Archive for the ‘Features’ Category

Political religion and European-style culture wars come under new scholarly scrutiny

At a conference better known for holding forth on the steady advance of secularization in much of Europe, it was striking how many of the papers at this year’s meeting of the International Society for the Sociology of Religion in Barcelona showed the growing political influence of religious groups and discourse on the continent. In […]

How safe are congregations and clergy from automation?

Judging by the fast pace at which technology is overtaking certain work tasks, clergy seem not to necessarily be exempt from the threat of automation, with several aspects of their work already being performed by artificial intelligence, writes William Young in the religion and science journal Zygon (June). Certain professions, such as medicine, law, journalism, […]

Megachurches trading relevance for liturgical reverence?

“Old-school Catholic practices and traditions” are being increasingly used in American megachurches, reports America magazine (May 13). The article focuses on New Life Church in Colorado Springs, a prominent non-denominational megachurch that has recently embraced traditional liturgies as well as social justice work without evangelization. The church now recites the Nicene Creed and has communion […]

American Southwest belatedly draws Catholic colleges

Even though Catholicism has a long history in the American Southwest and Latinos there are an influential demographic force in the church, Catholic colleges are just being established in the region, according to America magazine (May 13). Jonathan Malesic reports that while the few Catholic colleges that were established in the region in the past […]

Researchers find Catholic Church’s patterns of sexual abuse consistent across time and place

Recent reports of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in the U.S. show similar patterns to those found in the period before 2002 as well as in other Western nations, according to researchers speaking at an April conference at Fordham University in New York, which RW attended. Researchers Margaret Smith and Karen Terry of John […]

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.