Religion Today

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Religious Cooperation on this Side of the Atlantic

Attacks on minority religions in America are on the rise.
There have been several mosque burnings in recent months, and hundreds of tombstones have been vandalized in Jewish cemeteries in the last couple of weeks. More than a hundred synagogues have received bomb threats since the start of the year although, thankfully, there have been no bombs. These may be the acts of just a few individuals, but America’s religious communities have come out in force to support each other.
American believers of all stripes have mobilized to support targeted religions. Christians from a variety of denominations have organized and attended rallies for religious freedom, especially in support of the freedom to worship the divine as one sees fit. Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans and Baptists, along with Hindus, Muslims and Jews -- the list could go on -- have participated, and their leaders made speeches calling for acceptance of all religions.
The Rev. Cody Sanders wrote in this month’s Baptist News Global, “If we don’t act now in solidarity with our Muslim siblings, we’ve got no legitimate reason to claim we are followers of Jesus.”
Within this large umbrella of interfaith support of our country’s smaller religions is these religions’ support of each other. As their communities and institutions have been attacked, Jews and Muslims have been supporting each other and working together.
When a mosque was burned in Victoria, Texas, Jews opened their synagogue to the Muslims as a worship space. When another was burned in Tampa, Fla., local Jews contributed extensively to the fund for replacing it.
In both Philadelphia and St. Louis, where hundreds of Jewish tombstones were knocked over by vandals, Muslims organized to help the Jewish community restore the cemeteries. As bomb threats against Jewish community centers have increased, Muslim organizations have been quick to condemn such threatening actions, as have representatives of Christianity and other religions.
These supportive activities are not just one-off events, but parallel a growing movement within each religion here in the USA to participate in activities that improve understanding and friendship with each other. In some communities, Jews have attended Muslim Friday prayers while, in others, Muslims have attended synagogue services. Elsewhere, there have been “teach-ins,” where Jews and Muslims learn about each other’s religious beliefs and practices, seeking to understand the differences and identify aspects of their commonalities -- including important moments of shared history.
This is what the USA’s legal emphasis on religious freedom means. It means that our nation is one of the few places in the world where the country and its government provide members of all faiths (and no faith) the freedom to worship and believe as they see fit. It allows for interreligion cooperation and friendship. Rather than elevating one religion over another, the government allows room for all and for all to work together (or not) as they wish. While short-term political surges may temporarily privilege one religious movement, these are always tempered by our legal and constitutional foundation.
The steps American Muslims and Jews have taken toward cooperation are only beginning to take fruit, but they provide hope in light of the ongoing religious problems in the Middle East, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There, politics and political advantage have overshadowed religious discussion, cooperation and freedom.
In part, this is because in all countries involved, the government supports one religion over the other and, often, the religion becomes a weapon in each government’s arsenal. The arguments, violence and sometimes military conflict largely prevent the development of religious tolerance, understanding and cooperation, which could lead ultimately to peace.
Moreover, the cooperation of the two religions in the USA is reminiscent of Jewish-Muslim cooperation during Muhammad’s time. Jews were citizens of Medina when that town decided to invite Muhammad to govern them. And, although they did not convert to Islam as Muhammad hoped, Jews cooperated with his rule, and he remained respectful of them throughout his life. This should not be surprising since Islam believes in Judaism’s God.
It is only quite recently, in the upheavals of the 20th century that resulted in the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel, that Muslims of the Middle East came to hate Jews. Again, this has more to do with Israel’s occupying land formerly held by Muslims and still claimed by them than with religious differences.
In the end, although we should not read too much into recent cooperative and supportive activities between American Muslims and Jews, we should be proud that our country provides a place for such rapprochement. Perhaps members of the two religions will learn about each other in ways that might lead to positive developments elsewhere.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Muslims in America: Some Observations


One impetus for President Trump’s controversial ban on citizens from specific Middle Eastern countries is to reduce the number of Muslims entering the USA, as if Muslims in general were dangerous, rather than simply using the nation’s intelligence agencies to identify risky people and denying them entry. That impetus went unstated in the ban’s legal language but was widely bruited about last fall on the campaign trail. 
            This is rather too little, too late. The USA already counts many Muslims among its citizens, with Islam coming up on Judaism for the honor of being the nation’s second largest religion. While this sounds sizeable, in percentage terms it is not. Judaism stands at roughly 4 percent of Americans, while Islam is about 3 percent. Compared to the percentage of self-professed Christians, which a 2014 Pew survey puts at over 70 percent, this is rather small. But, like Judaism, Islam is here to stay.
            Muslims have been in America since Muslim slaves came with the Spanish in the 16th century. During America’s Civil War in the mid-19th century, Muslims served in the North’s army; one became a captain in the Illinois Infantry while another, Hajji Ali, was in charge of its Camel Military Corps in what is now Arizona. And, their numbers have increased gradually over the decades, with the biggest increase since World War II.
            This last observation is significant, for it means that Muslims did not enter during the largest period of immigration in USA history, from the 1880s to the late 1920s. Millions of immigrants entered America during this time, most from Europe. Until that time, America had been largely Protestant, but now large numbers of Catholics and Jews came to the country. Indeed, this is when Judaism become the nation’s second largest religion.
            Judaism’s adjustment to American society can be instructive for understanding the changes American Islam is presently undergoing. In the early 20th century, newly arrived Jews found the USA quite different from Europe. And, this required changes to the practices they had followed.
            Religions give (at least) two kinds of instructions to their adherents: how to worship and relate to the divine, and how to relate to the people and society in which their adherents live.
            While worship rules are internal to the religion and tend to remain fairly stable, rules about relating to society change as that society changes. If a religion moves from a totalitarian society to a democratic society, for example, or from a tolerant to an intolerant one, it will, by necessity, change the way it relates to the new society.
            But, how does a religion know when the changes are OK? Do they fit with the centuries and/or millennia of religious tradition? Those decisions are made by trained religious leaders.
            In Judaism, rabbis are the leaders authorized to make such decisions. At first, rabbis came from Europe along with their congregants. They were used to European ways of doing things rather than American ways. Change, therefore, was slow.
            But, the pace of adjustment picked up when Judaism created seminaries -- graduate-level educational schools to transform young Americans into American rabbis to lead the American Jewish community. Within a generation, American Judaism was led by rabbis who understood America because they were American, not transplanted Europeans. These rabbis reshaped the character of Judaism’s social relations to help the religion and its members fit into American society.
            Islam in America is at a similar stage right now. Immigration has increased the American Muslim population and the number of mosques. And, some trained Islamic leaders, “imams,” have arrived. Many mosques are led by devoted and dedicated lay people.
            In the past few years, the Islamic community has begun to organize seminaries for training young American Muslims as religious leaders. But, it is a slow process. Nationally, about half a dozen seminaries have programs, but none are yet fully accredited by the USA’s higher education accrediting bodies. Hartford Seminary -- a multifaith institution -- has an accredited Muslim chaplaincy degree, but even that falls short of a complete training for Muslim religious leadership.
            In the end, while American Muslims have lived here for generations, Islam, as a religious organization, is still in its early stages. The foundation of seminaries is a solid start and, within a few years, they will begin graduating American native imams. That will be a milestone in the advancement of our country’s religious liberty.

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Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Could a New Border Wall Accelerate the Decline of American Christianity?

In 2015, the Pew Research Center released the largest study of American Religious identity ever done in the United States of America, called America’s Changing Religious Landscape. The big discovery was that the number of American Christians had declined by 7.8 percent since the previous survey in 2007, while the number of Americans religiously unaffiliated had increased by 6.7 percent to 22.8 percent of the national population. The only bright spot for Christianity was that even though Evangelical Christianity had declined as a percentage of the national population (down 0.9%), it had grown in real numbers by 2.4 million adherents.
            There was a second important trend buried in the numbers and completely missed at the time. Hispanic immigration has propped up this declining American Christianity. The loss of Christian adherents would have been worse if it had not been for Hispanic immigration.
Evangelical Christianity owed its increase largely to Hispanic converts from Catholicism, and both Mainstream Christianity and Catholicism would have sustained bigger losses if it had not been for increases in Hispanic membership. These trends indicate that if the USA builds an effective border wall, immigration will further decline and along with it the number of Americans identifying as Christian.
            The first trend is that the three largest types of Christianity—Evangelical and Mainstream Protestantism and Catholicism—had big losses between the 2007 and the 2014 survey. Evangelicals lost 8.4%, Mainstream Protestants lost 10.4% and Catholics lost 12.9% of the their members.
Luckily, this was countered by newcomers joining these faiths. There were 9.8% new Evangelicals, 6.1% new Mainstream Protestants but just 2% new Catholics. So the final, overall numbers came out to a 1.5% increase for Evangelicals, but a loss of 4.3% and 10.9% for Mainstream Protestants and Catholics, respectively. The Pew report emphasized that many of these leavers left formal religious membership altogether. However, a significant number simply joined other types of Christianity.
            The second trend is that none of the three types of Christianity can sustain its numbers by generational replacement. That is, the children of these adherents are fewer than the number of adults. This is largely because of declining family size. For example, 30% of Evangelicals were born in the generation between 1928 and 1946, while just 21% were born in the Millennial generation between 1981 and 1996. As the older generation passes away and the younger generation ages, the total number of adherent will drop. The imbalance is similar for the other two forms of Christianity. Without an influx of new blood, all three types of Christianity will decrease in size.
            The third trend is that nearly 80% of the replacements for the losses in these types of Christianity comes from Hispanics. All three have had a five percent increase in ethnic diversity in the seven years between 2007 and 2014. That increase is 80% Hispanic for all three forms of Christianity. Indeed, for Evangelicalism, the increase in the percentage of Hispanics accounts for its increase in real numbers of members. If Hispanic immigrants or their children had not joined these three types of Christianity, all three would have shown significant losses. Catholics would have dropped 12.5% of its members in those 7 years (instead of 10.9%). Mainstream Protestants would have lost 9.2% (instead of just 4.3%), and Evangelical Protestants would have lost 6.4% (instead of gaining 1.5%).
            The fourth trend is that this Hispanic increase came in different ways. Most Hispanic immigrants arrive as Catholics. Catholicism’s 5% increase is part of the decades-long influx of Hispanic members that has kept the numbers of American Catholics fairly steady. It has also helped Catholicism to become the most ethnically diverse form of Christianity; 41% of Catholics are non-white and most non-whites are Hispanic.
            For the two forms of Protestantism, however, Hispanic membership has come from conversion. These are Hispanics who have been in America for a long(er) time and they convert to this still dominant form of American religion as part of the assimilation process. For the Mainstream Protestant denominations, the number of converts was not enough to prevent a decline in membership, but for Evangelical Protestantism it was. 
            What will be the impact of an effective wall between the USA and Mexico? These trends from the past eight years suggest that the number of Christians in the USA will decline faster than it has been. This will first be evident in Catholicism, but it will soon show up in the membership of the Mainstream Protestant denominations and then among Evangelical Protestant Christians.
February 2017 

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Donald Trump: The Evangelical Christian’s Choice

Donald Trump was the resounding choice of white Christians who identified themselves as evangelical or as born-again. According to exit polls from the November election taken by a consortium of ABC News, NBC News, CBSNews, CNN, Fox News and the Associated Press, fully 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump. Only people who identified with the Republican Party voted for Donald Trump at a higher percentage. Why? What did he stand for that attracted them so strongly.
            Perhaps Reverend James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family and Family Talk radio, summed it up most succinctly. He identified three factors: “the sanctity of human life, the Constitutional guarantees of religious liberty that are being shredded , and the promise by Mr. Trump to appoint pro-life justices to the Supreme Court.”
            The first and third of these are the same point: candidate Trump promised to advance the anti-abortion cause and move to prevent more abortions. The second point refers to Christian opposition to the legal advances made in gay rights in recent years and the steps that have been taken to require everyone to obey the law. In particular, it refers to Christian businesses being sued for refusing to sell their products to gay couples (e.g., wedding cakes) and to government officials who refused issue marriage licenses to gay couples.
            Of course this is not the first time that opposition to abortion and gay rights has motivated evangelical voters. When Richard Nixon ran for the presidency after the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, he saw it as an issue that could favor Republicans and led his party to emphasize its opposition. Later, in 1979, Jerry Falwell and other evangelical leaders founded an organization called the Moral Majority.
            Although the Moral Majority lasted only 10 years, it paved the way for the entrance of evangelicals into political activity. For decades prior, evangelicals as evangelicals had largely stayed away from politics because politicians did not engage with matters that concerned them, such as preaching the gospel and evangelization. Falwell’s organization provided a way for these Christians to see their concerns in “secular” political terms that encouraged them to get involved and to vote.
            The Moral Majority’s platform emphasized three issues that still resonate today: traditional family values, opposition to abortion and opposition to gay legal rights. While most of the organization’s members and contributors were believers, the platform deliberately left out the Christian emphasis on the key teachings of Jesus, in particular, communicating the gospel and salvation, and helping the poor and downtrodden.
            The three issues emphasized by the Moral Majority were key issues of the 2016 election, more than 25 years after its demise. All three swirled around Donald Trump. On the one hand, Trump made clear his opposition to abortion. He said many times that he opposed gay marriage equality, although he was less consistent on that point.
            On the other hand, perhaps the most problematic aspect of Trump for evangelicals was his failure to live up to the picture of a traditional family man or to biblical expectations of a somber and mature male leader of society. It was not just that he had been divorced three times and had committed adultery, it was that his speeches and ongoing “tweets” were often contrary to Christian expectations of moral behavior—especially with regard to his treatment of women and those who opposed him.
            It is clear from the vast majority of votes Trump received from evangelical Christians that in the end this last concern was less important than his position on abortion and gay rights. Evangelicals did not want him to represent Christianity and its beliefs, but to be their champion in the opposition to abortion and to gay marriage.
            Perhaps evangelicals should be congratulated for voting on principle rather than “identity politics.” After all, the Christian in this race was Hilary Clinton, a person who attended church all her life, taught Sunday school for years, and who regularly sought God’s guidance through prayer, both in private and with colleagues and staffers.
            During the coming years, it will be interesting to see how matters play out. Will Donald Trump deliver for his ardent evangelical supporters? Will he come to be seen as their representative, whether as a champion or as a tarnished man? Will the future of evangelical Christianity be strengthened or weakened?
January 2017

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