters that the case has little to do with religious or academic freedom and that it has the right to determine the academic suitability of courses and texts.
The case is the first lawsuit to question the university’s discretion to establish courses required of all students seeking admission, and many critics see it as a way for conservative Christian legal activists to open a new front for advancing their agenda in the public square. Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center says the “university is in a way firing a shot over the bow, saying to Christian schools that they may have gotten away with this in the past, but no more. And that will have a chilling effect across the country.”
Meanwhile, Hindus in California have been involved in their own battle over textbooks with the State Board of Education Curriculum Commission.Hindu Press International news service (Dec. 4) reports that Hindu groups had objected to sections of California textbooks that dealt with India and Hinduism. Hindu critics made 170 revisions of the texts, many of which were challenged by a review board that claimed that the changes were motivated by the forces of the Hindu right, or Hindutva, to exert their influences in education.
Most of the objections to the corrections had to do with sections in texts espousing an “Aryan invasion” of India in ancient times. Hindus also objected to statements in the texts saying that they worship “gods” rather than manifestations of one God. In a December hearing, most of the objections to the changes were overruled Although Jewish and Muslim text protests were also heard, the Hindu case is significant since Hindu activists have increasingly charged that academic scholars are misrepresenting their religion.
Activists and organizations that have long pressed for greater Christian presence in the entertainment industry are starting to see some tangible results to their efforts, reports Charisma magazine (December).
Most of the impact has not come from conservative Christian protest against entertainment deemed immoral or blasphemous as much as through the influence of organizations seeking positive involvement in the medium. significant leaders in the drive for Christian influence in entertainment include Ted Baehr, whose Christian Film and Television Commission publishes Movieguide, which reviews movies according to evangelical Christian standards.
Baehr also produces the increasingly influential Movieguide Annual Faith & Values Awards Gala, which honors sympathetic secular actors and productions. The growth in movies aimed toward families (only six produced in 1985, while in 2003 such films represented 40 percent of the total) are attributed by studio executives largely to the “economic benchmarking of the industry” by Christians, according to Baehr.
Larry Poland’s Mastermedia International seeks to directly evangelize and pray for entertainment and media professionals, holding a National Media Prayer Breakfast. There has also been an attempt to mentor, train and place Christians in mainstream film and television through such ministries as Act One.
(Charisma, 600 Rhinehart Rd., Lake Mary, FL 32746)
01: If Pope John Paul II’s death and funeral demonstrated the impact and respect the papal chair can still elicit, the election of Benedict XVI showed the Catholic Church’s concern to preserve and consolidate the conservative gains made by the former pontiff.
But in the months since his election, Benedict has frustrated some conservative activists (for instance, his appointment of a moderate to fill his former post as doctrinal watchdog) and intrigued liberals (having a discussion with famous dissident Hans Kung). It proves once again that one cannot predict the turn of a papacy. The first encyclical of Benedict, which should be made public in January, will draw much interest. (April RW)
02: Intelligent Design entered the vocabulary of most Americans as well as the media last year thanks to highly publicized court cases, even though it has existed as a movement for over a decade.
And it is as a movement more than as a “wedge” strategy for challenging Darwinism in the public schools, that Intelligent Design may have the most effect. That is not only because of the recent ruling against teaching the concept in Pennsylvania (though the battle in Kansas over the issue is still heating up), but also because of the way Intelligent Design has changed evangelical thinking. With its recent founding of an Intelligent Design research institute, the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, which a decade ago was a firm supporter of the seven-day literalist creationist approach, has now accepted a modified version of evolution.
In Time magazine (Oct. 24) Futurist Malcolm Gladwell compared Intelligent Design to Christian rock. “[Evangelicals] are not resisting outside culture, they’re embracing it and kind of making it their own. It’s about taking up form from the outside and trying to Christianize it.“
03: Both the Tsunami (although it took place in late 2004) and hurricane Katrina forced religious organizations in different parts of the world and of different religious traditions to serve new and important social roles.
Dire necessity brought Buddhist groups that had little experience with relief work into this new arena. Whether this is a lasting change remains to be seen, though Buddhist relief organizations have been founded since the disaster. The “engaged” social activist Buddhists (mostly converts) in the West may find new connections with their formerly more quietistic counterparts in the East.
Meanwhile, Katrina brought into view American congregations’ roles as “first providers” when city, state and national structures broke down or were gridlocked. Many congregations and religious leaders are seeking to sustain (and enlarge) this role through renewed support for faith-based social services (June and November RW)
04: After almost a decade of tolerating reform-minded Islam, Iran may be changing again under its new president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Analysts have compared Ahmadinejad to the late Ayatollah Khomeini for his Islamist vision. But Ahmadinejad was brought to power because he was seen as more honest than his competitors, and it is far from certain that he will manage to bring Iran back to the time of Khomeini. As much as on the international scene, Ahmadinejad’s election creates tensions in Iran itself, where some of the political leadership is aware of the potential problems this is creating for the nation’s image and is trying to figure out how to conduct damage-control.
Unlike the case for Khomeini, the religious views of Ahmadinejad are receiving full attention by the media and foreign affairs analysts. His stated commitments to the ideals of “Islamic justice,” the messianic belief in the Hidden Imam and martyrdom may have domestic and international implications, especially concerning relations with Israel (which he has called to be destroyed), Iraq, and the U.S.
05: In 2005, Islamic groups and leaders made several attempts to come to terms with the challenges and problems of competing sources of authority and a vocal minority of radical activism.
In July, the new mufti of Syria, Sheikh Ahmad Badr al-Din Hassoun, expressed deep concern about the chaotic issuing of fatwas (legal opinions) in Muslim countries and advocated the need for collective fatwas in order to solve the problem: “We should avoid issuing individual fatwas.” Leaders gathered at the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) summit in Mecca (Dec. 7-8) deplored the discord and disunity among Muslims and brought this issue in relation to the fight against radical forms of Islam: it “requires our scholars and experts of jurisprudence to unify their stand on exposing …the falsehood of their claims.”
While attacks within Muslim countries themselves — such as the ones in Ammann, Jordan, in November – may have somewhat weakened the attraction of jihadi groups, the continuing wars in Iraq and other sensitive issues continue to fuel extremist propaganda. In the West, the attacks in London in July and the first suicide attack by a (Belgian female) convert in Iraq in November have strengthened the resolve to fight radical forms or Islam and to help to promote moderate forms of the religion.
— This review was written with Contributing Editor Jean-Francois Mayer, founder of the website Religioscope (http://www.religion.info)