Findings & Footnotes – October 2018

  • The idea that religious beliefs and worldviews shape political orientations is challenged in Michele Margolis’ provocative new book From Politics to the Pews (University of Chicago Press, $32.50). Margolis argues that it is in the formative periods of young people’s development that they take on partisan political beliefs and identities, and that these shape people’s religious views and actions, a theory that has broad implications as to why Americans seem so divided religiously and politically in recent years. Most political scientists studying the effects of religion on politics have focused on the way religious leaders and fellow believers in congregations give members explicit and implicit messages about what kinds of political positions and actions they should take. Using longitudinal data that studied political and religious involvement among baby boomers over a period of 30 years, more recent surveys of voting behavior (2007–2014), and small-scale survey experiments that measure more sudden political changes, Margolis seeks to show how during the life cycle people are shaped by their political environments that drive religious change.

    As religious institutions became more closely associated with distinct political positions, these linkages either drove people further from or closer to religion. In other words, politically driven Democrats distanced themselves more from religion as religious institutions became friendlier to political conservatism—a finding that is not new and has been used to explain the growth of the non-affiliated in the U.S. But more novel is Margolis’ finding that politically driven Republicans became more religious during this period. Of course, this implies that politically involved voters of all stripes are aware of the religion’s place in party politics. She finds that both Democrats and Republicans with low political knowledge were not affected religiously and that what is called “religious sorting” (into affiliated and non-affiliated camps) occurs predominantly among those with moderate to high levels of political knowledge. While acknowledging that religious efforts to affect politics can be effective, they are best done to mobilize already politically convinced believers rather than to persuade the unconvinced or undecided. Margolis concludes that the process of many Democrats’ and Republicans’ “updating” aspects of their religious attachments in response to politics may mean that today’s sharp cleavages along political lines will be difficult to “unsort.” Even if the political parties moved closer on religious issues, political identities tend to be stable and formed early and only the younger generations would experience the narrowing of the “God gap.”

  • Latino and Muslim in America (Oxford University Press, $34.95), by Harold D. Morales, looks at the history and current situation of Hispanic converts to Islam, observing that they find themselves in the dilemma of being a minority within a minority in America’s religious and racial landscape. The book acknowledges that there are no firm figures on the number of Latinos who have become Muslim, with estimates ranging from 52,000 to about 200,000, but Morales sees them playing a greater role in American Islam and in some ways following the trajectory of Hispanic Protestants as they depart from a Catholic identity. The identification with Islam among Hispanics is marked by a similar disenchantment with the Catholic Church and quest for a personal and intimate faith that rejects the close fit between religion and Latino culture and racial identity. Yet the stories of conversion—or “reversion” as new Muslims often call their turn to Islam—that play a prominent role among Latino Muslims and are similar to evangelical “testimonies,” are not necessarily culture-free; many of them see the Hispanic turn to Islam as following in the tracks of Islam’s flowering in early Spain and in the social justice movements that have marked their history in the U.S.

    Morales sees the Latino embrace of Islam as coming in three waves. The first one took place in the 1980s, mainly among Puerto Ricans, under the influence of the organization Alianza Islamica, which sought to link social service to Islam and translated Islamic texts into Spanish. The second wave in the 1990s brought Latino Muslims more into the American Islamic mainstream, as they tried to work with non-Hispanic Muslim groups (and faced considerable rejection on that front) and put more emphasis on disseminating Islam over the Internet, with less attention to social service (although gender issues became more prominent). After 9/11, concerns were voiced about suspected extremism within the community, especially after some Latino Muslims took part in Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Some of these concerns were expressed by Latino Muslims themselves, as seen in the tensions surrounding popular rapper Hamza Perez and his portrayals of inherent conflict between Islam and America. The public interest in the apparent anomaly of Hispanic Muslims, as shown in Morales’ analysis of media accounts during the time of these conversions, has only grown in recent years. In the current third wave of Latino Islam, new organizations with a sharper activist edge and using sophisticated technology have sprung up, along with an attempt to unite Hispanic Muslims with the formation of the pan-Islamic group LALMA. Morales concludes that Hispanic Muslims are wrestling even further with their status of being considered a dangerous minority within a dangerous minority after the 2016 election, facing anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic attitudes.

  • That individual spiritual and religious routes can often reflect wider aspirations and trends is clearly illustrated in the case of John Earl Fetzer (1901–1991), a successful entrepreneur in Michigan, who was a radio and television executive, but also the owner of the Detroit Tigers baseball team for more than 20 years. Fetzer had deep spiritual interests, which inspired him to establish the Fetzer Institute in 1962. Written by American religious historian Brian C. Wilson (Western Michigan University), with the support of the Fetzer Memorial Trust, the new book John E. Fetzer and the Quest for the New Age (Wayne State University Press, $34.99) focuses on the businessman’s diligent and at times dizzying spiritual search. The book starts with Fetzer’s childhood in the Methodist Episcopal Church. Later, however, his mother joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church, in which Fetzer was actively involved for several years—it was at Emmanuel Missionary College that he built and ran the first radio station in southwestern Michigan. Having developed doubts about Adventism, he left the church around 1930, but would keep the idea that there are genuine prophetic individuals as well as the millennial idea that radical transformations would occur soon. Wilson also links his persistent interest in the connection between health and spirit to aspects of Seventh-day Adventist health beliefs.

    Fetzer would no longer earnestly join any religious organization, although he affiliated formally with the Presbyterian Church for business reasons. But, besides business, he would devote significant efforts throughout his life to spiritual pursuits. This would start from 1934 with visits to Camp Chesterfield, the most important Spiritualist camp in the Midwest. Mediums, spiritual healing and divination would continue to fascinate him throughout his life. As Wilson observes, Spiritualism would provide “a gateway to other metaphysical ideas and movements”—definitely not a unique case. Wilson goes on describing Fetzer’s interest during the same period in Freemasonry, Hermeticism, Rosicrucianism, and especially the Theosophical legacy with the “I AM” movement and the work of Alice Bailey. “Theosophical or Theosophically inspired literature would continue to be some of his favorite reading.” Since Wilson had access to Fetzer’s own library, he could assess the depth of his interest by Fetzer’s markings in books. From the 1950s, Fetzer’s interests also extended to unorthodox science, i.e., UFOs and the paranormal. Fetzer started to articulate his own worldview in texts he wrote in the 1960s and 1970s.

    The influence of ancient wisdom traditions, but also of New Thought and positive thinking, is obvious, as well as his certainty that a new age “lies immediately ahead,” with mighty transformations for mankind and the turning away from dualism. His books were not widely distributed, but meant for family and friends. In the 1970s, the Fetzer Foundation supported parapsychological research, and in the same decade Fetzer started practicing Transcendental Meditation, met its founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and discovered A Course in Miracles. In the 1980s, an aging Fetzer became interested in channeling and John-Roger Hinkins’ Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (MSIA), practicing its spiritual exercises to the end of his life. During that decade, the Fetzer Institute would also increasingly turn to funding research on holistic health care. Following John E. Fetzer’s “transition,” the Institute has diversified its work and put more emphasis on promoting a practical spirituality. Wilson describes Fetzer as “the consummate bricoleur, sampling many spiritual traditions, accepting some of their elements and rejecting others, all in the attempt to create a worldview that would work for him.” And Fetzer’s “intellectual trajectory hit nearly every mark on the road to the New Age,” even if he may also have renounced the label had he lived longer, Wilson concludes.