Interpreting Evangelicals Who Go To Church During This Pandemic

hb

Rodney Howard-Browne held services at his Florida church during the pandemic

Here is religion scholar Robert Orsi at Notre Dame’s “Contending Modernities” blog:

The woman leans confidently out of her car window, her right hand at high noon on the steering wheel. “I wouldn’t be anywhere else,” she tells the reporter for CNN, who has just asked about her decision to attend a crowded late afternoon evangelical church service in the middle of a deadly global pandemic. “Aren’t you concerned you could infect other people inside?” the reporter presses. The woman swings her head defiantly, her straight black hair catching the overhead lights. “No, no, I’m covered in Jesus’s blood,” she says. People who don’t go to her church “could get me sick,” she says, when she goes to Walmart or Home Depot, “but I’m not, because I’m covered in Jesus’s blood.” Then she drives off.

It may protect this woman against infection, but Jesus’s blood paints me into an epistemological corner. I have argued for an approach to religion I’ve been calling plural ontological realism, which in this case means I take this woman at her word: her experience of Jesus being really present to her in the community of other Christians (she was clear in her brief comments how important the church was to her) protects her from infection (and perhaps from infecting others, although she seemed to care less about this). I am committed to resisting the impulse, deep in the theoretical inheritances of the modern study of religion, to lift this woman out of the ontology in which she became (or remade herself as) a subject and through which she lives her subjectivity in relation to others, among whom are, in this instance, the people she meets in Walmart and Home Depot. Any theoretical work about the role of religion must begin (although it does not end) with the reality of this woman’s claim of immunity, within her world, without translating it, and relocating her, into alien ontologies. This is not to suggest that her world is singular: it is adjacent to and cross-cut by other ontologies (such as the reporter’s). Amid this ontological diversity, evangelical Christianity of a particular sort is determinative for this woman, at this moment in history and in her life.

Every sentence of the preceding paragraph requires discussion, but this is not why I am here right now. Rather, I want to think outwards from the corner. I begin by wondering why, ever since I heard this woman’s comment on the night’s news, I have been feeling I needed to do something about it. What is this imperative and where does it come from? Is it the disciplinary impulse to speakforothers (she seems to be doing ok on this front); or, is it the drive to translate her to others? If it’s the latter, then to what end? The way the question insisted on itself to me was specifically in the form: what is to be done about this woman? Eventually, I came to see this as an articulation of the drive to power that moves through the study of “religion” in modernity. We scholars of religion are more aware of this drive now, but, still, the temptation exists to offer our services as deputies of law and order. Resisting this is the first thing to do in response to this woman’s statement about being washed in Jesus’s blood. I accept the ontology of facts as given: she continues to shop at Walmart in a pandemic because she is protected by the blood of the Lord in which she has been washed.

Read the rest here.

Winnifred Sullivan on the Masterpiece Cakeshop Case: What is Religion?

Cake baker

Indiana University religion professor Winnifred Fallers Sullivan wants to know how the Supreme Court defines religion.  Here is a taste of her piece at The Immanent Frame,
Is Masterpiece Cakeshop a Church?“:

Let us weigh in where angels fear to tread. Where is the religion in this case and what kind of religion is it?

Mr. Phillips’s religion is described by Justice Anthony Kennedy as follows:

Phillips is a devout Christian. He has explained that his “main goal in life is to be obedient to” Jesus Christ and Christ’s “teachings in all aspects of his life.” And he seeks to “honor God through his work at Masterpiece Cakeshop.” One of Phillips’ religious beliefs is that “God’s intention for marriage from the beginning of history is that it is and should be the union of one man and one woman.” To Phillips, creating a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding would be equivalent to participating in a celebration that is contrary to his own most deeply held beliefs.

That is all. That qualifies Mr. Phillips for constitutional attention.

What do we know about Mr. Phillips’s religion from this? We know that he calls himself a Christian. We are told that he understands this to mean that his whole life should reflect fidelity to the teachings of Jesus. Virtually all Christians (perhaps a strong majority of Americans) could affirm something like this. Presumably that would not be enough to qualify a person for special legal treatment. What more is required for such treatment is a bit murky.

If we look to the religious claims in past cases, before the sincerity test was standardized, we see that Mr. Reynolds in the famed Mormon polygamy case said he would be damned if he did not practice plural marriage. The Court made a careful, if bigoted, analysis of Mormon religious teaching. The Amish families in the Yoder case said that sending their children to high school would destroy the Amish religious community. The Court reported lovingly and at length on the Amish religious way of life. Mr. Smith and Mr. Black said that ingesting peyote was a sacramental mandate, central to their weekly worship. Dissenting justices rehearsed the history of peyote use in the Native American Church and speculated about the Church’s benefits for remediating Native American alcoholism.

The Court no longer traffics in such amateur philosophizing about religion and religious practice. Religion today has become standardized and formatted for the purposes of laws protecting religious freedom.

What else does the Court report about Mr. Phillips? What makes this Colorado baker so obviously deserving of special treatment, when Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Smith and Mr. Black were not? According to the Court,

  1. He is “devout.”
  2. He believes that God intends marriage to be restricted to heterosexual couples.
  3. He believes it would be wrong for him to sell a cake he created to a same-sex couple for their wedding.

Let us consider each of these in turn and how they add up to the core of what counts as religion today….

Read the entire piece here.

Can You Really Spend Too Much Time on Religion in the U.S. Survey?

Cotton_Mather

Over at Teaching United States History blog, Eric Bartram discusses her “struggles” and “successes” in teaching religion in the first half United States history survey course.

Here is a taste:

A while back, I read Jolyon Baraka Thomas’ piece Teaching True Believers, and responded with my own thoughts: Teaching religious n00bs and skeptics. Where Thomas talked about struggling to get students with strongly-held beliefs to see religion as “a social construction or an anthropological conceit or a legal category bearing geopolitical effects,” I reflected on the difficulties of teaching the history of religion to students “who have little framework for understanding religion or belief but nonetheless have very fixed ideas about how religion operates.”

Both in the comments on the piece itself, and on Twitter, many scholars of history and religious studies expressed shock at the idea that students could be so ill-informed. Many put it down to geographical differences; some parts of the country are just more religious than others, and therefore some students more prepared to talk about it.

There’s something to that argument, but I think that something more specific is at play. Did students grow up in a place where religion was understood to be a public matter (at least if you belonged to the dominant religion) or a more private matter? I’m not saying that there’s anywhere in the United States that’s free of civil religion or laws that reflect the views of historically-dominant religions, but that in parts of the country where students don’t see religious belief, it might be easier for them to think it’s not there. As a result, even the moderate amount of discussion time we spend learning about American religious beliefs in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries seems like so much religion.

This presents a particular kind of challenge in teaching. It’s not like religion is the only thing we teach where students have to be persuaded that it’s worth thinking about, but for me, teaching in the Northeast, it’s also something where many students have almost no pre-existing framework to hang new analysis on, and the framework they do have largely consists of “religion was for people in the past and is a marker of backwardness.” I imagine this is the case for a lot of historians. But I can’t give up on teaching it.  And so, in my US I, we draw a lot of family trees to map out the branches of Christianity. We talk about the contours of antisemitism. We define terms: “heathen,” “Papist,” “evangelical,” “denomination,” “salvation.” We draw more family trees.

Read the entire piece here.

Author’s Corner with John Wigger

9780199379712John Wigger is a Professor of History at the University of Missouri. This interview is based on his new book, PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write PTL?

JW: I was fascinated by how fast PTL grew and how quickly it fell apart. What I really wanted to know was how PTL’s rise and fall were connected. How does deep religious devotion become so entwined with money, sex, and celebrity on a Hollywood scale? A short synopsis might help:

Jim and Tammy started the PTL network with half a dozen employees in a former furniture store in 1974. By 1986 PTL had annual revenues of $129 million, 2500 employees, a 2300-acre theme park, Heritage USA, and a private satellite network that reached into fourteen million homes in the US. That year, six million people visited Heritage USA. Jim and Tammy lived in luxury, buying vacation homes, expensive cars covered with One Sure Insurance and clothes, and traveling first class with an entourage. Then it all came crashing down. In March 1987 Bakker resigned in disgrace after his 1980 sexual encounter with Jessica Hahn in a Florida hotel room became public. Stories emerged about gay relationships and visits to prostitutes. By the end of the year, PTL was in bankruptcy, headed for liquidation. In 1989 Bakker was convicted of wire and mail fraud and sentenced to 45 years in prison.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of PTL?

JW: PTL helps to explain the persistent connections between religion and popular culture in American life, a connection that runs much deeper than politics alone. PTL grew so quickly because of its embrace of consumer and celebrity culture, much of it through the prosperity gospel, but along the way the money and fame undermined the religious convictions of those at the top.

JF: Why do we need to read PTL?

JW: It’s a story full of human drama, sincere faith, innovations both cultural and technical, financial fraud, secret affairs, and the allure of television cameras. But it also says a lot about why faith continues to be vibrant part of American life. Many of the central characters in the story—Jim and Tammy Bakker, Richard Dortch, David Taggart, John Wesley Fletcher, and of course Jessica Hahn—seem almost too improbable for a novel. But together they helped first to build one of the largest ministries in recent American history and then to bring it down.

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

JW: History and academia are a second career for me. My undergraduate degree is in Petroleum Engineering. After college I drilled oil and gas wells in California for about six years. Part of that time I lived a few blocks from the beach. One day I woke up and thought, I’m having too much fun and making too much money, what should I do? Grad school seemed the obvious answer. Okay, more seriously, I’ve always been interested in the connections between religion and culture in American life and how those connections have persisted and shifted over time. That’s what led me to switch careers and what this book is about.

JF: What is your next project?

JW: I’m not exactly sure. Hopefully something surprising that will make a good read.

JF: Thanks, John!

Most Religious States in America

mississippi

Here is the recent Gallup poll.

The most religious states:

  1.  Mississippi
  2.  Alabama
  3.  Utah
  4.  South Dakota
  5.  South Carolina

The least religious states:

  1. Vermont
  2. Maine
  3. Massachusetts
  4. Rhode Island
  5. Nevada

Notes:

  • What happened to New England?  In the period that I study that region was pretty religious.  🙂
  • Can anyone explain why South Dakota is so religious?
  • Is there a correlation between legalized gambling and Nevada’s irreligiosity?
  • There is a definite correlation between religious states and GOP hotbeds.

More “Abundant History”

history-and-presence-199x300Earlier today I posted some thoughts on the first few chapters of Robert Orsi’s History and Presence.  I did a little more digging and found some of Orsi’s early thoughts on the subject in a 2007  American Scholar essay titled  “When 2+2=5.”

The imagined story of Orsi’s grandmother in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a wonderful illustration of the difference between “presence” and “absence.” It further illuminates Orsi comment about museums in my previous post.

This difference of theological interpretation is fundamental to the identities of these two divisions of the Christian world (the history of the Orthodox faith is another matter), and it is the pivot around which other differences, other identifications, accusations, lies, and hatreds have spun (and in some places at some times still spin). Catholics in the United States in the middle years of the 20th century, for instance, claimed that Protestant support for birth control was yet another expression of corrupted and disembodied Protestant modernity. What do you expect from people who think the Host—the Communion wafer, which is, for Catholics, the real presence of Christ—is nothing? Catholics I have spoken to who grew up in Catholic towns in rural Nebraska in the 1940s and 1950s told me they were deeply ashamed of their large farm families because they knew the children in nearby Protestant towns made fun of their parents’ fecundity, associating Catholics with the body and sex in a nasty schoolyard way. Catholic statues weep tears of salt and blood, they move, they incline their heads to their petitioners; recently in the diocese of Sacramento, California, which is near bankruptcy as a result of sexual abuse lawsuits, the eyes of a statue of the Blessed Mother leaked what believers saw as blood. Religious historians in the last decade or so have taught us that Protestant popular culture is also replete with images and objects and that there are divisions among Protestant churches over the meaning of the Eucharist. But still the basic differences between a religious ethos that is based on the real presence and one that is not are deep and consequential.

This divide between presence and absence, between the literal and the metaphorical, between the supernatural and the natural, defines the modern Western world and, by imperial extension, the whole modern world. Imagine one of my Italian Catholic grandmothers going to see a statue of the Virgin Mary in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She climbs the museum’s steep steps rising up from Fifth Avenue and pushes through the crowds and into the rooms of medieval art, where there are many lovely statues of the Blessed Mother, whom my grandmother knows and loves. My grandmother wants to touch the statues. She wants to lean across the velvet ropes to kiss their sculpted robes or to whisper her secrets and needs. But this is not how modern people approach art. For them, the statues are representations, illustrative of a particular moment of Western history and the history of Western art, and are to be admired for their form and their contribution to the development of aesthetic styles over time. There’s nothing in them, no one there. The guards rush over and send my grandmother back out to the street.

This is a parable of two ways of being in the world: one associated with the modern (although this is complicated, clearly, since my grandmothers lived in the modern world after all, and you can find believers in cathedrals throughout the world today petitioning statues); the other with something different from the modern. One is oriented toward presence in things, the other toward absence. As the guard rushing over shows, the difference is carefully policed—as carefully policed as the difference between Jesus in the bread and wine and Jesus not in the bread and wine was policed on that August morning in Paris or at the base of Campion’s scaffold—although with less dire consequences. Certain ways of being in the modern world, certain ways of imagining it, are tolerable and others are not. Especially intolerable are ways of being and imagining oriented to divine presence.

Read the entire essay here.

The Top Ten Most Religious Cities in America

According to Men’s Health, that great authority on all things religious, here are the ten most religious cities in America:

HT:  Paul Harvey

1. Colorado Springs, CO
2. Greensboro, NC
3. Oklahoma City, OK
4. Wichita, KS
5. Indianapolis, IN
6. Jacksonville, FL
7. Portland, OR
8. Birmingham, AL
9. Charlotte, NC
10. Little Rock, AR

Interesting to note that the first northeast city on the list is Washington D.C. at #44.

Here are the 10 LEAST religious cities:

91. Miami, FL
92. Newark, NJ
93. Manchester, NH
94. Fargo, ND
95. Jersey City, NJ
96. Portland, ME
97. Hartford, CT
98. Boston, MA
99. Providence, RI
100. Burlington, VT

That’s in the First Amendment?

Christine O’Donnell is getting lambasted by the press for her failure to know that the First Amendment prohibits the United States from having an established religion.  But, as Jesus said, he who is without sin cast the first stone.

I wonder how many others did not realize the nature of this basic First Amendment right?  Steven Prothero, who in the past couple years has become ubiquitous in his commentary on religion in America, offers his take on the O’Donnell First Amendment ignorance at CNN’s Belief Blog.  He writes:

As the author of Religious Literacy and adviser to the recent Pew Forum U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, each of which demonstrated the ignorance of Americans about most things religious, I am not surprised that candidates for the U.S. Senate seem as surprised to learn about the Bill of Rights as I am by the latest plot turns in “Glee.” (Emma? With John Stamos? Really?)

In fact, in a quiz I gave Boston University students a few years ago, only 41 percent were able to name the free exercise clause, only 23 percent the establishment clause.

And in the recent Pew Forum religious literacy survey, American adults demonstrated that they had about as much of a grip on what the Supreme Court has said about religious establishment as does O’Donnell. Only 36 percent knew that public schools could offer comparative religion courses and only 23 percent knew that public school teachers could read from the Bible as an example of literature.

A few years ago, as I was traveling around the country arguing for religious studies courses in the public schools, I challenged journalists to start asking political candidates basic questions about religion. I don’t care whether Mitt Romney is a Mormon, I said, but I do care whether he knows which religion predominates in Indonesia, and in India.

I also said that, if politicians are going to invoke Christianity and the Bible to support their positions on abortion and immigration and stem-cell research, then voters have the right to know whether they know anything about that tradition and that scripture.

Far less controversial than that stance is this: voters have a right to know whether candidates for the U.S. Congress have even a passing acquaintance with the Constitution.

“That’s in the First Amendment?” She Who Would Be Senator asked. Yes it is, O’Donnell, yes it is.

Hauerwas: America is Not More Religious than Britain

Here is a taste:

Yet I remain unconvinced that the difference between Britain and the US, when it comes to religion, can be determined by the faith or lack of it of those in public office. In fact, I am not convinced that the US is more religious than Britain. Even if more people go to church in America, I think the US is a much more secular country than Britain. In Britain, when someone says they do not believe in God, they stop going to church. In the US, many who may have doubts about Christian orthodoxy may continue to go to church. They do so because they assume that a vague god vaguely prayed to is the god that is needed to support family and nation.

Americans do not have to believe in God, because they believe that it is a good thing simply to believe: all they need is a general belief in belief. That is why we have never been able to produce interesting atheists in the US. The god most Americans say they believe in is not interesting enough to deny, because it is only the god that has given them a country that ensures that they have the right to choose to believe in the god of their choosing, Accordingly, the only kind of atheism that counts in the US is that which calls into question the proposition that everyone has a right to life, liberty, and happiness.

Read the entire article here.  Classic Hauerwas.

Another Take on the Pew Religion Survey

Over at Huffpost Religion, Bruce Feiler makes some useful observations about the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey.

He writes:

The headlines this week were bold: “Americans Don’t Know Much About Religion”; “Atheists Know More About Religion Than Believers”; “Basic Religious Test Stumps Most Americans.”

Eh? Did these writers read the survey these articles were based on? The Pew Forum survey on religious knowledge in America contained a number of revelations and surprises, but few were covered in the initial articles. After reading the actual results, here are four important truths about Americans and God.

Those truths are:

1.  Americans know more about religion than almost any other topic.

2. The most popular religious figure in America is Moses

3. Believers still dominate in America; atheists are not gaining ground.

4. Americans know as much about other religions as they know about their own.

New Pew Survey on Religion and Politics

The results of Pew’s 2010 Annual Religion and Public Life Survey are in. For those of you who do not want to read the 35 page report, here are a few highlights:

  • 35% of Americans say that their religious views shape their opinion on same-sex marriage.
  • 26% of Americans say that their religious views shape their opinion on abortion.
  • 7% say that their religious views shape their views on immigration.
  • Nearly everyone places jobs and the economy as their top voter concerns.
  • 91% of white evangelicals said the economy and job creation were “very important” social issues. This is compared to 61% of white evangelicals who think abortion is “very important” and 46% who say same sex marriage is “very important.” So it is clear that the economy is trumping moral issues for evangelical Christians.
  • Nearly all Christians believe that better border security should be the top priority in dealing with illegal immigration. Only Hispanic Catholics think that “creating a path to citizenship” is more important that border security.
  • White evangelicals are the only group who opposed gays and lesbians in the military. (47% of evangelicals opposed, 43% in favor). All other Christian groups–white mainline, Black Protestant, White Catholic, and Hispanic Catholic–favor gays and lesbians in the military.
  • White mainline Protestants, evangelical Protestants, and Catholics support the death penalty in overwhelming numbers. Black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics oppose the death penalty. In general, 62% of Americans support the death penalty and 30% of Americans oppose it. The strongest supporters are white evangelicals (74%) and white mainline Protestants (71%).
  • All Christian groups, including white evangelicals, favor more government assistance for the poor. The majority of members in the Republican Party oppose more government assistance for the poor. This means that many evangelicals are breaking ranks with the Republican Party on this one.
  • About half of all Christian clergy speak publicly about Iraq, Afghanistan, candidates, and elections. This is especially the case among Black Protestant clergy.

So what does this all mean? You tell me.

The Future of Religion in America

Mark Silk lays it out for us:

The “center” of Roman Catholicism will continue to move from the Northeast to the Southwest. Mexican Catholics will continue to grow.

The “two-party system” of American Protestantism is coming to an end. Mainliners will continue to shrink. Evangelicals will continue to thrive.

Evangelicals will continue to grow in the “non-denominational sector.”

The amount of people who say they have “no religion” will continue to grow.

Those religions that emphasize choice will continue to thrive.

I noticed the Islam is absent from Silk’s analysis.

Church Decline and Population Decline

Why is church membership and church attendance declining? Is it because of increasing secularization? Perhaps. But according to sociologist Michael Emerson, it may also have something to do with population decline. Here is a snippet from his short piece at Duke’s Faith and Leadership blog.

The recent release of the National Council of Churches’ annual “Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches” adds fresh details to a familiar story: Membership is declining in the majority of Protestant denominations.

Compared with the previous year, Catholic membership is up 1.5 percent, but Protestant membership is down. For the second year in a row, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination — the Southern Baptist Convention — has reported a decline. And most black denominations are no longer growing.

The commonly cited reasons for this pattern are likewise familiar: Americans’ increasing secularization, postmodernism, competition from other activities, the aging of the baby boomers and churches’ lack of responsiveness to a changing culture.

No doubt all of these are part of the story. But there is another part of the story that gets overlooked: population decline. Although many people believe we’re in the midst of a worldwide population explosion, demographers and sociologists have known for quite some time that a couple of key factors actually lead to lowered birth rates: urbanization and the rising education and labor force participation of women.

In nations where those two factors exist, birth rates drop, precipitously. So much so, in fact, that soon those nations do not have enough children to replace themselves. And historically, nations whose fertility has dropped below the replacement level have not been able to bring it back above that threshold, no matter the policies instituted to do so.

In developed nations — which have low infant death rates — it takes 2.1 births per woman to exactly replace the population. Short of that, populations shrink, unless they are bolstered by immigration. Using the conservative 2.1 cutoff, about 70 nations are no longer having enough children to replace themselves, including the United States, with a fertility rate of 2.05, Iran (2.04), Ireland (1.96 ), Chile (1.94), Brazil (1.90), France (1.89), the UK (1.82), Australia (1.79), China (1.73), Canada (1.53), Cuba (1.49) and Japan (1.27).

Many others will join this group soon. In fact, using the low fertility assumption, United Nations figures indicate that in just 15 years the world as a whole will no longer replace its population. Given a lag effect, this means that in about 40 years, the world population will begin declining. This, in turn, means that relying on immigration to keep economies running will become increasingly difficult.

These demographic realities have vast implications for the church. My colleague George Yancey and I are only beginning to explore the implications, though some of them are becoming clear to us. Shrinking population will mean shrinking attendance figures. In the United States, population continues to grow for now because of immigrants, who also tend to have high birth rates. But native-born Americans of all races and ethnicities are not currently replacing themselves…

Calvinist Revival

In the early 19th century as Americans became more democratic, consumer-driven, and individualistic they turned away from the eighteenth-century Calvinism of their fathers and turned toward a free-will (Arminian) theology that fit better with the culture in which they lived.

This was a time of unprecedented choice. All men could vote for their choice of political candidates. Consumers were empowered to choose products and churches. And in religion, one could choose to accept or reject the gospel. If you didn’t want to get up from your seat and respond to the altar call during a Charles Finney revival you had the power to just say no to the gospel message he was preaching and stay seated. As Wilfred McClay put it in his Merle Curti Prize winning book The Masterless:

…the era was marked by the emergence of a restless, individualistic, egalitarian, wide-open, romantic, liberatory, antinomian, and anti-authoritarian spirit…All these elements seem to merge and coalesce into a heroic fantasy of boundless individual potential, a vision of personal infinitude that impatiently brushed aside the severe and impassible limits imposed by custom, by history, by the accidents of birth, or even by the venerable doctrine of original sin.

Calvinism was simply out of place in this era. It taught that the “restless” should find “rest in Thee.” It taught that the individual was only important in relation to the sovereign God who created him. God was in control–humans were not. The Calvinist God was an unwelcome symbol of authority in a democratic society teeming with self-interest and civil liberty.

Calvinism has taken a back seat to free will American religion ever since. But according to a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor, old-fashioned Calvinism is making a comeback. It is appealing to Christians who are sick and tired of the kind of therapeutic, feel-good religion that places no demands on one’s life or fails to recognize the sinfulness of the world and the limits of this world:

Today, [John Calvin’s] theology is making a surprising comeback, challenging the me-centered prosperity gospel of much of modern evangelicalism with a God-first immersion in Scripture. In an age of materialism and made-to-order religion, Calvinism’s unmalleable doctrines and view of God as an all-powerful potentate who decides everything is winning over many Christians – especially the young.

Move over Joel Osteen. Here comes John Piper and Mark Dever.

More from the Christian Science Monitor:

By most logic, the stern system of Calvinism shouldn’t be popular today. Much of modern Christianity preaches a comforting Home Depot theology: You can do it. We can help. Epitomized by popular titles like Joel Osteen’s “Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential,” this message of self-fulfillment through Christian commitment attracts followers in huge numbers, At the same time, a strict following of the Bible, which Calvinists embrace, hardly resonates the way it once did in American society. The Barna Group, a California-based research firm, recently did a survey to find out how many US adults hold a “biblical worldview” – for instance, believe that the Bible is totally accurate, that a person cannot earn their way into heaven simply by doing good, that God is the all-powerful creator of the universe.

American Religious History: Pre-Civil War

A very polite former student who is preparing for graduate school writes:

I know that you are busy. However, if you have a few moments, could you send me an e-mail with suggested readings for the field of American Religious History, particularly the pre-Civil War era?…Again, I know that you are busy but I would like to start building a foundation for my future studies while I have some free time.

Before I answer, I thought I would put this to my readers. What are the “must reads” that I should include on this list?

More on the Religious Blogosphere

The Social Science Research Council and its blog, Immanent Frame, have been devoting a lot of energy to the religious blogosphere. Last week we mentioned its study of religion blogs and the choice of The Way of Improvement Leads Home as one of the country’s “most influential blogs that contribute to online discussion about religion in the public sphere and the academy.”

Today the editors of Immanent Frame are running a series of short articles by prominent bloggers, journalists and scholars on how blogs are changing religious discourse in the United States.

Worth a look, especially for John Schmalzbauer’s comment on the Randall Stephens-Ken Hamm throwdown over at Religion in American History.

America’s Wealthiest Religions

Here is a study of the distribution of income in the United States by religious belief.

If I am reading the study correctly, the wealthiest American religious groups are:

1. Jews
2. Hindus
3. Orthodox

The three poorest religious groups in the United States are:

1. Historically Black Christian Churches
2. Jehovah Witness
3. Evangelicals

Read the study for yourself and draw your own interpretations.

Catholics, Mormons, and the Assembly of God

Here are the ten largest Christian denominations in America with their current membership and the change in membership from last year. (Hat Tip: Mere Comments)

1. The Catholic Church: 68.1 million, up 1.49 percent.
2. Southern Baptist Convention: 16.2 million, down 0.24 percent.
3. The United Methodist Church: 7.8 million (U.S.), down 0.98 percent.
4. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: 5.9 million (U.S.), up 1.71 percent.
5. The Church of God in Christ: 5.5 million, no change.
6. National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc: 5 million, no change.
7. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: 4.6 million, down 1.62 percent.
8. National Baptist Convention of America, Inc.: 3.5 million, no change.
9. Assemblies of God: 2.9 million, up 1.27 percent.
10. Presbyterian Church (USA); 2.8 million, down 3.28 percent. [reprinted with permission]

A few observations:

  • Of the top ten, only the Catholic Church, the Church of the Latter Day Saints, and the Assemblies of God grew in the last year.
  • There are more members of the Assembly of God than the Presbyterian Church U.S.A

I am happy to entertain any and all interpretations of these rankings.