In This Issue
- On/File: November 2002
- Findings & Footnotes: November 2002
- Indian anti-conversion bill intensifies interfaith conflict
- Jehovah’s witnesses face repression in Georgia
- Saddam creating united front of Muslims
- Christianity clashes with radical Islam in Indonesia
- Evangelical influence grows but not decisive in Brazil’s elections
- Current Research: November 2002
- Younger Catholic theologians more conservative
- Conservative activism emerges over priest sex abuse scandal
- Greek Orthodoxy drawing converts
- Fundamentalists fall out over separatism
- Marching for an atheist identity and politics
01: Chevrolet’s sponsorship of an evangelical Christian concert and preaching tour is a relatively novel approach of funding Christian ministries.
The sponsorship has also raised controversy, with critics charging that the corporation’s support constitutes an endorsement of one religion over others. The 16-city Come Together and Worship Tour, which began Nov. 1 in Atlanta and winds up Nov. 23 in Auburn Hills, Mich. features music by contemporary Christian music artists Third Day and Michael W. Smith, as well as preaching (or what Chevy calls “speaking”) by Texas pastor and best-selling inspirational author Max Lucado.
(Source: Religion Bookline, Oct. 29)
02: The Global Renaissance Alliance is an interfaith group that seeks to bring a synthesis of New Age and other alternative spiritualities to inform social activism. The group, organized by alternative spirituality leaders Neale Donald Walsch and Marianne Williamson, describes itself as a “citizen-based network of spiritual activists [whose] mission is to make a stand in our local and national communities for the role of spiritual principle in solving the problems of the world.”
The alliance organizes peace circles where people gather to pray and envision world peace and cooperation. Other alternative spirituality leaders involved in the alliance include Barbara Marx Hubbard, Gary Zukav, James Redfield, and Deepak Chopra.
(Source: The Banner, Fall; GRA’s web address is: http://www.renaissancealliance.org)
01: If it wasn’t so expensive ($385), one could predict that most RW subscribers would want to buy the newly published Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices (ABC-CLIO), edited by J. Gordon Melton and Martin Baumann.
There is no other work currently on the market as these four volumes (totaling more than 1,500 pages). Melton is known as the author of the famous Encyclopedia of American Religions but this new encyclopedia is something far different. In a time of globalization, its scope is the entire world. Especially for this reviewer, writing from Europe, the editors should be commended for their consistency in providing information (including current statistical data on religious affiliation) for every country and territory around the world.
No doubt the cooperation of David Barrett, editor of the impressive Encyclopedia of World Christianity, contributed to the breath of this project. However, many of its entries on countries and territories are original contributions written by some of the 200 authors associated with the project.
From Bhutan to Nigeria, from Norway to Haiti, one will find reliable information on the religious situation in 240 nations and territories. There are also entries about a wide variety of religious groups — well-known or lesser-known ones — around the world. It is amazing to find under one same cover entries written by scholars in clear language about the Austrian Buddhist Association, the Order of the Cherubim and Seraphim and the Methodist Church of Cuba.
It would be an impossible task to cover every religious group around the world, but several hundreds of them are described. In addition, core essays provide general background on several religious traditions. What makes this work distinctive is its focus not on concepts and ideas (as most encyclopedias on religion do), but on religious organizations.
— Reviewed By Jean-François Mayer
On Oct. 31, the 234-member Tamil Nadu assembly in South India approved a controversial bill banning forced religious conversions.
The new law imposes penalties of up to three years in prison for converting someone by force or inducement.There have been heated debates during the entire month of October about the decision taken by the authorities in Tamil Nadu. Predictably, Hindu nationalists praised the measure, while Christian, Muslim and Buddhist — as well as Dalit — activists protested against it. 6,000 schools run by Christians and Muslims in the Southern State closed in protest during a day.
Of course, nobody claims that forcible conversions should be accepted. But, notwithstanding its name, the new law also targets the use of “allurements” to convert (material benefits, monetary or otherwise), and Christians are afraid that free education and health care could become interpreted as such. Conversions will also have to be reported to district magistrates.
According to the Shankaracharya of Kanchi, one of the highest authorities in Hinduism, there is nothing shocking in such a rule, since even marriages have to be registered. Indeed, The Hindu (Nov. 1) reports that Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s arguments in the course of the three-hour debate were against conversion itself. According to her, “conversions create resentment and also inflame religious passions, leading to communal clashes.”
Hindu militants claim that poverty more than faith drives people to convert. Widely-publicized cases of conversion have angered some sections of the population: for instance, reports the French Catholic newsletter Eglises d’Asie (Oct. 16), the conversion of 250 low-caste rural people to Seventh-Day Adventism last August. Cases of conversions to Buddhism or Islam are also not uncommon, although they don’t change the statistical balance between religions in the second most populated country of the world
A report from the evangelical news agency Compass Direct (Oct. 11) suggests that this kind of conflict is not confined to India. Money raised by Hindu organizations in Western countries is being used to fund the anti-proselytizing effort and other aggressive actions against other minorities in India, according to the news service. Non-profit organizations associated with Hindu nationalist organizations collected nearly one million pounds in the past year from subsidiaries in the United Kingdom.
In 1999, the India Income Tax Department revealed that funding from the United States reached $62.5 million dollars. A 1998 letter written by Sitaram Agarwal, secretary of the World Hindu Council (VHP), states that his organization “needs money and lots of it to carry out shuddhi (cleansing) and seva (service) and dharam prasar (proselytizing)” among lower caste Indians. India’s secular Congress Party has alleged that the VHP is guilty of misuse of funds it receives in the name of charity and has demanded an inquiry.
(Eglises d’Asie, 128 rue du Bac, 75341 Paris Cedex 07, France; http://www.compassdirect.org)
— By Jean-François Mayer with a contribution by the editor
Throughout the former Soviet Union, opposition has emerged against “nontraditional” religions. But Georgia is the only country in Eurasia where officially-condoned, organized mob violence against adherents of nontraditional faiths has developed as a continuing problem — and the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been the primary target of that campaign, reports Michael Ochs, staff advisor at the Helsinki Commission at the US Congress.
Writing in the September issue of Religion, State & Society, Ochs notes that such repression had already appeared during the communist period: a small congregation had been formed in 1969.
In late 2001, the number of members had reached around 15,000. Mob violence begun around 1998, when a defrocked Orthodox priest, Basil Mkalavishvili launched assaults on them. At the same time, parliamentarians undertook to raise the issue of religious purity. Whatever the fate of Mkalavishvili, observes Ochs, “he has already established an ominous legacy” and others are following in his footsteps.
Not everybody in Georgia approves of persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The issue seems to be sometimes used in the context of competition between different political groups. Of special concern is the fact that authorities and law-enforcement agencies not infrequently seem to sympathize with the attackers. While there are many other pressing issues in Georgia, the question of Jehovah’s Witnesses should not be seen as a minor one: the way Georgia addresses the problem will demonstrate if there are prospects for creating a rule-of-law.
Once again, as it happened already in other contexts in the past, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and treatment of them can be seen as indicators of wider developments in a society and its ability to accommodate pluralism — religious and otherwise.
(Religion, State & Society, Keston Institute, 38 St Aldates, Oxford, OX1 1BN, UK)
— By Jean-Francois Mayer
As rumors of war heat up, Saddam Hussein has intensified the public and unifying role of Islam in Iraq, reports the Toronto Star (Oct. 13).
Since the Gulf war of over a decade ago, Hussein has sought to build ties to the different Muslim groups and unify the country under a single, and loyal Islam, drastically challenging the secular socialist nature of his Baath Party rule. The country has long been divided between its Shiite majority (representing 60 percent of the population) and the ruling Sunni minority of Hussein, but it seems clear that he is attempting to create a united front against enemies, particularly the U.S.
Since the mid-1990s religious high schools, or madrassas, have flourished under Hussein’s “back to religion” campaign, and little distinction is made between Shiite and Sunni students. The same tolerance extends to intermarriage between Shiite and Sunnis. But some Shia still resent the Sunnis and Sadaam after the Iraq-Iran war and fear that the religious unity campaign may be an attempt to stamp out their religion and reinforce a Sunni dictatorship, reports Olivia Ward.
Helping to drive Saddam’s campaign is a fear of Islamic radicalism (from Saudia Arabia, for instance) destabilizing the government. But under the religious campaign, alcohol and gambling have been severely restricted and women are increasingly wearing the veil.
While the recent attack in Bali has put Indonesia and its extremist Muslim groups in the spotlight, there are also increasing instances of Christian-Muslim clashes in some areas and attacks against Christian churches around the country.
Christians — Catholics and Protestants all taken together — make up about 10 percent of the Indonesian population. In an interview with RW, Andrée Feillard, a French scholar who has been studying religion in Indonesia for the past 30 years, said that radical Islam begun to develop in Indonesia in the 1970s. but the trend intensified following the fall of President Suharto in 1998.
But the roots of Christian-Muslim tensions have a longer history and do not only relate to religious issues. During the 1990s, there was trend toward Islamicization, for instance in the civil service. While the expectation that Muslims should make a majority of the civil servants was perfectly acceptable in those overwhlemingly Muslim areas, it created feelings of marginalization among Christians in religiously mixed areas. In the Moluccan Islands (Maluku), the immigration of Muslims from other parts of the country also created resentment among Christians.
On the Muslim side, there is a fear of Christianity spreading, especially in Java. Christian social aid is understood as a proselytization tool. Locally, churches of a Pentecostal type are the most irritating to Muslim militants — and indeed, more Protestant than Catholic churches have apparently been burnt down. However, in ideological discourse, Roman Catholicism is perceived as the principal threat, since Catholicism is supposed to be stronger due to its unity.
The incidents and growing hostility of the past few years have often made interreligioius dialogue at a local level much more difficult. But, according to Feillard, at the top level, Muslim and Christian religious elites have intensified their contacts: they are acutely aware that a worsening of the situation and increasing clashes between Christians and Muslims could become a major threat to democracy in the country.
— By Jean-François Mayer
On Oct. 27, Brazil elected a leftist president, Luiz Inacio da Silva, widely known as Lula, but there were few signs that the growing number of evangelicals in the country formed a voting bloc either for or against the candidate.
He garnered 61 percent of the votes, while the candidate of the ruling coalition, Jose Serra, received only 39 percent. In the weeks before the presidential elections, several newspapers around the world paid attention to the growing political influence of evangelicals in Brazil, since they now make up17 percent of the Brazilian electorate and have a lobby in Congress. As the Christian Science Monitor (Oct. 25) observed, both candidates actively courted evangelical leaders for endorsement.
The French newspaper Libération (Oct. 23) reported that the powerful Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (IURD), a Brazilian-born movement with an international presence, allowed its members to vote for Lula, whereas it had opposed him strongly in previous times.
Several evangelical groups supported Lula in the second round of elections, while many had supported Anthony Garotinho (Presbyterian) in the first round (he arrived in third position).
In an interview with RW, Paul Freston, a sociologist teaching in Brazil and a leading expert on evangelicals and politics worldwide, suggested caution in evaluating the evangelical vote. Evangelicals “obviously do not all vote the same way, so there is no way they could have made the difference in the result this time.”
According to polls taken in the first round, explains Freston, 37 percent of evangelicals voted for Garotinho (against a national average 17 percent) and 31 percent for Lula (national average 41 percent). In the second round, both wings of the Assemblies of God and the Church of the Foursquare Gospel announced their support for Serra (although the main wing of the Assemblies was split over the decision). “But virtually all other church leaders who declared their preference were for Lula” (from the historical churches to the neo-pentecostal ones) — some probably motivated by the desire to be on the right side of the likely winner.
There is no doubt that evangelical political influence is growing in Brazil; there are almost 60 evangelicals in Congress, and they may indeed make the difference on issues on which there is a wide consensus among them (e.g. opposition to abortion or to homosexual unions). On other topics or in electoral competitions, however, evangelicals won’t necessarily make a united front.
— By Jean-François Mayer, RW contributing editor who heads his own Website at: http://www.religioscope,com
01: A five percent drop among U.S. Jews since 1990 is the first significant decline in over a century, reports the Washington Post (Oct. 9).
Last month RW reported on a poll using a broad definition of Jewish identity and claiming that the number of Jewish connected Americans may be expanding. The more recent Jewish Population Poll measures “core” identity, meaning those who say their ethnic identity and/or religion is Jewish. The decline from 5.5 million in 1990 to 5.2 million in 2000 is said to be the biggest Jewish population drop since 1800.
Sociologists say the primary cause for the decline is more Jewish couples delaying child-bearing until their mid-thirties after they have established themselves in a career. On the upside, this finding reflects the high level of education and affluence among Jews, says Stephen Hoffman of the United Jewish Communities, which conducted the poll of more than 4,500 Jews.
02: Students attending private religious high schools are more likely to cheat on exams than those who attend other schools, a recent survey reports.
The survey, called “Report Card 2002: The Ethics of American Youth,” conducted by the Josephson Institute for Ethics, found that 78 percent of students attending religious high schools admitted they had cheated at least once on exams in the past year, compared to 72 percent of students at other schools. A Religion News Service-based article in Christian News (Oct. 28) cites the study as finding that religious ties seemed to have little influence on students lying to authority figures.
Ninety-five percent of students attending religious schools said they had lied to a parent at least once in the past year (86 percent to a teacher), compared to 93 percent of high schoolers overall (81 percent to a teacher) and 93 percent of students who said they had strong religious convictions. But students from religious schools and those with strong religious convictions were somewhat less likely to say they had shoplifted items from a store in the past year.
Catholic theology is facing a new challenge as young theologians are often more conservative and are often bewildered about the polarization in the church today, writes Thomas P. Rausch.
In America magazine (Oct. 14), Rausch writes that young academics in Catholic universities and seminaries are at odds with older theologians on matters of feminism, religious pluralism and adherence to other Catholic teachings. In contrast to the older faculty members who think the myriad of liberation theologies (feminist, Asian, African) are the way forward, younger theologians have taken up various schools of “ressourcement” or going back to the sources of the faith, such as “radical orthodoxy,” which seeks to engage postmodern thought. [A similar split between conservative seminarians and younger priests and the more liberal baby boom and older generations has been documented.]
Also evident among the young theologians are the “new apologists,” made up of such conservative Catholics as Karl Keating, Patrick Madrid, Scott Hahn and Mark Shea. These theologians stress evangelization, through “proving” the faith by rational and biblical argument to younger generations who are largely illiterate in Catholicism.
Rausch writes that the younger generation is often dismissed as backward by the older generation of theologians, but he thinks their conservatism may “actually represent a search for coherence and community” in the fragmented world of Catholic theology.
(America, 106 W. 56th St., New York, NY 10019-3803)
The priest sex abuse crisis is turning out to be as much an impetus for conservative activism as for liberal protests and challenges to the church structure. The Washington Post (Oct. 13) reports that when the scandal broke last January with allegations of sex abuse cases and cover-up in the Boston Archdiocese “liberal groups were the first to organize and to speak out.
Now the opposing traditionalist camp is making itself heard — not only in the United States but also in Rome.” The policy of “zero tolerance” recently adopted by the U.S. bishops set the backlash in motion, with parishioners organizing to prevent the sudden removal of priests from parishes over allegations that are often decades old.
Such activism has been vindicated with the recent Vatican decision to change the bishops’ policy to give greater protection of the rights of priests. Across the nation, priest rights groups have formed, such as Voice of the Ordained in New York. A group known as Opus Bono Sacerdotii was founded to help pay the legal expenses of priests accused of sex crimes.
But the formation of groups such as the Massachusetts-based Faithful Voice also stems from the widespread conservative concern that liberal groups are using the scandal to press for innovations in church structure and teachings, such as lay governance of the church and allowing married and women priests. These groups are going on the offensive. They are vocal supporters of an effort to bar gay men from becoming priests; Vatican officials are currently circulating a draft policy to that effect.
It has usually been the less ethnic Eastern Orthodox churches (such as the Orthodox Church in America) rather than Greek churches that have attracted converts, but that situation seems to be changing.
A report in the Los Angeles Times (Oct. 19) notes that Greek churches are gradually opening their doors to non-Greeks. Since the early 1990s, “Introduction to Orthodoxy” courses “increasingly have filled parish halls with everyone from spiritual seekers to newly married, interfaith couples to recent converts from evangelical Protestantism.”
The change is seen at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. Today more than 20 percent of the seminarians are non-Greeks. Admissions director James Katinas says that Orthodox Christian Fellowship groups on campuses have become important sources of support and recruitment across ethnic lines for Holy Cross and other seminaries.
American fundamentalism is facing a growing conflict within its own ranks over its traditional practice of separation from liberal and evangelical churches.
Fundamentalists, as represented by such denominations as the Baptist Bible Fellowship and Bob Jones University, have traditionally stressed that any association with “liberals” and more moderate evangelicals violates biblical teachings. Even such a strongly conservative body as the Southern Baptist Convention (from which most fundamentalist groups have split off) is viewed as influenced by liberalism and theological compromise.
But now three major fundamentalist groups are under attack by fellow fundamentalists over such issues as using contemporary worship and associating with the SBC Baptists. The fundamentalist Sword of the Lord newspaper (Sept. 27) targets the Baptist Bible Fellowship, the Southwide Baptist Fellowship and the World Baptist Fellowship (which amounts to all the prominent Baptist fundamentalist networks or denominations) for “compromising their platforms,” by inviting Southern Baptists to their meetings, including SBC President Jerry Vines, and for allowing contemporary worship in its meetings (which would include the use of contemporary music written by evangelicals and charismatics rather than strictly traditional hymns).
The move of BBF pastor Jerry Falwell into close association with the SBC several years ago was interpreted by some as blurring the lines between evangelicals and fundamentalists. It now appears that Falwell’s move reflects the attitudes of other fundamentalists desiring to leave behind their isolation from other conservative Christians and to reach out to the unchurched through contemporary methods.
The editorial concludes that the “`contemporary’ philosophy weakens everything we hold dear. The [SBC] Convention has a track record of compromise that does not commend itself to us. Our independent, fundamental crowd needs to stay clean and clear of both.”
(Sword of the Lord, P.O. Box 1099, Murfreesboro, TN 37133-1099; http://www.swordofthelord.com)
Alternative rock music and identity politics are not often associated with atheist gatherings. But the Godless March on Washington, attended by RW on Nov. 2, was not the typical atheist event.
The march, the first of its kind and drawing about 2,500 freethinkers, atheists and secular humanists, showed the growing unity between the various non- and anti-theistic groups in the U.S., as well as a concerted effort to form a political base .As speakers and marchers often repeated, the main theme of the march was that atheists could be good citizens deserving of a “place at the table.” Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists and coordinator of the event, told the assembled crowd that after September 11, political leaders “tried to make religion a litmus test of patriotism and wholesomeness.”
The march was frequently compared to the beginnings of the women’s and gay rights movement. As with gay rights activists claiming that homosexuals are 10 percent of the population to press for full inclusion, the atheists cited a recent survey (the religious identification survey by CUNY),. showing that 14 percent of Americans have no religious affiliation. “We’re larger than the Lutherans, the Methodists, and the Pentecostals…but so many of us are in the awful closet. We are your spouses, your children. We run businesses, we serve in the military and we served in recovery after September 11,” Johnson said.
The idea that atheists and secular humanists need to “come out of the closet,” borrowing from the gay rights movement, and to be proud of one’s identity was echoed from other speakers and during interviews with participants. Johnson added that atheists are now taking a page from religious groups as they try to form a “well-oiled political machine” to claim equal rights. She announced the formation of a godless Americans political action committee to bring together the various free-thinking groups and press for strict separation for church and state and for the acceptance of atheist politicians.
The new drive for activism among atheists stems partly from the court case last summer ruling that the phrase “under god” in the Pledge of Allegiance was unconstitutional. In fact, Michael Newdow, who brought the case to court in California, was hailed as a hero at the event as he led the crowd in reciting the new “godless” Pledge of Allegiance. Another issue that has served to activate atheists are the measures to provide government assistance to faith-based welfare organizations.
The call for more atheists to enter political life will likely meet obstacles and there will be many “sacrificial lambs” before one is accepted by American voters (noting that polls still show that many Americans will not vote for an atheist), said Edward Tabash, a lawyer who ran (and lost) in a recent California Senate race.
The march also demonstrated a growing diversity in atheist-free thought ranks, including many young people and women. The music was provided by Overlord, a twenty-something band combining freethought lyrics and alternative rock The youthful representation suggests a sea change from even just 10 years when men well over middle age predominated in secular humanist-atheist ranks, according to Ron Barrier, spokesman for American Atheists..The Internet and new groups such as Campus Freethought Alliance have been instrumental in channeling young people into the movement.
But it remains to be seen if atheism or secular humanism can grow and have much influence beyond its small (most likely far below 14 percent of the population) core following. The marchers took delight in deriding and satirizing religious beliefs. One presentation by comedian “Pastor Deacon Fred” brought down the house with a ribald impersonation of a Baptist preacher that quickly turned to mocking Christ, the Bible and other Christian beliefs.
It ignited enough of an angry reaction among evangelical and fundamentalist protesters that the police had to intervene. Such humor has been a staple of freethinkers (think of Mark Twain and H.L. Menken), and the marchers noted that every belief system, including freethought, should not be exempt from criticism and satire in the “marketplace of ideas.”
But the hard-line atheist tendency to push the envelope on irreverence and deride believers may make it difficult to engage in the coalition-building and cooperation with other Americans of different beliefs necessary for political success. It may be the secular humanists — who stress creating a secular philosophy and lifestyle — in the new freethought alliance who are best able to articulate a positive agenda that might provoke less hostility from religious Americans as well as draw in that 14 percent of the disaffiliated.