Religion Today

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Religious Landscape of Wyoming and Montana

Earlier this year, the prestigious Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released the results of its U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. This massive survey interviewed over 35,000 different people and created an important portrait of religious adherence for the nation.

Unfortunately, this survey failed the states of Wyoming and Montana. Because it surveyed only 272 people from the two states, it had to analyze them together to create a statistically valid sample. Since the two states have quite different religious characters, both historically and presently, the survey reveals little useful information about the religious nature of these two states. This is clear both for Catholicism and Mormonism.

The Pew survey indicates that 23% of the two states are presently Catholic. The number not only hides the difference between the two states, but seems rather high in comparison to surveys taken during the last decade. While the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) puts Montana Catholic members at 22%, it numbers Wyoming’s Catholics at only 18%. The North American Religion Atlas (from the late 1990s) puts the numbers even lower: Montana at 19% and Wyoming at 16%.

The imbalance between the two states is historic, for immigrants from Catholic countries such as Ireland and Italy came to work Montana’s mines or settle along its railroads. Although a similar trend occurred in Wyoming, it had fewer mines and miles of train lines. So not only is the Pew percentage somewhat high, but there should be at least a 3 or 4 percent difference between the two states.

Or perhaps not. According to the 2000 USA census, Wyoming has a Hispanic population of 6.5% (and growing), while Hispanics make up only 2% of Montana’s citizens. Given that Hispanics in general belong to the Roman Catholic Church, perhaps they account for an increase (previously unnoticed by the surveys) in Catholic adherence in Wyoming and hence raise the Catholic proportion of the population to the number indicated by the Pew Survey. It is a shame the survey cannot help us resolve this question.

With regard to adherents of the Church of Latter-day Saints of Jesus Christ, combining the two states also skews the data. Wyoming, particularly in the western regions, was closely aligned with Mormon growth. Part of the present-day state belonged to Utah Territory, and a larger part was encompassed by the State of Deseret envisioned by the Mormon leadership. More significantly, many Mormons migrated into Wyoming in the late 1800s and early 1900s, some encouraged by Wyoming governors and others by Wyoming leaders such as Buffalo Bill Cody. Montana had no significant Mormon population until after World War I, when families began to enter the state to clear new farms.

This difference in the two states’ histories with respect to Mormonism casts suspicion on the reliability of figures reported by the Pew survey. The survey indicated that just 5% of the population of the two states are Mormon, but this hides their differences. The 2001 ARIS survey put Wyoming’s population at 7% Mormon while Montana’s stood at only 3%. The Religion Atlas indicated an even larger difference: Wyoming rose to nearly 10%, while Montana remained at 3%. My own experience around the state suggests the percentage may be even higher, but I have no hard data to back that up.

In the end, the Pew Survey of America’s Religious Landscape has done a good job for the nation and for the more populous states, but it has failed to give a clear picture of the religious character of Wyoming and Montana. Since the three surveys cited have all been sponsored by institutions located in large cities of the eastern USA, maybe the solution is for western entities to sponsor their own survey. Perhaps the universities of Wyoming and Montana should take the lead. This would be just the kind of action that UW’s proposed Center for the Study and Teaching of Religion in the American West could carry out.

1) Religion and Public Life in the Mountain West: Sacred Landscapes in Transition, edited by Jan Shipps and mark Silk (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2004). See especially the essay by Philip Deloria, pp. 115-138.
2) U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life,
3) American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS),

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

How to treat the Dalai Lama: What China could learn from Israel

Tibet is again in the news. Following internal demonstrations against Chinese rule of Tibet that began March, Chinese forces arrested hundreds of Tibetans, expelled all foreign journalists, and closed the borders. In response, pro-Tibetan protestors have disrupted Olympic Torch parades in Paris and San Francisco as the torch processes from Greece to China for the Summer Olympics. While Tibetan exiles blame politically repressive and economically unsuccessful Chinese policies, the Chinese government itself blames the Dalai Lama, the 72-year-old monk who leads the Tibetan government-in-exile.

China occupied Tibet in 1951 and after a brutal crack-down in 1959 the Dalai Lama fled to India. Setting up a government in exile, the Dalai Lama called for Tibetan independence from China and has worked tirelessly since then to bring this about. Although the Dalai Lama’s calm demeanor and his non-violent approach have earned him world-wide acclaim and a Nobel Peace Prize, no world body argued Tibet’s cause to the Chinese. Realizing this, the Dalai Lama recently has promoted Tibetan autonomy under Chinese rule, rather than independence, and sought negotiations with China.

Despite this moderation, China continues to vilify the Dalai Lama. Just last week, Chinese President Hu Jintao laid the blame for the troubles at the Dalai Lama’s feet, despite the Lama’s insistence that he has had nothing to do with the disruptions. Hu said, “No responsible government will sit idle for such crimes [of the Dalai Lama], which gravely encroach human rights, gravely disrupt social order and gravely jeopardize the life and property security of the masses.” Hu rebuffed calls from Western governments to negotiate with the Dalai Lama, claiming that these actions show the Lama does not want to talk.

The Dalai Lama may be China’s last best opportunity to resolve its Tibetan problem, one that it should take while he lives. Otherwise the situation may deteriorate drastically.

Hu’s attitude towards the Dalai Lama is much like recent Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s attitude towards the now-deceased Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Arafat, like the Dalai Lama, spent much of his life outside his homeland, in his case, the Palestinian Territories. In the 1960s, Arafat led first Fatah and then the Palestinian Liberation Organization in terrorist attempts to free his people. These failed and Arafat became known as an uncompromising enemy of Israel.

By 1988, however, Arafat moderated his stance and moved to negotiation. He was allowed to enter the Territories after agreeing to the Oslo Accords in 1994, became President, and began to work by peaceful means towards an independent Palestinian state. Although younger Palestinians had become radicalized under decades of Israeli occupation, the now-moderate Arafat aimed to use his symbolic stature to bring them towards peace.

When Ariel Sharon became President, he saw Arafat’s symbolic reputation as a threat and worked to eliminate it. Refusing negotiations, Sharon used the Israeli army to destroy the apparatus of Palestinian government, ultimately demolished the Palestinian capital, Ramallah, and besieged Arafat in his own office for two years, ending in his death. The last powerful Palestinian moderate had died.

Palestine’s radical younger generation elected the Islamist Hamas party who kicked the remains of Arafat’s party out of the Gaza Strip, thereby eliminating any effective Palestinian government. Although peace negations are presently underway, the absence of Hamas representatives makes a final settlement impossible. The radical Palestinians will simply not agree.

The Dalai Lama stands in a position similar to that of Arafat in the last years of his life. Starting from a much less radical position as Arafat (the Dalai Lama has never been a terrorist), he has moderated his position over the decades of Chinese occupation of Tibet. He now seeks a middle way of negotiated autonomy rather than independence. He hopes his powerful symbolic leadership can bring his people to agree to any reasonable settlement that might be worked out.

However, it is already clear that younger Tibetans, both in exile and in Tibet itself, have become radicalized. Many see the Dalai Lama’s strategy as ineffective and embrace violent means. They will not serve as a negotiating partner once the Dalai Lama passes from the scene. Instead, they will likely destabilize Tibet further and cause the Chinese military to crackdown even harder.

For the sake of Tibet’s future and China’s future as its rulers, China should negotiate with the Dalai Lama while there is still time.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Tale of Two Tours

Important religious buildings, such as synagogues, mosques, temples or cathedrals, derive their significance from their members’ activities in the building. Believers may gather there for worship; they may make personal pilgrimages to it; they may believe that their god dwells there. In other words, the building’s fame and attraction comes from its role as a place of religious activity for its religion’s adherents.

So what about tourists, people who travel from away from their homes to visit important places? Tourists who visit religious sites, as opposed to pilgrims, do not come to worship and rarely belong to the religion associated with the site. They come to a cathedral or a temple because it is famous. They wish to see it and learn more about it; they are rarely want to participate in the religious activities held there.

So how does a place of religious importance treat tourists?

Some religious places allow in no one who not belonging to the religion. That was true with the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and it remains true for the Muslim holy city of Mecca.

Other places give the tourists a tour. The character of that tour reveals what the religion, or at least the religious officials who run the site, think is important for visitors to learn.

Take Westminster Abbey in London, for instance, the church linked to the British Houses of Parliament. Thousands of people visit it everyday. Its tour is a well-oiled business that describes the building’s history and its place in British history. Highly trained guides take groups around the entire, large building. The guides are experts in the church’s history and in its relationship to the government and the monarchs. They know the significance of every tomb, memorial and monument, and can provide key information about everyone buried in the church, from king or queen to poet, playwright, or scientist. They can explain the purposes of every side chapel and cloister.

Buildings as old as Westminster require ongoing upkeep, and the wear and tear of the many daily visitors just adds to the building’s deterioration. To pay for the building’s maintenance, the church has numerous money-raising ventures, from entrance fees to the book shop and the gift shop, to say nothing of the café. In this, the Abbey is just like the many palaces, castles, manor houses, and other historical buildings throughout Britain.

Between the historical presentation and the fund-raising, Westminster’s ongoing role as a place of worship is nearly invisible. Tourists often fail to realize that three to seven worship services take place daily, including at least one celebration of the Eucharist.

The Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City provides a completely different presentation.

Tourists can keep their wallets in their pockets because there is nothing to buy: no food, no souvenirs, no books, no entrance fees.

The tour guides are quite different. Instead of trained, older professionals, the guides for Temple Square are college-age missionaries. They know the Square, from the Temple itself to the Tabernacle and other buildings, but are not extensively versed in its history. Indeed, being able to give detailed historical information is not their job, and they sometimes simply tell questioners they cannot answer a question. The tourists’ curiosity about the past may be better satisfied by the short videos viewed on the tour.

The tour guides at Temple Square make up in faith and friendliness what they lack in historical knowledge. Their task is to provide an understanding of the Mormon religion, the place of the Temple in that religion, and perhaps most importantly to give a sense of the vital immediacy of their beliefs in their own daily lives. There is no “hard sell,” but the tour guides mention their faith when relevant, and the tour itself ends comfortably in a contemplative room before a large statue of Jesus Christ, with the two guides each giving a minute or so of “witness” about their religion.

The treatment of tourists at these two religious sites could not be more different. At Westminster Abbey, the guide delivers a historical message of English/British continuity and importance, religious and otherwise, to which the visitors will always remain outsiders. At the Mormon Temple, by contrast, the guides deliver a personal message, one which links the founding of Salt Lake and its Temple to the guides themselves, and through them the offer is made to the visiting outsiders that they can become insiders too.