Archive for the ‘Features’ Category

Sizing up the impending schism in United Methodism

The United Methodist Church’s (UMC) recent decision at a special session of its General Conference in St. Louis to turn down a proposal that would have allowed congregations to ordain gay clergy and ministers to officiate at same-sex marriages is likely to lead to a schism, with liberals either starting their own body or departing for more congenial networks of like-minded mainline churches—it’s just a question of how much of a schism will take place. In the blog Religion in Public (February 26), political scientist Paul Djupe estimates that the United Methodists stand to lose more members and clergy than did the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in its schism of a decade ago, when conservatives comprising about 10 percent of its membership left the denomination, also over issues of gay rights. Djupe writes that United Methodists may lose double the amount that the ELCA did because the “liberal wing is larger in the UMC than was the conservative side of the ELCA. The liberal wing is also on the side of expanding rights, which is a dominant mode and powerful frame in American political life.” He adds that “churches with younger overall congregations will be more likely to depart. This decision also comes at a time when national ties are frayed as they have not been in a long time, national trust continues at a low point, and people are walking away from traditional ties like never before.”

Djupe speculates that there “is an outside possibility that all of those…United Methodists who are in favor of same sex marriage might depart. That may add up to something more like 40 [percent] of those in favor of same-sex marriage leaving. The total loss in that scenario would reach to something like 2.2 million members lost.” He cites a New York Times report that “pastors and bishops in the United States are already talking about leaving the denomination and possibly creating a new alliance for gay-friendly churches.” Djupe quips that such an organization “already exists, though people more often call it the Episcopal Church. It has some different ways of organizing the denomination and theology, but it’s welcoming even of Lutherans so it’s not far off.”

An article in The Atlantic (February 26) throws some doubt on the prospect of a massive schism, noting that while “the United Methodist Church is often described as a liberal, mainline Protestant denomination, in reality, the body is much more split, even in the United States. In a poll of its American members, the denomination found that 44 percent of respondents described their religious beliefs as traditional or conservative, 28 percent said they are moderate or centrist, and 20 percent identified as progressive or liberal.”

Asian Pacific American conservative Christians mediating in culture war?

Asian Pacific American conservative Christians are playing an important mediating role between liberal and conservative Americans given that they hold views found in both camps and are increasingly engaging in political and civic life, write Joseph Yi and Joe Phillips in the social science magazine Society (online in January). The way in which conservative Asian Pacific Americans (APAs) interact with “both highly-educated progressives and less-educated conservatives…[gives] them a ‘foot in each camp’ when the political system is experiencing unusual polarization.” The authors cite research showing that conservative Christian APAs tend to hold pro-life and anti-gay marriage positions while supporting immigrant rights and anti-nativist positions. They point to the 2018 midterm elections, where Young Kim, a Korean American Republican candidate, ran a campaign where she distanced herself from some of President Trump’s rhetoric while agreeing on other positions, opposing California’s “sanctuary” policies, for example, but criticizing the federal government’s separation of migrant families at the border. She embraced the traditional Republican position on lowering regulations on businesses and described herself as pro-life on abortion and as supporting traditional marriage. Other APA conservative Christian political leaders who often eschew Trump’s nationalist rhetoric are Philadelphia City Councilman David H. Oh and Orange County (CA) Supervisor Michelle Park Steel.

2018 religion marked by pressures for reform and schism

The issues and trends in religion most visible in 2018 did not originate in that year but actually had germinated for decades. Still, 2018 carried enough bad news to convince religious leaders of difficult times ahead for religious institutions—from the continuing disaffection of young people to divisions over social and political issues in the contentious Trump era. As with previous years, the following review draws on past issues of RW and other sources to look at trends that unfolded in 2018 and their possible shape in the years ahead.

1) The issue of sexual abuse in its various forms has continued to represent an uncomfortable challenge to most institutions, with the #MeToo movement—launched through social media in October 2017—adding more fuel to the fire with a variety of non-religious targets that subsequently extended to religious organizations, from prominent megachurches to new religious movements. The Roman Catholic Church has been at the forefront of the crisis, especially with charges of sexual abuse suffered by minors and a steady flow of new revelations about the complicity of bishops covering up abuse cases. A “Letter to the People of God” released by Pope Francis in August linked sexual abuse to wider ecclesiastical issues, stating that “To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism,” while the Pope himself was criticized by Archbishop Vigano for allegedly having protected former-cardinal McCarrick. A summit of the bishops for discussing the problem of clerical sexual abuse will take place at the Vatican in February. Other religious groups have also continued to experience turmoil, for instance several Buddhist groups dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct mostly toward adults. In September 2018 a report was released detailing serious “physical, sexual and emotional abuse” by Tibetan lama Sogyal Rinpoche, who had withdrawn from the leadership of his network of Rigpa centers the previous year. “There are huge cover ups in the Catholic church, but what has happened within Tibetan Buddhism is totally along the same lines,” according to author and journalist Mary Finnigan, quoted in The Telegraph (September 9).

2) Since the death of evangelist Billy Graham last year, there has been speculation about his successors in the field of mass evangelism. Many observers have concluded that any such successor—more likely successors—will come out of a different mold than Graham, given the fragmentation of evangelicalism and the rise of social media. One approach is team-based evangelism, with the charismatic Send movement being a noted example. The Send movement is built around an event of the same name to be held in February in Orlando, where lay missionaries will be commissioned to evangelize their own neighborhoods, cities, and schools. The movement is the brainchild of Lou Engle, who has for nearly two decades led mass events known as TheCall that organize youth to pray for revival. Engle is working with such major mission organizations as Youth With A Mission and prominent charismatic megachurches including Bethel Church to run this evangelist-training movement, according to Charisma magazine (January).

3) Last year saw the Orthodox Church coming very close to a serious schism. While tensions between the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Patriarchate of Moscow have for years been difficult at times, as evidenced by the non-participation of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Pan-Orthodox Synod gathered in Crete in 2016, few would have predicted that the situation would escalate so dramatically around the issue of Ukrainian autocephaly. To the applause of the Ukrainian government, Constantinople lifted sanctions against the leaders of two independent Orthodox bodies advocating autocephaly for a national Ukrainian Church, stated that Ukraine was a territory under its canonical authority, and announced that autocephaly would be granted after a unification council of bishops supporting Ukrainian ecclesiastical independence convened. That gathering finally took place in December, and the granting of autocephaly is expected in January. The Russian Orthodox Church broke ties with Constantinople unilaterally and forbade its faithful from taking Communion in churches under Constantinople. Russian Orthodox leaders claim that Constantinople is playing a U.S.-sponsored game of weakening Russia. Supporters of Constantinople answer that a core issue is the Russian Church’s failure to understand the specific role of Constantinople (“the Ecumenical Patriarchate”) as a primate and worldwide center of unity for the Orthodox Church. (See the November issue of RW)

Evangelical overreach in missionizing the “unreached”?

It has been over 40 years since evangelical missionary strategists set out to evangelize what are called “unreached people groups” (UPGs) having no exposure to Christianity, but no discernable progress has been made among more than half of the current UPG population, according to an analysis in the International Journal of Frontier Missiology (35:4). UPGs were first estimated to have comprised some 17,000 population groups having no exposure to mission efforts in their own mother-tongue languages, no Bible translations, and no indigenous worshipping communities. Reaching these UPGs became a common goal among most evangelical bodies over the next four decades, an effort led and strategized by Ralph Winter of Fuller Seminary. R. W. Lewis writes that significant progress was made, with Christian movements being started among a number of these people groups, even some that are still counted as UPGs today, following the definition of having a population that is less than two percent evangelical. But she argues that much of the difficulty in reaching the rest lies in the way these groups have been defined and counted, ignoring the difference “between the UPGs which now have movements established among them and those that still have no movements at all.”

A re-estimation of these populations by a missiology research group known as the Joshua Project distinguished “frontier people groups” (FPGs) as a subset of UPGs showing no sign of movements, on the basis of whether their populations were less than or equal to 0.1 percent Christian. They found that close to 85 percent of all such FPGs were either Muslim or Hindu, while Buddhist groups made up under five percent of the total and all other religions comprised only 11 percent. Even as FPGs account for more than 55 percent of the total population living in UPGs, Lewis notes that about 30 times as many global missionaries currently go to “reached” people groups “to work with existing churches in training and outreach, as go to the unreached people groups (including the FPGs).” She writes that, besides the lack of demographic clarity regarding which groups have and have not been reached by missionaries, the failure to carry out much of the original goal has been due to a move from pioneering to partnering missions and a shift from career missionaries to short-term teams who usually don’t learn the languages to reach UPGs and also tend to partner with already existing churches.

“Trump effect” pushes American Muslims into political fray

Far from shying away from politics, American Muslims have been compelled onto the political stage by the new pressures and conflicts surrounding Islam in the Trump era, though the shape and outcome of such involvement remain unclear. In a presentation at the late-October meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, which RW attended, Brie Laskota of the University of California noted a “Trump effect” reflected in Muslims running for political office. Policies such as the travel ban targeting Muslim nations and the more general anti-Islamic rhetoric have led American Muslims in three directions: to feel overwhelmed, to keep their heads down and ignore such challenges, or to engage more deeply in civic life. The spate of Muslim candidates running for local and national offices suggests that the third option is being embraced in much of the Islamic community. Laskota said that 90 Muslims ran for office in the last year, with 49 remaining as post-primary candidates. As RW goes to press following the midterm elections, two Muslim women have been elected to Congress for the first time—Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib.

Laskota said that the stage had been set for such political activity 20 years earlier through such networks as the American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute, the Council on American Islamic Affairs (CAIR), and secular efforts as the New Leaders Project. The new Muslim politicians share an alienation from what they regard as Republican extremism, with the main division being between centrist and leftist progressives. Among the Muslim community in general, “voting is seen as obligatory, much more than usual, [although] if there are no returns [from such political involvement] the Muslim community may become more isolationist,” Laskota concluded. An article in the journal Politics and Religion (online October) echoes Laskota’s research in showing how Muslims have responded to spikes in anti-Muslim discrimination since 2016 by mobilizing in interest groups on issues such as Islamophobia and citizenship rights. Targeting Muslims as “the other” in American society has “provided Muslim American interest groups with a number of unintended opportunities through which they have been able to present themselves as official representatives of the American Muslim community,” writes Emily Cury of Northeastern University.

Religious leadership takes on new roles in post-Arab Spring, Islamic State Middle East

Religious leaders of all faiths in the Middle East underwent a dramatic shift after the Arab Spring and the rise of the Islamic State, taking on greater public roles that extended beyond their communities and dealt with matters of security and governance, while also losing clout among their followers. That is the conclusion of most of the articles in a special issue of the journal Sociology of Islam (6:2) devoted to religious authority in the contemporary Middle East. In the introduction to the articles, Mehran Kamrava of Georgetown University writes that after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, sectarianism among most religious groups in the region became more predominant, especially in the case of conflict between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. He points out that, the greater the state’s power and capacity and the less united the religious hierarchy have been, the more likely the state’s attempt to incorporate religious institutions within itself. Yet because of the more hostile environments within which leaders find themselves, “religious leadership has only become more centralized, and its role and significance more critical to the overall health of the community, especially among minority religious groups such as the Zaydis, Yazidis, Baha’is, Maronites, Chaldians, and others.”

In another article, Albert de Jong writes that while the role of religious leaders as dispensers of elite knowledge and guardians of traditions had already been in decline with the growth of higher education among the laity, the waves of unrest that have recently swept over the Middle East have sped up this process. These disturbances, “in conjunction with large-scale displacement [of religious minorities], which has weakened the crucially important ties most of these communities maintained with their physical surroundings—with their rivers, tombs of holy people, and similar loci of religion—make the future of these communities highly uncertain.” Another article on religious minorities suggests that the leadership of the Yezidis, a mystical group active in Iraq, has better withstood the forces of modernity than have native Christian groups, although the toll of attacks and displacement by the Islamic State makes their future precarious. A similarly dire forecast is made in regard to the future of the leadership of Syria’s ‘Alawis, an esoteric quasi-Islamic sect that has been seen as a pillar of the Asad regime, although these leaders (shaykhs) have traditionally not been politically active. Leon Goldsmith of Sultan Qaboos University notes that the cooptation of the ‘Alawi religious leadership by the Asad regime has been an “instrument of regime maintenance since 1982.” This has divided the religious leadership between the traditional and the regime-appointed leaders. The standards of shaykhs have deteriorated as regime loyalists have been appointed to leadership positions, and they have lost respect and independent status in their communities. Goldsmith concludes that the “growing corruption and opportunism creeping into the ‘Alawi religious class at the expense of traditional shaykhs bodes poorly for the future of religious leadership as a positive agent for political transformation and stability in Syria.”

The sex abuse crisis and the puzzle of Catholic “nones”

Charges and counter-charges of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church heated up considerably this summer, with allegations of abuse and coverup reaching to the top of the Church hierarchy, including Theodore McCarrick, the first-ever U.S. cardinal accused of sexual abuse to resign. While the hierarchy is the focus of this recent wave of abuse and collusion, much of the press coverage has looked at parish-level Catholics and how this might damage their relationship with the Church. It is certain that the material costs of the scandal though lawsuits will continue to impact—in some cases bankrupt—dioceses and in turn parish life (the lawsuits have targeted dioceses and religious orders rather than parishes, since individual churches have little authority over their priests). Much of the data on Catholics’ attitudes to abuse is still related to the parish-level sexual abuse by priests and coverup by local bishops that was revealed during the first wave of this scandal that broke in the early 2000s. Observers are now wondering if high-level involvement in the crisis might lead to greater disaffection from the Church. The Washington Post (August 19) notes that “[s]urveys have rarely asked about the Catholic Church’s response to the crisis since 2013, when a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 78 percent of Catholics disapproved of the way the church had handled the scandal—more than a decade after a Boston Globe investigation prompted the church to overhaul its procedures for rooting out abusive priests.”

In the Post article, Julie Zauzmer, Michelle Boorstein, and Michael Brice-Saddler provide an anecdotal picture of reactions to the latest scandals—ranging “from those who can’t be shocked anymore to those who were newly grieved, from those who feel Catholics are unfairly singled out to those who maintain their faith in the religion but not its leaders.” Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, saw this summer as sowing new doubts. “The fact that we thought all the worst had come out already—this is what creates cynicism. People were like, ‘Okay, it’s all cleaned up, now we’re moving on.’ … Now we know: The church is a fallible human organization.” Others cited the ongoing scandal’s impact on young people who already show high rates of disenchantment with religious and other institutions. In any event, it appears that the crisis is widely perceived as adding to the growing ranks of non-affiliated (or “none”) Catholics in the U.S. According to Pew research in 2015, about 27 percent of former Catholics who no longer identified with a religion cited clergy sexual abuse scandals as a reason for leaving the Church, while 21 percent of former Catholics identifying as Protestant did so. But National Public Radio (August 18) reports that it is still unclear how the crisis affects Catholic attachment and affiliation with the Church.

Putting Max Weber to the test on the Protestant ethic

Community development ministries have expanded throughout the Christian (and non-Christian) world, but until recently there have been few attempts to find out how effective they are in lifting their clients out of poverty. Christianity Today magazine (July/August) reports that a body of research has developed in recent years that goes beyond drawing the usual correlations between community development, religious faith, and poverty relief that have existed since Max Weber’s study on the Protestant ethic to look at the causative factors in this relationship. Economists Lincoln Lau and Bruce Wydick write that a recent randomized controlled experiment involving 320 villages and 6,276 low-income families in the Philippines “appears to confirm that the Protestant ethic causes economic change.” Participants in the study were randomly selected for a curriculum teaching Christian values as well as health and wellness advice for four months. These families were then studied along with a control group for increases in their household income six months after finishing the curriculum program. Those who received the evangelical Protestant training showed a 9.2 percent increase in household income compared to the control group.

The evangelical group also showed changes in hygiene and “grit,” which may have been due to the value lessons. But other results were not as clear. “The workers who received religious training may have consumed more goods and had fewer family members going to bed hungry, but the results were not statistically significant,” Lau and Wydick write. One negative outcome of the study was that major arguments with relatives increased by 2.2 percent for those who received the values training. Despite the increase in household income, some participants also viewed themselves as poorer compared to the rest of the community than when they first started the program. Lau and Wydick also report on other recent studies on the causal relationship between Christian discipleship and economic development. A 2013 study of the faith-based program of Compassion International found that it increased secondary school completion by 40 percent and the probability of white-collar adult employment by 35 percent among formerly sponsored children.

Jihadists pursue insurgent and decentralized strategies after Islamic State setback

The global jihadi scene may be quieter due to the decline of the Islamic State (IS), but this setback will likely be temporary as al Qaeda is being regenerated and the jihadist movement in general is being decentralized, write political scientists Colin P. Clarke and Assaf Moghadam in the foreign policy journal Orbis (Summer). The structure of global jihadists so far has been largely bipolar, divided between IS and al Qaeda, and the authors note that these two players are likely to continue to vie for power with each other, a contest determining the jihadist landscape of the near future. Al Qaeda is in a period of recovery after the loss of several key leaders, with new fronts opening in Tunisia and India, and affiliated groups operating in Egypt, Libya, and Syria. The group’s “long-game strategy,” which has prevented it from imploding like IS and allowed it to avoid such divisive tactics as using violence against fellow Muslims, has involved shifting from a terrorist to an insurgent group and achieving incremental territorial gains. The group’s successful operations in Yemen and Somalia illustrate its new approach, as it creates organizations under different names, such as al Shabab, and seeks to empower local leaders and tribes and to avoid enforcing harsh versions of Sharia (unlike IS). Eventually, the group can become a “shadow government,” as in the case of Somalia, promising to fight for the poor and disenfranchised.

Meanwhile, Clarke and Moghadam write that IS will likely regroup, still having a cadre of operatives providing the glue of the organization. The movement is seeking to co-opt Sunni tribes and threatening revenge in their former haunts in Syria. The staying power of jihadi groups around the globe seems assured since they still carry appeal and will likely decentralize further, drawing on an assortment of actors and actions, whether it be engaging in nonviolent da’wa (proselytizing) activities in Europe or becoming “digital warriors” in cyberspace. The researchers predict a more multipolar structure to jihadist groups, as they develop regional hubs of mobilization and use proxy organizations, such as in Mali, Mauritania, and Niger.

Mainline church activism reviving mission or risking its base?

While mainline churches in the Trump era see a new opening to renew their social activist mission, the results of this engagement so far have often been as much conflict and congregational divisions as vitality and growth, writes Ian Lovett in the Wall Street Journal (May 5). “Political activism is reshaping what it means to go to mainline Protestant churches in the Trump era, with tensions bubbling between parishioners who believe the church should be a force for political change, and those who believe it should be a haven for spiritual renewal.” As some congregations have turned themselves into hubs of activism on issues ranging from immigration to anti-racism, they have seen their numbers increase, especially among young people—once the most alienated segment of the church. Clergy are also seeing a more prominent role for themselves in public life—something they had not witnessed since the 1960s. The resulting mood of alienation and fear of politicizing the churches among more conservative members is acknowledged by the clergy, yet they believe this may be their last chance to have influence and be a force for change.

Lovett adds that the many denominations haven’t yet released membership figures but that there are anecdotal reports of increased church attendance. The United Church of Christ reported a decline in 2017, but at a slower pace than in recent years. Lovett notes that a number of individual congregations in the UCC—including 14 of 18 that were surveyed in the Southwest—said that attendance had increased during the first year of the Trump presidency. Mainline churches in the South are still seeing the fallout from the clash in Charlottesville last summer as well as the ongoing conflict over displaying confederate statues and symbols. Activist clergy say such efforts of resistance are worth the prospect of further decline. Diane Butler-Bass, an Episcopalian author, said that “fights over how and whether to engage politically are ‘taking place in every congregation at this moment.’” Citing the waffling of mainline white churches in the civil-rights era, she said that those churches that took a stand for civil rights often shrank or closed.

But there is the persisting question of whether mainline congregations can draw many committed members who share these liberal activist views in the way that more conservative churches have drawn the politically active. In the Religion in Public blog (May 29), political scientist Ryan Burge looks at figures on frequent attenders across the conservative-moderate-liberal church spectrum and their social and political preferences. Overall, Trump won 83.2 percent of frequent attenders (attending multiple times a week) among white church members. Evangelicals, who voted for Trump in large numbers, have the largest share of frequent attenders, but even frequent attenders identifying themselves as liberal tended to vote for Trump at 14.5 percent, as opposed to six percent for liberal adherents in general.