The Complexities of Religious Reintegration

A group of friends have started a Beer & Book Club which meets twice a month to discuss a book of the group’s choosing.  For our inaugural selection, we recently finished Radical Reinvention by Kaya Oakes, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in religion in the American context. The book was similar in style to works by Anne Lamont or Sara Miles, both of which I immensely enjoy.  Radical Reinvention is fast-paced and irreverent, but also very authentic.  One of the looming questions that I continued to ask while I read the work was: Is Kaya radically reinventing herself or the catholic Church? I forgot to ask this to my book club, so I cannot offer any type of group answer.  And for those who have not read the work, I will let each of you reach your own conclusions.  

I do not wish to offer a complete summary of Radical Reinvention, but to ask a larger question regarding religious reintegration.  Oakes paints a picture of an open-arm acceptance by the Catholic Church for her return.  As a matter of fact, Oakes seems to be the one that slowly accepts reintegration into the Catholic Church, not the other way around.  

But is this typically the case? Are religious adherents who chose to leave always allowed back? Oakes’ story not only allows her to reintegrate, but on her terms.  I am not so sure that many religious devotees would be so fortunate.  I think that many returning faithful would have to make some sort of public apology/confession and offer an oral statement of re-commitment. 

This has got me curious to whether any social scientific studies have been conducted to determine the complexities of religious reintegration? Do the more fundamentalist religions require more from devotees wishing to reintegrate? Are there religious traditions which prohibit reintegration (like the Amish?).

Restoration & Intra Religious Marginalization

It should be obvious to anyone living in the American south that Christians are divided.  The sheer number of denominations and churches in my particular city demonstrates the vast and varied thoughts of contemporary Christians.  These nuanced positions are seen as so vital, they lead to broad canopy denominations like Catholic, Orthodox, Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, UCC, Pentecostal, et al. Furthermore these broad denominations are split into several smaller denominations like Free Methodist, United Methodist, various types of Weslyans, etc. Seemingly, more autonomy equates to more intra-denominational varieties (e.g. Baptists).

I find the vast array of denominations unfortunate; yet I also understand the sociopolitical reasons for the majority of sects. [However, I do not think that the denominations are based from theological hermeneutics necessarily; although that is how it is usually framed by Christians leaders and devotees.]  Historically, denominational identities have fueled violence of Christian against Christian.  Violent actions are not typically the norm today; yet in many of the interviews that I have conducted in my research, I have found that interdenominational competition still exists.  This leads to mistrust and social barriers.  Moreover, in large churches with multiple services, I have even discovered “rivalry” between those who attend a certain “o’clock” service versus another “o’clock” service.

These competing claims leads to questions of authenticity:  Who is most like Jesus? Or who is following the Bible most closely? Which church has practices most like that of the New Testament? Sometimes, who is filled more with the spirit? And this leads to an attempt to restore a contemporary version of a two thousand year old belief system.  [Or maybe this leads to textual mimicking?]

I was reminded this week that Christianity is not unique in this aspect.  I met a devotee of a particular sect of Islam known as Ahmadiyya.  It was interesting to hear her perspective of not officially being recognized as Muslim by other sects of Islam.  In our nation where a head covering and darker skin leads to automatic association with Islam, she struggles to be a particular kind of Muslim.  And again, the belief system is about authenticity and a restoration of an original concept. 

What is it about our current society that compels people to search for meaning through journeys of restoration, intra-religious distinctions, and authenticity?

Church Immersion & Civic Health

As a former minister, I understand the attempt by churches to immerse their congregants into the life of the church.  The more that someone is committed to the programs, worship services, Bible studies, small groups, and lay leadership, the more likely they will contribute monetarily, attend Sunday morning services, and volunteer as leaders in these programs.  Also, the assumption is that if a devotee is a dedicated participant in the church life, then they are less likely to stray or forsake their religious beliefs/identity in the future.  [Subsequently, many equate church immersion with dedication to God, but not many like to openly discuss this since it seems to offer a works-based theology.]

However, in the United States, religious organizations are very homogenous institutions in regard to race, economic status, and educational attainment.  Thus, most religious devotees in the United States attend churches with others who look, maintain similar employment, and think like them. 

In an ever increasing diverse United States, I suggest that church immersion might be a positive method for church leaders to gauge religiosity and maintain membership, but unintentionally could have negative ramifications for our civil society.  Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone proves that for many within churches, devotees only volunteer at the church and interact with others outside of their own religious affiliation.  If these devotees do interact outside of their religious community, many times it is simply as a volunteer at a local service organization which many times serves to reaffirm negative stereotypes (about people of color, in poverty, or the uneducated).  Thus, for devotees immersing themselves into a homogenous religious institution can lead to a lack of developing civic relationships. [Jokingly, I have stated that people in the American south actually ask you “what church do you attend?” as a way of gauging how much they can be your friend.] What does this mean for the future of our society?

As the number of religious “nones” continues to rise, I foresee an attempt by churches to actually increase their efforts to immerse their congregants into the church life.  But, I honestly think that the dissipation of the institutional church is inevitable in the American context.  In fact, some have suggested that the secularization of America is simply the decline of organized religion (not that devotees are losing religious beliefs, but simply not participating in communal, institutional practices).  

Can institutional churches accept the notion that in certain aspects, they might actually be harming society? Or is this question so counter intuitive for church leaders (since they perceive their programs as the ultimate enhancement to society)?  How should church leadership respond to this suggestion?


Test Your Religious Literacy

For an event that we are having on campus this week, I created a religious literacy quiz.  I borrowed some questions from Stephen Prothero’s quiz and the IFYC’s interfaith quiz.  So, if you have time and are interested.  All the answers could be googled. Or if you get stuck tweet at me (@tdshoemaker). Let me know how you gauge the difficulty of this:


The Four Noble Truths are associated with which religion?
a.  Buddhism    b. Hinduism    c.  Judaism      d.  Islam        e.  Christianity

In which religious tradition do devotees participate in Ramadan?
a.  Buddhism    b. Hinduism    c.  Judaism      d.  Islam        e.  Christianity

Which of the following is sacred text of Hinduism?
a.  Book of Moroni      b.  Rig Veda       c.  Zabur        d.  Revelation

Which religion constitutes the majority religion in the United States?
a. Buddhism    b. Hinduism    c.  Judaism      d.  Islam        e.  Christianity

About what percentage of people identify as Jewish in the United States?
a. <5%             b.  5%             c.  10%            d.  15%             e.  20%

George Bush spoke in his first inaugural of the Jericho Road. What Bible story was he invoking?
a. Sodom & Gomorrah                     b.  Saul’s Conversion
b. The Good Samaritan                  d.  the Transfiguration

What is the second largest religious identification in the United States?
a.  Buddhism  b. Hinduism  c.  Judaism  d.  Islam   e.  No Religious Affiliation

Match the religious figures with their associated religious tradition:
Muhammed                              Christianity
Rami                                    Buddhism
Jesus                              WKU Philosophy & Religion Dept.
Abraham                                    Hinduism
Eric Bain-Selbo                              Islam
Siddhārtha Gautama                        Judaism

Match the religious tradition with the quote scripture:
Traditions: Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Sikhism, Islam, Hinduism
“I am a stranger to no one, and no one is stranger to me, indeed, I am a friend to all.”
“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.  This is the whole Torah: all the rest is commentary.”                                                            
“Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find harmful.”                                                
“Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.”                                                           
“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you. For this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”                                               
“This is the sum of duty: do not do unto others what would cause pain to you.”                                                            

Bonus: The First Amendment says two things about religion, each in its own “clause.” What are the two clauses of the First Amendment?

The Beginnings of Religious Institutions?

The idea of a universal impetus for the initiation of religious institutions has been widely discussed (Durkheim, Freud, etc.).  These have ranged from the momentous (read ridiculous) totem narrative by Freud, concepts of the institutionalization of numinous experiences by Otto, or as a mechanism for social conditioning by Durkheim, just to name a few.

But a new hypothesis has recently been presented that has got me rethinking the beginning of religion.  I’m part of a faculty reading group that began discussing David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years.  The book is an anthropological examination of the historical and contemporary ideas of debt. The topics explored are vast but mainly focuses on the embedded social notions of economics and debt in modern civilization.  Graeber questions:

What, precisely, does it mean to say that our sense of morality and justice is reduced to the language of a business deal? What does it mean when we reduce moral obligations to debts? What changes when the one turns into the other? And how do we speak about them when our language has been so shaped by the market?

[As someone who loves anthropology and loves less economic theory, the book is absolutely fascinating and is a great read.] 

In his research, Graeber suggests, in a round about way, that religious entities started as “societal debt management” (my phrasing, not his).  The proposal highlights various religious scriptures regarding the idea of debt (i.e. debt to God, debt to ancestors, debt to society). Thus the notion is religion was initiated as a mediator of economic situations by attaching transcendental beliefs to daily exchanges.  Just think about how the statement “You owe me X” is modified when one says, “God said you owe me X” or even “God demands repayment.”  This could be taken further into social classifications systems such as “God said your value is X and you owe society X because of your position.” 

The interesting thing that Graeber states is that almost all religious traditions concluded that debt is somewhat absurd and cannot be repaid.  For instance, what would we repay God(s) even if we could? Additionally, ideas of economic and social justice would also come into play in this conversation.

I enjoy thinking about the beginnings of religion; however, I’m not a proponent of the idea that all religious entities started due to one overall reason.  Yet, Graeber offers a fresh hypothesis that must be considered. 

The Race Problem of Churches in the United States

The issue of racial integration in the American church has been examined by several researchers (see here for one example), but is mostly ignored by devotees within churches. Is this due to the almost absolute failure of Protestant churches (whether Mainline or Evangelical) to diversify their congregations? In a certain sense, many of the Mainline churches have taken note of their predominantly white congregations and at least collectively agreed to attempt diversity. (But attempt is the extent to which most have succeeded.)

I recently started reading Christian Smith and Michael Emerson’s Divided Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. I’m barely through the book, and two of the authors’ ideas have already garnered my attention.

First, the authors suggest that the United States is a racialized nation which they define as:

racial practices that reproduce racial division in the contemporary United states “(1) are increasingly covert, (2) are embedded in normal operations of institutions, (3) avoid direct racial terminology and (4) are invisible by most whites (Smith & Emerson, 9).

Indeed, this would be a shocking and surprising statement to most church goers who envision themselves as warm, welcoming, and loving, but not part of the problem. Yet as their work demonstrates, there is a racial divide religiously in the United States no matter how nice and kind church members think they are. Additionally, the “invisibility” serves to reify racism in the United States by creating a sense of a nonexistent issue.

Second, although Smith & Emerson think “religion can provide the moral force for people to determine that something about their world so excessively violates their moral standards that they must act to correct it,” they also propose:

Nevertheless, we argue that religion, as structured in America, is unable to make a great impact on the racialized society. In fact, far from knocking down racial barriers, religion generally serves to maintain these historical divides, and helps to develop new ones. (Smith & Emerson, 18).

The current chapter that I’m reading provides a brief historiography, paying particular attention to the socioeconomic conditions of the United States, detailing the attitudes of early American Christians vis-a-vis slavery. The influence of society on church theology is often ignored or refuted by church members who suggest that their theologies are static.

I am excited to continue through this work (published in 2000) because I think it still maintains its relevance for today.

The Evangelical Shift or Political Maneuvering?

pope & graham

In his book, Sacred Ground, author Eboo Patel suggests contemporary Muslims in the United States are facing a current integration challenge. As a case-study of this challenge, his work highlights the Cordoba House issue near the former World Trade Centers. However, the Muslim-Catholic comparison is not new (see here). And, I agree that the comparisons are extremely similar, which should give current Muslims distress for the time being as they seek acceptance by Americans and future Muslims hope that they will eventually be accepted by the majority of Americans.

Immediately following the chapter regarding the Catholic/Muslim comparison, Patel suggests that Evangelicals have “shifted” their opinions regarding Catholics which has led to a seemingly quick acceptance of Catholics in the American context. As a case in point, he notes the Evangelical suspicion when JFK ran for President versus the whole-hearted embracing of Rick Santorum (a Catholic) by many Evangelicals. Patel finds hope in this short (only 50-60 years) transition that Evangelicals have made.

I, however, would suggest a more nuanced (and less hopeful) interpretation of the “Evangelical shift” (as Patel refers to it). The Evangelical acceptance of Rick Santorum (and other current conservative Catholics) represents less of an Evangelical shift and more of a Catholic shift. I would argue that as Catholics have assimilated into American culture (which is more of a 200 year integration) and had opportunities of upward mobility, Catholics are the ones who have adopted conservative stances on political issues, namely culture war issues. The Catholic shift on political issues has found a welcome home within Evangelical circles.

But, as Catholics have found acceptance in political partnerships, I know many Evangelicals (Fundamentalists, and conservative Christians) who still perceive Catholics with suspicion at best. I have heard several conservative Christians still refer to the Pope as the Anti-Christ and Catholics as authoritarian Papists who would willingly sacrifice American freedom for Papal control.

Now are there Evangelicals who are embracing Catholics (as well as others of various faith traditions) in an every diversifying American context? Yes. But overall are Evangelicals accepting people of the Catholic tradition or those outside of the Christian circle? I am afraid not. Specifically, I would assert that the American south still has years to achieve Catholic tolerance and years from that to any kind of minor Islamic acceptance.

I really do not want to be pessimistic. Personally, I see great promise in interfaith cooperation for everyone in the American democracy. I truly believe that interfaith collaboration is a great first step to overcoming disconnectedness within cities and states across the country. But, as one who interviews Evangelicals, I see no shift. I propose that Evangelicals have not shifted, but have politically maneuvered whenever advantageous.