In This Issue
- On/File: June 2001
- Findings & Footnotes: June 2001
- Nation of Islam gains mainstream following in England
- Current Research: June 2001
- Buddhism finds welcome reception in prisons
- Christian Science opens doors to seekers, shutting out churches?
- Ex-gay ministries, activism turn to prevention, while optimistic
- Buddhist goddess finds Western following
- Divorce ceremonies finding place in mainline religion
- Fast devotions gaining favor as ‘better than nothing’
- Architectural restoration gaining popular support
- Finding common ground and new divisions on cults
01: A Conference for Faith and Order in North America is being planned that will seek to broaden ecumenical relationships to include Pentecostals, evangelicals and Catholics, who are not usually part of official ecumenism.
The conference, which is set for 2004, is sponsored by an independent foundation and will be unique in drawing churches from Canada as well as the U.S., and having a strong lay component. Members of the foundation’s board, still in completion, include Richard Mouw of evangelical Fuller Seminary, Edward Villafane, a Pentecostal from Gordon-Conwell Seminary, Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore and Cheryl Bridges-Johns of the Church of God.
The effort seeks to rekindle enthusiasm and support for church unity in the churches that has been lost since World War II and the declining state of the National Council of Churches. A “Call to Churches” statement suggests new institutions may be needed to organize the movement resulting from the conference.
(Source: Christian Century, May 9)
02: Priests for Life is increasingly in the spotlight for its influential pro-life activism.
The organization, founded by Father Frank Pavone, has broadened its original mission of rallying priests to the prolife cause to turning voters out on issues involving abortion, as well as engaging in mass protests at abortion clinics. Pavone and his organization have been viewed by liberal critics and prolife allies as one of the top anti-abortion groups in the country (the National Right to Life Committee recently gave Pavone its annual “Proudly Prolife Award” at its recent dinner).
Priests for Life’s national crusade to bring in Catholic votes for the Republicans is said to be crucial in tilting the Florida race to George W. Bush — a fact that raises the ire of church-state separationists.
(Source: Catholic Eye, April 30).
01: The summer issue of Spirituality & Health magazine devotes a special section to Chi, the Chinese spiritual teachings and practices that have attracted a large and diverse Western following.
Chi, or Qi, is the “vital energy” that is sought by groups and practices as diverse as the slow motion exercises that characterize tai chi to the persecuted Falun Gong movement. Harvard historian Anne Harrington’s article shows how Westerners are taking up qi in a quest for wholeness while China has embarked on a “Western journey” to “overcome its “feudal superstitions” by subjecting qi to scientific experiments and disavowing any of its supernatural components.
Other articles focus on the scientific attempt to dissect qi’s healing properties, and an account by Episcopalian theologian Elizabeth Koenig on how she incorporates qi in her life, giving her a greater concern for how Christianity relates to the body.
(The issue costs $4.95 and is available from Spirituality & Health, 74 Trinity Pl., New York, NY 10006-2088.)
The Nation of Islam (NOI) is finding a following in England and, to a lesser extent Canada and other European countries by appealing to aggrieved blacks who are attracted to the group’s vision of global black unity.
At the recent London conference of CESNUR, which focuses on new religious movements, Nuri Tinaz of the University of Warwick reported that the NOI may have as many as 10,000 members, supporters and sympathizers in the UK. He noted that the NOI has been growing in religious and political importance in the UK since the early 1990s. The fact that the NOI’s leader Louis Farrakhan has been banned since 1986 has generated awareness and sympathy for him and his message.
NOI’s traditional self-help and self-reliance economic teachings, starting such enterprises as restaurants, shops and groceries, only adds to its appeal, writes Tinaz. For youth, the NOI provids a sense of self-esteem and dignity, training them how to become productive, industrious and respectable people. From the early 1990s, the NOI’s officials in Britain have been working successfully to reach out to black professionals and politicians.
The role the NOI played in the Steven Lawrence Inquiry, where a black teenager was murdered by five white youths, providing support and solidarity by invitation from the family and supporters, gave the group broad acceptance among black civil rights organizations in the UK. The banning of Farrakhan in Britain, the pressure brought to bear on NOI schools by the Department of Education (threatening to close them) and criticism by the mainstream media, have served to give Farrakhan more support in the African-Carribean community.
Tinaz concludes that the British NOI chapter “functions as the springboard from which the movement’s officials and members plan to spread the NOI’s teachings, programs and agendas in Western Europe, where African and Caribbean diasporas are densely populated.[and also among] liberal whites and other disaffected immigrants.”
(To read Tinaz’s complete paper, visit the CESNUR web site: http://www.cesnur.org)
01: Latinos are continuing their movement out of the Catholic Church for Protestant denominations and other religions, though they tend to retain a “Catholic ethos” on moral issues, according to a new survey.
The 3-year survey of 2,300 Latinos, conducted by the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, finds that Only 18 percent of first-generation Latinos identify themselves as Protestants, compared with 33 percent for the third generation, reports Religion Today.com (May 8). On the whole, 70 percent of the 35 million Latinos in the United States are Catholic and 22 percent are Protestant, the poll found. Ten percent of Latinos identify themselves as Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons, with those groups counted as Protestant.
New immigrants from Latin America have replenished the gradual Latino exodus from the Catholic Church, the study’s directors added.
But new Protestants, however, tend to retain their cultural Catholic ethos, keeping their church-inspired views on such moral issues as the death penalty and abortion, and their liberal stances on immigration and party affiliation.
“They’re comfortable with both the empty cross — a sign of Protestantism — and the icon of Our Lady of Guadeloupe. Latinos, Protestant and Catholic, share a common moral, political and economic world view,” said Dr. Gaston Espinosa, project manager for the study. Other findings included: 51 percent of non-Catholics consider themselves evangelical Christians; 43 percent attend Spanish-language church services; 60 percent support school vouchers; and 39 percent favor the death penalty, reflecting the Catholic Church’s stance against capital punishment. Gallup polls indicate that 67 percent of the U.S. population as a whole favors the death penalty.
02: Even if artists are not religious in the conventional sense, they tend to carry the discipline of their work to a similar sense of discipline in their spirituality, according to a recent study of 100 artists by sociologist Robert Wuthnow.
Initiatives (May), a Catholic newsletter on the connection between faith and work, reports that in his new study, entitled “Creative Spirituality: The Way of the Artist,” (University of California Press), Wuthnow finds that artists, writers and musicians are far from the stereotypical “confused, gullible or muddleheaded” souls, but they are “to a striking degree” more comfortable with spirituality than organized religion.”
By training and personality, they are “disposed to think that spirituality should not be reduced too readily to doctrines and creeds.” The newsletter concludes that while “art critics and religious leaders miss the spiritual in today’s artists. Wuthnow is convinced that art once again is having a major influence on people’s spiritual lives.”
The Dallas Morning News (May 29) reports on another study which shows that American Christians who attend church once a week and conservative religious people are far more likely than other Americans to believe that art’s purpose is to portray beauty. The co-editors of the book from which the study is found, “Crossroads: Art and Religion in American Life,” (The New Press) conclude that the amount of conflict between art and religion has been overplayed.
(Initiatives, P.O. Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; http://www.laity-initiatives.org)
03: Although criticized by some as an elitist institution, the American press has given a mix response to President Bush’s faith-based social service program, reflecting the opinions of the American public, according to a recent survey.
Although some conservatives predicted a negative response to government funding of faith-based social services by the media, the survey, conducted by the magazine Religion in the News (Spring), found almost 70 percent of editorials published in 51 newspapers approved or had mixed reactions to Bush’s plans. Only about 30 percent registered moderate or strong disapproval.
These percentages correspond closely to poll results on American attitudes toward government funding of faith-based groups, writes Dennis Hoover. A diverse group of big city newspapers, not all of them conservative, were represented in the moderate approval camp, while one out of four of them veered toward the negative side (including the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle).
(Religion in the News, Trinity College, 300 Summit St., Hartford, CT 06106; http://www..trincoll.edu/depts/csrpl/)
04: A study of mixed marriages shows that most of these couples celebrate Christmas, according to the Jerusalem Post (May 3).
The study, conducted by the American Jewish Committee of 127 American interfaith families, found that 16 percent of Jewish-Christian marriages celebrate Christmas in church and more than two-thirds observe Christmas in their homes. Jews and non-Jews termed Jewish activities “religious” or “different” while Christian activities, such as Christmas, were called “just cultural” and “fun.”
The study, authored by Sylvia Barack Fishman of Brandeis University, suggests that children who have parental encouragement to marry within the faith are much more likely to do so than those whose parents have no opinion on the issue.
Buddhist meditative practices have started to take root in U.S. prisons, reports the New York Times (May 30).
Buddhist monasteries and other organizations have established networks and other ways of corresponding with prisoners who find Buddhist teachings and practices well suited to their confinement and other harsh conditions of prison life. Leading the way in providing Buddhist support and services is the Prison Dharma Network in Boulder, Colo., which has 250 prisoners to which it corresponds.
As many as 5,000 prisoners seeking information about Zen Buddhism have contacted the Zen Mountain Monastery in upstate New York. After holding meditation sessions at Green Haven Correctional Facility, the word spread far beyond that prison and inmates from around the country began to write the monastery asking for information.
The monastery established a database with the names of 1,000 male and female inmates, linking each to a volunteer committed to at least three years of offering advice and encouragement to such seekers.
Meditators say that Buddhism helps them find solace in the midst of suffering. Interestingly, these meditation sessions tend to draw prisoners from all ethnic groups, in contrast to the overwhelmingly white Buddhist convert phenomenon found outside of prison.
The Church of Christ Scientist is intensifying the effort to market its teachings, particularly founder Mary Baker Eddy’s works, to spiritual seekers on the New Age , mind-body circuit but it may be marginalizing the role of its congregations in the process, reports The Banner (Spring), an independent Christian Scientist newsletter.
In recent years, Christian Scientists, under their leader Virginia Harris, have sought to present and repackage such seminal Christian Scientist works as “Science and Health” to the unaffiliated in hopes of reversing a serious membership decline. A recent church conference revealed the new approach, as Harris emphasized the role of Christian Science reading rooms (local associations that propagate Eddy’s writings) in reaching out to seekers through the Internet and at mind-body seminars and bookfairs.
Field workers dispatched by headquarters are coaching reading room directors and “receptive” branch churches to aggressively sell a modern trade edition of Eddy’s “Science and Health.”
Editor Andrew Hartsook writes that “Reading room librarians are being told that the reading rooms are separate entities which should make their own decisions, have their own funding, sponsor their own lectures, and host their own bookstore talks. The practical result is that local reading rooms will be under the control of The Mother Church. The branch churches are, at best, on the fringes of this new vision for reviving interest in Christian Science.”
He adds that a new church Web site has been created (http://www.spirituality.com) that gives the dates, times, and places for spirituality seminars and mind/body/spirit events but provides no listing of Christian Science churches.
(The Banner, 2040 Hazel Ave., Zanesville, OH 43701-2222)
Conservative Christian activists that have been active in fighting gay rights initiatives are increasingly turning their attention to youth issues involving homosexuality.
The liberal Village Voice (May 8) reports that the leading Christian right group Focus on the Family has launched a “Love Won Out: Addressing, Understanding, and Preventing Homosexuality” a program that tours the country seeking to help parents, teachers and others detect early signs of homosexuality and prevent their development in youth.
“Meanwhile, other activists have taken the battle over teen sexuality to the courts, suing and countersuing over how to handle sexual orientation in schools,” writes Sharon Lerner. She adds that the legal efforts to stop after-hour gay-straight student alliances (where students talk about sexual orientation) from organizing in public schools have failed, so conservative activists are taking the battle to in-school education.
Lerner writes that a more basic reason for the new activism targeted to youth is that as the evangelical Christian efforts to convert homosexuals to heterosexuality through ex-gay ministries have not met with much success, they are turning their energies to the prevention of homosexuality. Yet evangelical ministries appear more optimistic than defeated, particularly after a new study was released in May suggesting that “highly motivated” gays can become heterosexual.
The report by Dr. Robert Spitzer, presented at the American Psychiatric Association, found that 66 percent of the men and 44 percent of the women he interviewed had achieved “good heterosexual functioning” after seeking help to change their sexual orientation through Christian ex-gay ministries. The Columbia University psychiatrist spearheaded the APA’s 1973 decision to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. Ex-gay activists say the study legitimizes the healing claims of conversion therapy.
Gay-rights groups say Spitzer’s study is tainted because most subjects in the research study had been recruited through Christian groups opposed to homosexuality. The National Catholic Register (May 27) reports that at the same conference, another five year study of 202 subjects undergoing conversion therapy experienced higher rates of failure — 178 out of 202 subjects failed in such therapies, with most reporting emotional pain from the therapies.
(National Catholic Register, 33 Rosotto Dr., Hamden, CT 06514)
A Buddhist goddess is gaining the devotion and attention of Asians and Westerners alike for her compassionate and motherly attributes.
The Dallas Morning News (May 19) reports that the influence of Kwan Yin, the Asian goddess of compassion, is “slowly spreading through mainstream American culture after inspiring millions of Asians for centuries.” There is a “new wave of Kwan Yin statues, fountains, devotional materials, meditation supplies, paintings, images, books and Web sites.
This summer, there will be Kwan Yin events across the country . . . Kwan Yin retreats for women will take place in such states as new Mexico, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Washington,” writes Colleen O’Connor.
But devotees of Kwan Yin are not necessarily Buddhists nor women. The trend parallels the renewed interest in the Virgin Mary, as in both cases “People are looking more and more to the feminine dimension of spirituality. They’re trying to find values other than the competitive ones,” says Maria Reis Habito, a Kwan Yin scholar at Southern Methodist University.
The Kwan Yin Society of North America was founded in 1999 by a man. Founder David Briscoe says that in his group “there is no attempt to confine or define Kwan Yin as exclusively female or male. A surprising thing has been that forty percent of the inquiries to our Web site have been from men.”
Growing numbers of mainline churches and Reform synagogues are holding divorce ceremonies, reports the Wall Street Journal (May 4).
Although these services have been sporadically performed in liberal churches and synagogues, they are now being used more frequently and even finding a place in prayer books and liturgies as the high divorce rate shows few signs of reversing. These ceremonies “can include everything from traditional wedding songs to video tributes to the couple.
Also common are ring exchanges (except the spouses take off their rings and return them to each other) and vows (‘I promise to respect you as an individual’),” writes Nancy Ann Jeffrey.
The United Church of Christ and the Reform branch of Judaism have worked the divorce ceremony into their regular prayer and worship texts. The United Methodists have included a prayer for persons going through divorce to their book of worship, while the Episcopal Church is considering such a move, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) allows congregations to take such prayers from other sources.
One UCC official says that the ritual helps keep divorced couples in the church community. David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values, says the ceremonies wrongly suggest that divorce is just part of life rather than a failure. But veterans of the ritual say that they can provide comfort at a painful time, especially for children.
Quick and simple spiritual devotions are gaining popularity to fit the fast-food lifestyle and tight work schedules of Americans, reports the Dallas Morning News (May 3).
“As the pace of lifestyles quickens, the demand for tips on how to fit prayer into a busy life grows. A cottage industry of new books, Web sites and spiritual aids offer quick and easy devotions,” writes Susan Hogan-Albach. Buddhists are promoting a “one-minute Buddha” meditation, Christians stress “five minutes of gratitude, while Jews mark their schedule with brief blessings. A growing number of spiritual leaders are realizing that five minutes of daily prayer is better than nothing and tailoring their ministries to this need.
Ascension Lutheran Church in Garland, Texas sends daily “e-devotionals” to members that include a short Bible reading, reflection and prayer. Don Morreale of Denver, a Buddhist writer and teacher of vipassana meditation, says that people who start small and stick with it will eventually tend to take more time for prayer. The most well-known example of abbreviated prayer is found in the popular book, “The Prayer of Jabez.”
The book, which has sold more than 4 million copies, teaches readers to say a one-sentence prayer every day. The short, practical nature of the prayer and its claim to change lives and increase prosperity has created a best-seller (4 million copies in print) and a cottage industry of Prayer of Jabez videos and web sites, reports the New York Times Book Review (May 20).
A nationwide movement is taking shape to restore the worship trappings and architecture that were removed in Catholic churches after the modernizing influence of Vatican II.
The Baltimore Sun (May 21) reports that the Vatican II-inspired renewal effort to update worship and simplify church architecture, with reformers putting in carpeting over terrazzo flooring and removing tabernacles from sanctuaries, is gradually being reversed. Starting in more rarefied circles, such as Notre Dame University’s Architecture Department (under such scholars as Duncun Stroik), the drive to restore pre-Vatican worship structures has found strong support among churchgoers, many of whom were initially opposed to or ambivalent about the changes.
Some of the restorations are in prominent public structures. The chapel at Emmanuel college in Boston restored its high altar after it was removed over three decades ago. And not all of the supporters of restoration were around for Vatican II. At St. Mary’s Church in Baltimore, once the leading example of Vatican II architecture, the retrieval of the church’s past, such as reclaiming an old baptismal fount, was enthusiastically backed by younger parishioners in their 20s and 30s who have moved into the Federal Hill neighborhood. “This is exciting to the young people because they’re looking for content in their lives, something that isn’t disposable,” says one priest.
The placement of the tabernacle in Catholic churches has been a particular point of conflict. Many tabernacles were placed in the corner of the sanctuary in order to emphasize the participation of the laity in the Mass. But a study done by Michael McCallionof the Archdiocese of Detroit finds that parishioners miss the sense of the sacred represented by the tabernacle, which holds the hosts, after it was moved away from a central location at the altar.
As cited in the CARA Report (Winter), the study finds that liturgists still maintain that Vatican II shifted the focus from prayer and meditation on the consecrated hosts to the action at the altar where the Mass is celebrated.
(CARA Report, Georgetown University, Washington, DC 20007-4105)
An early May conference of the American Family Foundation (AFF) showed a growing effort to forge a middle ground between “anti-cultists” and so-called “cult apologists,” as well as revealing new divisions on questions of religious freedom for minority religious groups.
Anti-cultists have usually been tagged by their concern with “brainwashing” or thought reform and other abuses by cults, while “cult apologists” is the name anticultists dub scholars — usually sociologists — who see little validity in the thought reform label and tend to view new religious movements as legitimate expressions of religion whose freedoms need to be defended.
The AFF conference, held in Newark, N.J., is the leading anti-cultist gathering in the U.S., but there was a conciliatory mood running through the proceedings, with some considered “cult apologists” invited to the sessions. “There’s a growing dialogue and conversation between different groups and even with new religious movements. We’re rejecting the `cult wars.’You don’t paint groups you don’t like as a cult. But you have to look at the process of manipulation and control [in some groups],” said Michael Langone, director of AFF.
Rutgers University sociologist Benjamin Zablocki said there is a “third camp” of scholars emerging who eschew the extremism on both sides of the cult controversy. They would not rule out abuse and even thought reform in certain cases while avoiding the broad-brush tactics of some anti-cultists. The problem is that much of the debate has been over legal and policy issues. Defenders of new religions and anti-cultists have been involved in litigation cases (such as over child custody or abuse) where polarization is intensified, Zablocki said.
Zablocki added that the matter of religious freedom, particularly in Europe, will continue to be a divisive issue in the near future. The matter is far from academic. New religious movements are expanding throughout the world, with Russian, Japanese and other groups from foreign countries starting satellite branches in the U.S. Judging from the roster of speakers at the conference, U.S. anticultists are likewise building new ties to and collaborating with their colleagues in Europe and Russia who have recently expanded efforts to monitor, and in some cases, restrict cults and minority religions.
As Langone and others noted, anti-cultists are likely to balance religious freedom with cultural concerns (i.e., the right of a nation to restrict some religious expressions thought to be harmful to its culture) and the rights of individuals who have been victimized by abusive groups.
One session on governmental responses to cults brought together officials from state services monitoring “cult” activities in several European countries, including France, Belgium, and Austria. Several of these state services are interacting with anti-cultist associations . . . Representatives from those official institutions attend conferences organized by cult-watching organizations (though it should be added that some representatives, such as those from Belgium, have also participated in several recent academic conferences on new religious movements).
These representatives included Henri de Cordes, vice-president of the official Information and Advice Center on Harmful Sectarian Organizations (Brussels), who cited a wide range of measures to investigate cults in those cases where public security could potentially be threatened. In Austria, a Federal Office for Sectarian Questions was created in 1998. According to its manager German Muller, among the office’s tasks are the collection of information, advice to concerned people and exchange of information with other organizations in Austria and abroad. In France, the president of the Interministerial Mission for Combating Cults, expressed confidence that a law recently adopted by the French Senate (approved by the National Assembly in late May) in order to strengthen prevention and repression of cults deemed to be harmful, would be implemented next year.
The fact that France tends to play a key role in the international “fight against cults” at a State level was emphasized by Friedrich Griess, a leading member of the Austrian Society Against the Dangers of Sects and Cults and the vice-president of the FECRIS (European Federation of Centres of Research and Information on Sectarianism): the international activities of the FECRIS would not have been possible without the subsidies allotted to the Federation by the French government, he explained.
Meanwhile, scholars working on new religious movements as well as cult-watching groups increasingly come across unexpected visitors at conferences or at their offices — official representatives, academics or journalists from the Peoples Republic of China. Those visitors seem eager not only to inquire about the international situation, but also to warn about Falun Gong, the Chinese meditation movement, and justify the policy followed by the Chinese government against it, as well as to find new arguments in order to legitimize the repression currently going on.
There is now a Chinese Anticult Association (CAC) with nicely presented pamphlets in English. Despite claims about its independent character, there is little doubt to outsiders that it enjoys strong support from the Chinese authorities. However, it is not uninteresting to listen to some of the reports about Falun Gong by Chinese scholars attending conferences such as the AFF. While there are papers which sound rather like propaganda exercises, other ones — while hostile to Falun Gong — also offer useful insight and research about the background of this movement.
Especially informative was a paper by Zixian Deng, currently a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of North Texas. According to his research, one could distinguish four stages in the history of Falun Gong. The first stage lasted from 1991 to 1993, the group was then a mixture of Qigong (Chinese healing teachings and practices) and Taoism. Its leader Master Li was just considered a mere human being, explained Zixian Deng.
The second stage, from 1994 to 1996, was marked by an increasing criticism toward the other schools of Qigong, all seen as corrupt, while traditional religions also are seen as having declined; the role of the Master increased in the doctrine of the group, he came to be seen as endowed with unique abilities (omniscience, etc.).
Since 1996 the group is reported to have become increasingly active in proselytizing activities. In the Fourth stage: since 1999, the Chinese government is seen as devilish due to its reaction against the group, God is testing the disciples and uses the Chinese government for that purpose. If the Chinese scholar’s interpretation is correct, Falun Gong began as a mere meditation group, but rapidly evolved into a group holding a salvific truth and with a much more ambitious purpose.
On March 17, 2000, several hundred members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God (MRTCG), a schismatic group around a group of visionaries who had come out of the Roman Catholic Church, lost their lives in a fire in Kanungu, a small town in South-Western Uganda. Subsequently, 444 bodies were uncovered in mass graves at four different locations in Uganda. reporting on his preliminary research in Uganda, Jean-Francois Mayer of the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, cast doubt on the view that the disaster was associated with an endtime expectation in late 1999.
Actually, the group had consistently predicted for many years that the endtimes would arrive in 2000 and the beginning of a new earth in 2001. This does not mean that there was not possibly an element of prophetic failure in the events: after a recent trip to Uganda, Mayer tends to think that the group had developed a kind of Catholic version of the rapture: the elect would be taken to Heaven, and there would still be a few months left for a group of people to repent and preach the message. Many questions still remain, however, including whether the leaders of the group perished during the incident.
Mayer attempted to draw some parallels with other cases of religious violence over the past few years. But he also found that there are a number of other emergent and new religious groups in that part of the world, including movements in Uganda coming out of the same Marian visionary background as the MRTCG. While nothing indicates as yet that other groups are inclined to follow the same path, religious innovation in Uganda and other countries is a development in need of more investigation.
— This report was written with J.F. Mayer