Religion Today

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Spirituality of Congress
By James L. Evans,
Republished from "Sightings"

We may enjoy some level of separation of church and state in this country, but there hardly exists anywhere a separation of faith from public office. There is spiritual vitality in virtually every branch of government; from President Bush's Methodism all the way to the disciplined Catholicism of Justices Alito, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Roberts, faith and government are linked arm in arm.
This is nowhere more evident than with the recently-convened 110th Congress. According to a story distributed by Newhouse News Service, this Congress will be one of the most religiously diverse bodies we have ever had.
For instance, for the first time in our history, Congress will include among its ranks a Muslim. Keith Ellison, a newly-elected representative from Minnesota, converted from Catholicism to Islam when he was 19 years old. Throughout his campaign, his religion, as some readers will recall, was a source of contention that culminated when he announced that he would take his oath of office on the Qur'an rather than the Bible.
The new Congress will feature two Buddhists: Hank Johnson from Georgia and Mazie Hirono from Hawaii. And for the first time in our history, Jews will outnumber Episcopalians -- not that either of them can boast overwhelming numbers. Overall among the Jews there are 30 representatives and 13 senators. Compare this to the number of Episcopalians, who have 27 House seats and 10 senators. And with Mitt Romney, Governor of Massachusetts, considering a run for the presidency, it is also interesting to note that 10 representatives and five senators share his Mormon faith. In fact, Harry Reid of Nevada, the new Democratic majority leader in the Senate, is a Mormon.
Roman Catholic is the largest religious group represented in the new Congress. Catholics will have 129 representatives and 25 senators. The next largest group is Baptists, with 59 representatives and seven senators. Coming in third are Methodists, with 48 representatives and 13 senators.
It is also revealing to note who is not represented in the new Congress. No one from the Church of God is in the House, though the Senate includes a member of that group. There are also no Congregationalists in the House, but there is one senator from that group as well. The inverse is true for Quakers -- one in the House, but none in the Senate.
Meanwhile, there are six House members who describe themselves as unaffiliated. Of course, given the evangelistic proclivities of Baptists and Methodists, this could change in the course of their terms.
The big question is: What does all this mean? Well, for one thing, our new religiously-diverse Congress seems to be "awash in a sea of faith," to borrow an expression from the title of Yale historian Jon Butler's award-winning history of early American religion. True now as then, Christianity may dominate the religious landscape, but it is far from alone in representing faith journeys in America.
Our religiously-diverse Congress also serves to remind us of the power of religious freedom. This freedom is established in the First Amendment of our Constitution. Because Congress must never show partiality to any one faith, nor hinder anyone's free exercise of faith, spirituality has blossomed in the rich soil of American freedom.
Of course, it may be a cause of concern to some that such diverse forms of spirituality have taken root in our culture, for many of these expressions of faith do not follow traditional lines of Christian belief. But as we find with the 110th Congress, from freedom emerges diversity. You can never have one without the other.

"Sightings" comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Church Leadership and Government Influence

The recent resignation of Bishop Stanislaw Wielgus of Poland, just before he was to be installed as the Archbishop of Poland, casts a light on problems inherent in church-state relations. It shows once again that when religion and government get involved, the outcome can be bad for the church.
In Poland, the communist-era government acted through the secret police. They pressured individual clergymen to become government informants. The police got the information they wanted (presumably), while the priests were forced into being deceitful and compromising their moral character.
In the post-communist period, such compromises either remain hidden, extending and compounding the moral lapse, or come into the open, where they damage both the individual and the church itself. The resignation of Bishop Wielgus may be an extreme case, but it was followed within a day by the resignation of the rector of Krakow's historic Wawel Cathedral, for the same reason.
From the little information we have, it seems that the communist-era secret police targeted church leaders. While the police recruited informants from all walks of life, among the Catholic Church, they sought out the best and the brightest priests.
Wielgus, a young university professor, had to sign a form agreeing to inform when he became prominent enough to travel to academic meetings outside Poland. He was not alone; it is estimated that at least 10 percent of Polish priests became informants during this time. Thus, the generation now in church leadership positions includes those who were targeted by the communist government and compromised. This forced government cooperation may have decapitated the Polish Catholic church.
The Polish church may be in for some difficult times over the next few years. There are predictions that lay church members will have a crisis of faith in their leaders. But I predict that it will be overcome, at least in the long run. The Christian church has faced similar leadership difficulties before and has managed to survive and ultimately grow stronger.
Back in the third century A.D., before Christianity organized itself into a single institution that spanned the Roman Empire, Christians occasionally would find themselves the object of Roman persecution. The persecution under Emperor Decius in 250 was the first to disrupt the link between Christian leaders and the wider membership. He ordered all Roman citizens to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods and to sign statements to that effect. Those who did not would be killed. After the execution of a number of Christians who refused, it became clear that this edict was being enforced. Afraid for their lives, hundreds, if not thousands, of prominent Christians forswore their baptism by sacrificing or by signing the statement.
When the persecution ended, Christianity faced the problem of what to do with those who had sacrificed to pagan gods but who now wanted to continue their lives as Christians. More pressing were those who wanted to continue in their roles as priests and bishops. Given the vast numbers of church leaders who had apostatized, the persecution had effectively decapitated the church.
Across the empire, the lay people had different reactions. Some were forgiving and willing to let the leaders resume their positions, while others were outraged and wanted nothing to do with the apostate clergymen.
Two bishops of the time, neither apostates, took opposite positions. Bishop Stephen of Rome allowed the church leaders to resume their positions after due contrition and penance, while Bishop Cyprian of Carthage (in North Africa) banned the apostates from returning to their positions as clergy.
Different local churches sided with different bishops. The congregations debated and argued, divided and split, over this question. It was a matter not just of morality, but of salvation -- who could administer the mass and effect the forgiveness of sins? The argument was so strong in Spain that when the church leadership followed Stephen's teaching and retained their positions, the people went over his head to Cyprian who instructed the affected bishops and priests to step down.
While history does not record the end results of this dispute, it is clear that Christianity got through the crisis. Less than a century later, Christianity was being promoted by Emperor Constantine and his successors as the Empire's preferred religion, and the Bishop of Rome was beginning to take on the authority that would make him Pope.
So, to make a historical comparison, although the Polish church is in a period of crisis over the purity of its leadership, they will get through this and become stronger in the long run. Indeed, since being an informant is religiously much less serious than apostasy, I expect that the Polish leadership crisis will take much less time to resolve than the one after the Decian Persecution.

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Top Story of 2006?

Jan. 1, 2007 -- I was walking into a coffee shop just before Christmas when a reporter put a microphone in front of me and asked, "What was the top news story of 2006?" I said the first thing that came to mind.
"The top story of 2006 was the discovery that so many of the leaders in charge of United States-Iraq activities do not know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. That's like trying to administer Northern Ireland and not understanding the difference between Catholics and Protestants."
Certainly, it is correct to observe that many American politicians, military leaders and diplomats have recently revealed that although they have been in charge of forming or implementing policy on Iraq for years, they fail to understand the primary distinction between the two groups. Perhaps more tragically, in all of that time, they have not been curious enough to find out. No wonder the American involvement in Iraq has been such a mess.
In hindsight, perhaps this lack of curiosity about the underlying cause of the conflict in Iraq is not the most important story of 2006, given all the other possibilities, but it deserves further consideration as we enter a new year and the president reassesses the United States posture there.
Why is it important to understand people's religion in Iraq, or in general?
Recently I was reading an introduction to religion book that said religions appeal to the head or to the heart. By this, the author meant that religions provide an explanation for the order of the world and the individual's place in it or they provide a moral and spiritual guide and outlet for one's emotions and feelings, both positive and negative.
These observations provide only a general response to the question. The question was better answered by anthropologist Clifford Geertz. He observed that religion, in part, is "a system -- which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting -- motivations." In other words, religions motivate people; they cause people to behave in certain ways, both as individuals and in groups.
The centuries-long disenfranchisement and oppression of the Shiites by the Sunnis in Iraq, under the Ottoman Empire and later under Saddam Hussein, followed by the sudden opportunity for political power, provides an opportunity for the fulfillment of Shiite beliefs and prophecies. These powerful and pervasive beliefs motivate many Shiite attitudes towards and activities in the new Iraqi government. The United States and its allies would do well to understand them.
The Shiite story begins with Muhammad, Islam's founder. He was both a prophet who brought God's message to humanity and a political leader of the Muslim community. Upon his death, the community disagreed about his successor. The largest group held that since there could be no prophetic successor to Muhammad his successors should be political leaders. This group evolved into Sunni Islam, encompassing about 80 percent of Muslims.
The other group followed Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law, and believed the succession should be primarily religious, although not prophetic, as well as political. These leaders acquired the title of Imam, and emphasized the righteous perfection of the Muslim community.
This disagreement over Muslim leadership lead to violence and betrayal. Ali was murdered in 660 and buried in Najaf. His grandson Husayn, the third Imam, was betrayed and murdered with his family in 680 by Umayyad Sunni troops near Karbala. This event has become an annual Shiite commemoration emphasizing the suffering of the righteous. It has led to a Shiite emphasis on bearing up under suffering, oppression, and persecution, and on the moral importance of addressing social injustice.
After Ali, the Shiites never regained leadership of the Muslim community and for the next several centuries, the group lacked even political control of its own community. The Imams thus became religious leaders, infallible guides for the religious purification of Shiism, but did not have political power. In addition, they were all descendants of Muhammad through Ali and Muhammad's daughter Fatima.
Shiism combines this emphasis on the religious value of suffering with a strong messianic streak. The Twelfth Imam was know as the Mahdi. He did not die but passed into spiritual hiding until he returns at the end of time to establish peace and justice for the oppressed (i.e., the Shiites). Until he comes, the Shiites will be led by trained religious judges, known as mujtahids and ayatollahs.
When we put this religious vision together with the present Iraqi political situation, it becomes clear that the Shiites do not share the United State's vision of liberation from Saddam as the establishment of democracy for all. Instead, the Shiites see these events as the removal of Sunni oppression of the Shiites and the beginning of a Shiite theocracy, ultimately led by an ayatollah, like neighboring Iran. (Who would be that ayatollah? Certainly Muqtada al-Sadr thinks he should be. His father and uncle, murdered by Saddam, were Grand Ayatollahs.) The removal of oppression and the apocalyptic events brought on by the U.S. occupation may also be understood as a sign of the immanent return of the messianic Mahdi. Certainly there is no religious fervor like that of people who are convinced the end is near.