May 29, 2015

Reconstructionism and the 'normal' place for religion in public

Rushdooney's ultimate, confounding legacy may have little to do with the reform movement he inspired or his intellectual output and that of his followers. Instead, the interest in Christian Reconstructionism prompted by evangelical infighting and secular journalistic reports of the "dominants" sympathies of GOP party leaders or the post-Obama Tea Partiers all suggest that Rushdooney and Reconstructionism have become nodes in a vast, shifting discursive network that codes public imaginings of "good" and "bad" forms of public religiosity. This concern over Reconstructionism -- whether in the 1980s or the 2010s -- is analogous to the media's interest in "cults" during the 1960s and 1970s. As religious studies scholar Sean McCloud has shown, popular journalistic interest in "cults" peaked during the 1960s as Americans came to terms with a shifting religious landscape. Boundaries between "mainstream" and "fringe" religious movements emerged in the press because, McCloud argued, "the American religious fringe functioned for journalists as a 'negative reference group' in a process of identity construction" .... The struggle to identify the limits of Christian Reconstructionism vis-à-vis evangelicalism and conservatism similarly reflects an attempt to identify and differentiate a "negative reference group" against which a more acceptable sort of public religiosity might be constructed.  
This process of negation amounts to a subtle but profound assertion of a normative understanding of the proper limits of religion and citizenship in the United States.  
... Christian Reconstructionism has become a screen upon with critics project competing interpretations of the proper place of religion in American society.

May 27, 2015

'I lost my abuna in Egypt, but I find my father here'

A brief documentary on the Coptic Orthodox in Brooklyn, NY, after the Egyptian revolution:

From Faith in Five Burroughs, a project documenting diverse religious lives in New York. 

May 25, 2015

Church militant

Twin City Baptist, a church from South Bend, Ind., demonstrates at a pro-war rally in Washington, D.C., in April 1970:

Tom Norpell, who took the photographs, said the rally was for people "fed up with the antiwar protests dominating the evening news." Many were religious, and they used their religious identities and Christian imagery to led moral credence to the American war in Vietnam.

Many pro-war advocates believed that American would win or lose the global conflict with Communism based on her moral courage and spiritual steadfastness.

May 18, 2015


Window globes.

May 15, 2015

How the church gave B.B. King the blues

B.B. King first learned music from the African American churches of the Mississippi Delta.

“Church was not only a warm spiritual experience,” the legendary bluesman once said, reflecting on his religious childhood. “It was exciting entertainment. It was where I could sit next to a pretty girl and mostly it was where the music got all over my body and made me wanna jump.”

King died on Thursday at age 89. In his long career, he had a profound influence on generations of rock and blues guitarists, as Terence McArdle reported for the Washington Post. King was considered by many to be the world’s best blues singer and came to be known as “King of the Blues.”

In interviews over the years, King talked about how his first experiences with music were connected to church. He also talked about how his relationship to church was deeply conflicted.

Read the essay at the Washington Post: How the church gave B.B. King the blues

"Nones" used to be nominal

Conrad Hackett, the religion demographer for Pew, on the rise of the religiously unaffiliated:
In the last 20 years there has also been rapid growth in the share of Americans who identify as atheists, agnostics or no religion in particular. To some extent, this seems to be a phenomenon in which people with low levels of religious commitment are now more likely to identify as religiously unaffiliated, whereas in earlier decades such people would have identified as Christian, Jewish or as part of some other religious group.
Hackett also notes that 14 percent of self-identified atheists say they believe in God, and 27 percent of those with no religious affiliation say they sometimes attend religious services.

May 14, 2015

May 13, 2015

Fewer people religious; America religious as ever

A key aspect of American religiosity is how Americans choose religious identities.

Often, they reject the religious identities they were born with. They choose new ones. They make new ones. Sometimes, as with the "nones," but also with some converts to Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, they choose religious identities premised on rejecting the entire regime of religious choice.

In America, even not choosing a religious identity is culturally meaningful as a choice. Religious affiliation is rarely simply inherited. It's a decision. And the decision is personal and meaningful, culturally, about who an individual is and wants to be.

A new Pew Research Center study on America's changing religious landscape mostly confirms what we already knew about the trends in the religious choices that are being made now. Trends continue to trend: the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated "nones" are growing and the Protestant majority is disappearing as the mainline churches decline dramatically. The top line of the report has been widely reported, including by the Washington Post, Religion DispatchesReligion News Service and the New York Times.

One thing that is easy to miss, with these reports, is that the types of religious changes people are making might be less important than the fact of change.

This Pew study is basically an update, but it also deepens our knowledge on this point, providing some useful information on this aspect of American religious culture. The new study has more information than I've ever seen before on religious switching.

The big story of religion in American culture right now is that the default Protestant consensus is disappearing. This has been apparent for a while and this data makes it even more clear. Buried here in the data, however, is another story about an American religiosity that is as vibrant as it ever was.

May 8, 2015

Guy Carawan, 1927 - 2015

Guy Carawan, who taught the song We Shall Overcome to the Civil Rights movement, has died at 87.

The song wasn't his, nor did he claim it to be. In the tradition of American folk music and leftist social activism, Carawan saw himself as serving something greater. He shared freely what had been given to him freely.

The New York Times reports:
The song, variously a religious piece, a labor anthem and a hymn of protest, had woven in and out of American oral tradition for centuries, embodying the country's twinned history of faith and struggle. Over time, it was further polished by professional songwriters.

But in teaching it to hundreds of delegates at the inaugural meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee -- held in Raleigh on April 15, 1960 -- Mr. Carawan fathered the musical manifesto that, more than any other, became "the 'Marseillaise' of the integration movement."
Carawan was the music director of the Highlander Folk School, a social justice training center in East Tennessee, co-founded by Southern students of theologian Reinhold Neibuhr. Carawan was part of the folk revival scene in Greenwich Village, in New York, and was first sent to Highlander by Pete Seeger. He took over as music director in 1959 and, the next year, was present at the founding of the SNCC.

He provided the group with the music that came to define the movement.

The Rev. C.T. Vivian, a Civil Rights leader who worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr., recalled that it wasn't immediately obvious that folk songs and spirituals would play a role in the struggle for racial equality. Even though the movement was led by pastors and made up of deeply religious men and women, old religious music didn't seem particularly relevant to the cause. There wasn't any sense these songs needed to be be taken out of that past and applied to the present.

Hearing Carawan changed that, for Vivian and for others at the SNCC meeting in 1960.

May 7, 2015



Oatmeal and evangelicals

An interview with Timothy Gloege, author of Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism:

Daniel Silliman: If you asked people for a short list of the most important religious figures in the early 20th century, Henry Parsons Crowell probably wouldn’t be on it. Who was Crowell and why was he important?

Timothy Gloege: Henry Parsons Crowell was a purveyor of oatmeal. He is best known by business historians as the president and founder of Quaker Oats, one of the pioneers of the branding revolution. He used a combination of packaging, trademark and massive promotional campaigns and transformed oatmeal from a commodity into a trademarked product.

Crowell took oatmeal that used to be sold out of large barrels in your general store, put it into a sealed package, slapped a picture of a Quaker on it and guaranteed it pure. Now it no longer mattered who you bought your oatmeal from, only what brand you chose.

A company’s reputation was once rooted in its owner, but the trademark created this virtual relationship with consumers that was pure fiction. The trust that is engendered by a Quaker has no relationship to the company itself. There are no Quakers involved in that. Crowell was a Presbyterian. He bought the trademark, a very small mill had the trademark and he said, “oh, this engenders trust, so I’m going to use this to sell my oatmeal.”

This was quite controversial at the time, though today that’s just how things are done. Quakers sell oatmeal and friendly animated lizards sell us car insurance.

One of the key arguments in the book is that he is using similar strategies in religion as well. As president of Moody Bible Institute, Crowell pioneered the techniques of creating trust in a pure religious product, packaging and trademarking, as it were, old-time religion.

Read the interview at Religion Dispatches: How Marketers Invented 'Old Time Religion'