"On Faith" Roundtable: The Pew Survey on U.S. Religion



Luke already pointed us to the new Pew survey on U.S. religion, and the Washington's Post "On Faith" had a roundtable on the very topic with some heavy hitters including Martin Marty, Susan Jacoby, Chester Gillis, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo, and many others. Each weighed in on the survey and gave their interpretation of the American religious landscape with quite different conclusions. Here are some excerpts.

Martin Marty, "In Sickness and In Health"
Is it a mark of the health or sickness of American religion that so many Americans have switched their religious affiliation in adult life or dropped out? The answer is "yes."

Before elaborating, let me say that both findings point to something that is almost inevitable in today's world, and that virtually all religious leaders are aware of the trends.

Now to separate the two issues:

Is the fact that so many have switched their affiliation a mark of health or sickness. Let's look at the natural causes: there are millions and millions of "interfaith" marriages, and in many cases the switching occurred out of love on the part of one spouse for the other, and religion comes along as part of the package deal. Or interfaith marriage may have created tension and worked destructive effects on the marriage and the religious commitments of both. So when either or both "switches," the marriage may prosper, as might the religious faith of both.

There are, of course, many other reasons for switching. It can be a sign of sickness if religion is nothing more than a lightly-purchased commodity, one not backed by faith-commitment so much as by convenience, fad, or fashion and an unwillingness to deal with the demands of a faith.. It can be a sign of dilettantism, of attraction to fads, and that cannot be a good sign of health.

Susan Jacoby, "The American Spiritual Bazaar: Something for Everyone"
The relative ease with which Americans cast off one spiritual identity for another is an old phenomenon; the Pew findings show only that there has been an expansion and acceleration of a longtime, perhaps inevitable, trend in a pluralistic society. Our secular Constitution provided the underpining for the fluid American religious landscape.Try as they might--and religious denominations certainly did in the past--the legal foundation of American society upheld the right of citizens to choose their own religion. Your priest, rabbi, or parents might be furious if you stepped outside the fold, but American society as a whole didn't care.


America has always been a nation that offered extraordinary possibilities for reinvention[sic]; religious reinvention is one of those possibilities. From the standpoint of denominations being abandoned, this is certainly a weakness. The Catholic Church could count on no help from American society when people started abandoning it because of its stands on birth control, divorce, and a celibate male priesthood. Most rabbis still refuse to participate in ecumenical marriage ceremonies because they know that every intermarriage weakens traditional Judaism. Paradoxically, the ease with which Americans change religious identities may account for the excessive respect with which religion in general is regarded in this country.

In general, the Pew findings strongly support the idea advanced by Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and Public Life at Boston University, that American religion can be characterized as "broad but shallow." We have a minority of devout right-wing fundamentalists who have exercised political influence out of proportion to their numbers, and a minority of secularists who exercise less political influence than their numbers merit. In between there is a broad America that believes in God and respects religion in general but is not strongly committed to exclusionary religious principles or to a closer relationship between religion and government. There are also huge numbers of Americans who describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious"--a phrase I take to mean that they are hedging their bets by believing in some sort of divine providence but are not interested in undertaking the obligations that adhere to traditional religion. These are not people who want to get up for temple on Saturday or church on Sunday morning, but they like to watch television shows about angels and teenagers who talk to God.

Chester Gillis, "We Are Seekers and Shoppers"
Americans are seekers and shoppers. When it pertains to religion, they are no different. You may hear someone say, “I was baptized Catholic, married a Lutheran and became one, divorced, and now am unaffiliated.” This describes a growing number of Americans. The Pew Forum survey tells the story of religious identity in America. We are a mobile society not only in where we live, work, and travel our travel; we are also religiously mobile.

No doubt there are numerous reasons for such mobility, including exogamous marriage, longer lives and geographic, social, and economic factors. America’s freedom of ideas, speech, and religion underscores how different it is from many nations where a single religion dominates or where changing affiliation is simply not done, frowned upon, or even forbidden

For me, the most dramatic statistic reported in the survey is the category of “unaffiliated,” which has the highest self-identification (31%) among 18 to 29 year olds. This result mirrors studies of young Catholics (described as millennials born in 1979 or later) who demonstrate a low rate of identifying with institutional Catholicism. Recent statistics also indicate that one third of Americans who identify themselves as Catholics, approximately 23 million people, do not belong to parishes and thus likely do not have regular contact with the church.

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, "The U.S. is Post-Denominational"
It is clear from this Pew study that the old denominational affiliations no longer apply. The religious landscape in the U.S. is best described these days as “post-denominational.” Post-denominational means that it is far less important whether you are Methodist or Baptist, or even Catholic, than where you fall along the continuum of fundamentalist to evangelical to progressive (liberal) to secular or unaligned. While some faiths or denominations generally are more evangelical or more liberal, each tradition has a wide spectrum within it. If you are a liberal Christian in a conservative Protestant denomination, you may have more in common with a Reformed Jew than with the Christians in your own denomination.

The shift in religious affiliation, or away from religious affiliation, has the most correlation, in my view, with that range of religious cultural assumptions than with any specific doctrine. And when people move from one affiliation to another, they are choosing a better cultural fit.

Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo, "What's Missing From the Unsurprising Pew Study"
There are two reasons none of this is new: 1) religious identity with institutions changes when people migrate; and 2) personal religious preferences change when people of different faiths intermarry. To dispatch the last point first: the percentage of people married to a person of another church in the Pew Study is 40% and that is the same as the percentage who have switched religion. Protestants, like Baptists and Methodists, switch from congregation to congregation with amazing ease. The more intermarriage among people of different denominations, the more one or both leave the original congregation. Moreover the so called “non-denominational” churches serve the purpose of reconciling the religious differences between two Protestants by providing a vanilla brand with which both can feel comfortable.

All of this is common sense and has been researched before Pew came along. What it might mean is a thornier issue. Accommodating contemporary patterns of choice is considered by some a sign of religious weakness, but as proof of religious vitality by others. Like the argument about whether the glass is half-full or half-empty, solving the puzzle is more a statement about the observer’s preconceptions than an evaluation of fact.

In the PARAL Study we found that the religion of the mother is more likely to dominate in a family where only one faith is chosen for the children. This is Jewish law, of course, but it also demonstrates that practice of religion while a child falls within the realm of the woman. Professor Ana María Díaz-Stevens of Union Seminary in New York calls it “the matriarchal core.” Unlike the Pew study results which lumped together all people, the PARAL Study found that among Latinos the Catholic religion of the mother is more likely to be the children’s religion in two out of three households.

The role of migration is also a major factor in religious switching. The Pew Study pointed out that Catholicism rests today on the new members added by immigration. What was left unstudied was the larger theme explored in the PARAL Study about how Latino immigrants have changed U.S. Catholicism. In fact, the supposed “defection” of Latinos and Latinas is really more about “disaffection” for new parishes and lackluster liturgies. We found that as upper mobile Latinos and Latinas move to the suburbs, there is a tendency to perceive the suburban parish as not as welcoming as the typical mission or barrio congregation where Latinos predominated. Social distance is the result.

Holy Sex!


Holy Sex!: A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving by Gregory Popcak is a worthy addition to Ed Blum’s “Best Titles” list. But the title is probably sexier than the book’s content, which appears to be more soporific than a John Kerry stump speech. In all fairness, though, I couldn’t find excerpts from Holy Sex. But I did locate a chapter entitled, “‘Holy Sex Batman!’ (Or Why Catholics do it…Infallibly)” in another Popcak book. I suspect this is a precursor.

First, an irony alert: For the popular-culture-illiterate, the chapter title is an adaptation of a catch phrase from the campy 1960s Batman television show, where backstage, according to Burt Ward (the actor who played Robin), he witnessed “the wildest sexual debauchery that you can imagine.”


In the chapter, Popcak outlines the “four truths” of “holy sex”: 1) Sex is Holy (“Sex is holy. . . [but] not is the Old Testament ‘touch it and die’ sense of holiness. It is holy in the sense that it is given to us by the New Testament, through the Incarnation”); 2) Sex is Sacramental (“The Church teaches that when married people make love, they are celebrating the sacrament of matrimony”); 3) Sex is Unitive (“Sex has the power to take two hearts and melt them into one”); and 4) Sex is Procreative (“…if you want to have great, godly sex, you’ve got to at least be open to life”).

It should come as no surprise that “marital aids,” sexual acts that lead to “climaxing” anywhere but inside the woman, and contraception are all “holy sex” taboos. Such items and behaviors, according to Popcak, lapse into “eroticism,” which “treats sex like a common street drug you take to make yourself feel better.” Don’t strain yourself looking for evidence to support this eroticism thesis. Instead, skip ahead to the chapter’s conclusion, where Popcak takes credit for rebutting the stereotype that Catholics think sex is to be avoided. “I don’t ever want to hear another person bashing Catholic sexuality. And, if you hear someone criticizing it, just look at that person in the eye and say, ‘You should be so lucky, you poor, love-starved, ignorant neo-pagan.”

I’m still trying to figure out how neo-paganism fits into the conversation. But I’m certain that the good folks at Book22.com (mentioned below) will be delighted to know that their site is a gateway for worshiping the Horned God.

Incoherent invectives aside, Popcak clings to an “official” Catholic sexual theology that some think is in desperate need of updating. It was Aquinas who celebrated the inherent goodness of the procreative and unitive ends of sex. On the latter, which represented a significant departure from Augustine, he theorized that sexual passion could strengthen the bond between husband and wife, who ideally share the “greatest friendship.” The Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Specs added that the unitive and procreative ends share equal value, neither trumping the other in importance. This was confirmed in Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, an encyclical that also resolutely denounced artificial contraception, thereby providing fodder for theological dissent.

This brings me from the apologist Popcak to the oft-censored Jesuit Charles Curran. According to Curran, the Church’s sexual theology is unduly “physicalist,” or far too insistent “that intercourse must always be present and that no one can interfere with the physical or biological aspect for any reason whatsoever.” He and fellow “revisionist Catholic theologians” obviously disagree with this, and propose “that for the good of the person or for the good of the marriage, it is legitimate at times to interfere with the physical structure of the act.” Justifiable “interference,” then, may come in the form of artificial contraception.

For his dissent on contraception and many others issues, Curran has earned disfavor from the Vatican—and in particular, the present pope. But one wonders how long this will last. In Why I am a Catholic, Garry Wills draws an interesting historical parallel between Curran and John Courtney Murray, whose writings on democracy and religious freedom in the 1950s reflected the leanings of many ordinary Catholics. While Church officials initially censored Murray, he slowly regained favor and attended the Second Vatican Council, where he helped draft the Declaration on Religious Freedom. Wills would have us believe that Curran is a modern-day Murray. This could prove valid. Curran’s stance on contraception would likely sound reasonable to many married American Catholics, approximately 96 percent of whom use artificial birth control.

So will the Church hierarchy follow the laity’s lead? Will a Vatican III vindicate Curran? Or is the rebel Jesuit a secret neo-pagan? Holy Horned God, Batman!

George Fredrickson, R.I.P.


The media is chattering today about the death of William Buckley. Since he came to public consciousness with God and Man at Yale, and pronounced on religious issues from his conservative Catholic perspective, perhaps this blog should comment since he is a presence in American religion. On the other hand, it always seemed to me he wasted his talent with too much writing about trivia and jousting with opponents using pseudo-erudition as his weapon, not to mention his staunch opposition to every single advance in civil rights legislation (this is not altogether a political commentary, by the way; I feel much the same when I see John Updike's overly precious essays about subjects of little note in the New Yorker).

Much more significant, to me, is the passing of the historian George Fredrickson, who most certainly didn't waste his time on trivial pursuits; one of his former students gives him an affectionately honest remembrance here.

Since I just this afternoon blogged about my use of Fredrickson's concept of romantic racialism to think about the Civil War and American Culture, reading of his death just a few minutes after that blog entry struck me forcibly. Along with Leon Litwack and Lawrence Levine (Levine passed last year), Fredrickson was a major intellectual influence, even though I never met or spoke with him, and even though he was not a religious historian, and even though he wrote some things on religion (for the New York Review of Books) that reeked of coastal elite snobbery. But no matter -- the body of his work is essential to anyone dealing with vexed questions of the history of religion and race in the U.S. (and elsewhere, esp. South Africa -- he was a consummate comparative historian), so I note his passing with a feeling of thanks for what he gave me; and I wish I could/would have told him that while he was alive. Fortunately, students of his, including James Campbell, author of the magnificient work Songs of Zion: The African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States and South Africa, carry on his legacy of comparative race history.

My Civil War Course, Lincoln, Religion, and Terrorism



I'm currently team-teaching (with a local English professor) a course on The Civil War and American Culture (we should have called it "Slavery, The Civil War, and American Culture, which more accurately fits our reading list). It's part of our Humanities program, in which vast bodies of undergraduates of all majors are force-marched through an "interdisciplinary experience" (or, as we like to put it in Pink Floyd mode, "how can you have any pudding if you don't eat your meat?"). Students often hate it. All those Psych. and Comm. majors actually have to write lengthy papers about long texts -- gross! "Hey, I thought this was a history, not an English, class, how come there are all those little squiggly marks on my paper?" You know the drill.

In doing the course and thinking again about Uncle Tom's Cabin (UTC), I discovered this remarkable website, full of riches for the American religious historian: Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture (correction: my co-teacher found the website, and from there we integrated it into the course). It led me, among other things, to survey the abundance of commodified images of the novel's characters, as well as to contemporary (1850s) reviews of the book. I was fascinated by this piece from the North American Review, emblematic of a considerable body of northern opinion (basically: slavery is a curse, but the presence of Africans is a worse one, and slavery is the lesser of those two evils). How widespread was this opinion? That's something I'm thinking about again as I survey a variety of materials surrounding UTC.

Yesterday we were covering the subject of what George Frederickson calls "romantic racialism," and my co-teacher spent a good deal of the period covering just these couple of paragraphs from the preface:

THE scenes of this story, as its title indicates, lie among a race hitherto ignored by the associations of polite and refined society; an exotic race, whose ancestors, born beneath a tropic sun, brought with them, and perpetuated to their descendants, a character so essentially unlike the hard and dominant Anglo-Saxon race, as for many years to have won from it only misunderstanding and contempt.

But another and better day is dawning; every influence of literature, of poetry, and of art, in our times, is becoming more and more in unison with the great master chord of Christianity, "good-will to man." The poet, the painter, and the artist now seek out and embellish the common and gentler humanities of life, and, under the allurements of fiction, breathe a humanizing and subduing influence, favorable to the development of the great principles of Christian brotherhood.

Looking through the primary sources from UTC Web is compelling me to think through again religion and the coming of the War, as well as the role of romantic religious imagery in the period (together with sentimental culture) in preparing the way in part for the spread of of a "kindler and gentler" abolitionism, but also for what Ed Blum calls the "reforging of the white republic." It also helps me understand better how the "Uncle Tom" of the novel became the "Tom" of insult, and how the male culture of minstrelsy took over the female culture of the sentimental novel in terms of controlling the "cultural reception" of UTC.

Vernon Burton has been thinking through this period for a long time, and leaves us with this set of reflections on religion and the age of Lincoln, based on his new book (blogged about here before) The Age of Lincoln. Here's an excerpt:

Essential to such definitions was religious faith, a potent motivating factor. The Age of Lincoln opens with the Gettysburg address, Lincoln’s benediction. The first chapter begins with Baptist Minister William Miller, who persuaded his followers to expect the return of Jesus Christ to earth on October 22, 1844. When Jesus did not come, they went back into society, and they and others decided to transform the United States into God’s Kingdom on Earth. Religion and millennial visions undergirded reform efforts both North and South. When northern reform efforts lined up to declare slavery as the single greatest evil in the country, abolitionism, while still a minority position in the North, rose to prominence. If the United States were to be a society ordained by God, to become the utopia that would bring on the millennium, the evil of slavery had to be eradicated. Southern efforts turned toward defending slavery against such assaults. White southerners quit apologizing for slavery and proclaimed it the best society. They argued that a patriarchal, hierarchical slave society was ordained by God and would help bring on the millennium. Both northern and southern religious devotees became unbending as they knew and obeyed God’s will. Passion precluded compromise. Until the election of Abraham Lincoln, statesmen had always compromised, finding a way to work through every crisis of the union. Most leaders, including Lincoln, expected a compromise short of war. Even the Confederate constitution was a document as much to invite an acceptable compromise as to forge a new nation.

Pew Survey on U.S. Religion


Recent Pew Survey on US Religion: Something Old, Something New?
By Luke Harlow

According to this article in the New York Times, the American religious landscape is uncertain as ever. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has just released the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey and it includes some interesting statistics. Among them:

The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey estimates the United States is 78 percent Christian and about to lose its status as a majority Protestant nation, at 51 percent and slipping.

More than one-quarter of American adults have left the faith of their childhood for another religion or no religion at all, the survey found. Factoring in moves from one stream or denomination of Protestantism to another, the number rises to 44 percent.

One in four adults ages 18 to 29 claim no affiliation with a religious institution."

And there's also this data:

"On the Protestant side, changes in affiliation are swelling the ranks of nondenominational churches, while Baptist and Methodist traditions are showing net losses.

Many Americans have vague denominational ties at best. People who call themselves ''just a Protestant,'' in fact, account for nearly 10 percent of all Protestants.

Although evangelical churches strive to win new Christian believers from the ''unchurched,'' the survey found most converts to evangelical churches were raised Protestant.

Hindus claimed the highest retention of childhood members, at 84 percent. The group with the worst retention is one of the fastest growing -- Jehovah's Witnesses. Only 37 percent of those raised in the sect known for door-to-door proselytizing said they remain members.

Among other findings involving smaller religious groups, more than half of American Buddhists surveyed were white, and most Buddhists were converts.

More people in the survey pool identified themselves as Buddhist than Muslim, although both populations were small -- less than 1 percent of the total population. By contrast, Jews accounted for 1.7 percent of the overall population.

Much of this data seems to confirm what the scholarship on American religion has suggested for some time: the declining significance of of the denomination, believing Americans' lack of deeply held ties to traditions and institutions, and the tenuous nature of any sorts of claims that the United States is a "Christian nation," are classic themes in the literature.

From another perspective, however, I wonder if we have scholarly answers for all the questions this data raises. In what sense, for example, are religious non-affiliates--a group that seems to be growing, especially among younger Americans--religious? (Of course, that might just be begging a question about how we most effectively assess religiosity.) Put another way, do these statistics force us to reassess our views on American religious life?

Southern Baptists: Diversifying to Survive


The title of an interesting article in yesterday's Washington Post. A brief excerpt:

Faced with a crisis of aging and departing members, the nation's largest non-Catholic Christian bodies -- Southern Baptists, United Methodists, Lutherans and Presbyterians -- are reaching out to minorities in ways they never have before. . . . "You can almost calculate the time when we close the door and turn off the lights if we don't become a more diverse church," said Sherman Hicks, executive director of multicultural ministries for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a 4.9 million-member denomination that is 97 percent white.

But of all the denominations seeking to diversify, many agree that the Southern Baptist Convention -- an association of about 40,000 congregations that make up the nation's largest Protestant denomination -- has the farthest to travel.

From its 1845 birth in
Georgia as a haven for white Baptists who supported slavery, the SBC has had troubled relations with African Americans. For 150 years, by its own admission, it was hostile to black progress, often speaking in favor of Jim Crow laws. But in 1995, the Southern Baptists did an about-face, issuing a public apology for their history of bigotry and vowing to "eradicate racism in all its forms" from its ranks.

These days, the faith that was once proudly white now touts the fact that almost 20 percent of its congregations are predominantly black, Latino or Asian. Hundreds of minorities serve in leadership posts in its state conventions, seminaries and other organizations. The SBC Mission Board estimates that the number of black members has doubled to about 1 million since the 1995 apology.

What Are the Best Titles in American Religious History?


After I posted about Courtney Bender's book and praised her for the title, she sent me an emailing mentioning that her title was conceived in conversation with her press editor. She wanted U Chicago Press to feel some of the accolades as well.

And it got me thinking: what are the best titles in American religious history? Not the best books, but the best literary titles - and why.

So, if you have an opinion on this, please leave a comment and defend your choice. Let's have a comment-off.

Timeless Rock and Christian Sex



First, the timeless rock of Stryper (“Salvation Through Redemption, Yielding Peace, Encouragement, and Righteousness”) Jesused-up power cords. Then Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ put a Christian stamp on the sort of gratuitous violence normally reserved for Governor Schwarzenegger’s films. Now, thanks to book22.com, we have Christian sex toys. NPR interviewed the site’s founder on Valentine’s Day and had this written summary

Joy Wilson went looking for something to spice up her marriage without compromising her Christian beliefs. Finding nothing, she founded her own “sin-free” sex toy business. Book22.com caters to the Christian community with books, toys and occasional advice. The name refers to the Song of Solomon, the extended love poem that forms the 22nd book of the Bible.

Wilson says that after the birth of her first child, she had trouble rekindling her desire for intimacy. She and her husband went looking for marital aids, and found that Internet searches for products as tame as massage oil led to sites with pornographic images. “I was really surprised that it was that bad,” she says.

She and her husband talked it over and decided that there must be a way for conservative people to add a spark to their romantic lives. She says their site steers clear of certain types of sexual activity that they believe are unholy. And they carefully consider which new products to add.

OK, I’ll admit it…this surprised me. But as Amy DeRogatis explains in “What Would Jesus Do? Sexuality and Salvation in Protestant Evangelical Sex Manuals, 1950s to the Present” (Church History, March ’05), folks like me are profoundly misinformed. She writes…

The growing awareness since the late 1950s that sex is more than one specific act has led many people to question whether sex as we learn it from our parents, teachers, clergy, friends, books, and science is “natural” (a matter of biological response) or socially constructed (a matter of cultural control). Opinions vary, tempers flare, and the mountain of sex advice manuals available at local bookstores attests to the U.S. public's insatiable appetite for knowledge about sex.

It might be surprising that evangelical Protestants have been among the most vocal participants in this ongoing definitional debate. Contrary to popular stereotypes that characterize conservative Christians as sexually repressed, Protestant evangelicals did not turn away from the sexual liberation movement begun in the 1960s; they have simply made it their own, publishing sex manuals, running sex workshops and holding counseling sessions to instruct husbands and wives on the best techniques for a sexually satisfied marriage.

DeRogatis goes on to note that “marital aids” (sex toys) are one of many debated sex topics in the evangelical community. I would scan book22.com to determine how Joy Wilson and her husband support their side. But I’m at work, where the Internet police may show up at any minute. I’m not betting that they are subscribers to Church History.

Manhattan Evangelicalism


Today's Washington Post has an interesting article about The King's College, an evangelical college that occupies three floors in the Empire State Building. The article presents Kings as a sort of urban Patrick Henry College, the Virginia school that got a lot of attention last year thanks to Hannah Rosin's God's Harvard. Kings recently hired Marvin Olasky as its provost. Olasky, the editor of World Magazine and a journalism professor at Texas-Austin, is the man behind the term "compassionate conservatism."

I have no reason to doubt that The Kings College is positioning itself as an institution at the intersection of evangelicalism and poltical conservatism, but this is not the Kings College I remember as a North Jersey teenager who for a time lived within its evangelical orbit.

For much of the 1950s, 60s and 70s Kings was at the center of New York metropolitan area evangelicalism. It was founded by Percy Crawford, a youth evangelist who was an unofficial mentor of Billy Graham. The college would have ties to "Youth for Christ," the evangelistic ministry that Graham helped to found. In 1955, the college moved from the Jersey shore (where it was founded in Belmar in 1938) to Briarcliff Manor, New York, a posh Westchester County village. It attracted evangelical and fundamentalist students from throughout the metropolitan area. (I remember hearing stories about its competition for students and fierce rivalries on the soccer field and basketball court with neighboring Nyack College, the Christian Missionary Alliance school located just across the Hudson River). King's president Dr. Robert Cook became one of the region's most popular evangelicals. His daily radio broadcast, "The Kings Hour," was a staple on Christian radio. (I remember my parents listening to it in the 1980s. Cook ended every broadcast with the phrase, "Walk with the King today and be a blessing.") This was the kind of warm, pietistic, evangelistic, subcultural, and apolitical fundamentalism that Joel Carpenter writes about in his book Revive Us Again.

Financial hardship forced Kings to close its doors in 1994. Five years later it reopened in the Empire State Building with a more pronounced culture war agenda. The Washington Post piece today reminded me of just how much the goals and values of American evangelicalism--and some of their colleges--have changed in the last few decades.

Religion Dispatches


Ralph Luker at Cliopatria calls our attention to Religion Dispatches, a new on-line religion magazine edited by Emory University's Gary Laderman. Here is its mission statement:

Religion Dispatches is a daily online magazine dedicated to the analysis and understanding of religious forces in the world today, highlighting a diversity of progressive voices and aimed at broadening and advancing the public conversation.

I should also add that our own Kathryn Lofton had the Feb 19th "cover story"--"Necessary Sacrifice: Sundance, Mormon Movies, and the Race to Oscar Night." Check it out.

NOTE: (2-20-08): I just realized I am a bit late with this announcement. Kelly Baker has reminded me that she has already introduced us to *Religion Dispatches* and Katie's article in her latest post. My mistake!

$ecularism by the Numbers


Alan Wolfe's essay in the Atlantic Monthly, "The Coming Religious Peace" (March 2008), is a fascinating read. (See also, Jane Clayson's discussion with Wolfe on WBUR's On Point.) Amid the hubub about devotion and doubt, Wolfe uses a recent Pew survey to chart some trends in world religion. I had thought that the secularization thesis was dead, buried, and long decomposed by now, but the Pew survey and Wolfe's take on it shed new light on old questions.

Wolfe's remarks on the future of belief:

A lot rides on which of these predictions turn out to be true, and on how and where different religions bump up against one another. A common worry is that intense competition for souls could produce another era in which religious conflict leads to religious war—only this time with nuclear weapons. If we are really in for anything like the kind of zeal that accompanied earlier periods of religious expansion, we might as well say goodbye to the Enlightenment and its principles of tolerance.

The Pew chart that matches a "religiosity scale" and "per capita GDP," gives new meaning to the shop worn concept of "American exceptionalism."

Sure, Pentecostalism, Islam, and Mormonism are on the rise, but Wolfe cautions, don't count out the growing tide of secularism.

. . . the idea of inevitable secularization has fallen out of favor with many scholars and journalists. Still, its most basic tenet—that material progress will slowly erode religious fervor—appears unassailable. Last October, the Pew Global Attitudes Project plotted 44 countries according to per capita gross domestic product and intensity of religious belief, gauged by the responses to several questions about faith (a rendition of the Pew data appears on the opposite page). The pattern, as seen in the Pew study and a number of other sources, is hard to miss: when God and Mammon collide, Mammon usually wins.

"A Little Murder Goes A Long Way": Film and Sacrifice



Our own Katie Lofton has contributed a fascinating, must-read piece, entitled, "Necessary Sacrifice: Sundance, Mormon Movies, and the Race to Oscar Night," to Religion Dispatches. Relying upon René Girard, she argues that we need these sacrifices, often horrific events, which is why we consume such violence. Violence appears in the headlines of CNN, on our television sets, and in the movie theater. This violence spurs us into dialogue with one another. Can you believe this? How could this happen?! How terrible is this? Or wow, I am glad that didn't happen to me! She points out that this dialogue is part of the process. We need this catharsis. (I evidently need this too, since I just started reading Alice Sebold's Lucky, her memoir of her rape as a college freshman. I am guilty as charged.) Katie writes:

Violence interrupts domesticity, smearing the breakfast table with surprise blood. The audience gasped, sometimes, but mainly sat mutely. We were expecting the hairpin turn. We knew that no Sundance submission would linger in the long arc of romance or adventure, horror or crime. Contemporary filmic success relies on the unexpected shatter: Fido flailing in dark swimming holes, mama strapping on a shotgun to interrupt dad’s afternoon Laz-Z-Boy lookout. Take, as evidence, the 2008 Academy Award nominees for best picture: Atonement glancing quickly at a once-upon-a-time (maybe) rape; Michael Clayton distracting with an exploding car and staged suicide; No Country For Old Men starring an impassive assassin who pauses only to wipe blood from his shoes on suburban porch steps; There Will Be Blood blending boyhood play and death by bowling. Even Juno includes a near-miss violation, with the saucy lead actress narrowly escaping fetal murder (and adulterous misdeed) by the sheer coincidence of her own ironic conscience (and a good long roadside cry). Films are populated with phlegmatic faces pressing past unbelievable slaughter, the onward momentum of man no matter the carcasses that collect. Films seeking prizes need only a sentimental tour of death and redemption, shocking interruption and inevitable survival.

Because they do, of course, all end with a smile. Or a clown’s tear. Michael Clayton smirking at the back of a cab; Juno grinning as her lover’s duet concludes; even Tommy Lee Jones stares, knowingly, into the desert beyond. Sundance didn’t spare us, either: the suicidal sister sits amiably for Kodak, and Dennis the muscle-bound German dims the bedside lamp. The Finnish farmer felon bakes a great baker’s dozen, and the murdering New Orleans refugees march, sodden, into sunset. The afterlife of violence is scabbed, dignified, chin-up-now survival. Sentimental schemes, one and all: we are convinced that something necessary has been expelled, that the sacrifice has worked. A little murder goes a long way.



I haven't yet read but am very much looking forward to digesting Alvyn Austen's prodigious account of the China Inland Mission. Having heard portions of her project at various conferences, I will buy Kathy Long's book on the Waorani and their encounters with American evangelical missionaries as soon as it is released.

Well-researched and well-written histories of American missions are at least as fascinating as any novel. Still, many fine novels have introduced evangelical missionaries into their narratives to great effect. Much of the time, missionary novels feature a "crazy missionary": overzealous and usually hypocritical, such as Nathan Price in Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible.

The missionaries in Mischa Berlinski's recent Fieldwork are overzealous and sometimes hypocritical, but they are much more than stock characters. I picked up Fieldwork on the basis of Mark Walhout's review of the book in the January / February issue of Books & Culture.

In Fieldwork, an American missionary clan spends years in the Asian jungle evangelizing the Dyalo, a tribe resembling the Lisu (a people who converted en masse to Christianity). They might be overzealous, but the Walkers remain winsome. They baptize a pet tiger, and they presume that the Grateful Dead must be saved. Berlinski creatively imagines the rivalry between the Dyalo spirits and missionaries' religion, as he explains in an interview posted on his website:

I tried to imagine what a relief it must have been for them when the Christians came, with the message that Jesus could control the spirits. Jesus, in this way of thinking, was just a more powerful spirit than the others.

Berlinski -- he is also the book's narrator -- is a journalist investigating why an American anthropologist, Martiya van der Leun, murdered David Walker, the missionary family's young rising star. Martiya, who becomes the centerpiece of Fieldwork, succumbs to the anthropologist's insatiable "Curiosity" to fully understand a native ritual (the dyal), abandons her academic career, and permanently lives with the Dyalo. The Walkers are trying to free the Dyalo from the spirits which entrap them. Martiya, by contrast, joins the dyal, apparently becomes possessed, and murders David Walker when his evangelistic efforts threaten the animistic faith she has embraced. Berlinski as the author's narrator also succumbs to a form of Curiosity; he puts his romantic and professional life on hold to solve the riddle of the murder.

Fieldwork is a smart, humorous, and dramatic book. Berlinski's reflections on anthropology and the encounter between missionaries and native cultures are provocative. He succeeds somewhat better at capturing the mentality of the anthropologist than her missionary rivals, though Berlinksi's account of them moves far beyond stereotype. One could hardly blame him, as one of the book's themes is the great difficulty which anthropologists (and, thus, anyone) has understanding both themselves and other cultures. A cautionary tale for historians!

Best of all, Fieldwork is a great yarn which is hard to put down in time for a good night's sleep. I'm looking forward to Berlinski's next novel, evidently about a woman in India who marries a snake.

Rumors of the Death of the Culture War


Those rumors are exaggerated, according to Peter Steinfels, who asks "what will this retreat of the religious right mean for the future of the culture wars?," and answers "Combat may wane, at least a little, at least for a while. But there are good reasons to doubt any lasting truce, let alone a real peace."

Also, John Wilson issues the first of a promised two-part series reflecting on a few of the worthier (amidst a pile of unworthy) titles treating Christians and Politics. He calls attention to a forthcoming work of which I was unaware: Steven Waldman's Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America -- with more discussion of that to follow in a future post.

Deg's Dispatches, Part IV

Dispatches from LeConte Hall 323 – Part IV
by Darren Grem

In my experience, if students know anything about American religious history, they “know” about colonial religious history. “Anything,” of course, is a relative term because much of what they know tends to be incomplete, off base, or downright mythic. As such, I think teaching colonial religious history is one of the hardest tasks of the term. How do you enliven discussions about the Puritans they’ve been hearing about since sixth grade? How do you complicate the dualism that presumes all colonists were either for “religious freedom” or for “religious intolerance?” How do you discuss how politics and religion mixed during the Revolutionary War? How do you get students – who are post-establishment to the core – to understand why certain colonists accepted certain sources of religious authority, such as the state? How do you make the First Amendment make sense, according to the logic of the 18th century?

To meet these challenges, I had the students look at how and where colonists worshipped (and didn’t), why they accepted certain members into their religious communities (and didn’t), and why they advocated colonial independence (or didn’t). I wanted them to understand that notions of religious authority informed notions of social and political authority in the 1600s and 1700s in ways completely foreign to us today. For instance, by looking at the interior and exterior of an Anglican church from low country South Carolina, they could make certain inferences about how Anglicanism supported a certain social order. By the same token, a Congregationalist church in Boston or a Baptist church in Virginia sent similar messages, albeit with different theological and religious emphases. After introducing them to questions about religious authority through this visual tour of colonial “houses of God,” we tackled the Puritans by reading a number of Puritan documents.

Of course, ideological treatises like John Winthrop’s “A Modell of Christian Charity” were examined, but I wanted them to compare such high-minded statements about Puritan society to documents that detailed how Puritans lived and worked. They were surprised to find what historians have found – that Puritans lived in a complicated and changing religious and political world. The “other witch hunt” that Richard Godbeer has detailed at Stamford revealed these complexities, but I think the students had difficulty removing themselves from accepted stereotypes of Puritans to take these complexities seriously. Despite evidence to the contrary, the mythic Puritan – continually pious, unthinkingly devoted – retained its hold, and I’m not sure that my assignments and instruction changed these impressions much. The fact that Puritans drank, danced, courted, and even consorted on occasion with “cunning folk” was missed by more than a few of my students. Of course, the Puritans were, as they rightly noted, distinctly opposed to religious infiltrators, but few considered why they were intolerant when they were. Rather, most concluded that the Puritans merely had intolerance written into their DNA.

I unfortunately caught a bad head cold for the next section, so they had to read about the middle and southern colonies on their own. We returned to questions about religious authority, however, via our study of the Revolutionary era. How did religion inform the politics of pacifism, loyalism, and revolution? I presumed that most students have heard, to some extent, about the influence of religious ideas on revolutionist supporters. As their papers on the topic showed, some of them had likewise internalized the revolutionists’ arguments (no doubt a byproduct of the very “civil religion” that the era birthed). The perspectives of religious pacifists and loyalists, however, complicated such impressions and set us up for another set of questions: How do people who believe God is on their side deal with military victory and defeat? In turn, if one’s notion of religious authority determines which side you’re on in a military conflict, how might you fiddle with such notions once the military situation turns for or against your favor? The students seemed most interested in the various negotiations that Anglicans, Mennonites, and Quakers were forced into making with the coming and going of the revolution. And, I think exposure to their accounts helped make the reading of revolutionist sermons – such as Jacob Cushing’s “Divine Judgments Upon Tyrants” – more contextualized.

At the end of these sections, I wanted students to have a firmer grasp on how and why notions of religious authority informed (or didn’t inform) life in colonial America. In turn, I wanted them to rethink how religion shaped the conflicts of the Revolutionary era and why the First Amendment both alleviated and amplified some of these religious conflicts. For the most part, I believe that my students learned from these lessons. Yet, as products of the very “religious marketplace” that the First Amendment legalized, these concepts were the most foreign to them and the most difficult for them to grasp. No less difficult, I believe, is the idea that “religious freedom” doesn’t necessarily mean full-tilt “religious tolerance,” something that we’re going to explore more fully during our sections on the religious worlds of the early Republic. More on that later…

Southern CrossRoads


The Editors of the Journal of Southern Religion recently added Curtis W. Freeman’s article, “‘Never Had I Been So Blind’: W. A. Criswell’s ‘Change’ on Racial Segregation” to Volume 10. Here’s an excerpt from the conclusion…

W. A. Criswell discerned the political signs of the times more clearly than anyone could have imagined. He was able to envision the passing of the Dixiecrat politics of the Solid South, and the emergence of a new conservatism that would fit like hand-in-glove with the New Religious Right. He later would be hailed as both the godfather of the conservative resurgence of the Southern Baptist Convention and a spiritual advisor in the southern strategy of the Republican revolution. Yet what he wanted more than anything was to be the pastor of the largest Baptist church in the world. His change ensured that would be possible for years to come. Although Criswell has been described as a man of principle and conviction, he more fittingly personified the populist conservatism that was shared by many other white Baptists in the South. They resisted integration in the here and now but were willing to make pragmatic concessions as the social arrangement of Southern culture changed. For the time being the biblical vision of a racially reconciled humanity would have to wait. Nevertheless, as Criswell reminded them, “In heaven we’ll all be together.”

For those unfamiliar with Criswell and his position on segregation, his obituary in the New York Times offers a quick primer.

The Rev. W. A. Criswell, a leader of the conservative movement now in control of the Southern Baptists and former pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, one of the denomination's first megachurches, died on Thursday in Dallas. He was 92. He was the former head of the Southern Baptist Convention and was pastor of First Baptist, the nation's largest Southern Baptist congregation, from 1944 until 1991, becoming pastor emeritus in 1994. The author of Why I Preach That the Bible Is Literally True and 53 other books, Mr. Criswell was a target of both denomination liberals and conservatives during his two terms as convention president in 1968-70. . . . Mr. Criswell once told the South Carolina Legislature that integration was “idiocy,” but he announced after his election to the convention presidency in 1968 that he was renouncing segregation, a practice that was then common in Southern churches and elsewhere.

Also in JSR news, two members of our editorial board Walter Conser and Rodger Payne co-edited, Southern Crossroads: Perspectives on Religion and Culture. Here’s a description from the University Press of Kentucky website (you may notice some familiar names)…

Southern Crossroads: Perspectives on Religion and Culture takes the study of southern religion beyond a narrow focus on Christianity and churches. The interdisciplinary research found in this volume extends to non-Western religions and even to such topics as food, music, art, vernacular folkways, and literature. Contributors include Walter H. Conser Jr., James R. Curtis, Matthew Day, Marcie Cohen Ferris, Paul Harvey, Samuel S. Hill, Barbara Lau, Bill J. Leonard, William Martin, Donald G. Mathews, William D. Moore, Charles E. Orser Jr., Diana Pasulka, Celeste Ray, Randall J. Stephens, and Charles Reagan Wilson.

Religion on the Ground (At 35,000 Feet)


Airplane Space-Invaded Reflection on Courtney Bender, Heaven's Kitchen: Living Religion at God's Love We Deliver and Omar McRoberts’s Streets of Glory: Church and Community in a Black Neighborhood

With Super Tuesday gone and still months from the actual election, I must admit that I’m tired of politics. I know it gets just about all of the media attention (along with some bits on pop culture); I know that our nation’s selection of the next president is crucial. But sometimes it wears me out. I find myself irritated by watching the $400 haircuts, the perfect suits, the photo opportunities, the sound bites. Romney, Obama, Clinton, Huckabee, and McCain – all of them fascinate me. Yet I cannot help but ask: do they really influence my day-to-day life? Would I look that beautiful at 40 or 50 or 60 or 70 if I had a personal trainer, nutrionist, and a team of make up experts? (if anyone wants to comment ‘yes,’ please feel free to do so).

So as I prepared to travel at 35,000 feet once again, I search for books about American religion that bring me back to the ground. I wanted to find some books that carried me to the nitty-gritty everyday life, where women and men, children and adults, search for meaning amid bills and bullies, clothes and cartoons, taxes and traumas. For me personally, my religious life is deeply connected to the individuals I know and interact with each day (not the celebrities or politicians I see on the television); my emotions and feelings are linked to the communities I see in person, that I touch with real hands, that I smell with real nostrils. So I grabbed two books from the library on everyday, lived reality of religion in the United States – Courtney Bender’s Heaven's Kitchen: Living Religion at God's Love We Deliver (which I had thumbed through previously) and Omar McRoberts’s Streets of Glory: Church and Community in a Black Neighborhood. I could have selected a host of other books to get me on the street with “common,” everyday people. I could have selected books from Gerardo Marti, for instance, a wonderful young sociologist who has written several books on multiracial congregations. Perhaps I’ll blog about his work another time, but for now, I’m traveling in my mind to New York City and Boston.

In reality, I read these books while traveling to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, perhaps the antithesis of Boston or New York. Rural and significantly homogeneous, most residents of Oshkosh would probably feel culture shock with the individuals in Heaven’s Kitchen or Streets of Glory. But I love those kinds of juxtapositions and all of the cognitive dissonance that goes with it. I was on my way to speak before a wonderful crowd of folks at the Institute for the Study of Religion, Violence and Memory. I had a fabulous time, discussing W. E. B. Du Bois and the redemption of lynching. Clearly, the faculty at Wisconsin, Oshkosh had dolled out the extra credit in heaps, because the place was teeming with undergraduates. But back to New York. (incidentally, the airplane film was Dan In Real Life, an awful Steve Carell movie but the theme of real, everyday life was a nice reminder for my reading).

Before delving into the book, I want to applaud Bender for the title. An obvious play off of “Hell’s Kitchen,” a neighborhood in New York where a young Walter Rauschenbusch served as a minister. Bender’s title borders on too cute, but doesn’t go over the edge. It’s not, to me, as clever as How the Other Half Dies (perhaps my favorite book title of all time), but it’s nonetheless a creative play. Heaven’s Kitchen is a marvelous study of a nonprofit, nonreligious organization named God's Love We Deliver. It’s a fascinating name, especially since volunteers rarely discuss God. The organization prepares home-cooked meals for people with AIDS. Bender spent more than twelve months working there. With the other volunteers, she spent day after day preparing hundreds of meals: washing vegetables; peeling potatoes; packaging chicken; cleaning utensils – all that stuff celebrities don’t have to worry about. I felt guilty reading about their efforts as I complained internally about the person sitting next to me. I guess my airplane partner thought we were playing a game of Space Invaders; he won. As I read Bender’s work, I was amazed that she was able to have any analytical powers while working so feverishly to get the meals out on time.

And what Bender found is illuminating. Even though God’s name is in the title of the organization, most sacred entities went unmentioned. Bender found that God, Jesus, Buddha, or Muhammad were rarely, if ever discussed. Moral, ethical, and religious beliefs were often unspoken or purposefully avoided, Bender observed. It was the absence of God-talk that was so interesting. Bender showed that it was in their ordinary actions (the cooking of food), in their simple conversations (questions about loved ones), and in their silences (when perhaps they were praying or thinking about the rest of the day) that volunteers made religious meaning. What is so inspirational about Bender’s narrative is that she found moral ideas and worldviews at work in places that media outlets would miss, where pollsters would skip, and where the latest fashions and vogues would be insignificant. This was my kind of religion; I’m just thankful I didn’t have to peel the potatoes to comprehend it.

While Bender’s is a study of individuals within one organization, Omar McRoberts’s is a study of organizations within one small area. He is curious to know why Four Corners in Boston, roughly one half square mile made up mostly of African Americans, had almost thirty churches as of 1999 (that’s about one church per 500 individuals in the neighborhood). McRoberts wants to know why a poor neighborhood like Four Corners would have so many churches; he wants to know how these churches are similar and different; he wants to know what role these organizations play in group action (or how do they fail to aid collective activity). At base, McRoberts wants to understand the role of these churches within their urban environments – how the environment shapes the churches and how the churches shape the environment.

Historically, McRoberts tells a story of religious revitalization amid economic catastrophe. In the 1960s and 1970s, as Four Corners experienced massive economic disinvestment, the number of churches rose substantially. The two were connected in some ways. As businesses left, their structures could be used to house churches. The rise of churches was also connected to the Great Migration of African Americans to northern cities between World War I and World War II. Church growth, McRoberts claims, was part of the process whereby churches constituted “particularist spaces of sociability” where, pardon the phrase, birds of a feather could flock together.

McRoberts has the ability to analyze statistical data and cultural forms. Just as he examines the locations of the churches and their niche marketing, he also searches out the cultural systems within each church. McRoberts looks closely at how different churches helped elaborate cultural differences between various groups of African Americans in Four Corners. He then looks at ideas of “the street,” which should remind any reader of Robert Orsi’s amazing study of the “theology of the streets” in his first book. For some of the churches in Four Corners, the street was an evil outsider; for others it was recruitment ground; for others it was a place to demonstrate concern for social issues. The street was a place of peril and possibility, of reform and regret. Finally, McRoberts examines how churches competed and cooperated. While they struggled against one another for resources, members, and power, they also aligned in many cases to improve their neighborhood.

So as we vote and debate about for whom we vote (and the religious implications of it all) and as we watch Britney Spears and mock her or adore her or both (and question the morality of media presentations of her), I hope we can still find time to remember religion on the ground, religion in the words spoken and unspoken, in the churches built and torn down, in the nitty-gritty world of the everyday. That’s where I find religion in my own life so why not as a scholar too. And that’s where I found my mental nourishment on my way to and from Oshkosh. Now off to Atlanta.

Do You Believe in Miracles?



When asked how he plans to overcome a virtually insurmountable John McCain delegate lead in the race for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, Mike Huckabee is fond of reminding the number crunchers that he didn’t major in math in college--he majored in miracles. (I just checked the website at Ouachita Baptist University and they have no such major!)

Huckabee’s recent primary victories in Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, West Virginia, Kansas, and Louisiana may not have been miracles, but one can’t help but be amazed and entertained by the way he continues to win primaries—some of them by large margins--even after McCain has all but locked up the nomination. (The Kansas blowout is especially worthy of note since both of the state’s Republican senators—Sam Brownback and Pat Roberts—campaigned actively for McCain). This all makes for great political theater.

As I have written before on this blog, Huckabee has managed to survive with no major endorsements from Christian Right leaders (James Dobson finally endorsed him the other day). He has managed to survive with very little money (only now is the cash starting to flow into the campaign coffers). And he has managed to survive amid a constant barrage of criticism from radio talk show hosts. His people—evangelical Christians who don’t seem to mind his lack of conservative credentials, particularly on economic issues—continue to vote for him. So much for Rush Limbaugh’s influence in the heartland.

Many in the Republican Party want Huckabee to drop out of the race, but he refuses--sometimes quite adamantly-- to do so. He will not surrender his candidacy to the power brokers of the Republican National Committee. If he did, it would violate the very populist principles that have enabled him to get this deep into the race. Huckabee will quit when the people tell him to quit. His fundraising surge over the last several days and his recent primary wins tell him that the people’s voice is not weakening—it is getting louder.

It has been commonplace of late to compare Huckabee's populism with that of William Jennings Bryan. But let's be careful before we name Huckabee as the second coming of the Great Commoner. There are many similarities between the two candidates, but as Michael Kazin has recently reminded us, the comparisons only go so far. Bryan was much more critical of corporate power than Huckabee. (John Edwards seemed closer to Bryan than Huckabee in this regard). Bryan also knew something about foreign policy—enough to oppose American involvement in World War I. Bryan was a Christian progressive who had strong support from unions. Huckabee has no such support. And perhaps most importantly, Bryan’s populism appealed to a much larger cross-section of the American working and lower-middle classes. In other words, he could win votes from non-evangelicals.

Bryan and Huckabee lived in different eras, making these kinds of historical comparisons difficult. Yet any historian of American politics can’t help but be fascinated by the way the former Arkansas governor has revived, in his own way, a brand of Christian populism that Americans have not seen in over a century.

Can Huckabee pull it off? Only if he can put some of his college coursework to good use.

Not even William Jennings Bryan could do that.

Post-Katrina, Still Waiting



I recently received word of a PBS documentary, Still Waiting: Life After Katrina. There’s a low resolution version of the film on the website. Here’s a description…

Still Waiting: Life After Katrina documents the remarkable story of resilience, family, and attachment to place. The role of race, women, family, food, and faith are integral to the content and provide powerful teaching opportunities.

Still Waiting takes place in the post-Katrina world of three African American women who grew up in the New Orleans area. The stories of Connie, Katie, and Janie are set against a backdrop of the larger extended family they share. In the film, we see how our primary women who have long held up the center of their respective families react differently to the circumstances that Katrina has thrust upon them.

The unusual size and interconnectedness of the 155-member family portrayed in this film point to a cultural truth that, while unfamiliar in most of the US, resonates strongly in the New Orleans area. The group’s well-knotted bonds of love and reciprocity function like an emotional ecosystem, capable, it seems, of absorbing the profound betrayal of nature and the system. But as the story of their evacuation to Dallas gives way to the story of their return to the bayou and the unexpected difficulties they face, the hopes of reclaiming life as it once existed look increasingly remote.

Still Waiting is a collaborative project of two-time Emmy winning filmmaker Ginny Martin, and
Kate Browne, Afro-Creole specialist and professor of anthropology at Colorado State University. The documentary was filmed between October 2005 and March 2007 and was funded by National Science Foundation, Colorado State University, and Women in Film. Still Waiting was broadcast on nearly 300 PBS stations in August, September and October 2007. The film's website includes a low resolution streaming video of the film, a link showing reactions to the documentary, PBS air dates and times, and links for ordering a DVD for personal or institutional use. Please visit www.stillwaiting.colostate.edu

Son of Power, Faith, Fantasy; or Leveling the Praying Field



Princeton Univ. Press recently was kind enough to send me a copy of E. J. Dionne, Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. Many readers here likely will recognize Dionne as a fine political journalist and frequent talking head and NPR commentator.

My perusal of it has been too brief to comment further except to note this review by Scott Appleby of Souled Out together with Amy Sullivan, Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap (the source of "leveling the praying field" above). Appleby overplays (to my mind) the alleged scorn in which the Democrats formerly held faith, but that's a quibble.
A brief excerpt:

Strikingly, both authors announce the demise of the religious right and proclaim the advent of a new era of religious engagement in the direction of what might be called faith-friendly liberalism. “American politics is at a turning point,” Dionne asserts. “Evangelical Christians are an increasingly diverse group,” broadening their political agenda to include environmental issues and a commitment to international human and religious rights, as well as to economic policies that address poverty. . . . This would indeed be a marked departure from the recent past, when, in Sullivan’s words, “a showdown between the religious left and religious right was like a tricycle going up against a Mack truck.” The disparity reflected a three-decade head start by religious conservatives flush with cash, coupled with the Republicans’ “incredibly sophisticated methods of reaching religious voters.” Meanwhile, according to several veteran Democratic operatives cited by Sullivan, “the only method the party had for identifying Catholics was to guess based on surnames.”

Are Sullivan and Dionne to be believed, or is this the triumph of wishful thinking over political reality? Sullivan admits to setting out to prove her Dem-dissing pastor wrong, and Dionne, burdened by what he poignantly describes as “the agony of liberal Catholicism,” could be forgiven for mistaking the creativity of a few Catholic politicians and the enthusiasms of younger Catholics as benevolent signs of more liberal times to come.

The "decline and fall" narrative here, as well as the "rise of" story, both leave me a little skeptical, perhaps as a result of my location in C. Springs as well as the enormous evangelical turnout for Huck last week. Nonetheless, Dionne appears particularly worthy of further reading and thought because, unlike most of the writing of this genre, he deals seriously with Catholicism. Note especially Chapter 6: "What Happened to the Seamless Garment: The Agony of Liberal Catholicism," a question we've discussed here before in reference to Dorothy Day, the evidently missing Catholic version of Jim Wallis, et al.

I welcome responses from any readers of this latest from Dionne -- feel free to send here.

Power, Faith, Fantasy: The Sequel


Below I blogged about a review of Michael Oren's book Power, Faith, Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present. A sequel: "Speakers at Academy Said to Make False Claims," in Thursday's New York Times. Numerous observers have espied the "evangelical infiltration" of the military, the Air Force leading the way. This shoe fits:

The Air Force Academy was criticized by Muslim and religious freedom organizations for playing host on Wednesday to three speakers who critics say are evangelical Christians falsely claiming to be former Muslim terrorists. . . .

Members of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a group suing the federal government to combat what it calls creeping evangelism in the armed forces, said it was typical of the Air Force Academy to invite born-again Christians to address cadets on terrorism rather than experts who could teach students about the Middle East.

“This stuff going on at the academy today is part of the endemic evangelical infiltration that continues,” said David Antoon, a 1970 academy graduate and a foundation member

Prof. Douglas Howard, who teaches the history of the modern Middle East at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., heard Mr. Saleem speak last November at the college and said he thought the three were connected to several major Christian evangelical organizations.

“It was just an old time gospel hour — ‘Jesus can change your life, he changed mine,’ ” Mr. Howard said. “That is mixed in with ‘Watch out America, wake up America, the danger of Islam is here.’ ”

"A Modern Day Prophet," Or Hearing George Michael Sing In Our Living Rooms



As the writer's strike drags on (but might possibly finish), the major networks are running new shows to satisfy our (or possibly just my) T.V. watching needs. One of which is Eli Stone, a show about nervous "modern day prophet," who has visions of George Michael belting out familiar pop songs while upon a coffee table as well as auditory cues ranging from Michael's "Faith" to organs and boys' choirs to gunfire. Stone is a lawyer in a well-established firm, which primarily defends mean corporations from damaging lawsuits. Not surprisingly, the sounds and visions prove troubling to the young, once idealistic lawyer. He visits an acupuncturist, who is actually California born and bred and wears the clothing and accent to prove it. The show is not aiming for critical acclaim and relies upon Eli's blustered encounter with the "bells and whistles" of religious phenomena. Eli's visions might come from the divine or, possibly, are side effects of an inoperable brain aneurysm. This prophet proves to be my favorite kind, reluctant, self-effacing, and confused. He cannot decide whether to embrace this experience of the divine or to blatantly ignore Michael's singing and clapping. The show examines how these visions move Eli to taking on underdog cases against evil corporations (for the first two episodes at least). The success and failure of these trials echo with a warm, fuzzy version of morality in which the frazzled mom bests the vaccine maker and illegal immigrants become citizens through Eli's bravado and conviction. Justice can be achieved through speeches that rely on faith and our compassion for other human beings. Judges and juries fall prey to Eli's charm and earnestness. The bad guys are nominally bad, and the good guys are, well, good. Social justice never seemed so civil. Eli Stone proves interesting to me not because of the saccharine morality tales, but instead, Eli's reaction to his religious experience.

The main character is bewildered and disturbed by the song and dance of 1980s pop star. His face contorts into a myriad of expressions when confronting concerts and choirs in the lobby of his firm. He even leaps out of the way of a plane, which flies too close to the sidewalk in a crowded, urban setting. Jonny Lee Miller, who plays the eponymous prophet, tilts his head to the side in these encounters in an attempt to determine if these sounds and visions are reality. As I watched both episodes (available online for the curious), Leigh Schmidt's Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment (2000) came to mind time and again. Schmidt's deft work explores the realm of the auditory for both Enlightenment thinkers and often avowed skeptics as well as the religious peoples, who believed that they could hear the voice of the divine. Hearing "things" signaled divine intention and intervention in one's life, and religious peoples, from clergy to laity, claimed this gift and ability. The supernatural invaded the realm of the natural via the ear. Hearing, not seeing, was believing. Yet hearing became pathologized. Voices were signs of mental illness, instead of the hand of god. Hearing remained a religious purview for some, but for many, the auditory became guarded. These voices dissipated into the air from which they had previously come. Watching Eli Stone, for me anyway, seems to be a case study in Schmidt's argument. The cast of characters on the show mediate between the extremes of the skeptic and the believer. The skeptic, primarily Eli's physician brother, arches his eyebrows in disdain and slight humor when sounds and visions are discussed. The believer, represented by the acupuncturist, looks for the larger meaning of planes and organ music. Those, who rest between the poles, shift between empathy to Eli's "condition" and concern for his well-being to frustration with his willingness to believe. His soon-to-be spouse humors Eli by asking what he is hearing when his head tilts so knowingly. "Gunfire," he replies, and she smiles.

Her reaction, the accepting smile, characterizes much of my reaction to those who purport hearing voices, receiving visions, or other more fantastic abilities. I smile because it is the only reaction with which I am armed. My mother bred politeness into the core of her three daughters, and the smile reflects my polite reaction to the miraculous. It is not dismissive, but the smile is not a knowing one either. The show presents the problem of the prophet in the twenty-first century (how to accept the reality of voices and visions in our technological world), but it also reflects the reaction to the intrusion of the divine in the so-called natural world. Eli's relatives, co-workers, and his fiancée all process his earnest account of sounds that they cannot hear. Eli is not completely convinced either, but he is moving in the direction of belief. The show's vivid displays of sounds and sights give the audience Eli's perspective of the world, and the difficulty his experiences will likely cause him. (Some of his co-workers seem to think their colleague suffered from a nervous breakdown.) The show, thus, gives the viewing audience a perspective that the religion scholar cannot inhabit. Our conversants and historical actors can describe their experiences to us, but we do not get to hear the sounds of gunfire or the infectious "Faith" first hand. We get words or images created by the prophet, in Eli's cause, or believers, but not the auditory evidence. Eli Stone proves entertaining to me because I get to hear through his ears and see through his eyes. As I watch the reluctant "modern day prophet," my smile is knowing rather than polite. And I wonder how much easier my task as a scholar might have been if I had chosen to study the tangible or if the intangible might become tangible just for an auditory moment.

Harvey on _Baptists in America_



Our illustrious managing editor, Paul Harvey, reviewed Bill Leonard's Baptists in America for H-Amstdy. For this informative, if encyclopedic work, Harvey has praise for the breadth of coverage, but he turns a critical eye to the small presence of Southern Baptist history. According to Harvey, Leonard aptly presents the tension between "soul liberty" and "church purity." Here's an excerpt from the review:

The opening chapter quickly surveys the basics of Baptist history from its origins in the early seventeenth century and growth in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to a position of cultural dominance in the South in the twentieth century. Subsequent chapters provide summaries of Baptist beliefs and practices in all their bewildering variety, Baptist styles of theology, race and gender in Baptist life and history, and Baptist positions on various sides in the recent culture wars. Curiously underplayed, to my mind, is Southern Baptist history in particular. I say "curiously" given Leonard's preeminence as a cultural interpreter of Southern Baptists. I say "underplayed" given that Baptists reached a predominance in the South, among both whites and blacks, that they did not achieve elsewhere to the same degree. This is an encyclopedic and reference tool sort of book, not a strongly interpretive argument and analysis, but I expected a greater degree of focus on Baptists in the region of the United States where, unarguably, they have played a more significant role than anywhere else.

Baptists appear here as a kind of case study in miniature of some of the broader themes and paradoxes of American Protestant history. Baptist theology is a varied as could possibly be imagined within a generally evangelical framework--ranging from the nearly Universalist "No-Hellers" of Appalachia to the "Hell-for-Just-About-Everyone-ers"of the Primitive and "Two-Seed in the Spirit" varieties, to just about every position on the Calvinist-Arminian spectrum in between for the majority of American Baptists. On questions of social policy, politics, gender, and race, Baptists may be found everywhere on a continuum from, say, proslavery theorist Thornton Stringfellow and racist demagogue Strom Thurmond (misspelled in the book), to social gospel pioneer Walter Rauschenbusch, to civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, to black spiritual earth mother Maya Angelou. What defines Baptist history--and, arguably, all of Protestant history--is the constant tension between "conversionist particularlism and pluralistic libertarianism" (p. 253). Of American thought on ethnicity, the historian David Hollinger once asked, "How wide the circle of we?" Baptists constantly ask the same question and redefine their answers, contingent in part on nearly universal Baptist themes of congregational democracy and soul liberty but also on the threads of associationalism and evangelical standards of sin, redemption, and conversion.

For the full text, click here.
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