Findings & Footnotes January 2018- Special Focus on Winter Books

  • With Religion Watch having become available for free, one of our goals has been to make available online those years of our newsletter that had only been published in print (i.e. pre-1998 issues). Thanks to the patient work of associate editor Jean-Francois Mayer in designing and updating the files, and to Frances Malone, who patiently scanned several years of archives (and also to Larry Iannaccone for donating his back issues of RW), it is our pleasure to announce that the years 1990 to 1997 are now available as scanned PDF documents on our archive site. They can be accessed from There are still a few missing issues that we hope to be able to add to the list soon. In the upcoming months, we also hope to be able to add the issues for the years 1985 to 1989 as well. Most of the content of the issues can be explored by using the site’s search tool.

  • The 2017 Religion Monitor, published by the Bertelsmann Foundation, reveals considerable integration in language and culture among Muslims in Europe, along with the majority viewing interreligious relationships as the norm. The report looked at five European countries and found that approximately three-fourths of Muslims born in Germany have grown up with German as their first language. The trend of language skills improving with each generation is true for France, the UK, Austria, and Switzerland. More unexpected was the finding that a large majority of Muslims have frequent contact with their non-Muslim neighbors, especially in Switzerland. The report also covers such topics as Muslims’ access to the labor market, the degree of religiosity among Muslims (still in the high range), and the rejection of Muslims by their neighbors (with France the lowest and the UK the highest). It is available at:
  • The new book Catholics and U.S. Politics After the 2016 Elections (Palgrave Macmillan, $129), edited by Marie Gayte, Blandine Chelini-Pont, and Mark J. Rozell, sheds much needed light on the Catholic vote in recent years and how it has dramatically diversified. The editors and contributors make it clear that much of the change in makeup from overwhelmingly Democrat to pluralistic, tracking the national average, has as many demographic as religious factors behind it (class shifts and movement to the sunbelt), although it has long been shown that more devout Catholics have switched to the Republican Party. The greater part of the book seeks to explain the 2016 presidential elections where the Catholic vote was 52 percent for Donald Trump versus 45 percent for Hillary Clinton, with 60 percent of white Catholics voting for Trump. While Catholics have tracked close to the national average, the 2016 vote was an anomaly.

    Rozell writes that the campaign to draw in Catholic voters for Trump was relatively successful while Clinton had limited appeal and even Democratically-inclined Latino Catholics did not turn against Trump in significant numbers. Other contributors flesh out this trajectory, noting that the effect of U.S. Catholic bishops and the Holy See on Catholic voting was weak, while the decade-long Catholic-evangelical alliance on such issues as abortion may have had more influence, as well as working-class concerns persisting in the industrial northern cities. Other chapters look at the various yet ultimately weak efforts of the Catholic left to find sympathetic voters, and the possible split in Catholic conservative ranks over the Trump presidency.

  • Keeping It Halal (Princeton University Press, $29.95), by John O’Brien, is an engaging ethnographic study of Muslim teens and how they walk a razor’s edge between assimilation to youth culture and keeping their Islamic identity. O’Brien immersed himself in the social and religious worlds of a group of young men at a large urban mosque for three and a half years. The NYU sociologist seeks to discount the idea that Muslim youth engaging in hip hop culture are on a path of downward assimilation that will move them to a lower socio-economic rung than their middle- class families. Rather, these teens are selective in how they adapt youth culture, using a repertoire of strategies to be a “cool Muslim.” On one hand, they steer clear of overly religious Muslims (who they dub “extreme”), including Muslim rappers who are too upfront about their faith. On the other, they often censor themselves and their friends about content and behavior that might not be deemed “halal” or acceptable to the Islamic community (such as listening but not dancing to rap in the mosque).

    O’Brien notes that other behaviors (even something as trivial as not showing up for Friday prayers on time) are adopted by these young men to show that they value individual freedom and a certain amount of rebellion like other youth even while they maintain their faith. Dating is a particular area where this tension between following teen norms and religious observance seems to break down; ambiguity and understatement are the preferred means of dealing with this fraught period. They might use Islamic terminology, linking spirituality and romantic love, but tend not to apply Islamic law directly to their relationships (though they largely refrained from premarital sex). This low-key approach is also seen in the way these Muslim youth tend to downplay their Islamic identities in public (even though their mosque called for a more extroverted approach to their religion in their daily lives), though this is partly to fit in with other young people and partly due to concerns about harassment from revealing their faith in society. In the conclusion, O’Brien revisits these young men and finds that they have been able to manage this tension between (now) emerging American adulthood and Islamic identity. He ends by calling for mosques to provide more spaces for young Muslims to work out these tensions in forming their identities.

  • Mark Killian’s recent book, Religious Vitality in Christian Intentional Communities (Lexington Books, $95), looks at how communal Christian groups’ success is related as much to their relations with each other and their neighborhoods as to their internal dynamics and structures. The question of whether religious communities will survive in the religious marketplace has taken on new meaning with the growth of such movements as the “new urban monasticism,” which has established intentional communities as a form of ministry in inner cities. Killian finds that of the Christian intentional communities established between 2005 and 2009, only 31 percent had survived by 2015. The author examines two intentional communities (where only some of the members live strictly communally) in the Midwest, using ethnography to explain how such specialist kinds of religious organizations have maintained their vitality and growth. Killian argues that there is not one key factor that drives these groups’ effectiveness. One community has profited more from providing strict teachings and beliefs while the other relies on the evolving religious ecology—the interactions between the community and other neighborhood groups and structures and how they meet each other’s needs. But these factors can be interrelated; for instance, religious communities can strictly enforce members’ taking up residency in their neighborhood (rather than commuting), thereby extracting resources from the local community to survive and grow.
  • The Mainline in Late Modernity (Lexington Books, $95), by Maren Freudenberg, presents the intriguing if debatable thesis that this segment of American Protestantism is rising to past challenges and renewing itself in the face of growing individualism and pluralization. Freudenberg, a German sociologist, presents an extended case study of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, viewing the denomination as a bellwether of mainline Protestantism as it tries to scale down its hierarchical structure and generate more participation and leadership among the laity. She contends that the ELCA’s attempt to adapt conservative Protestant church-growth techniques was more or less a failure and that now the denomination is putting to use its progressive Lutheran capital in a church renewal that still values the piety of the people in the pews. This could mean anything from greater community involvement to lay-led Bible studies and other contextual ministries that serve as an alternative to traditional parishes.

    The “church culture shift” that she observes taking place is especially evident in upper Midwestern Lutheranism, which—as Freudenberg acknowledges—could cast doubt on her contention that this is a denomination-wide development (there are several church cultures in the ELCA). But she also studies the discourse and actions of the denominational leadership and finds that they are attempting to delegate authority toward the congregational and regional levels. At the same time, she argues that church leaders are seeking to retain Lutheranism’s liturgical and confessional nature (most clearly seen in the leadership of ELCA’s Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton), which may conflict with decentralized and lay-led currents. Such maintenance of the “core” identity allows (at least in Lutheranism) for “messiness” and experimentation on the congregational level, or tension between “structure and anti-structure.” Critics may note that she does not pay much attention to how the influence of seminaries and clergy formation and the ever-present ideological “culture wars” are shaping the denomination. Still, Freudenberg’s work represents an important effort to interpret changes that are evident throughout the mainline and what they may mean for the future of this branch of Protestantism.

  • The plotline of religion in Quebec often revolves around the once-dominant role of the Catholic Church up until the 1960s and then the rapid freefall in Catholic identity and practice since then. The new book Everyday Sacred (McGill-Queens University Press, $32.95), edited by Hillary Kaell, challenges that narrative with more contemporary approaches in the study of Quebec religion, particularly those of “lived religion,” hybrid and unofficial forms of spirituality, and the role of public religion in a pluralistic society. In some cases, traditional religious forms are being maintained, as seen in the chapter on rural roadside crosses, whose caretakers see such structures as a means of resistance to the elites they view as secularizing the province, even in the countryside. Another chapter studies pilgrimages to Marian shrines and how (like in secular Europe) participants take an individualized rather than a more traditional approach to the faith. Along with chapters on immigrant religion, two contributions add to the recent literature on Quebec as a launching pad for new religious movements in the Francophone and wider world. Such new currents as transhumanism have found a fertile field in the province because they appeal to the “technophilia” of Quebecois who have a great deal of respect for the authority of science and technology.
  • In a prologue to Orthodox Christian Renewal Movements in Eastern Europe (Palgrave Macmillan, $109), Meic Pearse notes how the way the Orthodox Church perceives itself as “timeless and unchanging” represents both a strength and a weakness in changing environments. Renewal movements have thus raised debates and played a role in the contemporary life of Orthodox Churches, as documented in this book edited by Aleksandra Djurić Milovanović and Radmila Radić. Largely historical, the book offers insights on a number of renewal movements, little-known by most religion scholars in the West, appearing from the 19th century (and even the late 18th century in Russia) in Orthodox environments and—despite the specificities of their particular contexts, especially the “nationalization of Orthodoxy” at that time—not entirely unlike those born during the same period in Western Christianity. The introduction by Milovanović and Radić makes these shared features clear: intensity of personal religious experience, holiness, discipline, communion, Scriptural authority, use of vernacular languages in liturgical practice, hymn chanting, prayer, all belong to the list.

    There were in fact influences from Reformation movements and similar movements formed by people who borrowed from evangelical groups while continuing to consider themselves as Orthodox. The challenge of missionary activities by movements of Protestant origins was felt as a call to renewal by some priests and faithful, even if it took time, as one can see in Bojan Aleksov’s study on the reactions of the Serbian Orthodox Church to the spread of the Nazarenes (an Evangelical movement not to be confused with the American denomination). As shown in a chapter by the editors, the God Worshipper movement in Serbia largely started as a spontaneous, grassroot phenomenon, first seen with suspicion by many church officials. Several chapters explore different aspects of this movement and its impact on the Serbian Orthodox Church, covering the entire second part of the volume and making those chapters into an ensemble that forms the core of the book. The God Worshippers attended church services regularly, but also met on Sunday afternoons or evenings and on saints’ days since, “although they resolutely claimed that they belonged to the Church and that they respected the Church hierarchy, only outside the churches could they freely reveal and fulfill their religious needs,” as Dragan Ašković writes in a piece on the prayer chanting of the God Worshipper movement.

    Like similar movements in other denominations, the challenge for the established church was to draw benefit from the stronger piety they inspired while avoiding the fall into doctrinal errors or practices seen as un-Orthodox. In fact, founders of some movements ended up leaving the church and continuing with independent movements. Despite the hiatus of the Communist period, some movements have managed to survive those hostile decades and to remain sources of renewal for their national churches. Corneliu Constantineanu finds that such is the case with the Romanian Lord’s Army, whose birth was closely linked to a new appreciation of the direct access to clear translations of the Scriptures available for all believers, and which “today affects more than a million people in all parts of Romania.” Similarly, the Brotherhood of Theologians Zoe (founded in 1907) has become “one of the most, if not the most, influential religious organizations in twentieth-century Greece.” It was devoted from the start to “the expansion of Orthodoxy within Greece” while remaining outside denominational control. Still, it has been accused by a famous former member, theologian Hristos Yannaras, of having been influenced by Protestant sources and of having deviated from a genuinely Orthodox spirit. Zoe was influential, but remains today a shadow of its own self. Amaryllis Logotheti describes its ideology as having been one of “conservative modernization.” All these movements, each in their own way, have brought new impulses to Orthodox Church life in their respective countries, impulses that in some cases have lasted to this day.