In This Issue
- On/File: October 2004
- Findings & Footnotes: October 2004
- Religion and politics mingle but not married in Indonesia
- Current Research: October 2004
- Muslim brotherhood in U.S. proves influential and secretive?
- Zoroastrians face new challenges at home and abroad
- Republicans turn to Orthodox Jews
- Renewing of the evangelical mind?
- Grandparents also affected by interfaith marriages
- Democrats’ new religious strategy bearing fruit?
- Kabbalah diversifies, draws international controversy
On/File: October 2004
01: Under editor-in-chief Atoosa Rubenstein, the girls’ magazine Seventeenhas added a faith section that includes inspirational messages, personal stories of spiritual struggle, and testimonials on such issues as prayer and gay teens who attend church.
Verses from the New Testament are printed beside sayings from the Prophet Muhammad. The teachings of Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama are also featured. Rubenstein said she started the section not to spread a religious message but to provide a forum on an issue she believes is important to this generation of girls.
She adds, “I just noticed more and more of our readers were talking about their faith.” Experts on religion and youth trends theorize that teens are rebelling against the broad, undefined spirituality of their baby-boomer parents and are seeking environments – like those in church – with clearer rules that help them cope with everyday life.
A year ago, Rubenstein took over at Seventeen with a mandate to revamp the publication, and she revived the religion idea. For guidance, she formed an interfaith advisory board that includes an evangelical preacher, a priest from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, a Reform rabbi, a Buddhist teacher, an Episcopal youth minister and two Muslims.
(Source: Los Angeles Times, Sept. 6.)
02: Let Freedom Ring is an independent expenditure group seeking to politically activate evangelicals for George Bush by election time Independent expediter groups, known as 527 groups after the IRS code, have become controversial fixtures of the presidential campaigns thanks to such efforts as the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth and MoveOn.org.
But Let Freedom Ring has eschewed a negative approach as it reaches out to people of faith to tout the record of George W. Bush, particularly focusing on the swing states. The group’s other projects include voter registration, e-mail campaigns, commercials, and a film on the faith of President Bush. The group was launched with the seed money of Dr. Jack Templeton, a retired pediatrician and son of the philanthopist John Templeton. The group is planning to raise between $5 million and $10 million to finance its projects.
(Source: Wall Street Journal, Sept. 25)
03: The Ekklesia Project represents an effort by mainline Protestant academics and clergy to form intentional communities in their congregations that stress spiritual disciplines and non-violence.
Started by Duke University ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, the project evolved from a declaration issued in 1999 that called for churches to maintain their loyalty to the Gospel in a society based on consumerism and violence. The declaration, which now has drawn 1,000 signers, pledged participants to cultivate specific spiritual practices, such as regular prayer and Friday fasting “as a form of prayerful resistance to the idolatrous practices of our culture.”
The project maintains a website (http://www.ekklesiaproject.org) and issues booklets on spiritual practices and is starting a popular and scholarly book series.
The EP has also started an intentional community of students at three Chicago seminaries, aiming to demonstrate the connection between theology and real life. Churches can now work with scholar-pastor teams from the project to implement some of its programs. Critics claim that the project — and Hauerwas’ writings in general — sidetracks Christians from social justice with the concern for the integrity and practices of the religious community, though EP supporters say social action and peacemaking, such as opposition to the Iraq war, flows from such community involvement.
(Source: Christian Century, Sept. 7.)
04: Hellenic Reconstructionism is a increasingly popular form of paganism, particularly among academics.
The loosely defined movement seeks to reconstruct and propogate Greek paganism. Books describing ancient Greek rituals, religious practices and hymns to the gods are crucial to modern practitioners’ understanding of their religion. “One cannot be a pious Hellenist without knowing and understanding what piety meant to the ancient Greeks,” says one devotee. No one knows how many Hellenic reconstructionists there are, but scholars agree they are a tiny slice of the estimated 400,000 neo-pagans in the United States. Many have classics backgrounds and recommend books to each other.
Because their numbers are small and scattered, the Internet is their main channel of communication, with the various web sites carrying reading lists of recommended books. These reading lists reflect the kaleidoscope of beliefs that makes up the Hellenic reconstructionist community, which has no central religious authority. Most are heavy on scholars, like Carl Kerenyi and Walter Burkert, and the ancients, like Homer and Hesiod. “We tend to look only at scholarly resources because a lot of us have been pretty burned,” by books with more eclectic, New Age approaches,” says one participant. Their numbers may be small, but their impact can be significant
One book was expected to sell 400 copies, but when it appeared on several Hellenic reconstructionists’ reading lists, it reached more than 1,000. The same thing happened with the book Magic in the Ancient World (Harvard University Press, 1997), which has sold a “phenomenal” number of copies. Publishers suspect that such titles must be getting purchased by people with other than scholarly interests.
(Source: Religion Bookline, Sept. 14)
Findings & Footnotes: October 2004
01: Alta Mira Press, in association with the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, has recently issued Mountain West: Sacred Landscapes In Transition ($19.95), as part of its series on religion by region.
The book, edited by Jan Shipps and Mark Silk, reveals how the American West is actually three sub-regions in its religious dynamics: the Catholic Southwest, the Mormon areas of Utah and Idaho, and the more pluralistic, and significantly unchurched, states of Colorado, Montana and Wyoming. Yet all of these sub regions are in transition: the Southwest is showing a loss of Catholic hegemony and new evangelical growth (particularly Arizona), both among Hispanics and Anglos, while Colorado, particularly around Colorado Springs, has seen a similar evangelical upsurge.
Mormonism remains powerful in Utah, but “minority” faiths, such as mainline Protestants, are challenging its political influence, even as Mormons show greater interfaith sensitivity and cooperation. One chapter finds that the great distances found between religious communities and enclaves in the Western region that once made for interfaith tolerance is giving way to more conflict as the population density increases.
02: All The Pope’s Men: The Inside Story Of How The Vatican Really Thinks (Doubleday, $24.95), by respected Vatican reporter John Allen, tries to penetrate beyond the mystique and popular images of the pope and Rome to understand the mindset of the international Catholic leadership. RW readers will especially be interested in Allen’s chapters on the psychology and sociology of the Vatican.
In order to understand the psyche of the Vatican, Allen outlines such expected values as authority, tradition and loyalty as well as less heard ones, such as populism (protecting the faith of the masses from a theological “elite”), cosmopolitanism and realism. The sociological realities come into play through the various layers of influence at work in the Vatican: ecclesial and secular Roman, Italian (evident in the slow bureaucracy and stress on personal connections) and the European (as seen in the liberal Vatican tilt on many foreign affairs issues). Other chapters deal with Vatican theology, the sex abuse crisis and the Iraq war).
Religion and politics mingle but not married in Indonesia
In recent years, there have been in recent years indicators of a growing religiosity in Indonesia across all religious groups, as well as forecasts that the country will become more Islamic.
But such trends are unlikely to lead to the establishment of an Islamic political system, said Prof. Merle Ricklefs at the inaugural public lecture of the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, which RW attended on Sept. 23. Following the fall of Suharto, Indonesians were looking for political solutions, and this gave the opportunity for radical Muslim organizations to become very visible. But during the past few years, mainstream Muslim organizations have come to see the rise of the radical groups as a challenge and have clearly distanced themselves from them.
Moreover, while there was some sympathy toward anti-American and anti-Western stances, the bomb attacks in Indonesia have provoked a strong reaction from most Indonesians against such groups. Average Indonesians have come to feel threatened both in their personal safety and in their economic interests by such extremism.
There is indeed support for a greater role of Islam in public life, but it would be wrong to equate this with a longing for a sharia-based system: Islam is rather seen as a way to moralize public life and to fight against widespread corruption. But increasingly, people want to distinguish between their religious commitments and their political choices: preachers are respected as religious persons, but are not expected to dictate political behavior to their followers.
Moreover, observed Ricklefs, there are wider changes currently taking place within Indonesian Islam: for instance, there is currently a Sufi revival, but it is taking place outside the traditional Sufi brotherhoods.
Current Research: October 2004
01: Morale among American Catholic priests remains fairly high, although their trust in church leadership has been shaken in the aftermath of the sex abuse crisis, according to a recent survey.
The survey was conducted by Stephen J. Rossetti of the St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, which is a facility treating sex abusers. Rosetti surveyed a total of 834 priests in 11 dioceses last spring (It is not noted if the respondents were randomly selected).
Ninety two percent agreed that they were “happy as a priest,” and 83 percent reported their morale as “good.” But when asked about the morale of other priests, the endorsement rate dropped to 40 percent. Americamagazine (September 13) reports that 53 percent of respondents agreed the crisis negatively affected their view of church leadership, although three quarters said their own relationships with their bishops were good. But only 26 percent agreed that “priests with allegations of abuse are being treated fairly by the church.”
(America, 106 W. 56th St., New York, NY 10019-3803)
02: Europeans and Americans trust teachers, soldiers, police and doctors more than clergy, according to an international survey.
The opinion poll, carried out by the German marketing firm GfK Ad Hoc Research Worldwide, also found that clergy were trusted more than lawyers, journalists, managers and politicians. The German evangelical newsletter Idea (Sept. 14) reports that church leaders enjoyed the best reputation in Denmark, Romania, Finland, the U.S. and the UK. The lowest degree of trust in clergy came from Spain, France, and the Czech Republic.
(Idea, P.O. Box 1820, D-35528 Wetzlar, Germany)
Muslim brotherhood in U.S. proves influential and secretive?
The Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian-based group, has taken a low, sometimes secretive profile in the U.S., but has been instrumental in turning American Islam in a more conservative direction, according to the Chicago Tribune (Sept. 24).
An in-depth article by Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah, Sam Roe and Laurie Cohen reports that the brotherhood has operated in secrecy: as they advocate the creation of Muslim states overseas and, they hope, someday in America as well. The Brotherhood has had a significant and ongoing impact on Islam in America, helping establish mosques, Islamic schools, summer youth camps and prominent Muslim organizations.
It is a major factor, Islamic scholars say, in why many Muslim institutions in the nation have become more conservative in recent decades. Many moderate Muslims in America are uncomfortable with the views preached at the many Brotherhood-influenced mosques. One document tells leaders to be cautious in revealing the identity of the Brotherhood when screening for potential recruits.
Leaders would scout mosques, Islamic classes and Muslim organizations for those with orthodox religious beliefs, usually young professionals, consistent with Brotherhood views, according to one booklet published by the group. The leaders then would invite them to join a small prayer group, or usra, Arabic for “family.”
Some have wanted the Brotherhood, which has recently operated under the name Muslim American Society (MAS), to remain underground, while leaders have pushed for more openness. But U.S. members have remained guarded about their identity and beliefs because of their support for Hamas [although no terrorism charges have been made against the group.]
It has headquarters in Alexandria, Va., and 53 chapters nationwide, MAS says it has about 10,000 members and that any Muslim can join by paying $10 a month in dues. But to be an “active” member — the highest membership class — one must complete five years of Muslim community service and education, which includes studying the writings by Brotherhood militants, such as Sayeed Qutb.
American leaders say MAS does not focus on making the U.S. Islamic and is independent of the Egyptian leadership, welcoming a diversity of Muslims. The Chicago chapter’s web site includes reading materials that say Muslims have a duty to help form Islamic governments worldwide and should be prepared to take up arms to do so. The site adds that Western secularism and materialism are evil and that Muslims should “pursue this evil force to its own lands” and “invade its Western heartland.”
Zoroastrians face new challenges at home and abroad
If they do not produce more children, Zoroastrian Parsis may be heading for slow extinction, officials warned after releasing the results of India’s religious census. Indo-Asian News Service reported on Sept. 7 that there were 69,601 Parsis in India (33,949 males and 35,652 females), nearly 7,000 less than 10 years earlier.
The death rate has overtaken the birth rate; there are more old than young members of this affluent, well-educated, largely endogamous community of Persian origin, which settled in India from the 8th century and is predominantly concentrated in the area of Mumbai (Bombay). Challenges to the future of Zoroastrianism were also discussed at meetings and workshops organized by Zoroastrians at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona last July, which RW attended.
Beside the Parsis in India, there are an estimated number of 40,000 to 60,000 Zoroastrians in Iran, although it is difficult to get accurate figures: some suggest the number or Iranian Zoroastrians might be as low as 28,000, while governmental statistics offer figures as high as 93,000.
Another important factor is the growing Zoroastrian presence in the diaspora. There are reported to be 18,000 to 20,000 Zoroastrians living in North America, and smaller numbers in other places around the globe. This has led to adjustments within some of the diaspora communities, especially on the American continent, which can create tensions in the fold, since not everybody agrees about how far these adaptations can go. For instance, since bodies cannot be left to be eaten by birds of prey in the West (as is done in the famous “towers of silence” in India), this means that a number of Zoroastrians in the West come to accept cremation or burial, although this contradicts theological tenets.
There are now also assistant priests in North America who are permitted to perform simple rituals, although this is not accepted by other, more conservative Zoroastrian communities. In addition, modern life has challenged the traditional Zoroastrian practice of marrying only within the community. All of this means that both demographic challenges and new circumstances have been introducing a number of changes and developments within the community, but they also give rise to internal tensions, since more conservative members are extremely reluctant to accept some of the innovations.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer
Republicans turn to Orthodox Jews
Although the Jewish vote for the Republican Party has been slipping, the campaign to reelect George Bush is finding a new source of support from Orthodox Jews. Recent surveys have shown Jews supporting John Kerry by a wide margin [see September RW], but The New Republic (Sept. 13) reports that the Orthodox Jewish factor may be important for Bush in swing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida.
Noam Scheiber writes that Orthodox Jews are naturally more comfortable with Republican positions on such issues as gay rights, abortion, school choice and faith-based initiatives, as well as Bush’s strong support for Israel.
The numbers of such voters “aren’t trivial. Estimates for south Florida’s Orthodox Jewish population exceed 50,000 (out of approximately 750,000 Jews in the state). The Cleveland area boasts several thousand Orthodox Jews. Philadelphia and Detroit have large Orthodox populations of their own.”
Bush could easily win more than 50 percent of the vote from this group, improving his support from 2000 when an estimated 60 percent of Orthodox Jews voted for Gore. That hope is behind the new Republican strategy of working closely with key Orthodox rabbis in the various communities. Also important for the Republican vote are the thousands of Orthodox who live in Israel but are still voting citizens in the U.S.
Renewing of the evangelical mind?
Ten years ago, evangelical historian Mark Noll attracted wide attention with a stinging critique on the lack of evangelical intellectual accomplishment. While there has not been dramatic improvement, today evangelicals have made significant strides toward increasing their intellectual caliber, writes Noll in First Things magazine (October).
Noll’ s 1994 book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, took evangelicals to task for their stress on immediate results and simple solutions over quality and depth. He also criticized the evangelicals’ tendency to Americanize the gospel, usually tilting to the right, and their apocalyptic, end-times fascination–traits that continue today.
But he also finds a new source of change in evangelicals’ deepening engagement with Catholics. Through the programs based at Notre Dame University, such as the Pew Program in Christian Scholarship, evangelicals have been brought together with Catholics for common projects and learning. The development and recognition of Christian philosophy as a serious discipline is another source of evangelical intellectual vigor.
The attempt to create a comprehensive and elite evangelical university at Baylor in Texas and Calvin College, as well as the new emphasis on scholarship at smaller Christian colleges will be especially important for the evangelical intellectual future, Noll adds.
Meanwhile a crop of free-standing evangelical institutes and centers have emerged around secular universities, perhaps moving to the British and Canadian pattern of having identifiably Christian units embedded in the broader university. Noll also cites new evangelical-science interchanges and the impact of such publications as Books & Culture and First Things on the evangelical mind. Noll stresses that all of these resources and innovations are providing new networks for once-isolated Christian scholars and students.
(First Things, 156 Fifth Ave., Suite 400, New York, NY 10010)
Grandparents also affected by interfaith marriages
The changes in religion affiliation and upbringing experienced among the children of interfaith marriages are also impacting their grandparents, reports Time magazine (Sept. 27).
With estimates of about 28 million adults, 22 percent of the U.S. population, living in mixed-religion households, many of those who are parents end up choosing one religion for their children. “While many synagogues and churches have focused their efforts on welcoming young interfaith couples and providing strategies for raising a family…grandparent issues are often shunted aside,” writes Sally S. Stich. Grandparents often feel a strong sense of loss and confusion when finding their grandchildren are being raised in a different religion than the one in which they raised their own children, sometimes resulting in family tensions and conflicts.
To address this growing concern, several nonprofit organizations have cropped up offering guidance and advice specifically tailored to grandparents. For instance, the non-denominational Dovetail Institute (at the site: http://www.dovetailinstitute.com), is devoted to grandparents’ issues in interfaith families. Aside from a sense of loss, sometimes resentment is expressed by grandparents toward their children’s spouse or the other set of grandparents for their influence in the change of faith.
These groups and seminars tend to stress that family unity and loving relationships will have to trump religious beliefs.
Democrats’ new religious strategy bearing fruit?
In the months leading up to and following the Democratic convention, Democrats have taken up the language of faith and are using it to counter the religious fervor of George Bush and the Republicans, writes Amy Sullivan in Commonweal magazine (Sept. 10).
Surveys and other reports have suggested that the Republican Party and has captured the evangelicals and other conservative believers and that the Democrats and John Kerry have been skittish about speaking of religion and matters of faith [see July RW].
Sullivan argues that the use of religious rhetoric “premiered in Boston [at the convention] and has been road tested in battleground states since.” Illinois state senator Barack Obama started the trend off, declaring to the convention, “We worship an awesome God in the blue states.” Then Kerry said that in his campaign “we welcome people of faith.”
What Kerry and his advisors appear to have “learned over the summer is that it is possible to criticize how others use religion without criticizing religion in general, that a candidate need not remain silent about his own faith in order to speak out against how others turn theirs into political tools,” Sullivan writes. She cites the influence of Hillary Clinton, who has held closed-door meetings with her Senate colleagues about the importance of reclaiming concepts like “values” and “morality” from conservatives.
Such groups as the liberal Center for American Progress and the Democratic Leadership Council are cited for paying special attention to religion, with the latter offering special workshops “teaching politicians how to talk about religion in a way that is inclusive, not defensive. Lastly, the Democratic presidential campaign is reaching out to people of all faiths rather than just assigning one staff member to talk to black churches.
(Commonweal, 475 Riverside Dr., Rm. 405, New York, NY 10115)
Kabbalah diversifies, draws international controversy
The recent visit of singer Madonna to Israel for a Kabbalah conference has highlighted the wide-reach and popularity of the L.A. based Kabbalah Center, which is now reported to operate 50 centers worldwide.
Orthodox Jews are not pleased with this success and regularly denounce the center, founded in the 1970s by Rabbi Yehuda Berg and numbering several celebrity devotees beside Madonna, as “just a cult” rather than authentic Jewish mysticism, reports the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (Sept. 26).
The recent initiative of the Kabbalah Center to launch an after school Kabbalah program for elementary school children has generated renewed criticism, since the Kabbalah is traditionally understood by Jews as being only suited for well-learned Torah scholars. In contrast, the Kabbalah Center promotes it as a tool for self-improvement. Another issue for concern is the spread of the movement in Britain, where it is said to be growing quickly, although Orthodox Jews suggest it is just a fad which will soon pass away. In Israel itself, the Kabbalah Center is not widely popular.
But there are similar trends for people other than elite students of the Torah to study the mystic tradition and the “secrets of the inner Torah,” Matti Friedman writes in the October 4 issue of the news magazineJerusalem Report. Those range from ultra-Orthodox to neo-hippie or popular devotional practices, as evidenced by visits to four different Kabbalah-oriented groups around the country.
For instance, the Galile community “Or Haganuz” (“the hidden light”) attracts primarily people of a secular background who have found their way to ultra-Orthodoxy through the kabbalistic teachings of a Jerusalem scholar. In contrast, the commune of “Hamakom” (“the place”), located in the Judean desert, attracts a typical audience of seekers, attracted by the study of the Kabbalah outside the strictures of Orthodoxy and aspiring to create an interreligious peace village where participants will tap into the mystic traditions of their own religions.
There is no doubt that the Kabbalah’s attraction is possibly stronger than ever, but its interpretations are many and sometimes now even go beyond the borders of Judaism.
— By Jean-François Mayer, RW Contributing Editor and founder of the website Religioscope (http://www.religion.info)
(The Jerusalem Report, PO Box 1805, Jerusalem 91017, Israel; www.jrep.com)