Interfaith News Roundup
February 15, 2018
America’s Evolving Christianity
The first four stories this month (which you probably didn’t have a chance to read) dramatize how white evangelical Christianity in America is fading as the faith evolves.
White evangelicals by far get the most press and largest influence on politics. Deborah Jian Lee’s interview with Russell Jeung pulls back the curtain on this limited perspective. Jeung teaches Asian American studies and is the author of Sustaining Faith Traditions: Race, Ethnicity and Religion Among the Latino and Asian American Second Generation (2012). He points out that in a few short years people of color will make up the majority of American Christians. He shows how their influence is already “decolonizing” the faith from white Christian norms. This includes a shift from a guilt-based understanding of salvation to a shame-based perspective, where guilt implies wrong actions and shame implies ruined relationships. Jeung notes that “The Bible talks about shame three times more than guilt.”
“How Americans came to embrace meditation, and with it, Hinduism” by Vasudha Narayanan is a striking case for how deeply rooted Hindu sensibilities are in American culture, going far beyond the institutional and theological differences, the Dharmic vs. Abrahamic discussions that get so much attention. Her piece was published on the 10th anniversary of the death of Mahesh Yogi, who deeply influenced popular culture in America. She includes an historical survey of Hinduism in America and tells the story of “temple-Hinduism” practiced by the 2.4 million Indo-Americans. (She leaves out the quiet but powerful influence of the Brahma Kumaris movement, led by women, which quietly teaches Raja yoga to hundreds of thousands in the U.S. and around the world.)
An NBC News survey of religious responses to LGBTQ individuals and same-sex marriage suggests that tolerance is growing among Christians in America, but not without some renewed resistance. “Sixty-eight percent of white mainline Protestants, 67 percent of Catholics and 44 percent of black Protestants now say they accept same-sex marriage, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center study, a huge shift from a generation ago. And while just 35 percent of white evangelical Protestants favor same-sex marriage, according to the study, that number has more than doubled since 2007.” Colleges have proven a point of resistance, with more than 100 evangelical colleges claiming legal relief from having to treat LGBTQ people fairly. And none of the 100 largest churches (each with at least 5,000 congregants) are currently LGBTQ-affirming. Nevertheless, great changes are taking place across the Christian spectrum.
Trials and Tribulations
Kelly Shattuck’s “7 Startling Facts: An Up Close Look at Church Attendance in America,” is an illuminating if sad analysis about congregational life today. Forty percent has been the typical pollster response to how many American Christians regularly attend worship. But a number of sophisticated studies suggest that the real numbers are less than half that, and that by mid-century church attendance could fall to 11 percent or less. Seems fairly clear that the church as we’ve known it is slowly disappearing.
Dictators around the world are pushing the limits of their infamy. Donald Trump recently made a teasing joke about those who failed to clap for him being guilty of treason, no doubt putting a smile on the lips powerful tyrants everywhere. Events in Poland have become grim. President Andrzej Duda promised to sign a law just passed which makes any claim that Poland participated in the Holocaust a crime subject to fines and prison sentences. Around the world, the disease of anti-Semitism seems to be infecting certain communities, making interfaith relations an ever more important issue for everyone.
The limits of Pope Francis’ progressive agenda may be showing up in the details of church life. He has been roundly criticized for not taking seriously allegations regarding Bishop Juan Barros’ alleged cover-up of clerical sexual abuse in Chile, and for demanding that “proof” be presented of Barros’ guilt. This caused such an uproar when Francis recently visited Chile that he has sent an investigator from the Vatican back to Chile to see if he can garner any proof. Meanwhile, his high commission on sexual abuse has been languishing due to members who resigned over lack of support and have not been replaced.
Adding to this, Mary Hunt reports that Catholic women are feeling the iron fist of clerical male power. For the past four years the Vatican’s International Women’s Day conference has explored mostly ‘safe’ subjects. “Planners have studiously avoided the sticky wickets of women’s ordination, abortion, and same-sex love, not to mention the elephant in the Sistine Chapel, which is Catholic women’s lack of jurisdiction or decision-making in the church.”
This year, though, three of the speakers the women invited to present were turned down by the Vatican, causing the women to seek an alternative site for some of the conference, to be held March 8. The disinvited included Mary McAleese, former president of Ireland and strong supporter of LGBTQ rights, who will address the women at a Jesuit hall outside the Vatican proper.
The invitation to next month’s International Women’s Day at the Vatican, where the theme is “Why Women Matter,” clearly indicates how conflicted the situation is:
We live in times marked by change, but there are places where gender equality is being systematically overlooked. The Catholic Church is one of them. Today, women are asking why the Church is so slow in recognizing their value and opening governance and ministerial roles to them; roles that incorporate their faith, gifts, expertise and education into structures of authority at all levels. Our world is facing a future more meaningful by the inclusion of women in significant positions. We will not let gender inequality undermine the longevity of the Church. Our voices stir the winds of change, so we must speak. Will Pope Francis and our pastoral leaders listen?
Catholic women are not alone in seeking respect, equality, and human rights. Reading about Iranian women protesting the mandatory wearing of the hijab, risking the wrath of the government’s theocratic power and the Revolutionary Guard, is a study is courage. This will be a chapter in the book someone is probably writing today about the liberation of Muslim women globally; such a book should note how Christian and Jewish women have similarly had to fight for their voices and their rights.
Human rights issues, of course, are forever tangled with different opinions and values. A number of cases have reached American courts pitting those who support personal religious freedom against those who support the rights of LGBTQ people. Does a baker have the right to refuse to serve a gay couple wishing to pursue a special wedding cake for themselves? Balancing one set of rights against another is a tough, complicated assignment. But certain states are experimenting with compromises designed to keep everyone happy, to some extent.
It is heartening to see occasional governments get proactive about respect and rights for us all. The government of Singapore last month launched a nationwide interfaith initiative to build interreligious friendship and cooperation in an extremely diverse nation caught in 50 square miles, one main island and 62 small ones. The intention is to boost the city-state’s resilience and social cohesion.
Distinguished civil rights leader Wyatt Tee Walker died on January 23. Walker was a behind-the-scenes organizer for Martin Luther King Jr., and he served for years as executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was known as a powerful speaker and exemplary pastor, and he helped compile the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” an historic document, from the scraps of paper on which Dr. King put down his thoughts while incarcerated.
The Joy of It All
Veteran interfaith activist Rebecca Tobias posted an extraordinary rundown of activities on the Global Interspiritual Network about interspiritual activities from around the world last month. Most were celebrating 7 Days of Rest, from January 1-7. Too late to attend, but hearing about the details is an education for most of us. An international, interspiritual Earth-based tradition is emerging. Though it has flown under the radar of the religious press, much less major media, it represents a vital new development in global religion. Indigenous traditions, near and far, relate much more easily to these new communities than to traditional religious communities.
Whether you are attracted or fearful about this emerging inspirituality, its fascinating to hear about their activities, particularly about their level of care for Mother Earth, whom we are despoiling. Rebecca surveys the work of the Earth Treasure Vase Healing Project, Loving Waters, Tel Aviv’s City Tree project, 5 Rhythms in Israel, the Ubuntu Wellness Service in Cape Town, and the U DAY music festival in Ethiopia last month and at other sites around the world in coming months.
Thousands of World Interfaith Harmony Week events were celebrated during the first week of this month. Following the proposal of H.M. King Abdullah II of Jordan, in 2010 the General Assembly of the United Nations mandated the first such week, and it was initiated the first week February 2011. Since then the first week of February has been the occasion for tens and then hundreds and now thousands of groups to pursue the promise of interfaith harmony in their lives. For ongoing updates about these events go here.
Four hundred religious leaders attended a three-day conference titled “Alliance of Virtue for the Common Good,” focused on religious tolerance and good will among religious communities everywhere. The buzz on the floor, reports Religion News Service, was the strong participation of evangelical Christians who have stayed away before. Pastor Bob Roberts, an evangelical pastor at Northwood Church in Keller, Texas said: “There’s something that’s really problematic about how we think about religious freedom: We get Christians together and say, ‘Here’s how we’re going to do it.’ That day is over. If we don’t have conversations on religious freedom with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews — they’re wasted conversations.” Hamza Yusuf, president of Zaytuna College, America’s first accredited Muslim college, said “The evangelicals coming took great courage, because of a lot of the attitudes within that community.”
Part of the intense joy of close interfaith friendships is the chance to make a difference together, particularly when you face a crisis and differences fade away. The interreligious community of Cape Town in South Africa is jumping in to help with the water crisis facing the city of four million as it moves towards Day Zero. On Day Zero most faucets will be cut off and water rationed from 200 different sites … unless there is adequate conservation between now and that day, now tentatively scheduled for June 4. Citizens are being asked to limit their water use to 13 gallons a day (Americans use 80 to 100 gallons a day). The country has suffered three years of severe drought, attributed to climate change. Religious communities are joining in promoting conservation, educating their members, collaborating to mitigate the crisis, and praying for water.
Header Photo: webheathcloseup, C.c. 2.0