Tag: Ruth Graham

Religious Freedom and “Deviant” Religious Groups

The Sunday before Thanksgiving was my 64th birthday.

It was also the 40th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre. Every five years or so, the events of my birthday and Jonestown become as inextricably linked as they were when I turned 24. Then a recent college graduate in my first semester of graduate school in sociology with a keen interest in religion, Jonestown shook me to my core.

Looking back with the vantage point of history, it’s easy to identify Jim Jones as a cult leader. We know that this group didn’t fit our normal visions of religious expression. After all, the followers committed mass suicide by drinking tainted kool-aid. (It’s a remarkable thing that “drinking the kool-aid” has become part of our lexicon given its macabre origins.)

Jim Jones

But Jim Jones began his ministry in a Methodist church on the Southside of my hometown of Indianapolis. It is true that his views tended to liberal politics as he referred to himself as a socialist and communist.

 

Those views, however much out of the mainstream, are protected by the first amendment to the constitution. I am by no means trying to excuse what happened in Guyana and many books have been written on how Jones’ sense of paranoia led to increasingly aberrant behavior. But that feeling that “they” were out to get him should provide warnings to those who traffic in stoking perceptions of religious discrimination.

I’ve been listening to Ruth Graham’s excellent podcast Standoff exploring the Ruby Ridge standoff between the FBI and Randy Weaver. The first episode details how the Weavers were influenced by the Church of Jesus Christ – Christian, a group that infused Aryan white supremacist views into apocalyptic scriptural passages. The ATF did go after Randy Weaver because of illegal arms sales (likely involving entrapment), but the precursor for the standoff is related to their religious beliefs. When the powers of the federal government get involved, killing Randy’s wife and son, it serves as a reinforcement of that belief system.

Back in August I attended the annual meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion. One session looked back at the 25th anniversary of the Branch Davidian Conflict in Waco, TX. The three panelists were all involved in either the actual standoff or in explorations immediately after the fact. Waco follows a similar pattern to the other two events. A set of beliefs, admittedly obscure and not broadly shared, led the group to pull together. Federal officials act on poor information and try to intervene, leading to a standoff that ends tragically.

This past weekend, Franklin Graham explained that white evangelicals like him support President Trump because he “defends the Christian faith:”

He also insisted his allegiance was not automatically for the Republican Party, stating that he backs politicians that “support the Christian faith whether they’re Democrats, Republicans, Independents. Politicians that are going to guarantee my freedom of worship. And I appreciate the president has appointed now two conservative judges that are going to defend religious freedom, so amen to that.”

Herein lies the constitutional problem. The first amendment doesn’t call for the defense of the Christian faith. It calls for the protection of free expression of religion and opposes the official establishment of any particular religious group.

A key moment in religious freedom jurisprudence occurred in 1944 in United States v. Ballard. The Ballards were a husband and wife team that set up a church as a means to collect money, raising over $3 million. The lower court argued that the Ballards didn’t really hold a good faith belief in what they were espousing and got a fraud conviction. This was overturned on appeal in the US Court of Appeals. The state of California appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court. By a decision of 5-4, the Supreme Court agreed with the appellate court. Justice William Douglas, writing the majority opinion, argued:

The religious views espoused by respondents might seem incredible, if not preposterous, to most people. But if those doctrines are subject to trial before a jury charged with finding their truth or falsity, then the same can be done with the religious beliefs of any sect. When the triers of fact undertake that task, they enter a forbidden domain. The First Amendment does not select any one group or any one type of religion for preferred treatment. It puts them all in that position.

This is the birth of the idea of “sincerely held religious beliefs”. The Supreme Court refused to put itself in the position of “finding truth or falsity”. It is worth noting that none of the dissenters were willing to take up the “truth” question either. Three of the justices argued that illegal actions could not be masked under religious beliefs. The remaining justice, Robert Jackson, saw any enforcement of law over religion as problematic and raised potential for religious persecution. He then challenged the notion of sincerity:

If religious liberty includes, as it must, the right to communicate such experiences to others, it seems to me an impossible task for juries to separate fancied ones from real ones, dreams from happenings, and hallucinations from true clairvoyance. Such experiences, like some tones and colors, have existence for one, but none at all for another. They cannot be verified to the minds of those whose field of consciousness does not include religious insight. When one comes to trial which turns on any aspect of religious belief or representation, unbelievers among his judges are likely not to understand, and are almost certain not to believe, him.

This brings me back to Jim Jones, Randy Weaver, and David Koresh. It is difficult for those outside the religious group to evaluate the sincerity of the belief system involved. That’s why other laws are the means of enforcement. It is a matter of attempting to separate the religious beliefs from the expectations of shared adherence to laws.

So the Masterpiece Cakeshop and Hobby Lobby decisions represent the conflict that arises between shared legal standards and closely held religious beliefs. Following Ballard, the court has tended to side with the religious beliefs because it has no lever with which to do anything else.

But it is vitally important to remember that religious freedom does not work as a particularized right. It is as relevant to evangelical Christians as it is to White separatists, to communal apocalyptic groups, to Pastafarians, and to those with no faith whatsoever.

My very first publication was a 1980 book review of James Richardson’s Conversion Careers: In and Out of  the New Religious Movements. As i remember the book, the takeaway was the thing that separated these “deviant” religious groups from established religious groups revolved around the social acceptance denied them.  When one’s group is seen as outside the mainstream, it’s harder for people to understand them as a legitimate religious group.

That may be true sociologically but it remains an open question for a Supreme Court that simultaneously upholds religious expression while avoiding questions of validity.

 

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Religion is more complicated than our reporting suggests

Two weeks ago, I wrote a piece reflecting on the question of how religious people were characterized in the recent election. Michael Wear had an intriguing interview with Emma Green in the Atlantic. Right before that, Ruth Graham had written on how white evangelicals didn’t support Clinton. In my piece, I pointed out the role that an evangelical infrastructure played in creating that context. Recent reporting has me exploring that observation more closely.

The PRRI group released data this week in anticipation of President Obama’s Farewell speech (which was an outstanding statement on the nature of civic democracy!). They summarized the data in the following chart.

pew-obama

Just 24% of white evangelical protestants had a favorable view of Obama, 1% more than those identifying as conservatives. I somewhat facetiously suggested on social media that maybe it was time to stop thinking of these as two distinct groups. Data has shown that white evangelical protestants are the most republican religious group, most nostalgic, and most opposed to a variety of social issues like same-sex marriage.

I’ve been arguing throughout this election cycle that it’s quite possible that this close relationship between white evangelical protestants and conservatives is really a spurious relationship. It may be that region, attitudes toward abortion, non-urban, and socioeconomic status may be driving both evangelical commitment and political conservatism.

The above mentioned infrastructure makes it more likely that the white evangelical protestant group is seen as THE religious group in America. They have the publications, the conferences, and the spokespeople who use broadcast and social media to advance their agenda and make it clear that they are the largest religious block in America.

That statistical claim is true, barely. Self-identified evangelicals make up a larger share of the population than other groups. The 2014 Pew Landscape survey  shows 25.4% white evangelicals, 22.8% unaffiliated, 20.8% Catholic, 14.7% mainline protestant, and 6.5% Black protestant.

Not only is that evangelical infrastructure focused on defining what “religious voters” care about but it also focuses on the maintenance of the definition of who is Really Christian. This has created a context in which the focus of politicians and press has been on a specific subset of the white evangelical grouping.

On Monday, the Religion News Service reported this story titled “Christian groups express ‘grave concerns’ about Trump agenda, appointments“. It reports how the National Council of Churches (among others) had released a report strongly criticizing the new administration’s positions as backward thinking, discriminatory, and counter to scripture.

I was struck by the title of the article because I realized that many in the white evangelical protestant infrastructure believe that the NCC and its members aren’t “real Christians” but only adopting cultural trappings of religion in their political pursuits. Has the NCC every been invited to speak at the Values Voters Summit?

As the RNS story explains, the NCC membership includes “6 of the 10 largest denominations in the United States.” They are mainline churches but are still a vital part of the story of religion and civic life.

Another story in RNS documented President Obama‘s positions on faith over the course of his presidency. It’s a remarkable story, especially when contrasted with the dismissive views of many on the right (that’s even ignoring all the “secret Muslim” claims). Contrast this story with the 24% approval rating and you have to scratch you head. Part of the answer there may be that President Obama takes a big tent approach to faith where white evangelicals may be using a much narrower screen.

Last week there was a story in the Washington Post reporting on mainline churches and what their pastors believed. Written by one of the researchers of a Canadian study, it explains how there is a correlation between conservative theology (especially that of the pastor) and church growth. The research  involves 22 mainline congregations in Ontario. Of these, 13 were declining and 9 were growing. The research shows a correlation between the theological orthodoxy of the pastor/congregation and the likelihood that the church is growing. Demographics play a part but orthodoxy appears to be key.

Given the state of reporting on mainline religion, I’d expect people might be a little surprised to see that 41% of a sample of mainline congregations is growing or that overwhelming majorities of all congregants say they’ve committed their lives to Christ. (I do need to observe that the majority of US mainline protestants have an unfavorable view of Obama and voted for Trump — my point is that we don’t tend to talk about them at all).

I recently watched a remarkable presentation by Rev. William Barber, the North Carolina black pastor of a Disciples of Christ church who has been the leader of the Moral Mondays movement. He has a classical civil rights blend of a prophetic religious voice and a political engagement like we saw in MLK. In the same fashion, I realized that the politicians and the press have not seen those perspectives as representing religion in the public square.

In a rapidly changing society, it is important that religion continues to a vital part of our public engagement. Democrats and media figures do need to be more versed in how that religion is expressed as an important part of modern life. But its also important that we understand religion in its complexity and not limiting that view to one segment. It’s also important that the religious groups model the diversity that actually exists.

In closing, I commend two articles making similar points. This piece by Roger Olson raises concerns about the “The ‘Disappearing Middle’ in American Political and Religious Life“. This piece by Philip Yancey looks for ways of “Bridging the Gap”. He closes his piece with this reflection on Francis Shaeffer:

Toward the end of his life, as he saw the word evangelical become synonymous with political lobbying, Schaeffer sometimes wondered what he had helped set loose.  He based The Mark of the Christian on some of Jesus’ last words to his disciples: “A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Schaeffer added, “Love—and the unity it attests to—is the mark Christ gave Christians to wear before the world.  Only with this mark may the world know that Christians are indeed Christians and that Jesus was sent by the Father.…It is possible to be a Christian without showing the mark, but if we expect non-Christians to know that we are Christians, we must show the mark.”  I see that as the biggest challenge facing committed Christians in the new year.

 

But You Canna Take My Freedom!

It’s not often that I find myself pondering a crisis in evangelicalism when it suddenly explodes in front of me. Yesterday I interviewed Jim Henderson from Seattle on his perceptions of what’s been going on with Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill. I was interested in exploring it as an illustration of the tensions between what I’ve called Industry Evangelicalism and Identity Evangelicalism. Having read of the recent uproar among former Mars Hill congregants (who had started a Facebook page called “We are Not Anonymous”) and their planned protests this Sunday, I wanted something of an informed view to help me make sense of what’s happening.

We talked about a wide range of things: the tendency to imbue celebrity pastors with extra authority, the sharp distinctions between inside and outside culture, feelings of persecution, special rights for Christian institutions, music, and the weather in the Northwest.

I had first become aware of questions at Mars Hill when I read Ruth Graham’s story in Slate about a young man who had been effectively shunned from the congregation. Based on that article, it made me wonder what dynamics were operating in the multi-site organization. That was followed by stories of PR stunts, insensitive tweets that launched twitter wars, the plagiarism charges, and the whole question of the New York Times bestseller that wasn’t. As things have unfolded, Mark Driscoll took some time to reflect and committed to take a break from social media. There have been further stories about the Mars Hill Global Fund and a lingering sense that things may be coming unravelled the more folks tried to maintain the Industry structure.

And then there was today. Today the Not Anonymous folks released a 140 page screed that Mark Driscoll had written in 2000. Granted, he was younger then. But the tirades and harsh tones and misogyny are overwhelming. I only made it through the first page when I’d decided I’d had enough.

From businessweek.com in an article ironically titled "Why Self-Awareness is Crucial for Entrepreneurs"
From businessweek.com in an article ironically titled “Why Self-Awareness is Crucial for Entrepreneurs”

Driscoll had written under the pseudonym William Wallace II. In case you forgot, the original William Wallace was a Scottish warlord leading fights against the power of the English state. The picture to the left is Mel Gibson at his blue-faced angriest from Braveheart. I’m struck with Driscoll’s use of William Wallace and what that suggests about this combative form of evangelicalism.

First, Braveheart is a celebration of the Great Man version of leadership. In this model, a charismatic leader is able to mobilize people into doing things the leader believes need to be done. But there is a dark side to this style. Success at leading requires exaggerating the leader’s capabilities while diminishing everyone else’s autonomy. I didn’t know at the time Braveheart came out but it became clear later that the way William Wallace was played was really indicative of Mel Gibson’s ego and personal style. The movie was organized around Gibson and told from that central narrative. Similarly, Driscoll’s angry rants and dismissive tweets serve an organizational style dependent upon that same kind of leadership. As the caption shows, I got the picture of Angry Wallace from a business week article on “Why Self-Awareness is Crucial for Entrepreneurs“. The Facebook quiz on Emotional Intelligence would be really helpful for church planters to make sure that leadership doesn’t come at the cost of shunning others.

Second, the notion of culture wars endorses strong and aggressive stances. Some who offered sympathy for Driscoll suggested that there were elements of Seattle culture or the emergent church movement that he was standing against. It becomes necessary to overplay one’s hand in order to hold off the encroaching forces. That is supported by a belief that history is on one’s side. But our supposed battle with the cultural forces of court decisions or voter referenda or other things that prioritize shared social values over privileged Christian values is not at all like battling against the English at Stirling. We’re not dealing with occupying forces. We’re dealing with our neighbors, friends, and family. It is important to maintain relationship (a point made in this wonderful set of interviews that Jim Henderson did with Ira Glass from This American Life shared on Josh Brahm’s website today.)

Third, while William Wallace/Mel Gibson famously shouts “You can take our lives but you canna take our Freedom“, he doesn’t win. He is drawn and quartered. He gets disembowled. True, his last word is “Freedom” but that didn’t make it come about. His actions lead to a movement that brings about a free Scotland. But Scotland is still part of Great Britain. At the end of the day, the sacrifice of William Wallace may cause more damage than was worth it (I really did like the movie, but it’s not real life.) Mark Driscoll may represent the most aggressive arm of evangelical culture wars but in the long run he will make it that much harder for Christians who are attempting to find a path forward in a Post-Christian culture.

 

 

 

What’s the deal with Christian Celebrities?

LovejoyI’ve commented before about some excellent work Zach Hoag, Ben Howard, and others have done in pointing out the challenges of celebrity within evangelical circles. Recent revelations regarding Mark Driscoll’s marketing expenditures have brought the question back to the forefront. So have the reactions to Steve Furtick’s “spontaneous baptisms” (and, more importantly, the assumptions behind the Furtick coloring book!).

Last week, I suggested that Ned Flanders gave us an image of what Testimony Evangelicalism might look like. So the conflation of various media stories made this a good time to follow up on the guy up front in Springfield’s favorite church.

One story that crossed my twitter feed this afternoon was this one by Ruth Graham. I was struck by her opening line:  “By any measure, pastor Mark Driscoll is wildly successful in the contemporary evangelical world.” As we enter the Lenten season and the story of Christ’s passion, the idea that someone would be “wildly successful” as an evangelical seems really out of place.

Here’s another cute story from today’s twitter feed. At On Pop Theology, Rebekah Mays created a quiz to parallel all the “which character are you” internet sites but predicts Christian celebrities. Depending upon the answers to a range of questions, you could wind up as the guy from the nudist church in Virginia (you really didn’t want the link), Joel Osteen (before they lost all that money), Mark Driscoll, Tim Keller, Rachel Held Evans, or Pope Francis. (Having seen Rachel last night, I loved that she was runner up to the Pope!).

A third piece on my twitter feed today (in fact, I keep getting distracted by updates about it) was this graphic that attempts to show the historical development of neo-calvinism. I’m not sure of the categories the authors use (my distractions involve discussion about the “race” column). While I haven’t read all these people or tracked with the musical developments, my sociological instincts tell me that we move from a series of influential authors in the 80s and 90s (which I keep identifying as the period of evangelical apex) to a focus on institutional development in the 90s and 00s. The timeline suggests that organizational vibrancy is far more significant than new scholarship in that period. (Paradoxically, the emergent movement may have an anti-institutional bias which keeps it from moving beyond the authorial phase.) As I’ve written before, the Putnam and Campbell “second aftershock” is the reaction of millennials against the institutionalization of the previous decades.

So…what’s the deal with Reverend Lovejoy? Why is he such a contrast to the gentle fumbling sincerity of Ned Flanders? This is probably oversimplistic, but I think it’s because Lovejoy sees himself as representing the organizational entity we call church. He’s the figurehead and much of his identity is tied up in the visible role he plays (especially when he has to confront his own doubts and would much rather play with his train set). Even the way he speaks betrays “that tone” that must come from some special voice class at seminary!

Yesterday on Facebook, Zach Hoag posted the question, “Are we in the last days…of Mark Driscoll’s ministry?” Without fulling knowing this post was floating around in my brain, I wrote this:

Surprisingly, I hope not. As you keep pointing out, evangelicalism’s fascination with celebrity can be scary. If we individualize Driscoll’s issues so that he takes a healing sabbatical, another celebrity pastor will take his place. Somehow we need to come to terms with the way Evangelicaldom (I made that up) is complicit in creating the conditions that allow Driscoll’s missteps.

So I’m trying to figure out why many evangelicals are drawn to circle around Christian celebrities. Why do we look for champions and then line up behind them (even if we don’t have Elevation coloring books)? Why do we stay on the lookout for those who criticize the celebrity and then rush to denounce the attacker? Why do we hang on to hope in the celebrity long after most of the world has moved on? Why are we so reticent to admit the failings of those we put up on such high pedestals, waiting all the way until the final moment of disgrace before reluctantly admitting something was wrong (see Bill Gothard for only the most recent example)?

As evangelical Christians we come upon the season of the year when we become most acutely aware of how Empire put the Son of God to death. We recognize the value of that death (I just spent two days with a bunch of theologians talking about atonement!) and the incredible power of the resurrection.

But in reality, the secret to this crucial season of the Christian calendar is that this is when all that changed. This is when the Kingdom of God breaks in upon us to free us from concerns of power and might. It is the Kingdom that tells us that we aren’t to amass followers or book lists or mighty works of baptisms. It is the Kingdom that tells us that we are to lay down our lives for others.

That’s a proposition as scary as it is costly. We would much rather build institutions that show we are right in our thinking, that we know what the answers are, and that we have Our Guy up there in front (I’m not being sexist, I’m accurately representing the leadership as it is — that’s part of the problem).

If we put a celebrity up front, or in the podcast, or on the cable news interview, we have someone who represents us. He can be the one we identify with. We can say, “yeah, what he said” and feel we’ve participated in the Gospel. But we didn’t. We just sat passively; vicariously experiencing someone else’s position.

If Reverend Lovejoy tells us anything, it’s that he doesn’t like being put in that position. He can’t be a real Christian to the faithful in Springfield because that would make us uncomfortable. He has to be a caricature of himself because that’s how we want it.

On the other hand, once the Gospel narrative gets past the crowds with palm branches (which it does very quickly), we see a Suffering Servant marching slowly toward the sacrifice that changes everything.

Maybe that’s the kind of leader we all really need. And need to be.