Archive for the ‘Features’ Category

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.

Eastern Orthodox churches facing their own culture wars?

Eastern Orthodoxy is often said to be resistant to the cultural and theological battles that have marked other denominations, but the familiar scenario of conflict between “traditionalists” and “progressives” on matters of sexuality, gender, and politics is increasingly evident in this tradition. In the conservative ecumenical magazine Touchstone (May/June), Orthodox writer and priest Alexander F. C. Webster identifies an “Orthodox left” that is mounting a “Trojan horse” strategy seeking to effect change in these conservative churches. He charges that an Orthodox “elite” are dismissing more traditional believers as “fundamentalists”—a term that has been making the rounds in Orthodox theological conferences and journals and particularly propagated by prominent Fordham University theologian Aristotle Papanikolaou [see July 2016 RW]. Other theologians, such as Fordham’s George Demaopoulos and St. Vladimir’s Seminary’s Peter Bouteneff, as well as Archbishop Chrysostomous of Cyprus, have targeted such “fundamentalists” as being responsible for the lack of unity evident at last year Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete (several Orthodox bodies did not participate in the council for various reasons).

Webster cites Bouteneff’s report on the council in the mainline Protestant Christian Century magazine, where the latter concludes that Orthodoxy is “lagging in its responsiveness to modern demographic realities and to modernity in general,” as an example of this attitude. Webster’s article itself—and its publication in a well-known conservative magazine—suggests that both sides in these conflicts are positioning themselves in the two-party system of American religion marked by “liberals” and “conservatives.” While some Orthodox theologians have long been open to arguments about restoring women to the diaconate and even ordaining women to the priesthood, Webster sees support for such causes as stemming from Orthodox clergy and theologians’ increasing sympathy with gender and sexual liberation ideologies, leading up to “a soft-sell of the ancient proscriptions against abortions to the latest trend, ‘transgenderism.’” On LGBTQ issues, Webster sees a growing mood of tolerance and downplaying of church teaching on homosexuality among these elite theologians. But they are not far ahead of Orthodox laity; surveys have shown that American Orthodox laypeople are close to mainline Protestants and Catholics in their support of same-sex marriage (54 percent).

Bringing faith and spirituality to workplace also spreading discrimination?

A new study suggests that the recent interest in bringing faith and spirituality to the workplace may be one factor behind rising rates of complaints about religious discrimination on the job. In the Review of Religious Research (March), Christopher Scheitle and Elaine Howard Ecklund note that the rate of reported complaints of workplace discrimination regarding religion has increased from 2.1 percent of all cases of workplace discrimination (1709 incidents) in 1997 to 4.0 percent (3721) in 2013, growing in both number and proportion. The issue of workplace discrimination against religion drew national controversy when the clothing retailer Abercrombie and Fitch was found liable in 2013 after it fired a Muslim employee for refusing to remove her head covering. Past research has found that specific religious identities, such as Muslim, as well as expressing religious identities, can increase the risk of workplace discrimination. But is religion discriminated against apart from specific religious identity and expression? The researchers used a survey of nearly 10,000 U.S. adults that draws on the GfK KnowledePanel, a nationally representative online panel of over 50,000 individuals and one of the few panels to ask a question about religious discrimination in the workplace.

Scheitle and Ecklund find that the frequency with which religion comes up in the workplace is positively associated with perceptions of religious discrimination. Just the presence of religion as a topic of conversation in the workplace “appears to present an independent risk of perceiving religious discrimination…moving from a workplace where religion never comes up to a workplace where religion often does almost triples the probability that an individual will perceive religious discrimination,” they write. The impact of such a dynamic on perceptions of discrimination is greater for mainline Protestants, Catholics, adherents of eastern religions (aside from Islam and Hinduism), those who are not religious, and atheists and agnostics.

Saudi-funded mosque building in Bangladesh raises concern about extremism

Following last year’s visit of Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to Saudi Arabia, the Saudi Kingdom has agreed to finance the building of 560 “model mosques,” evoking mixed feelings among Muslim groups who do not share the Saudi Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. Dhaka Tribune (April 20) reports that these mosques will be equipped with libraries […]

Religion still invisible in contemporary art galleries, though gaining admission to museums

While religious concepts and imagery remains off-limits in many contemporary art galleries, religious artifacts are beginning to find more of a reception in the world’s museums. In the Catholic magazine Commonweal (March 10), Daniel Grant writes, “Sincere expressions of spirituality or religious faith are largely absent from art galleries, except the ones that various churches and synagogues around the United States maintain or the museums of religiously affiliated colleges and universities. Instead, religion appears—when it does appear—as an object of scorn and suspicion.” Grant cites exhibitions at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, which included a painting by Mark Ryden showing a little girl in a Communion dress sawing into a piece of ham that bears the Latin inscription that translates into the “Mystical Body of Christ.” In 2015 the Milwaukee Art Museum acquired the controversial portrait by Niki Johnson of Pope Benedict XVI, “Eggs Benedict,” which was created with 17,000 multi-colored condoms. Grant traces much of the disdain and dismissal of religion to the art school and Master of Fine Arts programs, where students are actively discouraged from creating work that addresses spirituality, ritual, and faith, especially if it concerns Christianity. Art historian and critic James Elkins says that student artists are trained to concentrate on “criticality in relation to existing power structures,” be they received ideas, capitalism, or the church.

While much contemporary art focuses on identity, such as race, gender, and sexual orientation, and religion is one element of identity, those other identity markers are more fluid and open to interpretation, whereas religion is “more set in time and less open to reconsideration, certainly less tolerant of difference,” Grant writes. By the time these artists reach the commercial art world, “they know to keep their beliefs quiet or face rejection.” Grant concludes, “What does seem unnerving is the fear that many art-gallery and museum directors have about offending visitors, even when many of those museum officials bravely defend—on grounds of free expression—artwork that might force parents to cover their young children’s eyes.” The new book Religion in Museums (Bloomsbury, $26.96), edited by Gretchen Buggein, Crispin Paine, and S. Brent Plate, makes a similar critique, though some of the contributors see signs of greater openness to religious themes surrounding art and artifacts. In the Foreword, Sally Promey of Yale University notes that the new interest in religion “roughly coincides with the dismantling of secularization theory,” which had led museums to see religion as a “vestigial organ or appendage, a relic of the past, or a token of presumably less advanced civilizations. …That Sister Corita Kent can be resurrected in 2015–16 as a Pop artist, with art historians paying scant attention, beyond the merely descriptive, to the substance of her religious convictions and practice, however, provides a recent example that demonstrates how tough it is to shake fundamental ingrained cultural hierarchies and biases.”

Mainline seminaries partner with megachurches, while Harvard takes a left, secular turn

The Christian Century (February 15) reports that mainline seminaries are increasingly partnering with megachurches for financial reasons as well as to draw on their expertise in evangelism, church growth, and leadership. Residential-based seminary education, with its high tuitions and other living expenses, has increasingly been falling out of favor with seminarians and potential clergy, who are opting for online and distance learning programs that they complete without leaving their homes and careers. Mainline seminaries’ continuing financial problems due to low enrollment and the resulting difficulties in maintaining old buildings are other factors that have moved megachurches into the theological education field. Those seminaries that have shown some resilience are the ones that have teamed up with larger churches to deliver their educational services, writes Jason Byassee and Ross Lockhart. Saint Paul’s School of Theology in Kansas City was forced to close its campus in the center of the city and start holding its classes in the 20,000-member Church of the Resurrection in the suburbs.

This United Methodist megachurch provides the school with practicums that offer “nuts-and-bolts topics like funerals, stewardship, and youth ministry.” There is some tension in the fact that Saint Paul’s is more liberal in theology and oriented more toward social action than the centrist evangelical megachurch. Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky is another example of this trend, though in this case the unaffiliated (and more evangelical) school in the Wesleyan tradition has “planted” a satellite seminary in another United Methodist megachurch in Memphis, Tennessee. The new campus makes little effort to offer on-campus formation, instead drawing on the congregation’s extensive ministry in downtown Memphis. St. Mellitus College has pioneered a similar kind of partnership in the U.K. The seminary, with about 400 students, was the result of a merger between two diocesan theological programs associated with the evangelical “megaparish” Holy Trinity in Brompton and St. Jude’s Church in the west of London.

Buddhism in the West at a crossroads and facing competition?

Buddhism in the West continues to see the rise of new figures and movements, though not all are acknowledging their Buddhist roots, according to a roundtable discussion of scholars and practitioners in the Fall issue of French magazine Ultreïa!. Some of these assessments differed between France and America. Philipe Cornu, an academic and a teacher of Buddhism, notes how successful mindfulness has become in various circles while often rejecting its Buddhist roots. While some might see this popularity as a proof of Buddhism’s success in the West, Cornu is not so sure. Appropriating elements of Buddhism while ignoring that they are part of a wider spiritual path shows how many often do not take Buddhism as a whole but rather reduce it to small pieces, such as techniques for well-being and advice for daily life. The potential for narcissism in this approach is a far echo from the Buddhist message as a path to liberation from conditioned existence, associated with compassion and altruism, Cornu adds. The original medical applications of mindfulness in the late 1970s were a way of using Buddhist techniques to help patients, while more recent uses rather tend to stress efficiency in one’s professional life. Benefits are obvious, but a pinch of spirituality in daily life cannot be equated with a spiritual path. Such uses of Buddhism in the West make it difficult at this point to foresee what its future could be, Cornu concludes.   

A teacher of Zen, Eric Rommeluère, is aware that Zen Buddhism has mutated through its history and has been influenced by different environments and historical events. The propagation of Zen Buddhism in the West is largely the consequence of a decision by monks to relieve themselves of their priestly duties in Japanese society and diaspora for the sake of teaching international audiences. Initially, Zen attracted people who had been influenced by the views of the counterculture. These days, Rommeluère adds, this association is no longer the case, to the extent that Zen Buddhism has sometimes become diluted into mainstream culture. As with other Buddhist schools, the success of mindfulness techniques presents a challenge. Fewer people are willing to commit themselves for retreats lasting for several months, and seminars of a short duration are preferred. In France, at least, Rommeluère is not so sure about the future of Buddhism—especially Zen— as the competition from mindfulness challenges it.

Religious politics and political religion mark 2016

The Chinese curse of “living in interesting times” took on special resonance in 2016 as political upheavals and conflicts as well as actual violence became a reality for many. These tumultuous events reverberated in the world of religion, as will be obvious by our focus on religion and politics for our annual review of 2016 and preview of trends unfolding in 2017. Citations of RW issues where we cover the trends below in greater depth follow each item; we also cite outside sources for trends reported for the first time here.

1) The election of Donald Trump will have numerous implications for religion, some of which are only in their infancy. Despite the abrasive and divisive campaign Trump ran and the way that it divided Republicans, subsequent polls have shown that the religious configurations marking the electorate for the last two decades have not changed much. It is not clear if evangelicals’ and other religious conservatives’ investment in the Trump presidency—with notable dissenters—will revive the religious right and its agenda (see “The religious right’s populist turn,” below), but their worries about secularism and the loss of institutional religious commitment among many Americans will not likely subside even with political support from Washington. Their association with a controversial and potentially unpopular administration may well exacerbate the situation (December RW).