Archive for the ‘Protestants’ Category

Religion Not Dead In America

March 10, 2008

By Stephen Prothero
USA Today

Numbers lie, but they also tell tales, untrustworthy and otherwise. So the key question stirring around the much discussed U.S. Religious Landscape Survey released in late February by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life is what tale does it tell about the religious state of the union.

For some, the story of this survey, based on interviews in multiple languages with more than 35,000 U.S. adults, is the strength of American religion.

Not too long ago, I wrote that American atheism was going the way of the freak show. As books by Christopher Hitchens and other “new atheists” climbed the best-seller lists, I caught a lot of flak for that prophecy. But atheists make up only 1.6% of respondents to this survey. And 82% of respondents report that religion is either somewhat or very important in their lives.

Others find in this new data a nation of religious shoppers: 44% of the Americans surveyed have traded in their original religious home for another. Apparently, the grass is also greener at the church, synagogue or mosque next door.

Still others, noting that only 51% of Americans describe themselves as Protestants, see Protestantism teetering on the verge of becoming a minority.

Catholicism is at least by some readers of the tea leaves in trouble, too, now that ex-Catholics constitute 10% of the population.

Diminished safeguards

The tale I take away from this study is that shifts in the political and moral winds are transforming American religion. Many believe that the Founders separated church and state in order to save the federal government from the interference of overzealous ministers. Not so. The purpose of the First Amendment‘s establishment clause — which prohibits the federal government from passing laws that favor any one religion (atheism included) — was to safeguard religion against the encroachment of politics. And this new survey suggests that those safeguards are, well, going the way of the freak show.

The key subplot here is the rise of “nones,” a category growing faster than any other religious group. Of all adults in the USA, 16% say they are religiously unaffiliated, while 7% were raised that way. Moreover, 25% of younger Americans (ages 18-29) report no religious affiliation at all.

It is important to emphasize that this march of the “nones” is by no means beating the drums for the old secularization thesis, which posited that as societies embraced modernization they would shun God. This is because many “nones” are quite religious. In fact, many Americans refuse to affiliate with any religious organization not because they do not believe in God but because they believe in God so fervently that they cannot imagine any human institution capturing the mysteries of the divine. In this study, only about a quarter of all “nones” call themselves atheists or agnostics. In other surveys, about half the unaffiliated typically affirm the Christian God.

What does the rise of the “nones,” particularly in Western states and northern New England, demonstrate? Not the sickness of religion in general but the health of a new kind of religion — a more personal and less institutional form often parading under the banner of “spiritual but not religious,” an option that, among my Boston University students at least, seems as popular as the smoothie stand in the student union.

Two related factors seem to be at play in the rise of the “nones”: a decline in the stigma of being a religious free agent, and an increase in the stigma of being a church member. According to Darren Sherkat, a professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University who has written widely on religious demographics, Americans have long “overconsumed religion because of social constraints.” It used to be that you were considered a bad citizen, a bad marriage prospect and a bad employee if you didn’t show a little faith in faith. And plainly it is still imperative for presidential candidates to pledge their allegiance to God as well as flag. But in recent years, the moral failings of Ted Haggard, John Geoghan and other men of the cloth have been broadcast from National Public Radio to YouTube. As the almighty have fallen, atheists have felt empowered to stand up and ask whether religion really is any sort of guarantor of moral behavior. What is so moral about affiliating with gay-bashing gay evangelists or pedophilic priests?

As Sherkat explains, more parents are deciding to raise their kids without any religion. And more of those children are staying unaffiliated as adults. All this is happening because the status gap between “nones” and believers has never been narrower.

Plainly, the Republican Party gained ground over the past quarter-century by attaching itself to family, morality and God, even as the Democratic Party lost ground by focusing on such matters as rights and reason. In the process, the Republicans became the party of God and the Democrats the party of secularism — not a good strategy for the Democratic Party in a country where 96% of voters believe in God. So Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are both taking pains to pitch their party as a party of prayer and piety.

Even so, for much of the past generation, “Christian” and “conservative” have seemed to be interchangeable terms. It should not be surprising if at least some on the left who once upon a time might have described themselves as “Christians” have decided to jettison that affiliation for political reasons. Such reasons, it should be emphasized, are basically the same ones why so many Europeans have divorced themselves from their country’s established churches: because the marriage of a given church with a particular political regime is never eternal, and when it ends it leaves a lot of angry children in its wake.

Customized religion

Another story buried in the data of this new survey is the power of evangelical Protestantism, and particularly non-denominational churches. Of those surveyed, 44% called themselves “born again” or “evangelical” Christians, and among religious options non-denominational Protestantism is one of the fastest growing.

This story of the revenge of the evangelicals might seem at odds with the tale of the rise of the “nones,” but the impulse underlying them is the same. The USA is rapidly becoming a culture of customization. People want to write their own marriage vows and have tailor-made funerals. They gravitate toward religious options that are more personal and less institutional. In this respect, the “unaffiliated” and the “non-denominational” Protestant are cut from the same cloth.

The story behind the numbers of this latest survey is not that religion is in trouble. It is that religion is morphing into something new. Faith is becoming more political. But it is becoming more personal at the same time.

Stephen Prothero is the Chair of the Department of Religion at Boston University. He’s also the author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn’t.

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For Vietnam Members of Congress Stand Up For Human Rights

January 31, 2008

January 23, 2008

The Honorable Michael Chertoff
Secretary
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Washington, D.C. 20528

Dear Secretary Chertoff:

We are extremely concerned that thousands of Vietnamese nationals currently living in the United States may be forcibly returned to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, a country with an extensive and continuing record of human rights violations. It is appalling and unbelievable that this Administration would even consider returning those who escaped Communism back to the clutches of the very Communists that they escaped.

According to an ICE press release, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the government of Vietnam today. This MOU will apparently permit the deportation of Vietnamese nationals who entered the United States on or after July 12, 1995.

In the 2006 Country Report on Human Rights Practices, the U.S. State Department described the human rights situation in Vietnam as “unsatisfactory”. The March 6, 2007 report documented a litany of human rights violations, including:

• Abuses by government officials for exercise of religious freedom;
• Prohibition of political opposition movements;
• Arbitrary arrest and detention for political activities;
• Governmental control over the press and the internet;
• Abuse of suspects during arrest, detention, and interrogation;
• Denial of fair and expeditious trials;
• Limitation of citizens’ privacy rights and freedom of speech, press, assembly, movement, and association;
• Prohibition of independent human rights organizations;
• Violence and discrimination against women, including limited child prostitution and trafficking in women and children;
• Societal discrimination of some ethnic minority groups; and
• Limitation of workers’ rights, especially to organize independently.

Likewise, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) reported that “Vietnam has initiated a severe crackdown on human rights defenders and advocates for the freedoms of speech, association, and assembly, including many religious leaders.” In particular, USCIRF found that “[t]he Vietnamese government continues to remain suspicious of ethnic minority religious groups, such as Montagnard and Hmong Protestants and Khmer Buddhists; those who seek to establish independent religious organizations, such as the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, Hao Hoa, and Cao Dai; and those it considers to pose a threat to national solidarity or security, such as ‘Dega’ Protestants and individual Mennonite, Catholic, Buddhist, and house church Protestant leaders.”

In addition, respected non-governmental entities such as Amnesty International also documented wide-spread human rights violations in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam:
Restrictions on freedom of expression and association continued. Members of unauthorized churches seen as opposing state policies faced harassment. Dissidents using the Internet were harassed, threatened and imprisoned. Small groups of ethnic minority Montagnards continued to flee human rights violations in the Central Highlands and seek asylum in neighbouring Cambodia; at least 250 remained imprisoned after unfair trials in Viet Nam.

Given the rampant violations of human rights committed by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam as documented by our own State Department and other governmental and non-governmental experts, we are very troubled that ICE has entered into an agreement to deport Vietnamese nationals living in the United States into such conditions. We ask that you brief us personally on the MOU. In particular, we would like to know the process by which the agreement was reached, including whether ICE was aware of and considered the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’s human rights record in reaching the agreement. Furthermore, we insist that no implementation of this agreement take place until agreed to by Congress. We would appreciate your response no later than close of business on Friday, January 25, 2008.

Sincerely,

Zoe Lofgren
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
Michael Honda
Lincoln Diaz-Balart
Loretta Sanchez
Mario Diaz-Balart
Linda Sanchez
Keith Ellison
Jim Costa
Dennis Cardoza
Ed Perlmutter
Al Green
Barbara Lee
Jim Costa

cc: Secretary Condolezza Rice, U.S. Department of State

Assistant Secretary Julie Myers, U.S. Department of Homeland Security