This week, we first learned about the variety of students’ experiences at sectarian churches. In some respects, the our experiences in sectarian churches were similar to our experiences in denominational churches. For example, both kinds of churches often seemed desperate for newcomers and vigorously welcomed young adults into their community. On the other hand, the theology of the sectarian churches differed sharply from the that of their denominational counterparts. Generally, these churches espoused a Biblically literalistic point of view that spawned conservative social and political values. Some of them also embraced an eschatological worldview that focused on right belief leading to heaven or hell. While the denominational churches usually hosted 50-300 people, the sectarian churches fell on either side of this spectrum, hosting anywhere from a dozen to thousands.
On Wednesday, Dr. Spickard presented on social justice Catholics. These Catholic workers tended to focus heavily on actions over belief or adherence to hierarchical standards. Their justice work took two forms: work with the homeless on Skid Row and larger political acts of civil disobedience. Wednesday night Eucharist helped fuel their seemingly endless energy for activism. The ritual centered around a narrative that took participants from despair to jubilance over the course of the hour, which they then funneled into their Wednesday night soup line. This progression from Eucharist to soup line underscores the fundamental connection for these Workers between faith and justice; many interviewees commented that one could not exist without the other. In all, Dr. Spickard’s presentation captured the unique position the LA Catholic Workers occupy, in the heart of the Catholic faith but on the fringes of the institution.
At the beginning of this week, we learned about new trends in the sociology of religion, from changing gender roles to increasing awareness around LGBTQ sexuality. First, we heard about increases in unofficial religion. The subjects used by McGuire grew up within the confines of official religion but supplemented or replaced it with alternative practices. For example, one woman practiced gardening and reoriented her career and home around this spiritual practice. Another remained active within his church but focused on social activism as his main religious expression. Zimbauer also studies “nones” or “spiritual but not religious” people, who tend to have higher incomes and more negative attitudes toward religion.
In addition to increasing expressions of unofficial religion, we discussed LGBTQ and female religiosity. In “Queering the Dragonfest,” Neitz described pagans’ increasing comfort with gender-bending and same-sex relationships. Meanwhile, “Gospel Hour” allowed gay men a safe space to express their belief while healing from the harsh exclusion they had experienced from their churches growing up. Finally, in “Gendering Secularization Theory,” Woodhead described three different lifestyles modern women choose and how they affect their religious affiliation. Traditional domestic women, for example, often choose conservative religion, while career women generally stay away from it. Women who choose both paths may discard religion, but they may also choose to follow a liberal religious tradition as a way to help them manage their myriad responsibilities. In all, these articles helped us understand sociologists’ approaches and findings in new areas of religious expression.
Last Thursday, the Mormon Church officially released a video about a Mormon family with a gay son. The six-and-a-half minute video profiled a middle-aged Mormon couple whose son had come out to them several years before. The video interviewed both the parents and the son, who had just graduated with his master’s degree. Ultimately, it highlighted the love the parents expressed for their son and their journey toward their acceptance of his identity. In the video, the parents even acknowledge his open relationship with another man and his move away from the Mormon Church, though they seem less at peace with these expressions of his gay identity.
The video engendered a variety of responses from Mormons on social media. Some welcomed the video unequivocally, saying that they were delighted to see the Church produce a video that discussed gay (former) Mormons in a relatively positive light. Others appreciated the Church’s fine line between a message love and compassion while stopping short of embracing his identity theologically. Others responded negatively, believing that using the word “identity” to discuss a “sin” was an abomination and represented a departure from Church teachings. In all, the video seems to reflect the Mormons’ increasing difficulty defending their position on gay marriage while retaining as many members as possible.
Mormons’ reactions to LGBT video reveal the LDS Church’s mixed messages about gays
This week, we learned about the six different narratives about religion in America. The first narrative, secularization, insists that religion is losing its influence on American society. The privatization of individuals’ religious experience, the fragmentation of social life into a variety of institutions, the socialization of American government programs, and increasing pluralism and rationalism all contribute to this narrative. The next argument claims that religions are not losing influence but reorganizing around local, not denominational, levels. This argument relies upon the evidence of local vitality, even as denominations decline, showing the importance of local connections and communities in the religious sphere. The third argument points to a conservative resurgence across all religions, especially in an increase among militant conservatives. From megachurches to jihadis, this theory notes conservatives’ reaction to modernity and their desire to seek security by “recapturing” the government from secularists and liberals. The fourth narrative, Religious Individualization, paints a picture of a world where individuals do not look to any single tradition for their belief. Instead, they follow the societal trend of serial connections by drawing on multiple religions and often changing their affiliation. The fifth narrative views American religion through the lens of capitalism, believing that religions compete for “customers” in religious markets. In this theory, religions that promote conservatism and otherworldliness succeed the most, measured by their soaring numbers. Finally, the sixth narrative addresses the globalization of religion. It follows global migration patterns as immigrants transplant their religions to their new homes but also bring their new religious influences back to their homeland. In this way, pluralism increases. These six narratives capture the main trends in American religion as theorized by religious sociologists today.
On Tuesday evening, the Tallahassee Democrat reported on a Florida Senate bill SB 436 that would allow Florida public school students greater religious freedom. For example, it explicitly allows them to wear religious clothing or jewelry, to express their beliefs as part of their school assignments, and to engage in religious activity during the school day. Introduced by State Senator Dennis Baxley, R-Lady Lake, the bill promises to “let freedom ring” in public schools.
However, the bill has faced some criticism for its expansive definition of “religious” and for its refusal to set boundaries on students’ expression. In the first place, opponents worry that the lack of definition of “religious” and “religion” will allow students to express hate speech or other offensive views. In addition, the bill sets no explicit limits on students’ expression of their religiosity, and other senators worry that it will protect students who are disrespectful or disruptive to teachers who present material they disagree with on religious grounds. Brandon Haught, a high school biology teacher, said that the bill would have “chilling effects” on science teachers presenting material on evolution. Despite his concerns, the bill passed the judiciary commission Tuesday night with a 5-4 vote, and it now moves forward to general debate on the Senate floor.
This week, we read McGuire’s “The Impact of Religion on Social Change,” which showed how religion can be used to support the status quo or to disrupt it. She began with a discussion of Marxism, which saw religion as “the opiate of the people,” an institution exclusively used to perpetuate social inequality. In his vision, on a local level, religious specialists and rituals drew off public dissent that might otherwise lead to revolution. As a larger institution, Marx saw religion instilling values of obedience in the lower classes and justifying the “divine right” of the elite. In particular, Weber speaks of theodicies, “religious explanations that provide meaning for problematic experiences” such as economic or racial inequality (241). Examples of this theory playing out in real life come from the Russian Orthodox’s upholding of the czar’s leadership and serfs’ submission, or from American churches preaching whites’ manifest destiny over Native Americans.
On the other hand, McGuire also discusses how religion can promote social change, reaching beyond the Marxian framework. Religious imagery such as the “kingdom of God” creates opportunities for believers to imagine a better world. Additionally, the advent of Protestantism and created a whole group of Christians eager to prove their faith by bettering society, since the sacraments no longer provided a clear expression of one’s dedication to God. In the end, McGuire points out that different religious groups are more conducive to either reinforcing or overturning the status quo, depending on whether they place their focus on this world or the next one.
On Monday, Ivanka Trump posted a tweet in response to the waves of bomb threats to Jewish Community Centers around the country. It read: “America is a nation built on the principle of religious tolerance. We must protect our houses of worship and religious centers. #JCC.” Ms. Trump converted to Orthodox Judaism before she married her husband, Jared Kushner, in 2009. As of Monday, 11 bomb scares had been reported all over the country, but especially in the South and Midwest. Trump’s tweet garnered some criticism as followers commented that she was being hypocritical, given her father’s hostility toward Muslims. Some also found her tweet confusing given the President’s perceived slowness to speak out against the same attacks himself and his earlier refusals to disavow the support of anti-Semitic, white supremacist groups. Later on Monday, the White House deputy press secretary issued a statement condemning “hatred and hate-motivated violence.”
This week, we learned about everyday religion among upper-class individuals, ethnically diverse Catholic parishes, and Orthodox Jewish women. The first presentation discussed religious expression in everyday life, at home and work, in public life, and in the physical body. The survey sample made distinctions between conservative white Protestants, black Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and “others,” including New Age religionists. It found that religious expression is by no means monolithic and that respondents’ varying levels of spirituality determine their level of religious expression.
The second presentation discussed the new concept of the Catholic “shared parish,” which hosts both a white and Latino congregation. Each ethnic group, while not openly hostile to sharing a parish, experiences difficulties with the other congregation. Part of these differences lie in linguistic and cultural disparities, while others lie in deeper misunderstandings of the ethnic group as a whole. As a result, these groups largely self-segregate, incorporating their own practices and languages into separate Masses. The cultural encapsulation can be helpful for immigrants who need a safe space within their community, but it also prevents greater mixing and understanding between the two groups.
Finally, the presentation on Orthodox Jewish women discussed two kinds of communities: a sectarian Lubavitch group with its own text and practices and a modern Orthodox synagogue in New York City. Both organizations provide women with an opportunity for matchmaking and a strong Jewish community. However, the Lubavitch group creates a sectarian experience completely walled off from the outer world, while the Lincoln Square synagogue accepts modern society and allows its members to have regular jobs. These three presentations allowed us to glimpse into modern religious expression in several disparate forms.
On the first Friday following the deadly attack at the Islamic Center in Quebec, hundreds of demonstrators from many faiths formed a “human shield” around a mosque in Toronto. Jews, Christians, and people of no faith gathered to show their solidarity with the Muslims inside, who, in spite of the recent killings, had gathered for prayer nonetheless. Organized by Jewish rabbi, the event first consisted only of congregants from the local synagogue, but as others in Toronto heard and saw the demonstrations, many more joined in.
While many people in the United States are aware of the rise in Islamophobia since 9/11, few know that the same sentiments exist in Canada. Alexandre Bissonnette, a young French-Canadian, became the most violent of the anti-Islamic dissenters when he killed six people and badly injured five more two weeks ago. However, the response of politicians and ordinary citizens with demonstrations such as these have turned the tragedy into an opportunity to speak out against hatred. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Syed Pirzada, the imam of the mosque where the attacks occurred, said that Canada’s response to Bissonnette’s killings showed the country’s overall inclusivity and intolerance of hatred.
This week, we began with McGuire’s explanation of religion as an agent of social cohesion and conflict, as well as the role of civil religion in society. McGuire notes Durkheim’s philosophy of religion as a medium of social engagement, positing that our globalized economic systems displace religion as a pivotal element of social cohesion. However, it can still function as a glue for different groups, especially when paired with a racial or ethnic identity. In our political world, national leaders utilize stories, symbols, music, and transcendent language to produce a quasi-religion connected to our country. Although almost all political leaders in the U.S. use it to some extent, nationalistic leaders are particularly well-served by civil religiosity. Finally, as a force of social conflict, religion can produce an “us-them” perspective that sets up divides in the larger population. When religious boundaries overlap with ethnic or class boundaries, as they do in Northern Ireland, the resulting cleavage can be especially stark.
Our two class presentations touched on several of the above themes. The first one, which discussed four different ways to approach religion, included an explanation of exclusivists, those who believe their religion is the only good option, and anti-religionists, who despise religion in general. Each of these people can contribute to social conflict around religion due to their absolute beliefs. In the other presentation, we learned about members of a new religious movement from India. This movement acted as social cohesion for housewives who felt undervalued and under-stimulated. Thus, these two presentations pulled together several concepts from McGuire’s reading.