In This Issue
- On/File: March 2003
- Findings & Footnotes: March 2003
- Coptic church finds respect and internal turmoil
- Christians targeting European Muslims for evangelism
- Current Research: March 2003
- Media religion coverage continues expansion
- Seminaries more pluralistic and denominational?
- Deep Christian science rift leading to schism?
- Jewish-evangelical coalition given Jewish approval
- Christian dance parties — alternatives to secular raves?
- Faith-based prevention gaining hearing in African AIDS crisis
01: St. Benedict Center in Madison, Wisconsin is the first ecumenical community for women in the U.S. Lynne Smith, a Presbyterian minister, recently joined the community and another Protestant, a Mennonite, is also planning to join.
Although the community only numbers three members, the center has long been open to ecumenical and even inter-faith guests. In 1999 the Catholic sisters of the center won the support of their federation of Benedictine communities (governance in the Benedictine tradition is largely autonomous although under the leadership of the area bishop) to start other ecumenical communities in their jurisdiction.
In recognizing the differences that exist among Christians concerning the Eucharist, the sisters will have access to communion services in their respective traditions.
(Source: National Catholic Reporter, Feb. 21)
02: Walking Together is a controversial youth movement in Russia known for its quasi-military structure, nationalist fervor and strict religious and moral teachings.
The group, with about 80,000 members in 60 cities and towns across Russia, started out as a patriotic society with the election of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, to whom they remain strongly loyal. Members view the movement as a social group, though one with religious overtones and a strong self-help component that emphasizes following the Ten Commandments. Walking Together members organize summer camps with the Russian Orthodox Church and volunteer to teach in schools.
They also engage in activism and protests, such as against Communists, gay rights groups and the Church of Scientology, leading their critics to charge that they favor a return to censorship.
(Source: New York Times, Feb. 16)
03: It has recently been revealed that David Myatt, a leading neo-nazi in England, is also a Muslim convert who has agitated for extremist and terrorist activity, including the attacks of Sept. 11.
Myatt, 51, was the “political guru” behind the British white supremacist group Combat 18 and was the leading neo-nazi intellectual in the nation since the 1960s. Since 9/11 Myatt has taken on various pseudonyms, including his Islamic name Abdul Aziz, and posted messages on various Websites supporting suicide missions and urging young Muslims to take up Jihad. Online Myatt convinced some that he was an Islamic scholar — at least until his true identity was revealed.
Observers say that Myatt had dabbled in pagan and Buddhist religions before and that he still writes on neo-nazi themes. But he is apparently part of a small phenomenon of far rightists who view Islamic extremism as a vehicle toward achieving their goal of a society driven along racial lines A leader of one British Muslim extremist group, Al Muhajiroun, has welcomed Myatt into its ranks, saying, “I am sure he can help the Islamic cause.”
(Source: Sunday Mercury of Birmingham, Feb. 16)
John Horgan’s new book Rational Mysticism (Houghton Mifflin, $25) is an intriguing journalistic excursion into the ever-expanding territory of science and spirituality.
Actually, Horgan is mainly concerned with the new science of consciousness studies, which seeks to study mystical and religious experiences. He revisits the well-trod grounds of psychedelic drugs and how they relate to mysticism. Horgan also explores the frontiers of neurology that attempt to map mystical experience though brain scans (which remain inconclusive with wildly inconsistent results) and another device that stimulates the brain to have such experiences.
While based around Horgan’s own philosophy and view of such phenomenon, the book does profile a wide range of gurus and specialists of spiritual consciousness, such as Huston Smith and Ken Wilber, as well as skeptics.
The Coptic Church of Egypt may have gained new recognition and freedom by the government, but the church body is experiencing internal turmoil over issues of centralization and the power of the hierarchy over the laity.
The Tablet (Feb. 15), a British Catholic magazine, reports that a split between a segment of the laity and the bishops and the presiding Pope Shenouda is evident in a row over the disciplining of popular monks for teaching theological error. Under Pope Shenouda, the Coptic Church has cultivated cordial relations with the state, which is demonstrated by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak recently declaring Jan. 7, Coptic Christmas, a national holiday.
But critics maintain that in the process of courting the government, Shenouda and his hand-picked bishops have usurped the laity’s role in governance of the church as well as seeking to limit the wide appeal of the monks. Coptic monasteries have stressed theological education of the laity and personal spirituality, hoping to stem the loss of members to evangelical churches.
The split is personified by Shenouda and Father Matta (also under theological investigation for unspecified reasons), a popular monk who has been instrumental in building a Sunday school movement in Egypt. Both leaders are revered among the laity, but there is the fear that Shenouda is abusing his power. Paul Schemm writes that “The number of excommunications of lay people has risen dramatically, as well as the defrocking of priests.”
Few efforts at Christian evangelization have been directed toward the burgeoning Muslim populations of Europe, but that may now be changing, according to an article in Charisma magazine (February).
The traditional low response rate of Muslims to Christian missionary efforts (partly due to government restrictions on proselytizing in Islamic nations) seems also to be true of Muslim immigrants in European cities. Most churches, even those in areas with large Muslim populations such as France and England, have made few efforts in evangelizing European Muslims due to the difficulties of gaining access and acceptance in these ethnic communities, writes Tomas Dixon.
Because most European Muslims believe Christianity is strictly for Westerners, the small but growing number of churches having any success in this area use “national workers” (or fellow immigrants) rather than European or American missionaries. Most of the pastors and evangelists to European Muslims have had confrontations with Islam in their native lands hand have fled because of restrictions and Islamic law. In London, exiled Egyptian pastor Sameh Mety’s congregation gathers Iraqi, Egyptian, Palestinian, Lebanese and other believers in a congregation where the worship songs and culture are distinctly Arabic in tone.
Most of these churches’ success comes through “making friends and networking families” rather than through mass evangelism efforts, according to one Turkish pasor of a new church. The pastors and evangelists featured in the Charisma article tend to have a strongly negative view of Islam. Mety says that “Islam is not just `another’ religion in Europe. The Western church is so ignorant. Many think that Islam is peaceful. It is not!”
01: Figures from the new World Almanac suggest that the churches are losing “market share” in the last decade.
The secular humanist magazine Free Inquiry (Winter) looks at the 1992 and 2002 editions of the World Almanac and finds that overall, U.S. church membership rose 7.16 percent during a decade in which the U.S. population grew 13.9 percent. The almanac groups together churches by their size: the largest ones totaled 119,877,631 members in the 1992 edition and 128,617,363 members in the 2002 almanac.
The percent change is 7.3. The mid-sized denominations (10,699.019 in 1992 and 10,591,675) lost one percent of members. The smallest denominations claimed a total of 11,084,219 members in 1992 and 15,491,406 in 2002, showing a genuine gain of 39.7 percent. (Free Inquiry, Box 664, Amherst, NY 14226)
02: Active and inactive Catholics are divided on matters of public policy but the differences are not very wide and even surprising, according to a recent poll.
Through sponsoring polls, Deal Hudson, editor of the conservative Catholic magazine Crisis, has sought to distinguish active Catholics (those going to Mass on a regular basis) from inactive Catholics, claiming that the former is a well-defined constituency that is largely favorable to the Republican platform (Hudson is also an advisor to President Bush on Catholic issues). In the March issue of Crisis Hudson presents a new poll where he again seeks to show the differences between active and inactive Catholics on political and moral issues.
The poll shows that active Catholics are more likely to be opposed to laws that would grant married status to homosexual couples (75 percent versus 66 percent). Fifty five percent of active Catholics favor enacting legal restrictions on abortion, compared to 35 percent of inactive Catholics.
On cloning, 55 percent of inactives would allow the procedure for medical research, while 58 percent of actives would outlaw cloning in all cases. The fact that only bare majorities of active Catholics support church teachings is not a reason for celebration, Hudson writes. More serious is that a fairly large percentage of active Catholics (29 percent) now doubt the moral teachings of the church after the sex abuse crisis, with only a slim majority (52 percent) supporting the manner in which the bishops handled these cases.
Equally noteworthy is that the active Catholics thought to be favorable to George Bush were less favorable to a war in Iraq (52 percent) than inactive Catholics (60 percent).
(Crisis, 1814 and 1/2 N Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; the survey is available at: http://www.crisismagazine.com).
03: A recent survey confirms considerable anecdotal information that Catholics are no longer as loyal to their designated parish as they once were.
The winter issue of the CARA Report, a newsletter on Catholic research, presents a study showing that 25 percent of Mass attenders say they usually attend a parish other than the one closest to their home This figure includes 21 percent of parishioners registered at their parish (something similar to membership) and 39 percent of those not registered. In contrast, the 1983 Notre Dame Study of Parish life found that only 15 percent of registered parishioners attended a church that was not closest to their home.
Catholics under 30 were the most likely to attend a parish that is not the closest to their home. Whether or not they attended a parish further from home, 19 percent said they had “shopped” for the parish they currently attend, usually on the basis of good preaching. It should be noted that only those Catholics saying they attended Mass at least a few times a year were included in the survey.
(CARA Report, Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, Georgetown University, Washington, DC 20057)
04: A growing number of American Jews are gravitating toward the Republican Party and conservative political views, according to a poll conducted by the Forward, a Jewish newspaper.
The survey, which was conducted in November and December of 2002 finds that the younger generation of Jews is more willing than the older generations to consider migrating to the right. The National Catholic Reporter (Feb. 14) cites the most striking finding of the survey: almost half of the Jews who voted for Al Gore in the 2000 election said they were uncertain whether they would vote the same today.
Only 37 percent said they would choose Gore over Bush for 2004 (the survey was taken when Gore was still a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination) compared with 71 percent who voted for Gore in 2000. The candidacy of Sen, Joseph Lieberman (announced after the survey was completed) would likely affect the Jewish vote for Bush, since 57 percent said in 2004 they would vote for Lieberman, 14 percent for Bush and 29 percent uncertain.
(National Catholic Reporter, P.O. Box 419281, Kansas City, MO 64141)
05: A new study suggests stress reduction is one of the most significant ways religion aids health.
There have been numerous studies done on the positive correlations between prayer and other religious and spiritual practices and health, but there is still little understanding how these positive effects actually occur or if they are definitely linked to religious beliefs and practices. Spirituality & Health magazine (April) reports that the study exposed 103 young adults and 75 seniors to different types of stresses, such as interpersonal, and intellectual (in working on arithmetic problems) and then monitored their blood pressure levels.
The researchers from the University of Utah and Utah State University found that people who had internalized their religious beliefs (as measured by a standard psychological scale) tended to have smaller increases in blood pressure under stress than the others, especially among the elderly subjects. The researchers theorize that religious beliefs may help people “cool” their responses to stress which in turn could form a pathway to better health.
(Spirituality & Health, 74 Trinity Place, New York, NY 10006)
06: A new census report from Switzerland shows a sharp increase of residents claiming no religious affiliation while immigrant religious groups have grown.
The 2000 census report, recently published by the Federal Statistics Office, shows that more than 11 percent of Switzerland’s population of 7.3 million belong to no religious group. In 1970, this category accounted for only about one percent of the population. National Catholic Register (Feb. 23) reports that 41.8 percent of the population claimed a Catholic affiliation while in 1990 — the last time the census was issued — 46 percent claimed this affiliation.
The most growth has been among immigrant groups–Eastern Orthodoxy and Islam. Switzerland is one of the few European countries to include questions of religion on its census. In 2000 more residents refused to give their religious affiliation than previously.
07: A new Australian survey finds a growing anti-Muslim sentiment among the population.
Muslims have now surpassed Asians as the ethnic/religious group considered most unable to fit into Australian society, according to the survey of 5056 people in Queensland and New South Wales. The survey found that 54 percent of respondents — the majority being women — said they would be concerned if a relative married a Muslim. The study, conducted by Kevin Dunn, links anti-Muslim attitudes to racism, as almost half of respondents also believed that Australia was weakened by people of different ethnic origins.
The study was carried out in the months after Sept. 11, though recent events, such as the terrorist bombing in nearby Bali, are not likely to have changed people’s attitudes.
Even right after Sept. 11, religion reporters and other observers were noting that religion coverage was being curtailed by newspapers, often for financial reasons.
But in the long run, the events of September 11 seem to have reignited the determination to improve and expand religion coverage, reports David Shaw in the Los Angeles Times (Feb. 23). One example Shaw cites is the San Antonio Express-News, whose editor Robert Rivard wrote that “In the wake of September 11, we have learned once again that religion and faith can be powerful forces of conflict as well as communion.”
The paper has expanded its coverage to include Islam and other issues involving religions around the world. There is also a continuing growth of educational and research institutions involving religion and the media The Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California recently established an endowed chair in media and religion with a $1.5 million grant from the James L. Knight Foundation.
More ambitious is New York University’s new Center for Religion and the Media. Funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the center will conduct research and run a Website on the interaction of religion, the media and public life.
American seminaries are becoming more religiously pluralistic yet at the same time more tied in with their respective denominations, reports the Christian Century (Feb. 22).
In an interview, Daniel Aleshire of the Association of Theological Schools says that one of the biggest challenges of today’s seminary is the new pluralism they face. “It is easier to educate students for ministry when they all come from and will stay in the same denominations. It is more complex to educate mainline Protestants, black Pentecostals and Unitarians in the same [Masters] of Divinity Program.” Because seminaries are among the last institutions that many mainline denominations control (having closed or deinstutionalized publishing houses, social ministries and colleges), they are being called upon by denominations to participate in committees, provide adult education and offer services that once were shared by other groups.
“As a result, seminaries have more to do on behalf of the denominations, even though they are not as well funded by the denominations,” Aleshire says. He forecasts that the long-range trend of seminaries educating second-career, older students will likely have an effect on ministry in larger churches. The complex functioning of large congregations require pastors with at least a decade or so of experience by mid-career. By the time older graduates can gain that kind of experience, they will be close to retirement age.
Long-standing divisions and controversies in the Church of Christ Scientist is moving the church to the brink of schism judging by a new document issued by dissenters.
The Religion & Ethics Newsweekly Website (Feb. 14) reports that a letter being circulated by Christian Science members called “Matters of Conscience” charges the church with decades worth of alleged abuses, from misusing member money to changing church teachings to find a place in the spirituality marketplace and opening dialogue with mind-body-spirit and other alternative spirituality groups . These issues couldl be church-dividing as the two Christian Science practitioners who wrote the letter were stripped of teaching authority.
The discipline against the two authors has prompted an outcry from a segment of members. Church leaders dismiss the protests, saying they represent resistance by a few to the new approach by the church to engage spiritual seekers with Christian Science teachings. Stephen Simurda, a specialist on Christian Science, says that while there is only a small number of people involved in the Matters of Conscience effort, “there are a large number of people who are very sympathetic with the message that the `Matter of Conscience’ group is putting forth.”
(Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandthics/week624/cover.html)
There has been growing Jewish recognition of evangelical support of Israel and now that acknowledgment is becoming more official and may take new shape in a working coalition between the two groups.
The Baltimore Sun (Feb. 26) reports on a recent national meeting of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs where a call was made for Jewish communities to work with evangelicals on issues of mutual interest. The council’s resolution calls for American Jews to harness the pro-Israel sentiments and activities of evangelicals, such as the October Day of Prayer for Israel, which is a project of the evangelical International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ).
Other issues of mutual concern on which evangelicals and Jews might work include religious accommodation in the workplace, social services and legislation protecting the rights of religious organizations. The endorsement is a sign of American Jews’ concern about increased threats to Israel’s security and tensions over international isolation on the issue, says Hanah Rosenthal.
George Mamo of the IFCJ adds, “I think [the resolution’s] biggest effect is that the communities that just weren’t sure about working with evangelicals now will have a comfort level to reach out to a community that has been reaching out to Israel for a long time.” But the conference also acknowledged that evangelism targeting Jews could damage such a coalition and called “clear and consistent” opposition to the practice.
Christian “rave” and dance parties that combine fellowship, evangelism, entertainment and worship are growing throughout the U.S., reports Charisma magazine (February).
The phenomenon is the evangelical Christian counterpart to the widespread secular rave culture of the 1990s that spread from Europe to the U.S. Though some raves have encouraged the use of drugs, such as ecstasy, they have also generated a strong sense of belonging and experiential spirituality — something Christian raves are attempting to tap into, writes Sandra Chambers.
Christian dance parties with names like the Palace Cincinnati, Club Worship (Reading, Penn.) and Fusion (Jacksonville, Fla.) are run along the lines of secular raves, though the music’s lyrics are Christian and testimonies of salvation may be heard. The organizers for these Christian raves say that most attending are not Christians and like the “pure and clean” approach of these gatherings.
As with Christian rap and other new forms of music, the Christian rave phenomenon is drawing criticism from pastors and parents given its secular and hedonistic origin. But others are predicting that Christian dance music will follow in a similar trajectory as Christian rock and find acceptance in the churches.
(Charisma, 600 Rhinehart Rd., Lake Mary, FL 32746)
A faith-based approach to AIDS prevention is gradually making itself felt in the politics and programs involved in the fight against the disease in Africa.
Even before President George Bush made the fight against AIDS in Africa a national priority during his state of the union address in January, the issue had taken hold among religious groups. The Christian Century (Feb. 22) reports that American evangelicals have particularly taken to the AIDS relief cause because of their ties to mission work in Africa. In fact, it was at the urging of evangelical Wheaton College, through its alumnus and Bush speech writer Michael Gerson, that Bush put the spotlight on the African AIDS issue in his speech calling for $15 billion in aid over the next five years.
The abstinence-based approach to sex education and AIDS prevention that evangelicals have championed in the U.S. is particularly likely to gain a greater hearing throughout Africa, reports the National Review (Feb. 10). Rod Dreher writes that without much international assistance African nations such as Uganda, Zambia and Senegal had dramatically lowered the AIDS infection rate in the 1990s through home-grown prevention programs that stressed sexual abstinence (although in many cases also allowing for condom use).
Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni invited Christian and Muslim clergymen and other community groups to be an integral part of his prevention program, asking them to “preach even more forthrightly to Ugandans about the need to abstain from premarital sex and be faithful to their partners.” The international drive for prevention through condom use did not take off until the mid-1990s — well after the prevalence of HIV had begun to decline in these countries. The AIDS and medical establishment has, until recently, ignored these African programs, sometimes even viewing religious faith as an impediment to prevention and treatment (as is the case when AIDS was initially stigmatized by some religious groups as being a sign of God’s punishment).
But with the African AIDS crisis worsening in sub-Saharan Africa, secular researchers are confirming the value of these local programs along with the use of condoms, particularly as demonstrated by the Ugandan case. Officials open to these ideas and programs “have taken charge of significant public-health agencies,” writes Dreher. The Bush administration and USAID are openly embracing what is called the “A.B.C. strategy” (Abstain, Be faithful to your partner or use a Condom).
Some fear that the Bush administration may emphasize abstinence to the exclusion of condoms, instead of taking the more balanced approach suggested by the data. Ray Martin, formerly of USAID, is trying to build bridges between church organizations in the West and various governments on the issue. “Churches have powerful tools that really can do something about the problem. Early on in the epidemic, a lot of churches were interested, but didn’t want to get involved in pushing condoms.
USAID said if you won’t distribute condoms, we can’t give you money. Well, ideally I’d like the churches to include condoms too, but if their theology or morality won’t permit that, for God’s sake let them do what they’re willing and able to do.”
(Christian Century, 407 S. Dearborn, Chicago, IL 60605)