I won’t be fasting for the soul of the country

When I was a student at Harvard Divinity School, my work-study job one year was in the library helping to catalogue early American ephemera, mostly sermons and religious pamphlets published between independence and the Civil War. Among the items were funeral sermons, sermons preached at gatherings of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company, and sermons preached on the occasions of fast days proclaimed apparently annually. The thought of regular state-wide fast days was particularly amusing given that it was while I was a student that the harsh blue laws that prohibited most stores from opening were finally repealed.

Like the blue laws, fast days were an example of the Protestant hegemony that had held sway in early America and was still slowly receding in the 1980s. While culturally Boston was dominated by Irish and Italian Catholics, the legacy of mainline Protestant remained particularly strong. Its monuments lined the streets of the Back Bay: Trinity Church, Old South Church, First Baptist, Emmanuel Church, Arlington St. Unitarian. Similarly, almost every suburb and town in the state had tall-steeple churches of the major denominations.

But things were changing. Many of those churches were already struggling. First Baptist, where I interned had an average Sunday attendance of roughly 50 in a church that could comfortably seat 500. Harvard Divinity School recognized the importance of world religions both globally and nationally. We were required to take courses in World Religions as part of our M.Div. Curriculum and we had classmates who were Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, and many who had no personal religious commitments.

I quickly connected the fast days of Federalist Massachusetts with the “Buss- und Bettag” (day of prayer and repentance) that was observed in the Federal Republic of Germany when I studied there in 1979-1980. In Germany, with its state churches, such a day was a reminder of the role played by the church, especially Protestant churches. The notion that Fast Days might be observed in twentieth-century America seemed far-fetched.

So I was surprised to read the news last week that Presiding Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church was encouraging people to “fast for the soul of the country.” It seemed to me to be very much an appeal to this old version of Protestant hegemony and American Civil Religion, that had reigned in the US from its founding up to the late 20thcentury. As a denomination that has profited from and capitalized on its quasi-establishment as America’s Civil Religion (the National Cathedral and all that), we are struggling to make our way in this new America of religious pluralism and the rapid growth of those who claim no religious affiliation whatsoever. We struggle with the way our rituals are coopted as civic rituals, for example in the funerals of George Bush and his wife Barbara, who were both Episcopalian, and traditional observances like services on Inauguration Day.

How does calling for a “fast for the soul of our country” complicate our already strained relationship with America’s civil religion? At its heart, fasting is a profoundly personal act of spiritual discipline, a way for our bodies to engage in our religious experience, indeed, an expression of our body at prayer. While fasting may have significance on a personal level and for religious communities, the shared experience of fasting may be a crucial part of the experience, as during the season of Lent, as a public, civic ritual in a secular nation, fasting seems deeply problematic.

But the call to fast is only one aspect of my concern with the Presiding Bishop’s appeal. Equally problematic to me is the use of the phrase “the soul of the country.” In the first place, do countries have “souls”? The use of such language, while it may appeal to us on a visceral level as an attempt to describe the core values and ideals of a nation seems to be an attempt to imbue a nation with religious significance. To do so seems inevitably to lead to the idolatry of nationalism.

Moreover, if the US has a soul, how might we best define it? No doubt those who use such language want to appeal to the founding documents and the democratic ideals of the founders. But at the core of the nation’s founding was racism, white supremacy, and the removal and genocide of indigenous peoples. So is not all that part of the country’s soul as well? “The soul of the country” seems to me to be problematic political theology, a term that needs interrogation and critique It is particularly unfortunate that it has recently entered the rhetoric of the presidential campaign, used by Joe Biden in a recent town hall.

It seems to me that religious leaders, rather than encouraging us to deepen our commitments and rituals to the American project, to its soul, ought to be calling us to deeper commitment to Jesus Christ, deeper and more meaningful discipleship, and to work more diligently for justice and peace.

 

Many of us will read these verses during our Ash Wednesday services this week. They seem especially appropriate:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7)

 

Of Bibles, Blessings, and Twitter Outrage

On Sunday, this tweet from the National Cathedral appeared in my feed. There was an immediate response from many who found it and the event it was depicting deeply problematic. Conversation about its significance and appropriateness began immediately and unlike so many such twitter controversies, it has not died down 2 days later. NPR picked up the story as well.

I was deeply troubled by the original tweet as it stated the Cathedral was “blessing the official Bible of the Space Force.” There are serious questions here about what this blessing says about the Episcopal Church’s relationship with the United States and its military, some of which I may address on another occasion. What caught my attention however was the phrase “the official Bible of the Space Force.”

I know little about how the Space Force has developed since President Trump announced its creation; in fact, I assumed it was little more than one of those things the President is prone to say that seem to have little basis in reality. Apparently it is a thing. But I had a number of questions. This official Bible was apparently to be used to swear in all commanders. That raises questions about the role of religion, specifically Christianity in the creation of the military hierarchy, and what role, if any, people who aren’t Christian would have in that hierarchy. Are there also “official” Torahs or Qurans for commanders who might be Jewish or Muslim, or for that matter, what provision is made for people who claim no religious affiliation?

While space has been militarized since the beginning of exploration, the creation of a Space Force seems to me to be a qualitative leap beyond what has occurred to this point. I imagined Space Force conquerors claiming planets as US territory following colonization patterns familiar from past centuries, with missionaries coming behind, Christianizing alien races as the Church of England followed the Empire as it colonized the world and Franciscans and Dominicans accompanied Spanish conquistadors.

The NPR article provides a bit of background and walks back the tweet’s inaccuracies but at the same time introduces some other astonishing and troubling details. The Bible was donated by the Museum of the Bible which is itself mired in controversy regarding its questionable acquisition of items and its ideological perspective. And then there is the prayer that was read at its blessing:

“Almighty God, who set the planets in their courses and the stars in space, look with favor, we pray you, upon the commander in chief, the 45th president of this great nation, who looked to the heavens and dared to dream of a safer future for all mankind.”

There are complex issues involved in occasions such as this. The blessing was performed by Bishop Carl Wright, the Episcopal Church’s Suffragan Bishop for the Armed Forces and Federal Ministries. He oversees chaplains in the Armed Forces, Veterans Administration, and federal prisons. It’s important work and I’m grateful for the Episcopal presence in all of those places. I wouldn’t second-guess any action he took, especially considering I have no direct experience in any of them.

At the same time, I think this event and the reaction to it reflect a much more important issue in the life of the Episcopal Church. Since the founding of the US and the Episcopal Church, we have been the quasi-established Church. It’s no accident that we have a “National Cathedral” that is the site of state funerals like that of George H.W. Bush as well as inaugural prayer services. The difference between this event and the widespread fawning among Episcopalians when President Obama attended Inaugural service es at Episcopal churches is more a matter of degree than of kind.

The fundamental question is this. How can we as a church minister in and to institutions that are deeply oppressive, violent, unjust, and militaristic even as we also seek to call them to account? The blessing of a Bible that will be used in a commander’s swearing-in ceremony implicates the Episcopal Church in whatever command decisions he or she might have to make.

As the percentage of Americans who identify themselves as Christian becomes smaller every year, and as the Episcopal Church itself continues to decline in numbers and influence, it will incumbent on us to develop a public witness that is at once faithful to the Good News of Jesus Christ and recognizes the pluralistic reality of the world in which we live.  We must also acknowledge that the people among whom we minister in those institutions are also struggling to negotiate multiple identities of their own and competing claims for their allegiance. While they are doing this, they are also working with people who  are struggling in the same ways and are often coming from very different religious and cultural backgrounds.

What would it be like if the Episcopal Church, instead of reaching back to traditional symbolism and language or adopting models from established churches, explored new religious forms that recognized the complexity of the world in which we live and sought to honor and strengthen the religious commitments, not just of Episcopalians, but of people who reflect the diversity of America’s and the world’s religions?

All of this requires much greater nuance than is possible in 280 characters.

On contemporary evangelicalism, race, and President Trump

A couple of important recent articles explore the support of white Evangelical Christians, and their leaders, for President Trump. Michael Gerson, who worked in George W. Bush’s White House, offers some historical perspective and is hard-hitting in his criticism of Trump’s Evangelical supporters and the impact of that support on American Christianity in the long run:

It is remarkable to hear religious leaders defend profanity, ridicule, and cruelty as hallmarks of authenticity and dismiss decency as a dead language. Whatever Trump’s policy legacy ends up being, his presidency has been a disaster in the realm of norms. It has coarsened our culture, given permission for bullying, complicated the moral formation of children, undermined standards of public integrity, and encouraged cynicism about the political enterprise. Falwell, Graham, and others are providing religious cover for moral squalor—winking at trashy behavior and encouraging the unraveling of social restraints. Instead of defending their convictions, they are providing preemptive absolution for their political favorites. And this, even by purely political standards, undermines the causes they embrace. Turning a blind eye to the exploitation of women certainly doesn’t help in making pro-life arguments. It materially undermines the movement, which must ultimately change not only the composition of the courts but the views of the public. Having given politics pride of place, these evangelical leaders have ceased to be moral leaders in any meaningful sense.

As several commentators have pointed out, Gerson’s analysis overlooks racism’s role in the rise of Evangelicalism as a political movement. An article in the New York Times, sheds light on African-Americans who are leaving white Evangelical churches.

Many progressive Christians cheer such developments because they think that exiles from evangelicalism will find new homes in mainline denominations. I doubt whether that will happen in large numbers. I suspect its more likely that such exiles will leave organized Christianity entirely. In addition, it is increasingly difficult for those of us who proclaim a gospel of love and inclusion to have our voices heard above the cacophony in our current culture, and also to resist the temptation to find our salvation in progressive politics and “resistance” rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ.

David Gushee on the project of Christian Social Ethics in the Age of Trump

Progressive American Christian social ethics always operated within the framework of a political system that they believed in, a culture in which there were at least a few agreed facts and even values, and an electoral system that produced leaders that were believable as presidents and generally attained the office without chicanery. And so they (we) would write our earnest articles and make our earnest treks to Washington within a system that was basically working and in which we wanted to participate to “make a difference.”

This situation is more apocalyptic. What is needed in America today goes far beyond what a bit of public-policy tinkering might be able to manage. Both our political system and our culture feel broken, and in this round have produced a president, and a presidency, seemingly broken from (before) the beginning. We are limping along, badly wounded. Yet another white paper on climate change hardly seems like the answer. But no one exactly knows what the answer is.

Read the whole piece here.

Reflections on seeing the Dalai Lama

I don’t know how many times the Dalai Lama has visited Madison in the years I’ve lived here–I’m guessing this is his third time that I know of, eleventh overall. I also recall his visiting Harvard when I was in grad school there. But when I learned he was coming again, and that there would be a public event at the Overture Center (just two blocks away from Grace), I decided to buy a ticket. More information about the event, the panel, and the Center for Healthy Minds is available here.

Several converging interests compelled me. First was simply the history. He’s over 80, not in particularly good health, and this might be my last opportunity. I have strong interests and sporadic practice in meditation; I’m fascinated by the work that Dr. Richard Davidson and his team are doing at the Center for Healthy Minds. While I was still in academics, I was becoming more and more interested in the role of the body and brain in creating what we humans call “religion” and the neuroscientific research into the effects of meditation and mindfulness have implications for the study of religious experience and mysticism. Perhaps most interesting for me is how the Dalai Lama is experienced in twenty-first century America–a profoundly religious figure who is embraced and revered by people who have no truck with organized religion.

I was not disappointed. The afternoon event was billed as a panel discussion, with brief statements by Dr. Davidson and other participants. I didn’t keep time (we were told to turn off our cellphones) so I wasn’t able to determine precisely how much the Dalai Lama himself spoke. He answered some questions and engaged in dialogue with the moderator Dan Harris of ABC News. As I told people who asked about it, he should have been a comedian. He was charming, funny, and delightful.

I noticed several things. First, an impression I’ve had from other events and presentations by Dr. Davidson and the Center for Healthy Minds was confirmed. For a myriad of reasons, they want to distinguish clearly and completely what they are doing and researching from the category of “religion.” Harris himself brought it up, alluding to controversy that has erupted in various places when mindfulness practices have been introduced into schools. Mindfulness is a range of techniques that have nothing to do with what we might call ritual or religious practice, at least according to the neuroscientists. I wonder whether scholars of religion would make the same judgment.

Second, the figure of the Dalai Lama himself. Whatever he said, however profound, what was more important, more meaningful to most of those in attendance was his presence–the sense of being in close proximity, seeing, someone of great religious and spiritual significance. The Dalai Lama has an aura. It was palpable in the theatre when he entered, and the response of those in attendance was equally palpable. Whatever assertions Dr. Davidson and the other panelists were making about “science” the Dalai Lama’s presence and our response undermined those claims.

In the course of the afternoon, I reached for comparisons and wondered whether the Dalai Lama’s presence, and the response his presence elicited from the audience could be compared to that of Pope Francis. On the one hand, the crowds Pope Francis attracted during his visit to the US were much larger than our gathering in Madison; on the other, I suspect that onlookers experienced both in somewhat similar terms and categories.

It is especially interesting to think about yesterday’s event in light of the current political and cultural climate in the US. With the current negative mood in our nation, divisive national politics, and violent rhetoric, the very premise of the panel that through mindfulness we might bring about a better world by 2030 seems tone-deaf. Given our political climate, with the loud anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric, it’s hard for me to imagine how a different world might be created by 2030. And for the most part, the deep racial and economic inequities that are a profound reality in our nation were not addressed. The demographics of the audience were overwhelmingly white, mostly middle-aged or older, in no way reflective of the diversity of our society.

Nonetheless, I found the afternoon fascinating and moving. On both a spiritual and an academic level, I encountered the sacred. The Dalai Lama spoke about the importance of compassion and asserted that selfishness, the right sort of selfishness, was the way forward. More on the day from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

How to interpret the Pew Survey results

This week’s publication of the latest Pew Survey of the Religious Landscape has provided bloggers, pundits, and religious leaders much to ponder, opportunities to engage in conversation and debate, and voluble commentary seldom seen outside of national sporting events like the Super Bowl.

The survey reports a precipitous decline in the percentage of Americans who self-identify as “mainline Protestant” has declined 3.4%, from 18.1% to 14.7%. Roman Catholics have seen a similar decline, from 23.9% to 20.8%; while self-identified Evangelicals have decreased from 26.3% to 25.4% of the population.

The only group that has increased significantly is the percentage of those who identify with no religious tradition, the group commonly referred to as “nones.” That percentage has increased from 16.1% to 22.7%, growing by over a 1/3. The growth in the latter group is overwhelmingly driven by “millennials”, people born since 1981. 78% of Baby Boomers identify as Christian; the percentage of millennials who do hovers in the mid 50s. 36% of those born between 1990 and 1996 are religiously unaffiliated according the Pew Study.

I came across a piece by a former colleague, Steve Ramey, who now teaches at the University of Alabama. Ramey points out the limitations of surveys like the Pew:

All of this highlights how any identification, including religious affiliation, is strategic, as people respond according to how they want others to perceive them and what identification best produces that perception. The strategic nature of any identification provides a different, partial explanation for the Pew survey results. The changes over time in the numbers claiming a religious affiliation should be seen as, first and foremost, a change in perception of what affiliation is socially acceptable and useful. Such a change, then, may be less about shifts in practice and belief than social perception and pressure. (Self-reports about practice or belief are also strategic and may not capture significant change in thought or practice.) Despite the media articles that the Pew report generates, the data tells us very little beyond changes in how people are willing to present themselves to anonymous surveyors. That change is itself an interesting development, but its implications are much more difficult to define than a simple reference to growth or decline of differing groups.

Ramey is pointing to something very important. People have reasons for answering survey questions in particular ways. They also have reasons for identifying themselves in certain ways. We have long known the tendency of people to over-report their church attendance. What the Pew Survey, and others like it, show, is that there’s no longer any social incentive to self-identify as Christian. For younger people, for millennials, there may even be disincentives to self-identify as Christian.

These facts do have a significant impact on the future of mainline Christianity (and perhaps also Evangelical), but from the answers to these questions, it’s important not to draw the wrong conclusions. It would be interesting to follow up, to ask of those millennial “nones,” whether they still attend services from time to time, whether they think about God, ponder questions of ultimate meaning, and explore those questions using religious language. I’m always struck, on Christmas Eve, on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and Easter, by the numbers of young adults who come to services at Grace. I don’t know their names; I don’t know anything about them, except that they choose to come to church on those days. Surely that’s a sign of some religious “practice” or “tendency” in them.

Sociologists and survey creators want clarity. They offer limited options; they don’t often delve deeper into behavior, practice, beliefs (and doubts). Surveys that offer a limited range of possible responses can’t account for the ambiguity and plurality of religious practice and belief. My academic background has given me a helpful perspective on those who would understand contemporary trends in religious practice and belief. As a scholar of Religion in Early Modern Europe, I was especially interested in all the ways in which men and women sought to create meaningful religious lives for themselves. They often did it in resistance to the dominant religious and political authorities. They lived on boundaries between Catholic and Protestant, and sometimes Anabaptist or heretic. They might have been confirmed Lutheran, but when in need, they sought out the shrine of a Catholic saint, or holy water, or an amulet. They might have been Catholic, but also been attracted to Lutheran preaching. Whatever confession, they might have been reluctant to attend services except when absolutely necessary. Whatever the case, such behavior was regarded as irreligious by the authorities. Even as I read the religious and political authorities’ criticism of such behavior, I was moved by these people’s efforts to construct meaningful religious lives for themselves over against the official line. Sometimes, it cost them their lives.

What we have today is something analogous. With no social, economic, or political benefits to identifying as religious, and with a wide range of religious options legitimized by our culture, there is no longer any stigma attached to identifying oneself as “religiously unaffiliated.” Similarly, there are no cultural or social benefits attached to attendance at religious services, no stigma if one stays home on Sunday. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. There are now cultural and social disincentives to identifying (and practicing( religion.

That’s what the Pew Survey tells us. It’s significant, of course, because we in the religion business can no longer count on a captive audience. But it doesn’t mean that people no longer have religious lives, or that they seek deeper meaning in their lives. It’s just that they don’t automatically look for it in a place of worship or a community of faith. They find it in lots of different places and ways. We’re now competing in a marketplace of ideas and practices, and we will never be able to command the kind of allegiance we were able to command a generation or two ago. People are as likely to find meaning and meaningful spiritual practice in a coffee shop, on a bike trail, at a yoga studio, or with a group of friends, as they are in a place of worship. We can’t compete by becoming those things. We can only compete if we’re able to provide places where they can explore their questions with authenticity and where they can encounter God in Jesus Christ.

We are not witnessing the end of Christianity, or the end of religion, in the United States. We are witnesses to a transformation. There will be some people who will find ways of being religious, Christian, in ways that might not look that much different than religious patterns in the past, creating close communities in which all of life is shaped by the gospel. But there will be others, probably many more, who will create religious lives for themselves that make space for Christian practice but place that practice alongside other practices. They will fashion lives for themselves that are authentic and help them make sense of themselves and their world, but may not fit comfortably into institutional Christianity. The challenge for us on the inside of the institution will be how to remake the institutions in light of the very different ways in which people relate to them. If we can get that (and alongside of that figure out how to create sustainable communities), we will ensure that our particular witness to good news of Jesus Christ will continue to be proclaimed in a new context.

So, who’s going to church?

A Pew Survey entitled “I know what you did last Sunday”
got a lot of attention last week. In separate telephone and on-line polling, the survey shows that more people claim to attend religious services when asked by a person (36%) than online (31%).
Mark Silk looks more closely at the numbers. First, he points out that the Pew survey seems to over-report attendance. A number of studies in the 1990s that used polling, self-reporting, and actual counting of people in the seats, showed actual attendance to be in the 20s. In other words, unless attendance has increased in the last twenty years, Pew is still getting results that suggest people exaggerate their religious involvement.

Second, Silk makes another very interesting observation. The same gap between phone and online responses exists for atheists, agnostics, and nones that exists for religious people. That is to say, they feel guilty about not attending services and over-report their involvement when responding to a telephone interview.

Perhaps most interesting of all, however, is this: “more respondents told the telephone interviewers that they had no religion than said so online.”

His conclusion:

What it suggests it that, as of today, Americans believe there is nothing socially undesirable about saying you don’t have a religion. To the contrary, we may be entering an era when identifying oneself as having a religion is less desirable than identifying oneself as belonging to one. And that’s true even as it remains socially desirable to go to church and believe in God.

In other words, there are more people out there there who are Catholics and Southern Baptists and Episcopalians than are prepared to admit it to someone on the telephone.

Interesting indeed!