Post COVID-19: religious revival or religious recession?

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Last month, when I was writing my series “Three Sundays in April,” I commented on how court evangelical preachers Greg Laurie, Robert Jeffress, and Jack Graham were predicting a great spiritual revival as soon as Americans came out of quarantine and started attending church again.

But David Gibson, the director of Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture, wonders if COVID-19 will actually lead to “religion recession” in America.

Here is a taste of his piece at Religion & Politics:

The future of our national religious life is also the subject of growing speculation, with the sunny-side-up view arguing that we are primed for a new “Great Awakening” of the sort that have periodically transformed American culture.

This revival will be spurred, the thinking goes, by a flood of Americans who ache for a return to communal worship that has been denied them for months. They will be joined by newcomers who, chastened by this national memento mori, discover or rediscover the balm of faith. “Could a plague of biblical proportions be America’s best hope for religious revival?” Robert Nicholson wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “[T]here is reason to think so.” Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution had the same question: “It could also go the other way,” he tweeted, “but my instinct is to think that a great awakening is now *more* likely, at least in America, by 2050.”

To many, the prospect of a resurgence in religious observance is an enticing vision, because faith communities can be anchors of social solidarity, which has been steadily eroding for decades.

The data and history tell a different story, however, and, much like the economic outlook, the forecast for religion looks more like recession than resurrection.

Read the entire piece here.

Also see Yonat Shimron’s piece at Religion News Service: “Survey: Most Americans aren’t comfortable going back to religious services.

The Author’s Corner with Benjamin Park

CoverBenjamin Park is Assistant Professor of History at Sam Houston State University. This interview is based on his  new book, Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier (W.W. Norton/Liveright, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Kingdom of Nauvoo?

BP: While I was a student at Brigham Young University, I had the chance to spend an entire semester in Nauvoo as part of their “Semester Away” program. While there, I fell in love with both the city and with history in general; it was that semester that I changed my major from pre-medicine to English and history. While my interests took me elsewhere for my dissertation and first book, I was drawn back to Nauvoo in 2016 when the LDS Church published the detailed minutes for the “Council of Fifty,” a clandestine and scandalous organization that Joseph Smith created the final year of his life with the intent to become the new world government. I decided that now was the time to use my new historical tools on my old fascination, and the book was born.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Kingdom of Nauvoo?

BP: We now take the concept of democracy for granted, but we often forget what a new and scary concept it was in the early nineteenth century. The story of Nauvoo—a city that appeared on the swampy shores of the Mississippi River in 1839 and grew to over twelve thousand residents within five years—reveals a moment when the democratic system failed, as both those within and without the city turned to extralegal and, in the end, violent measures to preserve the peace.

JF: Why do we need to read Kingdom of Nauvoo?

BP: Mormons are often treated as outliers to the American religious and political story—quixotic curiosities rarely deserving prolonged attention. But Kingdom of Nauvoo aims to show, through a fascinating story of political intrigue, sexual rumors, and conspired murder, that the story of Nauvoo tells us much about the central issues for understanding antebellum America, as well as the democratic legacies that remain with us today.

JF: Tell us a little bit about the primary sources you used for this project.

BP: Mormons were a record-keeping people, and this was especially the case in Nauvoo. I was fortunate to have hundreds of contemporary sources ranging from letters, diaries, and newspapers that flesh out the story of the thousands of people who lived in the city. Many of these, including the Council of Fifty minutes, were unavailable to historians until very recently, making this a story that could only now be fully known.

JF: What is your next project?

BP: I am privileged to be the editor of Blackwell’s A Companion to American Religious History, which features chapters from thirty brilliant scholars that demonstrate religion’s centrality to American history. The volume will be available at the end of this year. I am also just starting on a book about the role religion played in the rise of militant abolitionism during the decades leading up to the Civil War.

JF: Thanks, Ben!

Pew Studies 50,000 Christian Sermons

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There is so much here to work through and interpret.

A few quick findings of note:

  • The average sermon is 37 minutes long.
  • The average evangelical sermon is 39 minutes long.
  • The average sermon in an African American church is 54 minutes long.
  • The average sermon in a mainline Protestant church is 25 minutes long
  • The average sermon in a Catholic church is 14 minutes long.

 

  • The most common words in Christian sermons are “say,” “people,” “come,” “know,” “life,” “like,” “God,” “thing,” and “day.”
  • Words associated with evangelicals such as “hell,” “salvation,” “sin, and “heaven” do not appear in evangelical sermons as much as one might think they do.
  • Sermons in historically black churches are distinguished by words related to celebration and praise.
  • Sermons in evangelical and historically black churches quote scripture more than sermons in Catholic and mainline Protestant churches

Read the report here.

Episode 59: Miss America’s God

PodcastThroughout the history of the Miss America Pageant, there has been a complicated relationship between sexuality and religion. The goal of the pageant is to crown the ideal American woman. But contestants are judged simultaneously based on their so-called purity as well as their sex appeal. Host John Fea explores his own relationship with the pageant and its roots in the New Jersey boardwalk culture. He is joined by Baylor’s Mandy McMichael (@mandyemcmichael), author of Miss America’s God: Faith and Identity in America’s Oldest Pageant.

 

Waldman: Immigration is Making the United States a More Christian Nation

latin evangelicalsSteven Waldman, author of Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedommakes a very interesting point in a recent piece at Talking Points Memo.  After mentioning Trump’s anti-immigration policies and his defense of Christianity, Waldman writes: “It’s a stance we’ve come to expect, but there’s an irony to this.  At a moment when more and more Americans are unaffiliated with religion, immigration is providing a counterbalance.”

Here is a taste:

Beyond that, it is well known that for the past few decades Latino immigration has energized, and in some ways saved, the Catholic Church in the United States. About 40 percent of American Catholics are Hispanic, and they’re more likely to say religion is “very important” in their lives than white Catholics.

What’s less acknowledged is that Latinos have also bolstered evangelical communities. Some 16 million evangelicals are Hispanic, and about 15 percent of all immigrants are evangelical.

Beyond the specifics, I’d argue that immigration has been a key factor in strengthening religious freedom in the U.S. New immigrants are more likely to be religious and to say it’s important in their lives than the general population.

Read the entire piece here.

Episode 50: The Religious Beliefs of the Adams Family

PodcastDon’t be confused by the title, we are not talking about the spooky family from the 1960s. Rather, in this episode, we turn to the religious history of one of America’s founding families. By focusing on the Adams family, one can trace the evolution of American religion as John, Abigail, JQA, and others wrestle with Providence, the Enlightenment, and a changing political landscape. Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling are joined by Sara Georgini (@sarageorgini), the author of Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family.

Sponsored by the Lyndhurst Group (lyndhurstgroup.org) and Jennings College Consulting (drj4college.com).

Even White Evangelicals Oppose Trump’s Bible-Signing

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Check out journalist Joanna Piacenza piece at Morning Consult.  According to a Morning Consult poll, most white evangelicals think that Trump’s signing of Bibles at an Alabama Baptist church earlier this month was “inappropriate.”  U.S. adults, Republicans, Christians, white Catholics, and white mainline Protestants also think Trump’s signing of Bibles was “inappropriate.” The only identity group that thinks the president’s signing of Bible is appropriate are Trump voters, but only by a 43% to 42% margin.

Read the piece here.  I was happy to help Piacenza with her story.

Religion and Presidential Remembrances

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Over at The Washington Post, Kimberly Winston teaches us that much of the pageantry we are seeing surrounding the death of George H.W. Bush has deep spiritual roots.

Here is a taste of her piece:

“The need to create meaningful rituals around death is very deep in our DNA,” said S. Brent Plate, an associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College. “Death erases some of the dividing elements between religions. It shows us we are all human, all mortal. So this week is about the death of George Bush, but it is really about the collective faith of us all.”

Here is some context for the rituals you will see as the nation pays its last respects to its 41st president:

As Bush’s body traveled to Washington, D.C., from Houston, where he and the late first lady Barbara Bush lived after 1993, it was accompanied all the way. In addition to family and friends, a group of former staffers flew with the body, and an entourage of military service members was always nearby.

Like all presidents, Bush is being given a state funeral, a complicated and highly orchestrated set of military and state traditions that are secular in appearance, but have foundations in religion.

The practice of watching over a body springs from the oldest religious traditions. Scholars say the ancient Romans took the custom with them as they conquered the Mediterranean and Europe. By the Middle Ages, the practice was wrapped into Christianity and came with the first European settlers to the New World.

Read the rest here.

Cummings: “…there are times when the sin is so pervasive and corrosive that it is irresponsible to talk about anything else”

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St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

Kathy Sprows Cummings is a historian of American Catholicism, the director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at Notre Dame, and a Catholic who was raised in Pennsylvania.  She brings all of this expertise and experience to bear on her recent New York Times op-ed: “For Catholics, Gradual Reform is No Longer an Option.”  Here is a taste:

People will say that there is still holiness in the church, that there are many priests and bishops with good and pure hearts, and they are right.  But there are times when the sin is so pervasive and corrosive that it is irresponsible to talk about anything else, and this is one of those times.  My once-polite requests for incremental reform have morphed overnight into demands that church leaders voluntarily relinquish their place at the head table.

Read the entire piece here.

Mark Silk: May 2018 Was a “Humiliating Month”

WeinstienOver at his blog at Religion News Service, Trinity College professor Mark Silk reminds us what happened this month as it relates to the #MeToo era:

  • The elders of Willow Creek apologized for casting doubt on women’s allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of departing senior pastor Bill Hybels
  • Paige Patterson, denigrator of women, was relieved of the presidency of Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary.
  • “The judgment of God has come,” wrote Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “Judgment has now come to the house of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
  • Harvey Weinstein left a New York Police Department precinct in handcuffs.
  • And then there was Morgan Freeman, the Voice of God Himself.

Click here to get the entire list.

What Needs Reform in American Religion Today?

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On the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, The Washington Post asked a diverse group of faith leaders the following question: “What do you think needs reforming in the practice of religion in the United States today?”

Here is a taste:

Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile, pastor of the Anacostia River Church in Washington, author and member of the Gospel Coalition, a group of leading American evangelical pastors

Evangelicalism, to be viable in a world of increasing conflict, will need to overhaul its understanding and practice of biblical justice.

The movement needs a reformation in its commitment to the poor, vulnerable, marginalized and oppressed. It needs to admit and repent any complicity in and indifference to oppression. God does not accept the “worship” of His people when they participate in oppression and injustice. Any religious movement that oppresses or mocks the poor insults its Maker.

Evangelicalism has been ethically compromised since George Whitefield, considered a founder of the movement in the 1700s, decided he could acceptably run an orphanage while using slaves. Evangelicalism has been theologically compromised since Jonathan Edwards, another major 1700s evangelical figure, decided to defend the revivals but not defend the release of Africans.

From its inception, in the example of its greatest figures, conservative Protestant Christianity has suffered a catastrophic inconsistency that comes from its willingness to divide the gospel message from the gospel life, to divide body and soul, indeed, to exploit the bodies of some while claiming to care for their souls. That sawing asunder of doctrine and duty continues to this day. We have yet to see evangelicalism “bear fruits in keeping with repentance” and “to practice the weightier matters of the law: mercy and justice and faithfulness.”

The movement still needs to learn that our Lord “desires mercy rather than sacrifice.” Until we see continued reform around biblical justice among professing evangelicals, the struggle continues.

Read the rest here.

Are the NFL Protests Religious?

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In the movie “Concussion,” Dr. Bennett Omalu, the medical researcher who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopahty (CTE) in the brains of deceased NFL players, is told that he is going to war with a corporation that “owns a day of the week, the same day the church used to own.”  Here is the scene

I thought about this scene as I read Tara Isabella Burton’s piece at Vox titled “Football really is America’s religion. That’s what made the NFL protests so powerful.

She writes:

But, for better or for worse, football — like many American sports — has always been, if not political, then at least politicized. The popularity of American sport culture is deeply rooted in the history of a particular kind of American “muscular Christianity,” a conflation of nationalism, nostalgia, piety, and performative masculinity. From the football stadium to the basketball court, American sports have been as much about defining a particular kind of male and typically Christian identity as they have been about the game itself.

For participants and spectators alike, sport culture is quite religion-like. As professor and theologian Randall Balmer put it in an article for Sojourners, “the sports stadium has replaced the church sanctuary as the dominant arena of piety at the turn of the 21st century, especially for American men.” And that makes the decision of athletes to protest during the “sacred” time of the game, rather than off the field, all the more powerful.

To better understand how American sports culture developed, we should turn to Victorian England, where “muscular Christianity” originated as backlash to the culture of the time. The rise of the middle class and the development of industrialization meant that your average Victorian gentleman wasn’t exactly physically active. And Victorian religion tended to focus on women and female piety. Women were generally seen as the “angels in the house” who would domesticate their men — and make them better Christians.

Read the entire piece here.

This brings a whole new perspective on “taking a knee.”

The Author’s Corner with Donald Mathews

Altar Cover.jpgDonald Mathews is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  This interview is based on his new book At the Altar of Lynching: Burning Sam Hose in the American South (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write At the Altar of Lynching?

DM: In preparing to write a sequel to Religion in the Old South, I realized that lynching and religious participation in institutions, collective action, and media were increasing at the same time. I discovered an article by a former minister’s wife, Corra Harris, defending the lynching of a laborer called Sam Hose in 1899. At about the same time I was asked to write an essay on why I [born in Idaho] wrote about religion in the South. The short answer was, I realized: “Because my grandfather was lynched for defending a black family from being lynched.” He wasn’t exactly “lynched,” to be sure, because he survived a beating that damaged his brain, soul, and wealth. My father, however, remembered the event as a “lynching” and his family lived with the psychological fallout from my grandfather’s encounter with American populism and violence. Christians had seized him at prayer and destroyed his life. I thought I should think about Harris’s defense of violence within the context of her religious life and that of people like her.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of At the Altar of Lynching?

DM: Religion enveloped the burning of Tom Wilkes: participants lived it, they shouted it, they enacted it in a grotesque carnival of violence and celebration. Tom Wilkes was not Christ, but his burning as Sam Hose was supposed to resolve matters far beyond and above homicide and rape: black equality, black autonomy, black defiance: His burning was thus a sacrifice to the savage god of White Supremacy.

JF: Why do we need to read At the Altar of Lynching?

DM: “Need” is subjective and I find it difficult to tell anyone what they need. I do invite them

* To understand the historical background of violence against African Americans;

* To understand the religious character of segregation as Lillian Smith understood it;

* To understand how the culture of White Supremacy criminalized black people, used sex and gender to create lies about American society and blacks, and how popular white religion was caught up in those lies;

* To think about how people of African descent condemned the lies told about them, how they were so alienated from the white-controlled “criminal justice system” built on those lies that they could see the execution even of those who were actually guilty of capital crimes as “crucifixions”;

* To understand why W E B Du Bois and concerned white clerics thought of lynching as “crucifixion”;

* To understand how the human compulsion to make signal acts as meaningful as possible even when they are illegal reveals the human capacity for making religious even the most heinous acts imaginable.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

DM: In college I was always interested in American history; I can’t explain the why of that. In seminary, I was transfixed by the implications of two things Helmut Richard Niebuhr said in class: 1) The first question to be asked when addressing ethical issues, he noted, was “What is/was happening?” 2) When we think of the meaning of the Cross and crucifixion, he once said, we have to sift that meaning through the “Gas ovens. . .” That second comment is one of the most penetrating observations I have ever heard. The first one was prelude. I have to add, I suppose as confession, that I fully understand the homiletic style of my writing. Gene Genovese in a passing conversation once asked me partially in jest, partially in criticism, “Are you ever going to stop preaching?” I answered as I laughed, “No. I guess not.” He replied, “I didn’t think so.” And we went off to a seminar at the National Humanities Center.

JF: What is your next project?

DM: I hope to think about how the memory of violence against a loved one or family member affects those who struggle with its effects. There is a growing number of important books or articles on the memory of lynching, and I need to read as many as I can and come to terms with them. I suspect this is an article, but it could be a small book. I had thought to follow up on an article I wrote about the suicide of a Methodist minister in 1910 as a way to get inside the traumas of “modernity” and I may still do that.

JF: Thanks, Donald!

Author’s Corner with Joseph Locke

joseph lockeJoseph Locke is Associate Professor of American History at the University of Houston-Victoria. This interview is based on his new book, Making the Bible Belt: Texas Prohibitionists and the Politicization of Southern Religion (Oxford University Press, 2017). 

JF: What led you to write Making the Bible Belt: Texas Prohibitionists and the Politicization of Southern Religion?

JL: While reading up on economic radicalism in Progressive Era Texas—I’d become enamored with Lawrence Goodwyn’s old book on the Texas Populists as an undergrad and had wanted to follow up on that story—I was struck by the utter dominance of prohibition as a political issue. For well over a decade, it seemed as if Texans and many others across the South could talk about little more than alcohol and drunkenness and saloons. My interest was already piqued—I grew up around teetotaling Baptists—but the more I read the more I realized something bigger was at stake. Prohibition wasn’t just about liquor; I was seeing a revolution in the way that white southern evangelicals conceived of their faith. And I was also, simultaneously, witnessing the death of an older tradition, a veritable culture of anticlericalism that I hadn’t expected to find in the South. Nothing I had read in the historiography of southern religion, for instance, prepared me for the over-the-top, anticlerical rhetoric of so many prominent anti-prohibitionists. And so I went to work trying to make sense of it all. 

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Making the Bible Belt: Texas Prohibitionists and the Politicization of Southern Religion?

JL: That we’ve taken the marriage of religion and public life in the South for granted. The politicization of southern religion was a historical process—religious activists built up new institutional and cultural resources, redefined the bounds of their faith, waged war against a culture of anticlericalism, and churned notions of history, race, gender, and religion into a political movement that created much of the Bible Belt we know today. 

JF: Why do we need to read Making the Bible Belt: Texas Prohibitionists and the Politicization of Southern Religion?

JL: The “Bible Belt” was not the inevitable consequence of white evangelicals’ numerical strength in the South. Instead, religious activists waged a purposeful, conspicuous, and controversial decades-long campaign to redefine their faith and inject themselves into public life. However much white religious leaders exerted themselves to defend slavery, secession, the Confederacy, and “Redemption,” tangible cultural and institutional limits still constricted the scope of religious thought and practice in the South at the turn of the twentieth century. Understanding the shattering of those limits complicates the narrative of southern religious history, offers insights into the historical relationship between religion and politics, and puts today’s melding of region and religion into historical context. 

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JL: I grew up enamored with history and, as an undergrad, I took the advice to “major in what you love” without really knowing where it would lead. Luckily, inertia took care of the rest. 

JF: What is your next project?

JL: I’m juggling a few things: I’m wrapping up a long-gestating, comprehensive history of religion in Texas; I’m working to get The American Yawp, a massively collaborative, open-source American History textbook, ready for its forthcoming (spring 2018) publication with a major university press; and, in the meantime, I’m spending the remainder of the summer in Chicago researching the follow-up to a forthcoming article that explores Americans’ moral imaginings of Mexican immigrants and the U.S.-Mexico borderlands at the turn of the twentieth century. 

JF: Thanks, Joseph!

                                     

Saying Grace

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via Wikipedia Commons

According to a recent study by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, half of all Americans pray before meals.  Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Julie Zauzmer, and Emily Guskin tell us more at The Post:

A new poll by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that saying grace is a widespread practice in the United States. About half of all Americans take a minute to say a prayer over their food at least a few times a week, the poll reveals, making grace an unusual commonality in a politically divided nation.

Rural and urban Americans are equally likely to say grace, the poll shows. Northerners and Southerners, Catholics and Protestants, Democrats and Republicans, all say grace to varying degrees. Even some Americans who reject organized religion still say grace.

“It’s a powerful way of reminding yourself that you are not self-sufficient, that you are living by somebody’s grace, that plenty of other people who work just as hard as you don’t have anything to eat,” said Tim Keller, a prominent New York City pastor who wrote a book on prayer.

Keller said the physical act of bowing heads, closing eyes and folding hands is an important exercise in gratitude for people of many faiths, from childhood on up.

Read the entire piece here.