Archive for the ‘Features’ Category

“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.

Mormonism globalizes on leadership and lay levels

The recent appointment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ newest apostles suggests that the global growth of Mormonism is being expressed at the leadership level. The Conversation magazine (April 9) reports that the two new members of the LDS church’s second-highest governing body, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, announced at its recent semiannual General Conference, are a son of Chinese immigrants to the U.S. and a native Brazilian—the first non-white apostles in the church’s history. Matthew Bowman of Henderson State University writes that the selection of Gerrit Gong and Ulisses Soares is an “indication that the church has begun to take seriously the task of growing outside the United States.” The growth of the church in Brazil and the rest of Latin America has been so strong over the past decades that members have expected a Latin American apostle for the last several vacancies. But “while Soares’ selection reflects the Mormon present, Gong’s may point to the future of Mormonism,” Bowman adds. Mormon growth in China is taking place “through expatriates and Chinese citizens converted by Mormon missionaries abroad.” The current president of the LDS church, Russell Nelson, has studied Mandarin and spent a great deal of time in China over his career.

Nelson’s interest in the Chinese church has “been matched by signs that the church as a whole is interested in cultivating a higher profile there. For instance, the church recently launched a website devoted to its relationship with China.” Dallin Oaks, one of the members of the church’s First Presidency, announced that the church has been building “a relationship of trust with Chinese officials”—an effort that may be aided by the appointment of Gong, who has worked at the State Department and Georgetown University. Bowman adds that the globalization of the church could also be seen in moves announced at the conference to decentralize church administration, thereby strengthening local congregations worldwide. In each local congregation, the leadership would be consolidated and simplified. Another change cut the paperwork and bureaucracy surrounding the practices of “home teaching” and “visiting teaching,” where congregants check in with each other monthly to ensure everybody in the congregation is doing well. By loosening its control of this work, the church will be allowing for more local autonomy. It was also announced that seven new temples would be built in such distant locations as India, Russia, and the Phillipines—more signs that the church “sees potential for strong local leadership.”

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.”