New Pew survey of American religious landscape

I’ve been skimming through the Pew Research Center’s latest survey data on Americans’ religious affiliations. There’s more to be said, but here are a handful of striking highlights:

* There are now more “nones” in the U.S. than there are Catholics.

* The percentage of American who are mainline Protestant is now smaller than the percentage of Americans who were “nones” seven years ago.

* All three of the biggest Christian categories are declining: evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, and Catholics. The evangelical decline is least sharp: 1 percentage point as contrasted to about 3 points for Catholics and mainline Protestants. Nevertheless, the Why Conservative Churches Are Growing era is over–a finding which I confess to find an occasion for schadenfreude.

If you want the actual numbers, here’s a partial picture of the current American-religions pie. In other words, here’s a list of the percentage values (rounded off) for the biggest religious categories in the survey:

25% Evangelical Protestants
23% “Nones” (Report no religious affiliation)
21% Catholic
15% Mainline Protestant
  6% Non-Christian religions

Read more about the survey results here.

Stephen Prothero on Indiana’s RFRA

There’s been some discussion on my Facebook wall about this USA Today editorial by American religious historian Stephen Prothero in support of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. I haven’t been able to pin it down yet, but something strikes me as “off” about this particular analogy Prothero makes:

We would not force a Jewish baker to make sacramental bread for a Catholic Mass. Why would we force a fundamentalist baker to make a cake for a gay wedding?

And then there’s definitely a longer conversation to be had about why Prothero is willing to let a fundamentalist baker refuse to bake a cake for a lesbian couple, but would not let a fundamentalist restaurant owner refuse to serve those same lesbians a meal:

There is no excuse for refusing to serve a lesbian couple at a restaurant and to my knowledge no state RFRA has ever been used to justify such discrimination. But if we favor liberty for all Americans (and not just for those who agree with us), we should be wary of using the coercive powers of government to compel our fellow citizens to participate in rites that violate their religious beliefs. We would not force a Jewish baker to make sacramental bread for a Catholic Mass. Why would we force a fundamentalist baker to make a cake for a gay wedding?

I understand the logic of the distinction Prothero wants to draw: The fundamentalist who has to bake the lesbians a wedding cake is being compelled to “participate” in a “rite,” whereas the fundamentalist who’s compelled to serve them dinner is not. But three questions about this distinction:

First, is baking a wedding cake participating in a rite? (I guess this is part, at least, of what feels “off” to me about the analogy to sacramental bread.)

Second, are we sure that serving the lesbians dinner is not participating in a rite? (What if they’re celebrating their wedding anniversary?)

Third, would this distinction hold up in court–ergo, is it even relevant?

Tagged , , ,

“American Jesus” – The Movie

I watched last night a documentary by Aram Garriga, who I believe is Catalan. The title (ripped off from a book by Stephen Prothero) was American Jesus. Here’s how Garriga describes the film:

The film focuses on a nation-widespread variety of Christian organizations, controversial and relevant figures of the Evangelical community, Christian Pop Culture & Music specialists, secular analysts, Apocalyptic Preachers and the End Times, Prosperity Pastors, Christian Bikers & Cage-fighters, Mega-churches, Snake Handlers, the Creation Museum, Atheists, Christian Surfers and Cowboys, to name just a few. Their personal testimonies and perspectives will draw a map with all of the ideological and social positions covered and properly represented.

The main goal of the film will be triggering the debate and the questioning, from a non-judgmental perspective, on what’s the current state of American Faith and what are its real social and political implications.

“Non-judgmental”–ha ha. That’s a good one.

american-jesus-posterThis film was both intriguing and disappointing. Intriguing because of its whirlwind tour of proliferating American evangelical identities, especially in relation to forms of popular culture: Christian rodeo, Christian bikers, Christian cage-fighters, Christian stand-up, Christian alternative music, Christian outsider art. Although the film didn’t overtly call attention to this, I was particularly intrigued by how many of these forms of evangelical practice were trying to make evangelicalism compatible with some conventional image of masculinity. That is, these are often contemporary iterations of “muscular Christianity.” Judging from this film, American evangelicals are struggling to get men into the pews but take for granted the commitment of women–although why evangelicalism appeals to them, this film has little to offer by way of explanation.

Which is one of the things that’s disappointing about the film. Additional disappointments–thinking especially about this film as a potential resource for teaching–are as follows:

1. The film lands so briefly on the different groups it showcases that there’s not much material to work with for the ethnographic purpose of understanding these adherents’ worldviews from the inside out. That’s because…

2. The film is basically an American evangelical freakshow. The film isn’t really trying to help viewers understand why these evangelicals organize their lives the way they do. The film shows you just enough to give you grounds to think, “Oh my God, these people are crazy!” before hustling you along to the next freak in the line-up. Leading to…

3. The film is ultimately a rant against the New Christian Right. Frank Schaeffer is featured at length–here’s a interview subject on whom the film finally settles down to linger–explaining how evangelicals have become the “fifth column of insanity” in American politics. All those crazy people we saw earlier in the film vote! They’re driving the policies of the Republican Party! They’re gleefully promoting apocalypse in the Middle East! I’m a European filmmaker who had no idea! I must warn the world!

But “from a non-judgmental perspective,” of course.

Tagged , , , , ,

“Missionary” horror film

A couple weeks back, students in my “Religion and American Popular Culture” read an essay I’ve published on representations of Mormon missionaries in film. Basically, I identified four trends in the films:

  1. Mormon missionaries provide a model for generic Christian evangelists (an association which should please Mormons, though I imagine evangelicals aren’t happy about it).
  2. Mormon missionaries represent a sectarian style of religion that is treated as annoying or humorous.
  3. Mormon missionaries figure in stories about sexual repression and liberation.
  4. Mormon missionaries serve, in sometimes complicated ways, as moral grounding or agents of transformation (though not in the sense of converting people to Mormonism).

Now someone has forwarded me the trailer to Missionary, a horror film that came out a couple of years ago but which had not yet registered on my radar. It looks like theme #3 is in play. Maybe #4 if the female protagonist discovers reserves of inner strength or learns not to endanger her family by having illicit sex, especially with a repressed young sectarian.

Tagged , ,

Booze and the Mainstreaming of American “Ethnic” Holidays

Walking into today’s session of my course on “Religions of the American Peoples,” I bellowed, “Mardi Gras! Woo-hoo!” in honor of the holiday. After students’ nervous we’d-better-humor-the-professor chuckles had subsided, I remarked, “So–is Mardi Gras an ‘American’ holiday?” That was an allusion to a thought exercise students wrote their first short paper on: Is Hanukkah an “American” holiday?

Suddenly, I had one of those brain flashes that can follow when I throw my inhibitions to the wind. Why do certain “ethnic” holidays–like Mardi Gras–become mainstreamed into more broadly “Americanized” holidays?

My brain-flash hypothesis: Booze.

Think about it. Mardi Gras. St Patrick’s. Cinco de Mayo. There’s a pattern there.

Bars as a driving force in the Americanization of minority cultures. Bars as a site of lived religion. There’s a course offering that would fill–especially if we did field work.

Tagged , ,

Atheist Shoots Young Muslims in North Carolina

Although how pertinent the perpetrator’s and victims’ religious identities are to the motive remains to be litigated.

I was reading an update on this story a few minutes ago, and I watched embedded video footage of Craig Hicks’s first hearing (the arraignment, I believe it’s called?), and as the video ended, I started crying a little. That’s not my usual horrified-yet-cerebral response to this kind of thing.

I didn’t know Deah Barakat, or Yusor or Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. But Deah was attending college at my last alma mater. I immediately recognized the Old Well in one of the photos of Yusor and Deah that accompanied early news stories. I’ve been in the apartment complex where this shooting occurred. I guess that all makes this more tangibly real to me–more shocking–than if it had happened in some locale I’ve never been and don’t identify with.

This story mentions that Richard Dawkins, who Hicks admired, has done a horrified/outraged tweet about the shooting.

My brain’s on hold. In shock.

Tagged , , ,

Israel Zangwill’s “The Melting Pot”

I’m teaching a course this semester called “Religions of the American Peoples” (an inherited title), which I’m using to explore how religious minorities “become American.” In other words, I want students to think about “American” identity as socially constructed and contested. We’re starting the course with a historical survey of shifting ideas about “American” identity, starting with WASP ideologies of the late 19th century and running up through contemporary debates about multiculturalism.

This past week, I gave students three short selections to read from Israel Zangwill’s The Melting Pot, the 1908 play that made that metaphor famous. There’s a certain quotation from the play that gets widely circulated, but until prepping for this course, I’d never actually read the whole play. It’s a Romeo-and-Juliet story, basically: David, a Russian Jewish emigrant, falls in love with Vera, the exiled revolutionary daughter of a Russian baron–who, in Dickensian fashion, turns out to have led the pogrom that massacred most of David’s family, plus there’s something of a love triangle as a snooty anti-immigrant WASP conspires to win Vera’s affections. David’s uncle Mendel pleads with him not to marry a Gentile, but David rejects that parochial prejudice as unworthy of the melting pot. The play ends with David and Vera united, looking out over the New York harbor toward the Statue of Liberty, while a choir sings “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” Really.

The whole play can be read online, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. The three short excerpts I prepared for my class (David’s first exposition of the melting pot metaphor, his fight with Mendel about intermarriage, and David’s grand closing speech) are here as a PDF, for colleagues who might want to use this for teaching. As you’ll see, Zangwill’s melting pot has a strong religious dimension along Social Gospel lines. America becomes the Kingdom of God–America becomes the Savior, in fact, beckoning the world’s weary and heavy-laden to come find rest. Also, there’s an interesting struggle between loyalty to “the God of our fathers” versus “the God of our children.” Guess which God wins.

Tagged , ,

Ganesha at the art museum

This is an entirely random post. I discovered in my files a couple weeks ago this photo I’d taken during a visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art sometime last year. This piece was in their Gallery One, an exhibition designed to serve as a basic intro to art.

My photo of the museum's Ganesha.

My photo of the museum’s Ganesha. (Well, okay, actually my husband’s photo, since I haven’t yet broken down and purchased a smart phone with a decent camera.)

What struck me about this piece was the way that a religious artifact was being “repackaged” for purposes of purely aesthetic admiration–even as traces of its devotional use remained. Note the incense bowl at the foot of the statue. Also, if I recall correctly–this would have been why I was so keen to photograph the statue–the plaque identifying the object noted that the local Hindu temple had dressed the statue for the museum.

The museum's online photo of the same statue.

The museum’s online photo of the same statue.

Upstairs, where the museum’s collection of medieval and Renaissance Christian icons was, the museum had not preserved analogous traces of those religious artifacts’ devotional function–no unlit candles before the icons, no plaques explaining that the icons had been blessed by a local Catholic bishop. I don’t intend that observation to serve as an expression of “reverse discrimination”-style Christian aggrievement. But the question is worth posing in a neutral tone: Why the difference?

Tagged , ,

Duke Divinity School on the adhan controversy

In response to the controversy over Duke University granting, then rescinding, permission for their Muslim student group to make the traditional call for prayer from the Duke Chapel bell tower, the head of Duke’s divinity school has issued a letter defending the university’s decision to rescind permission. Time magazine has reported on this. The letter itself can be read here.

In the interest of bringing clarity to the on-going discussion of this issue—that is to say, in the interest of shoveling aside the bullsh*t—I’m providing below a paraphrase of the dean’s letter. It’s admittedly a very loose paraphrase, but I’m confident I’ve accurately captured the heart of what the dean is saying. Again, you can read the original letter here.


Dear members and friends of the Duke Divinity School community—especially our valued donors:

First, let me make clear that this controversy has nothing to do with us. We at the Divinity School have no control over what happens at the Duke Chapel, a state of affairs that might strike you as ill-advised in retrospect, and perhaps the administration ought to rethink it. At any rate, if we had been in charge, I can assure you none of this would have happened. We have our own chapel here in the Divinity School, which is used strictly for Christian worship. “Faithful Trinitarian Christian worship,” I mean—no Unitarians, or Mormons, or Oneness Pentecostals, or anyone else heretical.

The fact that this controversy has nothing to do with the Divinity School isn’t going to prevent me from sounding off about it. But because I’m not responsible, please direct your outrage to the foolish administrator who is: Christie Lorr Sapp, the University’s Associate Dean for Religious Life, at Fill her inbox with your hate mail. I’ve made damn sure not to put my email address anywhere on this letter.

Now, before we get to the points I’m most invested in making, let’s get the obligatory disclaimers out of the way: Obviously Duke University values diverse religious traditions—and we at the Divinity School go along with that, too, as long as those other religions keep to their own turf. Obviously, I’m appalled by the hateful and even threatening things people have been saying. No need to mention names, certainly no one nationally prominent headquartered here in North Carolina. But come on, people, you’re making Christians look bad! And obviously, Muslims at Duke should not be held responsible for the behavior of Muslims elsewhere in the world—their terrible, terrible behavior. Millions of Christians are being persecuted in Islamic societies today. They’re prohibited from practicing their faith. Did you know that? Millions. When is there going to be a rally on the quad protesting that?

But look, here’s the fundamentally important thing: The Duke Chapel is Christian turf. That’s what this issue boils down to. Plain and simple. The chapel is a “Christian place of worship.” Not a “neutral space” to be used for purposes of “interfaith hospitality.” Which could raise the question of why the Muslim students are being allowed to pray there at all . . . but I won’t raise that question here. Let’s just stay focused on the call to prayer. As long as the Muslim students worship in the basement, where no one can see them—or hear them—we at the Divinity School raise no objections. For now.

But letting the chapel’s bell tower be used as a minaret—that’s another matter. Because how will that be perceived in parts of the world where Muslims are persecuting Christians? You might as well hang a banner on the chapel that says, “Go, Islamic State!” I realize, of course, that Muslims here perceive the situation as communicating hostility toward them, and I lament that. Really, I’m tearing up about it as I write this. But it’s a question of priorities: How the situation is perceived by Muslims here is not as important as how it might be perceived by Christians on the other side of the globe. Nor as important as how it might be perceived by certain generous Divinity School donors (generous when it comes to money, at least).

Again, let me be clear. We’re not Islamophobes here at the Divinity School. We’ve hosted Muslim representatives for interfaith dialogue—Jews, too, for that matter. We even have a Muslim who teaches at the Divinity School. (Team-teaches, I mean; it’s not like we leave him alone with our students.) We’re proud to have on our faculty Davis Marschall, a leading specialist in Christian-Muslim relations, someone who would certainly know better—ahem—than to countenance anything that might give the appearance of blurring interfaith boundaries in a way that could trigger conservative Christian outrage. Regretfully, Professor Marschall was not consulted about the propriety of letting Muslims use the Duke Chapel for the call to prayer. He didn’t even know it was under consideration. Someone might expect that a specialist in Christian-Muslim relations would be in close enough touch with the university’s Muslim student group to stay apprized of such a development; but Professor Marschall has bigger fish to fry. Still, I can’t understand why no one thought to reach out to him about this.

I hope I’ve cleared up any misconceptions about the Divinity School’s responsibility for this sorry debacle. I hope, too, I’ve made clear that while we at the Divinity School bear no ill will toward Muslims (those millions of persecuted Christians notwithstanding), we firmly oppose allowing them to borrow Christian houses of worship. To our valued donors: Please keep those checks coming!

Grace and peace be with you all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,

Richard P. Hayes

Tagged , , ,

Adhan at Duke . . . oops, nope

A couple days ago, former fellow UNC alums posted to Facebook the news that Duke (where many of us took classes) had granted permission for Muslim students to perform the adhan–the call of prayer–from atop the campus’s iconic chapel bell tower. (A weekly Friday prayer service is held in the chapel basement.) “How nice,” I thought. “Good for the Dukies.”

Now the word is out that the administration has rescinded permission. A key player in that abrupt reversal is Franklin Graham, who lambasted the adhan plan on Facebook, then elaborated to the news media as follows:

“As Christianity is being excluded from the public square and followers of Islam are raping, butchering, and beheading Christians, Jews, and anyone who doesn’t submit to their Sharia Islamic law, Duke is promoting this in the name of religious pluralism,” Graham wrote on Facebook.

In an interview Thursday before the reversal, Graham told The Charlotte Observer that Duke should not allow the chapel to be used for the call to prayer. “It’s wrong because it’s a different god,” he said. “Using the bell tower, that signifies worship of Jesus Christ. Using (it) as a minaret is wrong.”

Graham did say Muslim students should be allowed to worship on campus. “Let Duke donate the land and let Saudi Arabia build a mosque for them.”

And referencing the recent terrorist attacks in France, Graham added, “Islam is not a religion of peace.”

(Charlotte Observer, Jan. 15, 2015)

The inevitable irony: Omid Safi reports that threats of violence were made against people at Duke by opponents of the adhan plan.

And who says Duke is losing its historic Christian identity?

Tagged , , ,

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 64 other followers