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Posts Tagged ‘religion’

In a well-researched and provocative National Journal column, journalist Peter Beinart seeks to jujitsu conservatives’ charges that President Obama has undermined “American exceptionalism.” Beinart argues that American exceptionalism – by which he means America’s sharp differences from Old-World Europe — is “ending.” Young Americans, he states with data, look increasingly just like young Europeans in their religiosity, class consciousness, and nationalism. Beinart flips the right-wing charge, however, arguing that Obama’s arrival is the result, not the origin, of this convergence and, moreover, that it is largely conservative policies that are ending American exceptionalism. Neatly done.flag

I offer some reservations. Beinart exaggerates the convergence of Americans with other western peoples. What is really striking is how long-lasting aspects of American exceptionalism have been in a era when one might have expected global homogenization. (For an earlier discussion of exceptionalism, see here.)

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Atheists are getting evangelical and congregational, bemused press reports would have it. There are the international bus ad campaigns – “Why believe in a God? Just be good for goodness’ sake,” in the U.S., and “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” in Richard Dawkins’ Britain. More recently, a global effort, perhaps tongue in cheek, landed in the U.S. to provide “Sunday Assemblies” with the music and the community of churches, leaving out the God of churches (here and here). Then, there is the Chicago ceremony that “christened” babies Carl, Heinrich, and Martha in a totally irreligious (and socialist) ceremony. Oh, but that happened in 1884.

Announcing Anarchist Rally (source)

Flier: Haymarket Rally (Source)

Historian Bruce Nelson’s article on ir- and anti-religious working-class movements in late 19th-century Chicago, as well as other research, serves to remind us that widespread irreligiosity, aggressive anti-religious social movements, and even fiercely secular instituions are not new.

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Declaring You’re a “None”

In 2002, Mike Hout and I identified a new trend in Americans’ relationship with religion. Around 1990, the percentage of respondents to the General Social Survey (GSS) who, when asked their “religious preference,” picked the “no religion” option starting rising, doubling from about 7 percent, where it had been for many years, to 14 percent by 2000.

That finding and our efforts to explain it stirred interest among scholars and leaders of American religion. A few weeks ago, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life convened a briefing session for journalists on what we know about these “nones” now, a decade after that report. Pew brought together researchers to discuss what the trends look like in three different national surveys – the GSS, the Gallup Poll, and the Pew survey itself.

Although the methodologies of the three survey organizations differ (the GSS is the only one using in-home interviews) and the questions about religion that they use vary, there was nonetheless strong agreement on key points: By 2012, the percentage claiming no religion was between 18 and 20; the substantial increase in “nones” does not necessarily represent a decrease in Americans’ religiosity; and the trend in “nones” seems to be really about the act of declaring no religious preference.

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Robert Bellah

The great scholar Robert N. Bellah, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at U.C. Berkeley and winner of the National Humanities Medal in 2000, died last week. (He was also a colleague and friend.) Bellah’s seminal contributions range from analyses of Japanese society to a recent, epoch-spanning book on the history of religion. For many, and for this blog, his contributions to understanding American culture, particularly the role of religion, are especially important.

Robert Bellah (1927-2013; source)

Robert Bellah (1927-2013; source)

Bellah (in my reading) argued that American culture was and has long been fatefully torn between a utilitarian impulse – what’s in it for me? – and a biblically-, prophetically-rooted, communal impulse – what is the common good? Spurning the Olympian distance of the social scientist and sometimes donning the cloak of a Jeremiah, Bellah evangelized for the communitarian American impulse.

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America’s Religious Market

America has long been the most religious of the affluent, western nations, having the most professing and practicing population. (A couple of the nearly 100% Catholic countries are close, but only Canada otherwise.) Explaining this aspect of American exceptionalism has preoccupied many scholars of religion. Part of the answer is that since the early 1800s the United States has had no established religion and has had instead a free “marketplace” of religion. Suppliers – that is, churches and ministers – emerged to meet nearly every religious “taste” people might have.

The early days of this market had all the features of an unsettled market free-for all, exacerbated by the unsettled features of American law. Today, our religious “market” is far more orderly, but we still shop around.

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Catholic Schism

St Peters

St. Peter’s RC, NYC (source)

With the resignation of Pope Benedict and election of a new pope, amidst what seems an unending turmoil over sex abuse by priests, pollsters have understandably thought this a good moment to inquire about American Catholics’ attitudes on religious matters. The results describe a major disconnection between the Roman Catholic Church and its American adherents.

A New York Times survey conducted in February found, for example, that by roughly two to one or more, self-identified Catholics favored gay marriage, women priests, priests marrying, artificial means of birth control, access to abortion, and the death penalty – all anathema to the Church. Most said that the Church and its American bishops are “out of touch” with the needs of Catholics (although though most also said that parish priests are in touch).

The media are attending to the events and crises of the moment. It is important to understand that the alienation between the Church in Rome and Catholics in America has deep historical and cultural roots.

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circuit riders

19th C. Evangelical Minister (Source)

I recently received an email from a woman who had read my Boston Review column on how the political left and churches in the U.S. have drifted apart in the last few decades. There had been a vibrant religious left in the 1960s, but now the phrase, “religious progressive” seems (as one liberal commenter to the column insisted) “an oxymoron.” The conservative e-mailer also insisted that a reconciliation of the left and religion was impossible, because “either you understand the Bible or you don’t.  Left-liberals don’t ….”

Our exchange did not go very far. But it made me want to revisit more explicitly the point that the contemporary alliance between laissez faire, free market ideology and conservative Christians is, if not an unholy alliance, certainly an historically unusual one. The two were, for most of our history, in conflict.

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The Left’s Religion Problem

selma_heschel_web

Nun, Ministers, and Rabbis March in 1965 (Source)

Churches are meddling in politics. Ministers are leading social movements, backing and attacking candidates, campaigning from the pulpit.

That was the complaint in the 1950s and ’60s, when clergy pushed for civil rights legislation, nuclear disarmament, and withdrawal from Vietnam.  . .  . In 1964 conservative journalist David Lawrence pushed back: “To preach a sermon . . . calculated to have an effect on the current Presidential campaign . . . raises a question of propriety if the principle of separation of church and state is to be maintained.”

Today, however, religion is associated strongly with the right. The transformation is evident not only in headlines, but also in white Americans’ behavior.

The rest of the post appears as this column in the Boston Review.

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Saturday mail delivery may in the near future be a thing of the past. All the more surprising that Americans once had not only Saturday delivery but Sunday mail delivery as well.

1890s Post Office (USPS)

The century-long struggle that ended postal service on the Sabbath, a campaign to protect both the Lord’s Day and American workers from the ceaseless demands of commerce,  illuminates the complex political alliances and conflicts among churches, business, and organized labor in American history. Protestantism’s political alliances used to be quite different than they are today.

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Spiritual and/or Religious

One hears occasionally, especially in the left-hand part of the country, a comment on the order of “I am spiritual, but not religious.” This is a relatively new formulation. What does it mean? And why is it increasingly popular?

Religion and spirituality usually imply one another. Most Americans by far describe themselves as both spiritual and religious. The small yet growing number of spiritual-but-not-religious people seem to mean a variety of things by this declaration. But it is not so much a rejection of faith as a rejection of organized religion. Most spiritual-but-not-religious Americans say they believe in God and 40 percent of them believe without any doubt.* In the last generation, many Americans have lost confidence in churches, denominations, and clergy. For some, saying they are “spiritual but not religious” expresses this alienation.

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