This past week, I made a decision that will greatly impact my future and education. I decided to serve a full-time proselytizing mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As someone who considers myself to be a more reclusive academic, this decision came as a surprise to many people. I am the only member of the Church in my family, my choice to go on a mission was difficult for my parents to understand, but they are supportive of my decision. I would like to attribute part of my decision to go on a mission to this course. My comfort zone is to learn from a classroom setting, film, or books. Field work is extremely out of my element. When I first considered a mission back in September of 2018, I quickly dismissed it, knowing how uncomfortable I am in social situations. However, this class forced me out of my comfort zone by asking me to go to congregations and religious specialists and talk to those I meet. If it was possible to fake doing these assignments, I promise I would have. However I could not see a way to do that, so I was forced to socialize and communicate with strangers. My heart was always pounding before my visits and interview, but I pushed forward, knowing how important these experiences were to my learning in this course.
Moving forward with my mission has happened in a similar way. I am scared beyond belief. Proselytizing is far out of my comfort zone. However, I know that this will help me to learn and grow both as a person of faith and an academic. I plan on applying to do a Graduate Degree in LDS Theology after my time here at the University of Redlands, and nothing will teach me this subject better than serving a mission. I am very excited for this next stage of my life and for the opportunity I will have to observe the differences in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints around the world.
For Monday’s class, I read From a Community of Believers to an Islam of the Heart: “Conspicuous” Symbols, Muslim Practices, and the Privatization of Religion in France by Caitlin Killian. The read was fascinating, as I have been studying French for four years and the political and religious climate has been a topic of few discussions. Historically, France has been a country of revolution; citizens do not often appreciate all-powerful rulers, both on this Earth and in Spirit. France was the heart of the Enlightenment. Salons gathered brilliant philosophical minds from all over to discuss the deepest secrets of the universe. With this history in mind, it makes perfect sense why the French are so opposed to the public display of religion. However, it is important to not judge the decision of the French through an American lense.
In America, the banning of religious symbolism would seem a ridiculous notion. We view religious freedom as the government staying out of religion. However, in France, the view is different. Freedom of religion is closer aligned to freedom from religion. By banning religious symbolism, the French maintain a neutral French identity where no one is being encroached upon by religion. Keeping in mind France’s catholic past, this makes perfect sense. The Catholic Church was at a time very corrupt and fueled by financial gain. This did not sit well with French citizens. To avoid Church rule in the future, the french people culturally decided to keep religion in the private sphere and out of the public sphere. Thus, to have a French cultural identity, one should keep religion in that private sphere. This helps an American to understand why half of the Muslim women interviewed agreed with the Hijab ban. They agree that to have a French cultural identity, which was more important to them that having a Muslim identity, that sacrifice had to be made.
This ban would seem awful through an American lense, but it is important to understand the culture in which this was happening.
This past Sunday, I, along with Lucy Snow, visited Faith Chapel. Faith Chapel is a pentecostal church, belonging to the Assemblies of God branch of pentecostalism. The sermon was given on the theme of worship. The lead Pastor, Keith Short, explained how there was, “no correct method or form to worship,” however he continued to mock the methods that members of other faiths practiced. I was struck by the hypocrisy of his sermon. I began to wonder if this is the shape that modern sectarian churches are taking. I believe that many sectarian churches realize how they are unappealing to outsiders and are taking steps to become more denominational. This was evident at Faith Chapel, where Miller’s Reinventing American Protestantism came to life.
Although Faith Chapel was nowhere near the Evangelical Megachurch aesthetic that Miller describes, they were in the beginning stages of incorporating these elements into their service. When I entered the building, I was immediately welcomed and given a newcomers packet. The very first piece of information listed on this packet was the church’s social media accounts. This, accompanied with the worship service illustrated to me Faith Chapel’s move to denominationalize. During the worship service, televisions were used to project the lyrics for the audience. The pieces that were chosen were contemporary Evangelical songs that I grew up singing at Sandals Church, an Evangelical Megachurch. Faith Chapel has been making big strides towards technological savviness and modernization. However, will that be enough to overpower the theologically sectarian congregation? I do not believe so.
During my visit, Pastor Short just so happened to dig at all three religions I have been affiliated with in my lifetime. He mocked Catholics by saying that their services are so ritualistic, that their members are “cold-hearted and lifeless.” He mocked Evangelical Megachurches when he explained their use of lights and sound engineering. He said to his congregation, “I am not asking you to be judgemental, but wonder with me, is this worship in the flesh or worship in the spirit?” He then poked at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by claiming that Modern day Temples were simply flashy structures meant to distract. He doubted the serious faithfulness and worship of every religion except his own, and I do not believe Faith Chapel with ever be a denominational congregation until that changes.
I have recently been watching a documentary series on America in the 70’s. Overall, the 70’s were a turbulent time. Change was frequent and people called out the injustices in society. The Women’s Liberation movement gained an enormous following due to the call to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. The Gay Rights Movement gained traction after the Stonewall Riots and saw the election of Harvey Milk, the first openly Gay mayor of San Francisco. The 70’s also saw the development of the Sexual Revolution, which challenged the monogamous societal standard. However, the gaining popularity of these movements also brought about strong opposition. The Republican party began to paint a picture that these new social movement were attacking religious groups. Religion and Politics became inseparable, and people like Anita Bryant understood how to work that new standard. Many of the Evangelicals that I have met like to point to the 70’s as the “end of times” due to the origins of Gay Rights, Women’s Lib, and the Sexual Revolution. However, I wonder how the perception of the these movements would have changed if religious groups were never told to oppose them. Religiosity in America has been declining for a long while, and I wonder if that would be different if religious groups had shown love rather than hate during the 70’s. How would the religious body of America change if religion had never gotten involved in politics?
I personally believe that religion, having never been involved with politics, would not be on a decline. Religion’s affiliation with politics has painted a negative image of religious groups. They are viewed in society and the media as hateful and close-minded. Calling oneself “religious” is almost synonymous with saying “homophobic” or “prudish,” and makes one automatically affiliated with Conservatism. This is an obvious deterrent to those considering joining a religious group. I believe that religions connection with politics is a large contributor to its decline.
I have found myself pondering the role of religion in modern life as of late. For my case study earlier in the semester, I read Tradition in a Rootless World by Lynn Davidman. My findings from that study along with my membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints makes me wonder how the role of traditional religions will adapt and change as times go on. I personally predict that traditional religions will gain membership as an almost counterculture movement. This may seemed rather far-fetched, but let me explain.
Popular counterculture movements, though typically rather liberal, have always been a direct result of society. Modern society has become increasingly more liberal and less structured. People who are attracted to order, rules, and form are beginning to feel ostracized from mainstream society. The polarization of the media does not help the moderate middle, who do not align themselves with both the structureless left and the close minded right. People are searching for a middleground. People are searching for order. People are searching for answers. Though the religious majority continues to be Protestant, statistics show that protestantism has been on a steady decline over the years.
Lynn Davidman revealed that those who converted to Orthodox Judaism did so because of confusion surrounding modern culture and a desire for order. I predict that as society continues to lose structure, more people will cling to religious ideologies that provide that. However, I do believe that this hypothesis is conditional. I do believe that more traditional religious organizations will gain membership in the future, but only if certain sacrifices are made. Modern Society has been shifting towards a more equality based belief system, and churches need to reflect that to some extent. Emphasizing the importance of women and People of Color in leadership will bring many more converts to these traditional churches. These traditional churches need to make moves to appeal to the moderate middle. Failing to do so will lead to serious losses in membership, I believe.
In class the Thursday before break, we watched a film that revealed the everyday lives of members in a Fundamentalist Baptist Congregation. The film itself was incredibly intriguing, and it was shocking to see such an accurate and honest depiction of the lives of these members. Something that stuck out to me however, was the treatment of women in this particular church. Repeatedly throughout the film, women are subservient to men. This is a fairly common practice within most Abrahamic Religions, but what was shocking to me was the dialogue that went on about women and just how submissive women were seemingly forced to be. The whole plot line with Bob, the man whose wife left him and the church, illustrated this best, I believe. Through his dialogue with John and others, you hear him accuse her for driving him away, not his alcoholism or abusive tendencies. He is waiting for God to “reveal to her that she is in the wrong” and taking responsibility for his actions seems out of the question. The wife obviously loves her kids and wants to see them, but Bob will not let her until she is “no longer living in sin.” This behavior seems to take the Judeo-Christian Patriarchy to an unhealthy extreme. My question is whether this behavior comes naturally to a sectarian congregation. Does the rejection of outsiders exist within as well?
From my observations, it seems that sectarian congregations seem to have an exceedingly intense Patriarchal system imbedded within them. Women are not placed on an equal level as men. In fact, they are not even close to being equal with them. I believe that it may be likely that there is a sense of “otherness” within these congregations. Those in leadership have a sense of superiority that detaches them from the rest of the group. This imbeds itself in the doctrine and practices of the group, leaving those in an inferior position with the idea that they belong in said position.
(I also still find it hilarious that the boys’ shorts were a good foot shorter than the cheerleaders’ skirts.)
I was recently engaged in a fascinating conversation on religion and truth. In this discussion, we pondered about how truth can viewed in the context of religion, and if it even can. It was brought up that churches cannot boast to contain a fullness of truth, as no religion can answer every question it is asked. If you asked a catholic a question pertaining to physics or biochemistry or electrical engineering, they would most likely be unable to open the Holy Bible to a verse that would solve your problem. But what if religion is not meant to contain physical truths? I believe that religion shapes worldviews more than anything else. Rather than providing evidential truth for difficult questions, religion shapes personal truths.
Think of religion as a pair of glasses. Some glasses have pink lenses. Some have clear lenses. Some may be large frames, whereas some might be contact lenses! In every case, the glasses one chooses to wear or not to wear affect how they see the world. Not everyone perceives truth the same way, but whether the shirt looks pink to one person but white to another does not matter! What matters is that they are both correct. According to each of their world views, the way they see the world is different. No one is more right than the other. I liken the study of sociology of religion to this analogy. It has taken me a long time to figure out how to study religion through a sociological perspective rather than a theological one, as I tend to veer theological myself. However, I now understand that theologians study the glasses themselves, whereas sociologists study how the world is perceived through those glasses. Though they may seem similar, they are in actuality far more different than they may seem. Both have their merits and downfalls and both reveal new truths in the study of religion.
As this course has continued, I have found that the concept of megachurches has appeared several times, both within the Case Studies and within classroom learning. As a person who grew up in a Megachurch, I would like to ponder on the subject a bit more. My personal experience in Megachurches was fairly negative, which explains why I am no longer a part of the practice. Something that always confused me growing up in these churches was the lack of secure Articles of Faith. When asked what members of a megachurch believe in, the answers are sure to be varied. Most of these megachurches claim to be Nondenominational Christian (Evangelical), however the megachurch I grew up in was technically a part of the Southern Baptist Convention. This knowledge was known to very few and was not publicly broadcasted often, if ever. In fact, the only people privy to the information were the pastors and whoever knew/cared enough about religion to go check. However, the church’s reason for being Southern Baptist was simply because the head Pastor had grown up in that faith, not that the Church had a fundamental stance on issues that made them Southern Baptist. How can this be possible? Should not a church officially believe in whatever doctrine they claim? Whose opinion matters more in categorizing beliefs, the Church or theologians?
As someone who hopes to someday be a theologian, I am pushed to say that theologians have a larger say in Church categorizations, but something must be said on self-identification. If someone self identifies as a Wiccan, yet practices what a theologian would call Catholicism, there are some interesting discoveries to be made there. Theologians are not always right, and will never always be right. They are constantly learning and expanding their horizons everyday, just as a good scholar of any field should do.
In my reading of Lynn Davidman’s Tradition in a Rootless World: Women Turn to Orthodox Judaism, one question kept occuring to me. Could the wave of religious extremism that seems to be becoming more prominent be considered the modern counterculture? There seems to be an increasing number of membership, or at least more media attention, for sectarian-edging religions. Davidman mentions that her book, “tells the story of two groups of secular Jewish women who were troubled by some of the characteristic dilemmas of modern life, such as feelings of isolation, rootlessness, and confusion about gender. These women sought solutions in an unusual way through participation in Orthodox Jewish resocialization programs.” The thought process of these women seems very similar to John Milton Yinger’s definition of a contraculture, which he defines to be at, “conflict with the values of the total society.” The women in Davidman’s book are confused by and at odds with the liberal society that surrounds them. They sought for a, perhaps odd, method of coping with this discrepancy.
To me, this appears to bare semblance to a countercultural movement. The massive amounts of attention being paid to religious movements in the media is undeniable and definitely at odds with mainstream liberal society. However, this ultra-conservative push back hardly resembles the countercultural movements of the past. Historically, countercultural movements have been very emotional liberal and progressive such as Romanticism of the early 1800’s, the Beat Generation of the 50’s and 60’s, and the Hippie movement of the 60’s and 70’s. Is it possible for there to be a conservative counterculture, because, if so, if would be the first of its kind and point towards the ushering in of a new era of thinking. This new era would be marked by a liberal mainstream and a heavy conservative push back that mimics the liberal ones of the past.
In Chapter Four of Religion: The Social Context, McGuire writes on the topic of measuring religiosity. She lists a set of beliefs that could qualify someone as “highly religious.” However, she points out how this measuring system can unfairly discriminate against religious minorities. This brought me to question how one can accurately measure religiosity, without letting cultural or implicit bias disrupt the data. McGuire mentions that, “a person can be highly religious in one dimension (e.g., go to church regularly, pray often) and yet not know church teachings (intellectual dimension) or have had any religious experiences.” Is it possible to avoid this problem when measuring religiosity? It seems to me that, especially in the historically Protestant United States, it may be impossible for data to give an accurate representation of one’s religious fervor. One would need to dive into the data and really pull it apart to get a more accurate measurement, but even then there may be too many factors that affect the data, once again making it impossible to accurately measure such a boundless concept. The only other option that I can think of is to cut out the numerical measurement aspect of data and switch to an entirely interview-based system of assessment. However, this bring about new problems, such as the implicit bias of the interviewer/s, as well as variables such as cost, plausibility, etc. How can a sociologist get an accurate picture of the religiosity of a congregation if they are limited by very the human problem of bias and the immeasurability of fluid, feeling-based concepts? This is a question I hope to answer as I continue my studies in this course.