Religion Today

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Cults and Mormonism, Religion and American Society

Although the news chatter may finally have died down, the comments the Rev. Robert Jeffress made about Mormonism following his introduction of Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry at the Values Voters conference earlier this month overshadowed not only his own introduction but Perry's speech as well. Jeffress stated quite baldly that Mormonism was a "cult" and that Perry's rival Mitt Romney, a prominent Mormon, "is not a Christian."
Although Jeffress was essentially saying what most Evangelical Christians believe, the news and the blogosphere went ballistic. Mainstream outlets treated the remarks with incredulity or scorn, while Christian news and opinion debated the accuracy of the remarks, with most of the Evangelical writers agreeing with Jeffress.
What is a "cult"? If you look up the word in a dictionary, you will find a list of eight to 12 different meanings. If you dig further, you will find that academic fields such as religious studies, anthropology and sociology each give the term several more meanings. The many definitions provided the impetus for the news stories. Which one did he mean, they often asked?
Back in the 1970s, Evangelical Christians were just beginning to become prominent in the Republican Party and faced their own accusations of "cult" behavior. At the time, Professor Jacob Neusner, an internationally known expert on world religions, observed that the accusation of being a cult conveys no real meaning. What is important was the rhetorical impact: It is an insult.
To call someone else's beliefs a cult is to say, in effect, "I belong to a real, valid religion; your beliefs are illegitimate and heretical." It comprises the religious equivalent of playground name calling.
Another answer to the question, "What is a cult?" is that a cult is a successful religion.
Religions aim to define not only the beliefs of their followers, but their entire world view and way of life. That is, religions provide a cohesive, unified way of understanding "life, the universe and everything" which puts everything in its place, gives a reason for why events happen, and, of course, places each believer in a privileged location within that scheme.
The problem for religions is that there are competing world views. We hear about them all the time. Not only are there other religions and other versions of one's own religion, but there is science, secularism, and even atheism. Science is a particularly powerful competitor, providing non-religious views of everything from creation and the formation of the natural world and its living creatures to human medicine, human sexuality and human psychology. Science's power comes from its evidence-based approach to understanding.
Most people today adhere to several world views at once, or at least parts of them. They may attend church and worship, but they may also follow secular practices at work, and undergo scientific medical practices when they get sick. From football and skiing to baseball and bass fishing, they often relax in non-religious ways. Their preacher may encourage them to read their Bible in their spare time, but instead they watch TV.
In other words, American culture consists of numerous world views, all competing for adherents. Religions are just competitors like all the others. When religious figures make statements about what members of their religion believe, their remarks are more an advertisement or an admonition calling on people to agree with them than a statement of fact. The frequent clarion calls about religious issues from contraception to gay marriage to abortion to stem cell research are as much intended to convince or remind the flock to follow the religious view as they are to persuade others.
In this context, a cult is a religion that managed to block out all competing world views. The cult determines all beliefs and activities for its members. Its adherents organize their daily behavior, their jobs, their family life and even their recreation according to the cult's world view. In other words, a cult is a religion that has successfully persuaded its followers that it is right about everything and that no other view is valid. The followers of Jim Jones in Guyana or David Koresh's Branch Davidians are good examples of these.
Of course, nearly all Americans look at these examples of cults and are repulsed. It looks like brain-washing. If this constitutes a successful religion, then we do not want it in our society.
American culture likes religions, often changing from one favorite to another, but religions should not be too successful. They should be part of the options available, but every person should mix and match what aspects of their lives they draw from religion(s) and what they take from the variety of competitors

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Moral Challenges in Catholic Higher Education

There are many ways to get a college education in the United States. You can attend a large public university or a small private college, or decide between a top-notch research institution or one emphasizing teaching and small classes.
You can choose a secular school or one shaped by the values of a particular religion. All feature quality education, but they differ in the social, religious and moral character of the student experience. High school graduates often pick a college by its social factors rather than its educational credentials.
Universities and colleges are generally free to shape their campus experience. At the University of Wyoming, for example, we emphasize our Rocky Mountain location, with outdoor science and recreational programs, including winter transportation to the local ski resort. As the "Cowboys," our sports program includes rodeo as well as football.
By contrast, the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., aims to provide a Catholic educational environment for its students. But as its new president John Garvey has worked to provide a Catholic campus experience, he has suddenly found himself with two major legal challenges.
The first challenge comes from his decision to change all freshman dormitories to single-sex housing this fall. While he clearly understands the change in terms of setting a Catholic tone to the campus, Garvey sees mixed-sex dorms fostering a culture of sexual activity that contributes to the struggles facing new college students as they strive for academic success. He cites several scientific studies indicating that heightened sexual activity among both men and women contributes to poor academic performance.
As a result, Catholic University is being sued by Professor John F. Banzhaf under Washington's strict anti-discrimination law. The restriction of freshman dorms to single-sex is criticized as sexual discrimination.
Although I do not know the details of the D.C. law, it seems to me that a university has the right to shape its campus culture according to its principles. Students are not required to attend Catholic University, but they go there because it promotes and teaches Catholic principles. Since Catholicism views sexual activity as proper only in the context of marriage, taking steps to reduce sexual activity is appropriate. It certainly does not need to make sexual activity easier by providing mixed dorms.
The second legal challenge facing President Garvey comes from the new health care law. Congress mandated that all medical insurance must support medical needs specific to women. Guidelines issued by the Department of Health and Human Services indicate these needs range from breastfeeding support and "well-women visits" to counseling on sexually transmitted diseases and domestic abuse. In a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post, Garvey pointed out that these regulations also require insurance that pays for contraception, sterilization and even so-called "morning-after pills," which he characterized in a Washington Post article as "pills that act after fertilization to induce abortions."
Garvey points out that this puts Catholic University in the position of providing the very services that the Church's moral teachings forbid. "If we comply ... we will be helping our students do things that we teach them, in our classes and in our sacraments, are sinful-sometimes gravely so." Moreover, the HHS regulation impacts not just students, but all university employees.
This is a moral conundrum. On the one hand, Garvey rightly emphasizes the inappropriateness of a religious institution known for its anti-contraception and anti-abortion beliefs providing contraception and abortion.
On the other hand, does such a large institution as the Catholic University have the right to decide access to health services for thousands of its employees and family members? Many if not most American Catholics disagree with their church's position on family planning and use contraceptives regularly. Furthermore, Catholic University employs many non-Catholics on its staff. Should the university force them to pay for contraceptive services when all other Americans can use them for free?
I juxtapose these two cases because they both pit the religious beliefs of the institution against the freedom of individuals to choose whether or not to practice those beliefs. Do the rights of a religious institution trump those of the individuals associated with it? Or should individual decision be the determining factor?