Archive for the ‘Features’ Category

The trimming and taming of the academic study of religion

Declining support for the liberal arts and the growth of administrative bureaucracy and “no harm” policies are cutting into both academic study and research on religion, according to two reports. The academic study of Catholic theology is “undergoing a severe stress test,” as Catholic universities and colleges are trimming their core theology course requirements and are secularizing at the same time that the discipline’s liberal orientation is finding less interest among students, writes Michael Hollerich on Commonweal magazine’s website (March 27). Catholic academic theology’s “hold on the undergraduate curriculum” at Catholic universities was linked to the post-Vatican II changes that expanded theological education to the laity, who were subsequently taught under a rising tide of theologians and historians who were often trained in secular and mainline Protestant schools, such as the University of Chicago and Yale University. Today the respect that academic theological offerings were formerly given at Catholic colleges has eroded to the point where, according to Hollerich, “schools like mine are faced with the need to go big or go home—meaning we have to turn more and more to pragmatic vo-tech educational goals, since we don’t have the cultural prestige of Notre Dame or Georgetown to live off the moneyed elite able to afford us. That leads to hiring policies that further secularize the institution,” adds Hollerich, who teaches at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

The other side of the stress test is coming from students, especially aspiring academics. These students do not share the same Catholic backgrounds and concerns about academic freedom as preceding generations. “They are far more likely to be anxious about identity questions—what it means to be ‘Catholic’ at all rather than something else. In a situation of market freedom, people choose the specific, not the generic. From the younger generation’s perspective, we can look and sound like generic, dying, irrelevant mainline Protestantism shading toward nothingism,” Hollerich writes. Catholic colleges once provided the feeder system for Catholic doctoral programs, but today’s doctoral students are as likely to come from conservative schools such as Hillsdale College and Steubenville as from Notre Dame or Boston College. “And one wonders where those eager doctorands will ever find jobs if Catholic colleges and universities continue to reduce core requirements. And if there aren’t required undergraduate courses to teach, why do we need those doctoral programs either? I can tell you it’s not because the hierarchy is waiting breathlessly for the latest fruits of our research.”

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.”

Eastern spirituality in the West-secularizing or globalizing?

How much of Eastern spirituality and practice in the West is really dressed up secular therapy and consumerism? In his new book, Secular Beats Spiritual: The Westernization of the Easternization of the West (Oxford University Press, $32.50), sociologist Steve Bruce casts doubt on the notion that the “turn to the East” represents anything like a spiritual revolution that is replacing traditional religion. The subtitle refers to Colin Campbell’s 2007 book, The Easternization of the West, which argued that Western culture was undergoing a transformation to Eastern spiritual values. Bruce, a longtime defender of the secularization thesis, looks at many of the influences Campbell sees as Eastern spiritual themes and stirrings and dismisses them as largely secular or at most “quasi-spiritual.” Bruce takes the reader on a colorful tour of New Age and Eastern spiritual gatherings and groups, especially in the UK, making the book more ethnographic than his other works. He looks at such New Age communities as Findhorn and Glastonbury and finds small if devoted followings (mainly of older people), a tolerance for diversity and absence of a set of unifying beliefs, syncretism, and a therapeutic mindset (discovering one’s true self). In subsequent chapters on yoga, neo-Hinduism (such as Hare Krishna), and Buddhism, Bruce finds a similar pattern: the groups and ideas that thrive in mainstream society (such as human potential concepts and physical and emotional well-being) are the most distant from traditional religious expressions and practices. This is especially the case with the practice of “mindfulness,” as this insight form of Buddhist meditation has evolved into a stress on calmness, increasingly leaving behind any religious trappings.

Not unexpectedly, Bruce finds that his theory of secularization is confirmed by what he sees as the secular drift of these groups. In the final chapters, he returns to his usual number crunching, acknowledging the difficulty of counting the loosely affiliated and individualistic Eastern seekers. From surveys, subscription lists and other studies, he estimates New Age adherents as ranging between seven and one percent of the UK population, mainly middle-class, middle-age and elderly and not likely to reproduce their numbers. “Put very simply, ‘alternative spirituality,’ as it is sometimes called, is not an alternative to religious indifference. It is an alternative to conventional religion [since so many of such seekers had religious upbringings] and, as the proportion of people with any childhood religious socialization declines, so too does the pool from which spirituality recruits,” he argues. Campbell’s book was not so much about the growth of New Age and Eastern religious groups, but rather the diffusion of Eastern spiritual influence in Western culture. Bruce, who sees the same secularizing currents in the UK as soon to arrive in the U.S., denies that Eastern spirituality, given its individualism, has had much public influence. He concludes that the “Western appropriation of Eastern religious themes has been accompanied by a considerable reshaping of those themes. What we have actually seen is the Westernization of the Easternization of the West.”

Rewinding and forwarding on 2017 religion

Reviewing religion in 2017 by looking at the few key words and phrases that served as flashpoints in the media—populism, immigration, racial divides, and evangelicals and President Donald Trump—ignores the fact that many of these developments had taken shape well before last year. Religion in 2017 revealed other trends that were just unfolding and may become more visible in the upcoming year and beyond. As in past annual reviews, we cite the issue of RW (and other sources) where these subjects were covered in greater depth during the past year.

1) The Islamic State’s failure to create an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East seemed certain by the end of 2017, but the extremist Islamic group will likely maintain itself virtually. The use of the Internet to recruit new jihadists and spread propaganda may also serve to give the movement a second wind in attempting to create its own state, or at least create a new offshoot that may do so (just as Al Qaeda gave birth to the IS).

2) The relation of evangelicals to the Trump presidency rated as the most popular religious news story last year. Many dimensions of this story were visible during the 2016 primary race, such as the large evangelical support for the candidate despite the ethical questions surrounding him. But Trump’s election by a majority of evangelicals and their continuing support of his policies—and the related campaign and moral issues surrounding Alabama’s Roy Moore—has intensified questions of evangelical “ownership” of an unpopular presidency and the fallout among non-evangelicals and younger evangelicals who are critical of his administration. The Trump administration’s overtures to the religious right, such as the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and the endorsement of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, suggests a long-term alliance that will likely shape the results of this year’s mid-term elections.

3) The growing coalition between American conservative Christians (not just evangelicals) and their counterparts in Eastern Europe and Russia also became recognizable in 2017. Although such an alliance is buttressed by admiration for Vladimir Putin and his friendliness toward “traditional values” and for the Trump administration, the connections with conservative groups and parties in Hungary and Poland should not be overlooked in the year ahead (see this issue’s article on the movement against Christian persecution in the Middle East for more on the Hungarian connection). (November RW)

4) The rebirth of the religious left was another theme that reverberated throughout 2017. The Trump presidency has ignited liberal and radical protests and alternatives that encompassed religious activists and organizations on such issues as immigration, poverty, and gender equality. But it is difficult to assess the strength of these initiatives since they are targeted toward a declining base in mainline and liberal Catholic churches. Even if the progressive message resonates with a growing number of younger voters and activists, congregations and other organizations have to make the case to the non-affiliated that the faith component is an important part in such activism. In the case of the sanctuary movement, religious congregations have a unique function in ministry to illegal immigrants because of their legal exemptions, but even here it remains to be seen if this movement will expand beyond a small network of congregations.

Congregations unprepared for growing rate of violence?

The mass shooting at a Texas church in November could be the sign of an increase in congregation-based murders, although religious institutions are ill-prepared for such occurrences. CNN (November 7) reports that criminologist Dallas Drake and a team of scholars compiled a database of all church shootings in the U.S. between 1980 and 2005 (not including other houses of worship like temples or mosques) and found that nearly half of the offenders (48 percent) were affiliated with the church, and about a quarter (23 percent) involved “intimate partners,” such as wives, girlfriends and husbands of attenders. In 17 percent of the church shootings, the attacker felt unwelcome or had been rejected by the church, Drake said. Twelve percent of the shooters suffered from a mental illness. More recent data from Carl Chinn, a church-security consultant, showed similar patterns. Based on data on more than 1,600 “deadly force incidents” since 1999 at all houses of worship, Chinn found that robberies accounted for more than a quarter of homicides within houses of worship, followed by fights between domestic partners (16 percent) and personal conflicts between people who did not live together (14 percent).

Like Drake, Chinn found that more than 10 percent of all homicides at houses of worship involved mental illness. Religious bias accounted for about 6 percent, while in Drake’s study, “religious differences” accounted for 9 percent of church shootings. And both Chinn and Drake found that deadly attacks at houses of worship have increased in recent years. Drake counted 147 church shootings from 2006–2016, while Chinn focused on all violence in congregations, finding more than 250 incidents each in 2015 and 2016. Through August of this year, there had already been 173 (excluding the Texas incident), according to Chinn. Drake stressed that believers were not being singled out because of their religion, but that the shootings were part of an overall—and alarming—increase in mass shootings within the country at large, and that congregations, like schools, were an open-access place where people could be targeted.

The Putin-effect galvanizing evangelicals and Eastern Orthodox?

American evangelicals are finding common cause with Eastern Orthodox believers inspired by the rise of President Donald Trump and his association with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, according to scholars speaking at a recent New York conference attended by RW. Much of the conference, which was held at Fordham University in early November, echoed other observers’ claims that evangelical supporters of Trump have warmed toward Orthodoxy and Russia because of their mutual embrace of “traditional values” (see January, 2017 RW). Nicholas Gvosdev, a political scientist at the U.S. Naval Academy, struck a different note early on by speaking about how Orthodox Americans responded to the 2016 elections, setting the stage for this unusual courtship. Trump’s economic appeal to the Rust Belt states drew in many Orthodox who have traditionally been swing voters. Trump spoke about issues that resonated with the Orthodox such as on the Balkans, Egypt, and Syria, and some appreciated his more benign stance toward Russia and Putin, Gvosdev said. During the same time, the approval of same-sex marriage and the little-known case of gay rights supporters demonstrating at an Orthodox cathedral in San Francisco in 2015 made a segment of Orthodox believers more sympathetic to the religious freedom and prolife activism of the evangelicals and Catholics.

Writer and staunch “never-Trumper” Peter Wehner said that the evangelical-Orthodox alliance is growing stronger under the leadership of Franklin Graham, whose Samaritan Purse relief ministry draws from both Russian and American funders, as well as such religious right organizations as American Family Association and the World Congress of the Family. There is “a lot of courting going on” between evangelicals and the Russian Orthodox Church over their shared pro-life stances along with their critical attitude toward Islam and gay rights, he said. Gvosdev added that Putin’s shift to a more pro-Israel stance in recent years has caught the attention of the evangelicals and is another reason for the stronger ties between these churches.

Researchers putting the sex in secularization

While we hear much about how religious decline and secularization tend to lower birth rates and lead to liberalized sexual practices and ideas, is it also the case that sexual liberalization decreases religious vitality? Mary Eberstadt’s 2013 book How the West Really Lost God (see May 2013 RW for review) put forth that controversial position. Without providing much in the way of empirical findings, Eberstadt argued that changed sexual practices, starting with the approval of contraception, have weakened religious institutions and beliefs, using Europe as her main case-in-point. More recently, social scientists have conducted research that provides more substance for Eberstadt’s argument, if not necessarily proving her point. For instance, University of Texas professor Mark Regnerus writes in the Washington Post (September 5) that the uncertainties posed by the modern mating market are putting increasing pressure on churches as they try to retain their younger members and reach out to the unchurched. Regnerus cites several recent studies showing that Christians are tracking with unchurched Americans’ declining marriage rates and other behavior and attitudes that would have been frowned upon two decades ago. “Whereas only 37 percent of the least religious never-married adults in the 2014 Relationships in America survey said they would prefer instead to be married, 56 percent of the most religious never-married adults said the same. But 56 is a far cry from 80 or 90 percent. Something is going on,” the sociologist writes.

Unlike Orthodox Jewish and Mormon youth who have eschewed the wider dating market, young Christians’ narratives of dating are not very different than nonreligious Americans; while they may wait longer, single Christians are also engaging in pre-marital sex. Younger evangelicals (below 30) are more permissive than older ones on a range of issues including pornography and are postponing marriage (and thereby postponing its conservatizing effect). Among Christians of all ages, there are rising uncertainty levels, if not support, about all kinds of unconventional sexuality: 23 percent are uncertain about cohabitation, 25 percent are unsure if viewing pornography is okay, and 17 percent don’t know if consensual polyamorous unions are permissible. Regnerus writes, “One can interpret those on the fence as movable—open to being convinced. But if trends in sexual norms hold, most who once claimed neutrality eventually drift toward the more permissive position.” What this trend means is that churches can no longer count on young adults returning to the fold once they establish families, since delayed marriage is slowing such returns.

But these mating market dynamics may reinforce how “long-standing Christian sexual ethics are making less and less sense to the unchurched—a key market for evangelicals. … ‘Meeting people where they’re at’ becomes challenging. Congregations are coming face to face with questions of just how central sexual ethics are to their religious life and message.” He points to how the new Nashville Statement on marriage and sexuality illustrates how “live and poignant the tension is.” Regnerus concludes that there has been too little reflection on how cohabitation and other mating market trends erode religious belief: “We overestimate how effectively scientific arguments secularize people. It’s not science that’s secularizing Americans—it’s sex.”

Praying and networking give religious right second wind?

In just a year’s time, media commentators have swung between dismissing the religious right as a spent force and treating it as looming—and often threatening—presence in public life. Judging by recent reports, the religious right today may be a bit of both—weak in an organizational sense but wielding influence through its networks. The website Religion Dispatches (August 4) looks at the group POTUS Shield, a charismatic prayer network based around support for President Trump and his agenda. In an interview with the website, Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow with the liberal People for the American Way, says that leaders such as Rick Joyner and Cindy Jacobs who are connected to the network “aren’t out there trying to create a large organization. They’re not trying to create a Pentecostal Family Research Council. They’re just trying to build up their own networks of followers.” He adds that much of POTUS Shield has its roots in the New Apostolic Reformation, which seeks to reclaim the authority and spiritual gifts of the apostles while creating social transformation.

Montgomery cites the work of sociologists Brad Christerson and Richard Flory, who argue that such loose networks, while flexible enough to allow church leaders to spread their ideas without having any accountability from an organization, may have less political impact since they refrain from the work of organizing for political change. Yet because their networks overlap, with someone like Jerry Boykin of the Family Research Council also serving on the board of POTUS Shield, these groups “help feed people into the kind of political organizing that other religious right groups are doing.” Montgomery portrays POTUS Shield as a new phenomenon, but Charisma magazine (July), which is a strong supporter of Trump and promoter of these networks, links the group to an intercessory prayer movement that has existed for over a decade. The magazine notes that similar groups, such as Justice House of Prayer (JHOP) and Intercessors for America (IFA), are actually experiencing a “second wind.” The groups formed in Washington around 2004 and targeted issues for prayer that ranged from abortion to racial injustice.

ISR Interview/ A Godly Sociology of Religion

ISR co-director Rodney Stark has recently written Why God?: Explaining Religious Phenomena (Templeton Press, $24.95). In this interview with RW, Stark discusses, among other things, why sociological theory dealing with religion needs to take into account people’s belief and images of God and the importance of history in understanding religious change.

RW: You state in the book’s introduction that Why God? is your third effort in writing a work on theory. Why did you feel it is important to do that now?
Stark: I returned to theorizing about what religion is, what it does, and why it seems to be a universal feature of human societies because I know more now than I did in 1999 when I wrote Acts of Faith and because I finally felt able to extend my theorizing to include such things as miracles and revelations as well as religious conflict and civility.

RW: You stress the role of belief in a supernatural God in creating religious vitality throughout the book. Can you explain its importance in your work?
Stark: From the very start I have limited my definition of religion to systems of thought based on the existence of conscious supernatural beings—gods—despite the fact that most sociologists, especially back then, went along with Durkheim and accepted the notion of godless religions. That is, the prevailing view was that all systems of thought about the existence of life were religions, even those that denied the existence of gods. It seemed to me obvious that it was silly to be unable to distinguish the village priest from the village atheist. And I think even my earliest theorizing was far more powerful because I did limit my definition to godly systems of thought.

RW: The role of emotion in religious ritual has been something else for which you have gained a new appreciation. Can you explain that?
Stark: One loses a great deal if one fails to recognize the emotional aspects of, say, people’s prayer lives or what many people feel during such things as communion. People don’t just pray to get stuff; for many people prayer is a conversation with a friend.

RW: The media and many scholars see the growth of the non-affiliated as the major trend in American religion. Yet your theory views the “nones,” and even secular Europeans, as being candidates for re-joining religious groups, even new religious movements.
Stark: Certainly Richard Dawkins qualifies as one of the most famous and “intellectual” of the “nones”—the title of his book The God Delusion would seem to say it all. And yet at the end of the book, he wrote, “Whether we ever get to know them or not, there are probably alien civilizations that are superhuman, to the point of being god-like in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine.” Indeed, it is self-styled atheists, not religious believers, who are the most likely to believe in UFOs, ghosts, astrology, Bigfoot, and the other occult notions. So much for anti-religious claims of credulity.

Table and café churches serve up new options for mainline and evangelical Protestants

Mainline and evangelical Protestants, both in the U.S. and abroad, are responding to the challenges of decline, institutionalism, and political conflict by creating new structures often based around intimate community and sharing a meal. Mainline churches have long experimented with alternative forms of ministry to stem their dramatic declines in members, but one such alternative showing increasing popularity are dinner and “café” churches that take an entrepreneurial approach to supporting their ministries. The Faith and Leadership blog (June 13) reports that United Methodist congregations have formed a new network, known as Simple Church, whose services are based around shared meals with communion included, as well as conversation replacing the sermon. The idea of a supper-based church is not exactly new, but it has caught on in mainline circles starting with New York’s St. Lydia’s Kitchen, a Lutheran-Episcopal church plant in the early 2000s. The original Simple Church is a United Methodist congregation in North Grafton, Massachusetts, that is what is often called a “re-plant”—a struggling congregation reorganized by the denomination. More uniquely, the church pioneered a revenue model that “puts less strain on parishioners by generating income from a trade—in this case, bread baking.”

The Simple Church format has spread to other states and Canada, with 11 affiliate congregations practicing table-centered worship, often relying on trade-based enterprises for revenue. The Simple Church in North Grafton, which has grown from zero to 70 members in three years, is planting its first daughter congregation nearby in central Massachusetts later this year. While Simple Church’s “folksy hymns and simple prayers” hark back to traditional Methodism, it does not have any statement of faith and is similar to other dinner churches that are at the progressive end of the spectrum. It stresses inclusivity, which involves inviting all participants—often Christian and non-Christian—to take communion as well as accepting the LGBTQ community. The article reports that several of the participants also attend conventional services on Sunday morning. Unlike the mainline alternative churches that seek renewal and growth in declining denominations, evangelical alternative congregations often are reacting against the influence of megachurches and evangelical conservative political involvement— a sentiment that has driven much of the “emerging” church movement in North America, Europe, and Australia.