During his weekly general audience, Pope Francis made some remarks that seemingly pointed directly at Donald Trump, a rarity for a man who usually speaks more generally about world leaders. His planned statement posited that Christians should “not raise walls but bridges, not to respond to evil with evil, to overcome evil with good.” The Pope then went off of his planned remarks to add, “A Christian can never say, ‘I’ll make you pay for that.’ Never! That is not a Christian gesture.” These remarks follow several months after Francis responded to a reporter’s question about the border wall by saying that a man who thought of building walls was “not Christian.”
This latest statement comes days after Trump’s conversation with Mexican President Pena Nieto, during which Trump reportedly echoed his promise to make Mexico pay for a border wall and further threatened to send U.S. troops to Mexico if Nieto’s army cannot eliminate its “bad hombres.” Although Pope Francis did send the President a Jan. 20th message urging him to care for the poor and outcast, he had pledged not to form an opinion of Trump until after Trump implemented specific policies. His Wednesday statements, if they truly were targeted at Trump, suggest that the Pope has seen enough of the Trump administration to share his public opinion.
This week, we learned primarily about shifting patters of religious life in America. The clearest pattern is that no symbol of religiosity in American life has increased, but most of the time, any declines have been gradual and/or not statistically significant. A few trends do stand out, however. First, childhood and youth involvement has declined, decreasing the possibility that they will become religiously involved adults. As a result, the church population is growing considerably older, and the number of young people interested in a religious career has plummeted. Finally, congregants have consolidated themselves into a small number of very large churches, which means that smaller churches are closing more quickly.
In terms of shifts among different kinds of Protestantism, Chaves distinguishes between liberal and conservative Protestants. Conservative Protestant denominations have grown partly by siphoning off members from liberal denominations but more importantly by merely keeping their young people involved at a higher rate than liberal denominations do. However, Chaves believes that liberal religious sentiments have not declined, only their expression in the form of church participation. On a national stage, the polarization of Republicans and Democrats has contributed to increasing polarization between liberal and conservative Protestants. As the religious conservatives aligned themselves with the Republican party in the 1980s, the liberal conservatives in turn allied themselves with Democrats. While Chaves posits that our society has not yet engaged in a “culture war,” he believes that it may be headed in that direction if the political parties continue to move further apart.
Last Friday, the President signed an Executive Order temporarily restricting travel from seven Muslim-majority countries and indefinitely prohibiting refugees from entering the United States. Huffington Post’s article on the Executive Order discussed the battle around terminology taking place in the White House Press Room. On Tuesday, Press Secretary Sean Spicer criticized a reporter for calling the Order a “ban” in his question. However, the reporter pointed out that Trump repeatedly called for a “Muslim ban” throughout his campaign and characterized his Order as a “ban” both on Twitter and in a press conference. Indeed, one day before Tuesday’s briefing, Spicer himself had told George Washington students that “the ban deals with seven countries.” After reporters pointed out these inconsistencies to Spicer, he blamed the media for using the term to make the President’s actions look more extreme. He did not address his or the President’s previous use of the term.
These contradictory statements reveal the complicated aftermath of the Executive Order. On the one hand, Trump wants to take credit for delivering on a major campaign promise and enjoy the soaring popularity ratings from his base of supporters. On the other hand, his Order triggered massive protests and worldwide condemnation, especially after the first ones affected by the ban were two Christian interpreters for the U.S. military in Iraq. Given the rampant inconsistencies noted by the press in yesterday’s conference, the Trump Administration’s attempts to celebrate with supporters and soften the Order’s tone are not working.
This week, we learned about four different kids of religion: churches, denominations, sects, and cults. Churches accept an ordinary level of religiosity, but they expect it to be diffused throughout everyday life. One example is the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church, which exerted immense authority over entire countries and societies. If, however, the church ceases to exert this sort of monolithic influence, it becomes denominational, as the Catholic Church has become since Vatican II. Meanwhile, denominations function similarly but allow for its adherents to separate religiosity from their everyday lives. For example, the Presbyterian Church does not expect to dominate the culture and allows their followers to practice religion only once a week. Cults allow this separation of religious parts of life and do not claim exclusivity; one can follow several cults at once. Many Catholics in countries colonized by Europe continued to follow indigenous cults and even integrate them into aspects of Catholic life. Finally, sects demand perfection from their followers and expect that they follow their religion in all aspects of their life. Jehovah’s Witnesses are an example of a recent sect, with high demands for their followers at all times, acting as a reaction to a modernizing world. Converts especially are required to show their dedication with extensive time spent missionizing. These sects often have difficulty maintaining followers after the second generation.
On Friday, January 20th, religion popped up on the front pages of most news websites and TV channels in the country, soon followed by virtually every daily piece of print journalism. Most of these stories on Trump’s inauguration came with large pictures depicting his swearing-in, but each of them also included the Bibles on which he laid his hand. Melania held two Bibles, one that Lincoln had used for his own inauguration and one that Trump’s mother had given him when he graduated from Presbyterian Sunday School in 1955.
The first Bible from Lincoln seems a strange choice, given the disparity between Lincoln’s legacy of uniting the country and Trump’s divisive political style. The choice appears even more odd given that using the Bible is far from Presidential tradition; Obama is the only previous president to have sworn in on it. However, the chairman of the Inauguration Committee explained that the Bible harkened back to moment when President Lincoln “appealed to the ‘better angels’ of our nature,” suggesting vaguely that Trump wanted to echo Lincoln’s request.
The other Bible harkens back to Trump’s childhood. After graduating from his Confirmation class in 1959 in Jamaica, New York, Trump’s mother gifted him with his own Bible. On the campaign trail, he referenced that Bible several times and even used it in a video to his evangelical supporters, touting it as a proof of his longstanding faith. In a way, then, this Bible acknowledges the evangelical electorate that is largely responsible for his election.
Chaves’ American Religion provides an introductory examination of the shifts in religious life in the United States since 1972. He contextualizes the narrative of “religion is dying!” by reminding us that we are still by far the most religious Western country. Rather than bemoaning the decreasing influence of religion in U.S. society, or conversely arguing for its skyrocketing numbers, Chaves neither overstates and understates changes. For the most part, he says, there is continuity in American religion, but overall, the number of people who identify with and practice official religion has decreased since 1972. Declining church attendance also comes with a decrease of belief in an inerrant Bible, declining confidence in the superiority of their own religion, and a lowered correlation between organized religiosity and spirituality. In the wake of this phenomenon, the number of “nones,” those who do not identify with any religion at all, has increased dramatically. These “nones” often consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.”
In chapter 4, McGuire differentiates between official and nonofficial religion. Official religion proclaims a set doctrine, which in turn prescribes ethics, norms and regulations for the faithful. Organized religion uses cultic expression, which standardizes devotional practices, and they organize into institutional forms, which include professional clergy. Individuals are judged by their conformity to official religion. By contrast, nonofficial religion takes place outside of the bounds of official religious institutions, though their adherents may overlap. It may include superstitious practices related to organized religion (eg. sacramentals) or not. Most Protestant Christians find their roots in popular or cultic religious expression, especially evangelicals. Today, nonofficial religion spreads by radio, television, and other media. These two kinds of religion are not mutually exclusive, and in both historical and modern contexts, believers have practiced both forms at one time, using nonofficial religion to supplement official religion and vice versa.
In the first chapter of McGuire’s text, we learned that religion can play a massively important role in society. Sociologists of religion in the 1940s and 50s looked for religion in churches, but recently, they have begun to define religion more broadly. For example, they now focus on how cities or ethnic groups use religion as a form of identity and how secular symbols such as the Alamo can take on a quasi-religious feeling. Sociologists use two types of definitions in the course of their work: substantive definitions, which use a Western worldview and define more narrowly, and functional definitions, which define more broadly but may encapsulate more than was intended. Finally, sociologists study four aspects of religion: beliefs, ritual, experience, and community.
In McGuire’s second chapter, he lays out the framework for meaning and belonging in religious societies. An individual constructs a “meaning system,” or worldview, through which to interpret their past behavior and the behavior of others around them. Religious groups often help create and uphold this meaning system, especially when crisis strikes and the worldview needs to shift to accommodate new data. Dualism is especially prevalent in fundamentalist groups, sometimes leading to beliefs in millennialism and acpocalypticism.
Finally, in “The Individual’s Religion,” McGuire traces the religious socialization of a young person, who quickly learns to distinguish between “us” and “them.” They may turn away from religion as an adolescent, but often return to it by old age, when it creates meaning after work and hobbies have ceased. Throughout one’s life, one may choose to undertake the process of conversion, which involves being welcomed into a new religious group and undertaking its rituals. Much of the time, however, the person’s commitment does not last, and they disengage, reversing their conversion process. These main phases and rituals make up the individual’s religious life in conversation with their community.
In “Silence: Scorsese’s Spiritual Masterpiece,” Craig Detweiler reviews Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Silence. The film explores the nineteenth-century journey of several European priests to Japan to locate the “hidden Christians” there. Martyrdom, of priests and the Japanese Christians, holds an important place in the movie, haunted with images of men drowning or burning for their faith. However, ultimately, the movie explores questions of faith: “Where is God in times of suffering?” “Is it better to pursue ideal faith, even if it means death, or is it better to stay alive and make some concessions to worldly authorities?”
The characters include Father Ferreira, a world-weary spiritual father who has kept the faith alive in Japan for many years, and Sebastiano Rodrigues, a young Portuguese priest just starting out in his missionary life. Both are Jesuits, part of a highly educated order of priests with a deep spiritual focus. As part of their preparation for the role, they took the Jesuit “spiritual exercises,” an intense 30-day retreat, under the guidance of real Jesuit priests. Detweiler notes the “complete spiritual catharsis” of Scorsese’s latest film, which reaches a level of depth that his previous religious works have not. The film is currently in theaters.