ReligionWatch Archives

For ReligionWatch archives prior to February 2016, CLICK HERE or please contact Richard Cimino at

The uncertain fate of civil religion in the Trump era

Does American civil religion, a shared, generic faith based upon belief in America as an exceptional nation and marked by national symbols and rituals, have a future? Judging by reporting on the recent death and burial of evangelist Billy Graham, it seems that the idea of civil religion is alive and well. In the Religion News Service feature “The ’Splainer,” (February 28), Kimberly Winston writes that the rituals surrounding Graham’s death, such as having his body “lie in honor” in the nation’s Capitol, the first religious figure to do so, are “part of the American civil religion that can unite us all.” But according to scholars speaking at a recent Fordham University conference in New York attended by RW, growing religious illiteracy as well as the more nationalistic policies and themes of the Trump administration spell more of a death knell for this political religion. Proponents of civil or public religion, such as the sociologist Robert Bellah and Martin Luther King, Jr., viewed such a non-denominational faith as a basis of moral judgement that could be espoused independently of specific religions. But the speakers at the February conference viewed civil religion as either dissipating or shifting to more secular grounds.

John Carlson of Arizona State University said that the stress on pluralism and consensus in American civil religion may be giving way to greater “tribalism.” He pointed to the recent change of motto on presidential coins from e pluribus unum to “Make America Great Again.” Kathleen Flake of the University of Virginia said that while civil religion provided a way for the “nation to judge itself beyond itself,” today there is little sense of the common good and how it is defined with religious values. “Schools are no longer teaching it…even my graduate students show little basic knowledge of the Bible,” Flake said. Most of the participants cited the weakening of mainline Protestantism as serving to empty American civil religion of its religious contents. Mark Silk of Trinity College of Hartford, CT, argued that “[w]e don’t need theism to appeal to a civil religion based on patriotism.”

Buddhist movements feeling pressure over sexual abuse cases

Following the crisis around Sogyal Rinpoche, the leader of the Buddhist group Rigpa International who had to retire in August 2017 after being confronted with massive allegations of abuse, and the impact of the #MeToo movement, another Buddhist group, Shambhala International, has admitted to several abuse cases. The group recently announced that “There have been […]

Biomedical research buttresses and changes Buddhism

Buddhism has been the focus of recent biomedical and neurological research suggesting that the practice of meditation is psychologically and physically healthy, but Buddhist organizations have also been both changed and challenged by these insights, writes Jeff Wilson in the journal Zygon (March). Wilson finds that few Buddhist groups have discounted the findings about the […]

Orthodox Churches in need of a multilateral institution

The close association between contemporary Orthodox Churches and nation-states has often been highlighted by Orthodox scholars, but Rev. Nicolas Kazarian, an Orthodox priest as well as academic expert in the field of religion and geopolitics, has put the issue in a new light by drawing attention to a crisis for multilateralism in contemporary Orthodoxy. In […]

Current Research – March 2018

In a new study, researchers find that Republicans who view God as actively involved in the world tend to support more generous welfare policies, in opposition to their party’s platform. The study, conducted by Paul Froese and Robert Thomson and published in the journal Sociological Forum (online January 30), is based on an analysis of […]

Hillsong Church-a model for Catholics too?

As a contemporary Pentecostal church, Hillsong (launched in Sydney in 1983) has gained international fame, especially through its music, and it seems to have become a source of inspiration for some European Catholics eager to revitalize their church as well. In France, according to an article by Youna Rivallain in the French Catholic weekly La […]

Hong Kong connection to mainland China’s Christians threatened but not likely cut

Hong Kong, long a stepping-off point for evangelization and Christian education efforts in China, is becoming a special target of Communist Party efforts to stem the growth of Christianity in the country, Time magazine (March 5) reports. China’s President Xi Jingping has recently kicked off a new effort to bring Christianity under control by instituting […]

Russian Orthodox social ministry embracing lay ethic

The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is shifting from a model of social ministry that emphasizes obedience to church authority to a more modern kind of volunteerism stressing personal autonomy, according to an article by Boris Knorre in the journal Religion, State & Society (online February 13). Knorre studied ROC volunteer programs as well as official […]

Sharia encompassing more of Turkish society

Islamic law is gaining ground in large sectors of Turkish society, reports the Washington Post (February 16). “Over the past few weeks, Turkish officials have broken with decades of precedent in what is still, at least nominally, a secular republic: they have begun describing the country’s military deployment in Syria as ‘jihad.’ During the first […]

Findings & Footnotes – March 2018

Church Planting in Post-Christian Soil (Oxford University Press, $35), by Christopher James, reports from the unlikely ground zero of church planting in the U.S.—Seattle. Although much of the book is a theology and ecclesiology of church planting, it is based on James’ extensive research of new churches in a city known as the epicenter of […]