Feb 2, 2012

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

(Revised and updated from Jul 29, 2011)

Note: To end my "Introduction to American Religious History" class, I am giving 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, with an addendum 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 preface the survey with three warnings:

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.

Warning 3: this makes these groups look static, where really they're dynamic. One of the most interesting things about religion in American right now is the high conversion rates. Though the size of a given group might remain constant, that big picture hides the movement. People are joining these religions and leaving these religions everyday. Presenting them as groups also hides what they have in common. This values differences over commonalities, where we could easily reverse that, and there might be good reasons to reverse it too. At least we can note, if we did this the other way, different things would appear clearer and more pronounced.

What I generally want to do is look at the various religious groups in order of size – smallest to largest, 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.

NATIVE AMERICANS - .3
Native American religions -- the plural being very important here -- are most often depicted today as struggling to preserve an authentic tradition, and to defend it from encroaching White-American culture or from White-American appropriation and commoditification.

This gets really tricky really fast. Not least because "authenticity" is problematic just as an idea. It's also the case that those who would package it and commodity it, who sell it, are telling exactly the same story about "authenticity" as those who oppose them do. That is, even at it's most commercialized, this spirituality is being sold in terms of "tradition" and "authenticity," and those terms are obviously highly contested.

Here's an example of a "non-traditional" sweat lodge, a Native American religious tradition being made available to non-Native Americans. Note how, though it's non-traditional, it's talked about (sold) in terms of a tradition:


Shortly after this, the issue of these sweat lodge's became publicly controversial when some people died in a sweat lodge ceremony in Az, which was put on by a guy who's maybe best classified as a "self-help guru." James Arthur Ray was found guilty, last June, 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.

There are also tribal, Native American sweat lodges, which are less public, though there's concern about these disappearing. There was an article in a Mont. newspaper over the weekend about a college professor who is himself a member of the Crow tribe who has build a sweat lodge. It's only used by a small circle of friends, though the man, Shane Doyle, was willing to talk about it with the newspaper.

He talked about how it was a tradition -- and how that's important because it's only authentic if it's "passed down" -- but expressed his worries, too, that it is a dying tradition. In one breathe Doyle says he might write the tradition down, to preserve it, and in another says what's special and important would be lost if it wasn't written down.

Which means he feels, at this moment, like it's either going to be lost or going to be lost.

This kind of "catch" seems to happen a lot in Native American spirituality today. There's all this effort to grasp (somehow, in some way), something that, in being grasped, ceases to be what one wanted in the first place.

NEO-PAGANS - .4
A relevant question for Neo-Pagans today -- if no one knows your gods, they 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. There's even

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.



HINDUS - .4
Hinduism recently caught some people by surprise, which isn't something one can often say about Hinduism today, when a Reformed Christian philosopher of religion announced his conversion to Hinduism.

Michael Sudduth had previously been known for kind of technical philosophical works on epistemology, working from within the Reformed tradition (e.g., with papers like "The Internalist Character and Evidentialist Implications of Plantingian Defeaters"), but announced his conversion last month. And in pretty dramatic terms.

He wrote:
"Around 4:20am (Friday morning) September 16th, I woke suddenly from a deep sleep to the sound of the name of 'Krishna' being uttered in some way, as if someone was present in my room and had spoken his name out loud. Upon waking I immediately had a most profound sense of Krishna's actual presence in my bedroom, a presence no less real than the presence of another living person in the room, though I was alone at the time. I responded to this felt presence, first through my thoughts that repeated Krishna’s name (and inquired of his presence), and then verbally out loud by uttering Krishna’s name twice: Krishna, Krishna. I was seized at this moment with a most sweet feeling of completeness and joy ... continuing to experience a most blissful serenity and feeling of oneness with God, not unlike I had experienced on many occasions in the past in my relationship with the Lord Jesus."

For the most part though, Hindus in America are not converts, but 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, for instance the way the character Raj is portrayed in The Big Bang Theory.

As far as I know, there hasn't any public presentation of Hinduism that's more serious than that.

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."

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 pro-life marches. They participated in the March for Life on Jan. 23, for example.

This actually wouldn't be notable for most conservative churches, but the Orthodox have, until recently, 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. 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.



All of this is reflective of a larger question, of how to situate themselves in American space (a question reflected on the academic level as well). 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?

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.

Most recently (though there seems to be another example every couple of months), there was a reality TV show called American Muslim. The show took this issue as it's thesis:



There was some hullabaloo following this. The argument against the show was that it presented Muslims as "normal" and was thus trying to desensitize the public to the real threat of radical Muslims. This led to an organized boycott of some of the show's sponsors -- specifically the hardware store Lowes, which then pulled all its advertising from the show, and was then boycotted for caving to the boycott.

Turns out, though, that the boycott was a one-man protest. It made for some entertaining news for a couple of days, but the show's ratings were really low and basically no one cared.

Still, there's a controversy over Muslim's place in America maybe three times a year.

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, mostly former Baptists who converted after 9/11 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 which America represents.

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.

The quintessential version of this public argument is Keith Ellison, the county's 1st Muslim congressman, testifying at a congressional hearing about "radical" Islam. Note especially the way he argues Muslims are inseparable from America:



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.

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.

BUDDHISTS - .7
The Buddha himself is currently on tour in the US, with about a dozen appearances this year, and has pretty warm reception. In one location in Northern California, 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. 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.

Some of what we're seeing is a kind of connection between Buddhism and American youth protest movements. Some of the younger converts have come from punk rock, anarchist movements, anti-global capitalism movements, etc., and there's a sense that those are the people who are ready for, looking for, and waiting for Buddhism's answers.



We have also seen, really recently, some older Buddhist leaders, converts from a previous generation, reaching out to protesting youth. In October, for example, at Occupy Wall Street, Robert Thurman was invited to say something, and told the gathered protesters that they were beginning to enact the answer the Buddhism offers to the problems of the modern world:


JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES - .7
Three days ago in LaGrange, Ill., police were called because some suspicious women, dressed all in black, were going door to door and seemed to be trying to get into houses. Turned out, they were JWs.

This is very representative of the oppositional relationship between Jehovah's Witnesses and broader American Society. The Jehovah's Witnesses are often in conflict with the society around them, sometimes legal conflict, and always social conflict. They don't celebrate holidays, reject some modern medicine, won't salute the flag, and so forth, and so stay pretty separate. When they can't be separate, for instance with kids in school, they still end up, for the most part, in this clash of cultures.

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.

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. Their books are bestsellers, though. Christopher Hitchens died before Christmas, and his most recent book shot to the top of lists.

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.

JEWS - 1.7
Jews, interestingly, are the least religious religion in America, by most measures. They're more likely to experience Jewishness 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's a bus line in New York, for example, where the bus is run by Orthodox Jews who have a contract with the city to operate the bus, and it's segregated. Women have to ride in the back.

This has been going on since the 70s, but in October a woman who wasn't a part of the community got on the bus and was quite surprised, and complained and the practice drew quite a bit of scrutiny.

Another example of this kind of clash between old world and new happens entirely within the Jewish community, as some groups of Hasidic Jews attempt to proselytize other Jews, specifically non-practicing Jews. The group is messianic, believing that if all the Jews in the world would keep the mitzvot the Messiah would come.



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, though it's maybe not as much a new thing as a resurgence of a move that happened in the 70s.

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.

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.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints has been running ads, for example, like this one:


All this, interesting, coincides with the fact that the church opened its archives to an unprecedented extent, recently, and so we're also seeing, at this moment, a real golden age of Mormon historiography. There are waves of really excellent scholarly work coming out right now.

Just a figure like Parley Pratt -- the third Mormon leader, after Joseph Smith and Brigham Young -- in the last year had a major, scholarly, academically respected biography come out, an edited collection of articles on him, come out in 2011, as well as a special edition of an journal devoted just to issues relating to Pratt. This would have been unheard of not too long ago.

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.

Normally not in a good way. Normally it's some sort of scandal:


The thing to remember, here, 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 (for better or for worse) to talk about dynamic black ministers.

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.

MAINLINE CHURCHES - 18.1
A New York Times article from last summer: 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.

CATHOLICS - 23.9

Two Catholic stories from this last month:

1) Catholics have named the first Native American Saint, Kateri Tekakwitha. She was an Algonquin who was raised Catholic after being orphaned, and died at 24 in 1680.

In Dec., Pope Benedict XVI formally recognized a miracle attributed to her intercession, as a young boy was inexplicably cured of a flesh-eating bacteria after he and his family asked Tekakwitha for her help.

She's set to be cannonized, now, i.e. "formally recognized," though a date hasn't been announced. This has created quite a bit of interest, reflecting, perhaps, the way the church is increasingly identified with ethnic minorities.

2) Also last month, at about the same time, the Catholic Church was in the news because the Obama administration decided all employers that provide health care to their employees would have to also cover the cost of birth control if the employee was on birth control. There won't be any exemption for religious employers.

This was seen by a lot of Catholic bishops as a violation of religious freedom. A number of them have been quite vocal in attacking the administration and decrying the decision.

Bishop David Rickens, for example, the bishop of Green Bay, Wisc., said it was a betrayal of the idea of democracy, where government is of, by and for the people, and a very serious assault on freedom, the First Amendment, and religious liberty.

That's generally been the tenor of the political engagements -- which are frequent -- of the Catholic hierarcy. Here's a Cardinal from Chicago make a similar argument in a slightly different context:



This isn't so simple as being the "Catholic position," though. More than 90 percent of Catholic women use birth control, and lots of lay Catholics think the leadership is too conservative. There's generally understood to be a division within the American Catholic Church, right now, between those who think it's become too lax, too lenient, deviating from true orthodoxy, and those who think it needs to progress, and be more open, more welcoming.

An example of that more open position is 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.

CHARISMATIC/PENTECOSTAL - 3.4
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.

Specifically, there's been a notable movement that's classified as "Third Wave" Pentecostalism, which focuses on ecstatic prayer and spiritual warfare, and is less organized, less institutionally structured than previous movements of Pentecostals.

An example of this is the 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:


On the one hand, this is part of evangelicalism, broadly understood, but also it's different and distinct. You find here, for example, a similar concern about engaging the culture, but the primary method is "spiritual warfare," i.e., praying.

EVANGELICALS - 26.3.
The largest group in American religion today is evangelicals, and the dominant thing that's going on in evangelicalism 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.

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.

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.

A very key aspect to this focus of evangelicalism is the idea that the faith has answers -- "Bible-based" answers -- to the kinds of day-to-day, normal life problems that people face. This is evangelicalism that understands itself as practical, first of all, and effective.

This can be seen in the evangelical diets -- with the idea that there is a Christian way to lose weight and live healthy -- and with Christian money management books and seminars -- with the idea that there's a Biblical way to handle your income and your spending, get out of debt, etc.

A recent example of this that took some public commentators by surprise was a couple of very public cases of evangelical pastors talking about sex. I.e., "Christian sex," the Bible-way to have sex, the right place sex should have in one's life.

One was a book by a Seattle megachurch pastor named Mark Driscoll called Real Sex. It's been referred to as a "sex manual," as it gives pretty explicit advice. Driscoll's known for being blunt and straightforward. As he sees it, this is how Christianity answers the real questions of real people.



This is an extension -- however odd it seems -- of the "seeker friendly," happy, sociable, church-as-good-experience model that's defines evangelicalism today.