Jul 29, 2011

Hazarding a picture: a survey of U.S. religions right now

Note: To end my "Introduction to American Religious History" class, I gave students a quick, sketchy survey of the religious landscape in the US today. Most freshman-level textbooks tend to have a metanarrative and give a teleological account of American religion(s), and they also tend to place that telos about 10 years before the book came out. Recent text books, e.g., often stop the story with information that was current in the '90s, concluding around the time of the terrorist attacks of 2001. I wanted to take my students past the telos, so to speak, and bring them up to the messy present with this brief overview of what's happening now, even up to as recently as the day before the class.

I gave them two warnings before presenting my survey:

Warning 1: this stuff is so recent that there’s no consensus on what’s actually happening. Or what’s important. This is, then, a kind of hazarded guess. This is what, in journalism, they call a “first draft of history.” It’s what I *think* is going on, and scholars will revise it (and I will revise it) in ten years, a hundred years and so on.

Warning 2: because this is a hazarded guess, my own position in the world is more problematic. I naturally know more about some things going on right now than I do others – some moves in the religious worlds, right now, I have a thorough understanding of, others it’s more cursory. This is always true, re: limitations and the problem of positionality, but if we’re talking about the Civil War, say, I have the same kind of access to every side, all the positions are more or less equally available to me through documents, etc. With the current moment, I have a lot of access and a lot of ways of knowing what’s going on in some places, where other places are very closed off. I tried/try to note that when that happens.

What I wanted generally to do was look at the various religious groups in order of size – largest to smallest, according to Pew's religious landscape report – and with each one give something that has been public about them recently, like a news story, and then, to the extent that I could, say what I think is going on within the faith community, marking the internal struggles or tensions and the forces at work. What I'm trying to give a sense of here is 1) the cultural position of a given religion and 2) any movement or tensions that might give us a sense of what's happening next.

This is *now,* so it's messy, obviously, but that's part of the point, part of what might create interest for further study, and part of what, really, I want my students to be wrestling with.

I promised my students I would post it, especially so they'd have access to the links, videos, etc. This also seems like it might be useful to others as well, so I make it available here.

I suspect, too, that some of my readers are actually more familiar with some of these groups than I am, and would appreciate feedback. I will be revising this next semester, and using some revision of it semi-regularly, as I teach "Introduction to American Religious History", from pre-European contact all the way up to the present.


Evangelicals - 26.3% of the population.



The dominant group in American religion today is Evangelicals, and the dominant thing that's going on is "seeker friendly" movements, Church growth movements, etc. Megachurches have been a major story since the '90s. More relevant right now is the growth of non-denominational churches. The largest group of Evangelicals is Baptists, with 10.8 percent; the 2nd largest and fastest growing is non-denominational.



Almost every Evangelical church you can find has some self-description and self-understanding that reflects this seeker friendly, non-denominational, idea. They're "Bible churches," e.g., have an emphasis on style and format, and other accoutrements to make the experience nicer and more comfortable. This reflects a move away from formal and stiff or stuffy religion, and also, Evangelicalism's anti-intellectual strain (there from the first) plays out in the way theology and theological/denominational particulars are marginalized or played down. They're "simply Christian," just believe what the Bible says, interested in helping you grow in your relationship with Jesus -- this is the theology, which presents as not theology at all.

A key figure in this is Bill Hybels, of Willow Creek, a megachurch pastor who did a lot to promote certain models of church services. Willow Creek promoted the professionalization of worship, for example, so the people leading the songs weren't just good church people but excellent musicians who were professionals and treated like professionals, the worship run the same way a concert would be, etc.

Another key figure is Rick Warren, of Saddleback, a California megachurch pastor who showed how a church could really use a marketing strategy, which would then shape everything. He conceived of the church attender as a consumer, with a lot of choices of styles of music, for example. He also puts a huge emphasis on practical advice -- his book, a best seller, The Purpose Driven Life, isn't about the details of what's true or not true about theology, for example, but about how to live the best way. (This should tie in to what we talked about re: the "therapeutic" idea of religion).

I think Warren is kind of the quintessential figure in Evangelicalism right now. Most of the stuff you'll read, certainly at the popular level but a lot of academic stuff too, will focus on the political involvements of Evangelicals. I think that's a sideshow to what's really going on.

The video, above, works well because it shows the anxiety wrapped up in this new stylistic turn, and the hope of what a church could be like -- a really good coffee shop, but better. Interestingly, coffee shops like that arose in America at exactly the same time as these church styles and arguably that's not accidental, but they're deeply connected. I don't know that anyone is arguing that, but it's arguable.

Against that, with that as the background, you have two movements opposed to each other, in some cases directly, that are small, subsets of Evangelicals, trying to have some influence on the future of Evangelicalism:

1) Emergent.
2) Neo-Calvinist.

The struggle between these two sub-groups made the news recently with this:

@JohnPiper John Piper
Farewell Rob Bell. http://dsr.gd/fZqmd8


This is a tweet by a major Neo-Calvinist pastor dismissing an Emergent pastor. Dismissing him, it seemed, from Christianity itself.

On one level this is an argument about hell -- Rob Bell wrote a book called Love Wins, promoting (in part) an idea that God's love is triumphant over everything in the end, so hell is limited in some say, damnation doesn't get the last word. Neo-Calvinists, who believe God predestined some people to hell, are saying, no, God is not just wishy-washy love, like some Beatles song in heaven. God is love and also mighty and awesome and powerful. So, we need hell. God has to send Hitler there, for example, rather have than some perverse eternity where Hitler is enveloped in love.

But -- on another level, this is just an argument over who gets to say what (orthodox, Evangelical) Christianity is. It's about who has the authority say what is essential, what is just simply following what the Bible says, and what is possible. There's one side interested in holding the line and fighting the cultural tide, etc., etc., as they see it, and another that wants to be creative and open and new. Experimental even.

So, the battle for the soul of true Christianity (on twitter).

It was actually quite a big fight. It might not look like that.

It's really not clear, either, if either side here is winning of who's having what influence and how much.

And maybe -- as with everything -- in 10 years none of this will seem like it mattered at all, and looking back we'll talk about some movement going on I'm not even thinking about right now.

Generally, Pentecostals and Charismatics are considered a sub-set of Evangelicals, with 3.4% of the American population. That's how they get classified. Partly that's right, but there is also a slightly different cultural profile, and there are things going on in the "Neo-Charismatic" world, as the descendants of Pentecostals get called today, that bear no relation/have no apparent connection to Evangelicalism in general. For example, there are two ecstatic prayer movements I know of that are going on right now.

1) International House of Prayer. The idea is: one never ending prayer meeting. Which is understood to be connected to an outpouring of God, accompanied by miracles and new, passionate relationships with Jesus. This is in Kansas City -- there are others with similar ideas and models -- and it has been going since Sept. 19, 1999, all day, every day, all year.

It looks like this:


Generally speaking, this is part of the Neo-Charismatic movement, which grew out of the Charismatic movement which grew out of Pentecostalism. It's slightly outside of Evangelicalism proper.

2) The other ecstatic prayer movement I know of is the group around John Crowder, a "new mystic," who really used the modern technology of YouTube. BBC recently did a pretty good documentary on this group (see 5:30 - 7:30 for a good sampling):


Crowder believes that people need to directly experience God, need an ecstatic experience, which evidences the presence of God, and uses "drugs" and "drunkenness" as a metaphor, but also thinks this is how the experience of divine joy manifests in humans today. He's a fringe figure -- this would not be accepted in the vast majority of Evangelical or even Charismatic churches -- and seems to be appealing specifically to people who feel disenfranchised by those other churches.

This has always been one of the cultural positions of Pentecostalism, though.

Catholics - 23.9
Last week, the Catholic Church announced that a prominent American cardinal retired. This was Cardinal Joseph Francis Rigali, one of the highest ranking member of the church in America, also the Archbishop of Philadelphia. He was very caught up in the pedophilia scandals. Earlier this year, the city of Philadelphia moved to bring criminal charges against some priests in Philadelphia, which, in a sense, said to everyone that the authorities felt like the church, under Rigali, was attempting to cover things up and protect the church and just stop the scandal. Now he resigned, the thought is the church authorities waited just long enough so that they could say it wasn’t because of the scandal.

Rigali is being replaced by Charles Chaput (I believe it's pronounced with the final t silent).

What’s interesting about the new archbishop is he’s Native American – a member of the Potawatomi tribe. He’s the first Native American archbishop.

This is one of the things that’s happening in the Catholic Church in America. It seems to increasingly be identified with ethnic minorities. The other possible choice for Chaput’s new position was African American; earlier this year the very first Latino archbishop was appointed. The church is, today, being shaped extensively by ethnic minorities, particularly Latinos, but also other ethnic minorities.

The other notable thing about Chaput is he’s known for being very political and very conservative. This is also indicative of what’s going on in the Catholic Church right now. They’ve been actively fighting a series of battles against gay marriage, in particular, as well as some fights related to abortion, e.g., with health care and whether that would cover the cost of abortions. Though they sometimes seem to be drowning in the pedophile scandal, esp. the financial costs of that, defending against law suits, etc., the church authorities have really made a priority out of certain kinds of political battles. If gay marriage becomes an issue in Pennsylvania, Chaput is there to rally the forces against it.

Another Catholic news item: a woman, a nun named Elizabeth Johnson, wrote a book called Quest for the Living God. It’s feminist theology, and she suggests (as I understand it) that all names for God are really metaphors, and that in some circumstances it might be right to use non-traditional metaphors, like “mother.” It might also be the case that sometimes traditional metaphors are harmful, so maybe there are times and places where “father,” e.g., shouldn’t be used. A lot of people read it as more forceful than that, but I’m using caution here in the place of nuance, since I don’t have a lot of time. But, the book was condemned by the bishops. The U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine said it didn’t have a Catholic starting point and was “contaminated.”

Johnson, though, seems to represent a minority of Catholics today – minority maybe in size, but, more than that, in cultural power – who want to pull the church into more open positions, instead of entrenching themselves in a certain sort of very-political conservatism.

Mainline churches - 18.1
A New York Times article from last week: Episcopal Bishops in New York are divided over gay marriage, now that it's legal. The church itself is conflicted on this. Which means, different Bishops have done different things, so there's this state of confusion where, if you are a gay couple and you want to get married in an Episcopal church, you can in one borough of New York City, but not another, or in one city, but not another.

In recent years, if there's been a news story about a Mainline church it's been either about internal divisions that basically reflect the cultural wars going on in the broader culture, about the "struggle for the soul of the Presbyterian (etc.) church," or about how the Mainline churches are losing members.

Every Mainline church has had conservative split-offs: the Episcopals have had people and congregations leave and become Catholic, or join other branches of the worldwide Anglican communion (in Africa, e.g.), or leave independently or form new conservative denominations. The details vary, but it's the same story for Lutherans, Presbyterians, etc.

It's not really clear what happens next for these churches. A lot has changed around them, and they're changing, but most of seems to be slow-motion reaction, as opposed to say, a creative impulse or move that might be directing things in the future.

Nothing in particular/Agnostic - 14.9
By some accounts, this is the single fastest growing group. The "nones."

What that means is up for debate -- are the just not religious at all? Are they spiritual, but opposed to organized religion? Is it personal and not something they share? Is there a general explanation for why they're not religious (and how)?

They're not -- note -- self declared secularists or atheists. This is something else.

What has yet to be determined. And it's not like there's an official "none" who speaks for them as a group.

What you think this group represents -- what it means -- says a lot about your position in America. There's a lot of debate about how to understand this group. Evangelicals especially feel the need to interpret this number, but haven't really established a consensus on what the best interpretation is.

Note, though, that this group, which is pretty large, doesn't fit nicely into what we know are normal, standard teleological conclusions about religion in America today, either the religiousness story or the diversity story, really.

Historically black churches - 6.9
Today, these churches tend to be organized almost entirely around powerful, charismatic individuals. They're not very denominational, even when they're in a denomination. A lot of megachurches or strings of megachurches, with a big, marqueee name at top. Sometimes those names make it into the news and the public consciousness.

E.g.:


Long settled this out of court earlier this year.

The thing to remember, too, is that in contrast to the Catholic Church, where a scandal in church in one city is connected to tall the other churches in other cities, one scandal has nothing to do with any of the other historic black churches. It doesn't affect them, it doesn't say anything about them, etc.

This makes it very, very hard, too, to saying anything generally true about what's going on in these churches as a whole.

My sense is there are basically two theological strands -- social gospel and prosperity gospel. Sometimes they're separate and sometimes they're together. I really don't know in what direction that's moving, though, if it's moving, or if there's something else.

To talk about black churches today, though, is to talk about dynamic black ministers. And often dynamic black ministers who've done something people are upset about.

Mormons - 1.7
Journalists have declared that this -- right now! -- is the "Mormon Moment." Because journalists love alliteration. They do. The idea, though, is that there's an inordinate amount of attention to this group. Certainly, it's more positive or at least neutral attention that before.

There are several TV shows, including Big Love, which was about a splinter group of polygamous Mormons, but that was critically acclaimed and actually helped people realize there was a difference and got people interested.

Also, there is a Broadway show created by the creators of South Park that's a smash hit:


There's also just a lot of attention because of Mitt Romney's runs for GOP. In the last campaign, there was some anti-Mormon push-back, e.g. an article by an Evangelical with the title, "A Vote for Romney is a Vote for Satan." There's some now too -- especially on the level of ridicule and just uneducated dismissals, e.g., "Mormons aren't Christians." But, this has given the public a chance to think about Mormonism and whether they, the public, are comfortable with it or comfortable with discriminating against it.

The church and many Mormons, in turn, have used this as an opportunity to say, "We're American. We started here and are a part of this. We're not strange to you. The church did an ad campaign featuring pictures of Mormons, for example, and has also -- good news for religious scholars -- been more open with its archives recently.

Here's the kind of argument Mormons are making, as made by Mitt Romney:


It's worth noting this isn't a theological argument -- it's not about how Mormonism is right, for example. It's more for acceptance into American mainstream religiousness.

Jews - 1.7
Jews, interestingly, are the least religious religion in America, by most measures. They're more likely to experience it as an ethnicity, a heritage, something like that. They're less likely to pray, believe in God, attend a religious service, etc.

Most of the Jews who are in the public eye, who are known as Jews, present themselves this way and treat religion as if it's a joke and really funny (which it certainly can be). Larry David, for example, does this sometimes:



There are also really Orthodox communities who are hyper religious who are very insulated from the rest of American society -- non-integrated -- and so elicit a kind of fascination and attention, often for ways they conflict with the world around them, or try to protect themselves from the world around.

There are news stories like this recent one every so often:


(There are some classic First Amendment, religious freedom issues clashing here: how, for example, do we as a society manage to protect the right of a group to exercise their religion, when their religious practice requires that other people's rights, e.g., to wear certain clothes, be limited.)

Another example of an Orthodox community responding to the world/trying to be separate and not infringed on is a recent story from Brooklyn, New York, where an 8-year-old Hasidic boy was kidnapped and then they found his body dead in a freezer -- of another Orthodox Jew. This is fairly traumatic, besides in the obvious ways, to their sense of who they are and how they're different and the wider American public's sense of that too.

Also -- There's a couple of interesting movements that really seem subterranean at the moment that might actually develop into something interesting. One is the "Minyan movement." This is the rise of lay-led Jewish prayer services, so, without a rabbi. They're more egalitarian, some of them are explicitly feminist, and this seems to be something that's happening with sets of well-off young people who want to be devout and yet resist certain authoritarian forms such as patriarchy normally associated with that.

It's an attempt, too, to reinvigorate the traditions, make them more experiential. There's an emphasis on prayer as spiritual experience, e.g. Most of these have started in the last ten years or so.

A second, related and overlapping development is the term "conservadox." The idea is there's a gap between the Conservatives, who are well-educated and rather elite but not devout, and the Orthodox, who are devout, but anti-intellectual. There's some sense that there's a section of Jews today who want to bring those things together and develop ways of being intellectual, etc., and also devout.

Atheist - 1.6
There are Atheists and New Atheists, though pretty much all you hear about are the new ones. They've dominated best-seller lists, and have been the drivers of a lot of religious conversation since the terrorist attacks on New York 10 years ago galvanized them and emboldened them to argue not just that God doesn't exist, etc., but that religion is bad for the world.

The distinct is really this argument against religion, against faith, rather than arguments about God per se. In a sense, it's not about God at all, for them, but about whether religion should be accepted by intelligent and civilized people. They're opposed to belief in belief, specifically.

The arguments from New Atheists are normally some combination of these:




It's easy to over-estimate New Atheists, though. This really is a media phenomenon as much as anything. It's an atheism that's stylistically suited to the media of our age, but it's not clear that there will be any particularly lasting impact, or what it will be.

Jehovah's Witnesses - .7
It almost doesn't matter when you read the news, the story you can find about Jehovah's Witnesses is almost always: Blood transfusion. A most recent example here.

If you look on the Witnesses' own news site, all the stories about cases of fighting governments forcing them to accept medical care they don't believe in or fighting governments for the right to witness and proselytize.

These are pretty much the only ways they are in public, too. There are a couple of celebrities who are Witnesses -- the Williams sisters, Prince -- but besides that, the only public awareness is their court cases and their witnessing.

This group, interestingly, is more religious, by basically every measure, than any other religion in America. They pray more, go to services more, feel like they have their prayers answered more, etc. They're also the most ethnically diverse, and poor, and cut off and isolated from American society. They see themselves as needing to be totally separate -- you can't be a Jehovah's Witness and part of American society too.

As far as I can tell, internally, they have been very static. They've been under the same leadership for the last decade and there's nothing that I can see in the way of shifting or development or particular challenges they're facing. Perhaps the way they're isolated, or perhaps that's really how it is. It's just hard to tell.

Buddhists - .7
The Buddha himself came to California, recently, and received a pretty warm reception. About 1,000 people came out to see and be touched by relics of the Buddha, pearly, irregular globes that are believed by some Buddhists to be what remained after the Buddha's body was cremated.

If you look at the news story, it's interesting to see that not all the people that went to see the relics were actually Buddhists. This was a religious service, not an art exhibit or something, but there were apparently varying degrees of Buddhist-ness. From the devout, to those who are spiritual in an eclectic sort of way but not specifically Buddhist.

That's fairly accurate of Buddhism in America today. There are a lot of very devout Buddhists but there is also a lot of what gets called Buddhistm-lite. It's a distinction between Buddhists who practice and are a part of a Buddhist community from those who would, maybe, more accurately be described as "dabbling."

That tension ties into two other tensions that seem to hum within contemporary American Buddhism:

1) Between white converts and Asian's for whom Buddhism goes back generations. A little more than half of Buddhists in America are white, with about a third Asian (32%), and, by most accounts, they're not very well integrated and in many cases are entirely separate, like two different streams.
2)American Buddhism is mostly led by older converts -- boomers and people who converted in the 60s and 70s. The real question, at the moment, seems to be how they're going to transient as those folks start to retire or be less active, and a younger generation rises to dominance. Whoever emerges from a younger generation as a significant player, someone who can really set the agenda for Buddhists, will probably tell us a lot about the future of Buddhism in America.

One of the conversations I know is going on among younger Buddhists is about the use of technology, especially to encourage engagement and to build community. There are probably others as well, and it's impossible to say, of course, what the next conversation, perhaps the defining conversation, will be for American Buddhists.

Unitarian/eclectic/spiritual - .7
A recent news item in the Washington Post had Unitarian Universalists asking themselves, "What's the point?"

That's not really fair, but the pessimism is right. Unitarian Universalist tend to be older, they seem to be shrinking and losing cultural presence. There's a sense that younger people who may agree with Unitarian Universalists just don't feel the need for the organization, which is pretty much modeled on mainline Protestant churches, and might not appeal to those who don't feel a need for that sort of organization.

My sense is that the ideas of Unitarian Universalists are still quite present in American society, but the felt need for the organization just isn't there, so there's this feeling, with Unitarian Universalism and other liberal, non-orthodox churches, of fading away.

Muslims - .6
Publicly, the argument about Islam and the question about Islam is its place in American society. Pretty much daily, there are anti-Muslim statements from politicians or public figures and counter-arguments about how Muslims fit, like everyone else fits, in American culture.

This seems to be something that really only dates from the terrorist attacks of 2001. Before that, Muslims were more marginal, basically ignored.

For a long time, they were almost entirely immigrants, in their cultural profile, as well as Nation of Islam, which is tiny but has had a public presence at a couple of moments, for instance in the 1990s with the "Million Man March."

Today you see a pretty solid mixture, though, of converts, many of them African Americans from historic black churches, Baptists and so on, and immigrants and descendants of immigrants. There's actually quite a diversity: about half the .6% are Sunni, for example, with the other half made up of Shiite and other, though a lot of mosques don't actively identify that way, and so you get distinctions based on class, and whether the mosque is in a storefront in a ghetto or a permanent building in a suburb. A good review of the diversity can be found at the 30 Mosques in 30 days project.

It's my impression that many Muslims, on the individual level or the level of the local mosque, often don't see themselves as part of America, and may even experience their faith as a kind of dissent from America and American ideology. I've talked with a number of African-American Muslims in Atlanta, for example, and almost all of them see Baptists as complicit with the sins of the nation, racism etc., and see Islam as an alternative to the evil system.

But, on a public level, the argument is more about how Muslims aren't terrorists, Muslims aren't anti-American, etc. There's a lot of similarity to historic arguments about Catholicism and anti-papism, e.g.. They're in a similar place.

Two examples of this public argument:

1) Keith Ellison, the county's 1st Muslim congressman, testifying at a congressional hearing about Islam. Note especially the way he argues Muslims are inseparable from America:


2) Some of the most famous Muslims in America, obviously, are musicians, celebrities, etc. Artists like Mos Def are Muslim but don't make that a major part of their music, or an overt part, anyway, but others have taken a more direct approach. E.g.:


Interestingly, Muslims are exactly as pluralistic as Evangelicals, and so exactly as tolerant of other faiths and open to the way the practice of free religion works out in society: 57 percent of Evangelicals say "many religions can lead to eternal life," and 56 percent of Muslims agree. According to Pew, Muslims in America are mostly middle class, mainstream, and middle-of-the road. Convincing the public that's the cultural position they actually occupy is really the struggle at hand, though.

Orthodox - .6
The Orthodox Church in America -- one of the larger denominations of Eastern Orthodox churches, though they're divided into something like 20 ethnic groups -- has caught public attention several times recently for forays into public issues. They made an issue over military chaplains and homosexuals in the military, for instance, and marched in an anti-abortion.

This actually wouldn't be notable for most conservative churches, but the Orthodox have, until now, basically been immigrant churches, and haven't been in the "public square" in any notable way. Unlike Catholics, say, they really haven't been a part of the so-called culture wars.

The change came, it seems, as part of an internal question about how the Orthodox should be a part of American culture, or whether they should engage with American culture at all, or how much, and most of all how. It coincided with the election of a new leader, Metropolitan Jonah, who was the first convert to lead the church, and the first native-born American, as I understand it. His election was a bit of a surprise, actually, and he made some changes, including moving the headquarters to Washington D.C., and but he's not been without some controversy. Early this year, after upsetting people with some of these changes and also a lot of internal fighting, with accusations and counter accusations, was forced to take a leave of absence in February.

All of this is reflective of a larger question, of how to situate themselves in American space. There are more thoroughly Americanized congregations now, from not so long ago when they were more exclusively ethnic. Many, many Orthodox churches, even today, have all their services in the language of the mother country -- Greek or Russian or Armenian. They're not eager to Americanize, even as second, third, fourth generations really are thoroughly American. There's also been several waves of converts, starting in the '60s and lot more recently, most of them coming Evangelicals backgrounds, it seems, as well as quite a few conservative refugees from Mainline churches.

This is a challenge for a church that's anti-change. If your ultimate value is timelessness, how do you also be relevant to the world you live in?

Hindu - .4
A news story recently from Houston: Hindus, maybe even a lot of Hindus, are fasting in a protest. They're joining with a religious leader in India in a protest about corruption in India's government.

What's interesting, here, is how this only made the news, so far as I was able to find out, in Houston. There are other Hindu communities in other parts of the country. Are they fasting? We don't know. We also -- I'd like to know more about how they're fasting, since there are different ways of doing that, and what it's like for them, but we don't have that info either.

There's also barely any information in the US news about this issue that's important enough to this community to provoke this serious action. I found one news story on the corruption in India, and maybe there are others, but this is not an issue that Americans, as a whole, are paying any attention to.

This is fairly representative of Hindus in America, though. They're mostly immigrants or the children of immigrants, 88% Asian, and not really integrated into society. Fairly marginal.

There's not a lot of anti-Hindu sentiment. They're looked at as sort of goofy, more than anything. They're not taken seriously one way or the other. In popular culture, their presence is normally played for a joke, with some goofy caricature of Hinduism. E.g.:


As far as I know, there isn't any public presentation of Hinduism that's more serious than that. I don't think there's ever been a main character on a TV show who was Hindu, for example.

It's still very much a minority religion, and still treated as very outside the American mainstream and American awareness.

The one exception -- kind of a significant one -- might be yoga. Depending mostly on whether or not you consider yoga to be Hindu even in all its American permutations, this would be a way that Hinduism actually has had a large affect and does have a large presence in American life. Yoga is very popular. About 7% of Americans practice yoga, with another 8% saying they're very interested and want to. Besides the percentage, what's more important there is the cross-section of Americans who do this is quite diverse and wide spread, so you have a lot of people -- maybe even most -- who are really quite familiar with yoga, who know someone who does it, who it's helped, etc.

There's been some attempt on the part of some Hindu organizations to use that or leverage that to increase interest in Hinduism, or change the public perception of Hinduism in America. Some Hindu groups want to "take back yoga."

This is probably a bit of a lost cause, though.

Neo-Pagan - .4
A relevant question for Neo-Pagans today -- if no one knows your gods, totally ignored, lost to history, basically, and then, one summer, BOOM!, your gods are everywhere in the culture, saturating the modern landscape, their images worldwide, is that a good thing?

That's a question the movie Thor raised for some.

Using "Neo-Pagan" as a catch-all for a really, really diverse group of American religions that involves, also, sub groups and sub sub groups and which I find terribly hard to delineate with any simple clarity, I think this is the standard struggle for Neo-Pagans today. Generally, this grouping gets called "New Age." That's actually more problematic, though this is still problematic. But we'll go with this ...

On the one hand, representations of their spiritualities are everywhere, on the other hand, they generally don't have any control of those representations and the public knows more or less nothing true about their rituals and practices and beliefs.

Some of the Neo-Pagans who have a public presence seem to spend most of their time struggling against misinformation.

They're kind of in this weird space where there's this very large space for Neo-Pagans in the public imagination, and yet there's a real struggle for any actual space for real people who are Neo-Pagans.



Native American - .3
A lot of the very public, very available displays of Native American spirituality are, problematically, not Native American at all, but rather appropriations that make many Native Americans angry.

E.g.: There was just recently a case where some people died in a sweat lodge ceremony, which was put on by a guy who's maybe best classified as a "self-help guru." He was found guilty, last month, of negligent homicide.

The news got some stern reactions from Native American religious leaders, who felt like he got off light. They said he desecrated the religion he was selling. They talked, interestingly, of the kind of divine and spiritual punishments he could expect, according to the religion he was misusing. Karma, for instance, and angry spirits, and bad things happening to one over the course of one's life.

What was interesting about that, for me, is that it was the most I've seen Native American religious leaders talk about the substance of their religion in public in recent memory.

Sometimes you see Native American religious rituals preformed in public, for one reason or another, e.g., when a congress woman was shot last year and several people died, there was a prayer service/memorial that included a Yachi blessing:


For the most part, though, Native Americans are attempting to keep their religious life private, and protect it from exploitation and appropiation. They feel incredibly violated by outsiders adopting facets of their spirituality, and it can be hard, actually, to learn about what the spirituality is actually like.

There seem to be some internal struggles as well, with secularization and integration into broader society, and struggles to keep the religious traditions alive when, for example, the languages that those religious traditions are in are dying out. The big conflict, though, seems to be against outsiders selling and commercializing Native American spirituality.

Final note: One key element that's missing here, is that Americans today have very, very high rates of conversion. This is a strange thing. Almost a third of people are a different religion than they were born or raised. If you include Christians who belong to a different Christian group that the one where they started – so, Baptists become Eastern Orthodox, Catholics becoming Pentecostals, etc. – it’s actually half. Half of Americans have converted – that’s astounding, and historically quite unusual. Add to that that many have converted more than once. That may actually be the most important fact about American religion today, as it means the shapes of these various groups are very fluid, and may also be the reason that people's religion is as dear to them as it is.

This is one of many things scholars of religion are going to have to look at more and also more closely, as time goes on and these groups fluctuate and change, and maybe there'll be new groups or some of these will cease to exist altogether. There's a lot to keep an eye on and a lot to look at, going into the future ....