Thursday, October 13, 2011

Jeffress on Romney and Mormonism: Back to the Future for Evangelicals?

Last week the race for the Republican presidential nomination briefly resembled the shape it took in 2007. Four years ago it was Mike Huckabee who raised concerns about fellow Republican Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. The same sentiments about Romney’s religion were raised again more recently at a Values Voters Summit sponsored by conservative evangelical organizations. Governor Rick Perry was a speaker at this event where he was introduced by Robert Jeffress, Pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas. Jeffress turned an opportunity for Perry to rally evangelical voters into a national controversy when he used the event to label Mormonism a “cult” and to claim that Romney “is not Christian.”

This is not the first time that evangelical concern over Romney’s Mormonism and allegations of its incompatibility with presidential office has been raised on the national stage. Several months ago Warren Smith made headlines in a piece he wrote for Patheos where he stated that “A Vote for Romney is a Vote for the LDS Church,” a title that echoed that of another evangelical in 2008 who warned then that “a vote for Romney was a vote for Satan.”

In the 1960s Protestant America was concerned about the possibility of a Roman Catholic president in John F. Kennedy. Having navigated that religious hurdle it is clear that other religions are still of great concern, not only for Protestants and other evangelicals, but also many other Americans, particularly when it comes to Mormonism. In a 2007 poll by the Pew Forum 53% of Americans had a favorable view of Mormonism, while 27% viewed the religion negatively. Among Protestants the impressions were slightly more negative, with the positive views at 46%, and the unfavorable ones coming in at 39%. When respondents were asked to summarize Mormonism in a single word, negative ones were offered more than positive, with terms like “polygamy” and “cult” topping the list. These largely negative opinions of Mormonism are all the more striking when they are compared to American opinions about Islam in the same Pew poll. Tellingly, the positive and negative views of Mormonism and Islam are almost identical, even while many in the poll acknowledge they had little awareness of and no personal contact with Mormons or Muslims.

In the wake of the controversy over Pastor Jeffress’ comments about Mormonism we are reminded of the impact of religion on politics, and that many evangelicals have concerns over the religion of presidential candidates, particularly those that find their headquarters in Salt Lake City. But it would be a mistake to think that all of evangelicalism understands the Mormon religion as a cult and seeks to relate to individual Mormons in terms of cultism. Two elements among evangelicals need to be considered, including the mindset of the “younger evangelicals,” as well as those engaged in dialogical approaches.

In 2002 Robert Webber wrote a book titled The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World (Baker Books, 2002). In this volume Webber discussed the diversity of Protestant evangelicalism, and developments in this subculture’s religious landscape. He defined “younger evangelicals” to include anyone “who deals thoughtfully with the shift from 20th- to 21st-century culture.” Although Webber had primarily generational mindsets in mind, his definition rightly moves beyond age considerations. These shifts involve different attitudes to theology, culture, and other religions.

Some of these differing attitudes are evident in certain evangelical approaches to Mormonism. In 2002 Salt Lake Theological Seminary produced a resource called Bridges, which framed Mormonism as a religious culture with a unique social identity. Although its producers recognized significant theological differences with Mormonism, they discouraged the use of the term “cult” and the corresponding theological category. More recently, this shift in understanding has continued in evangelical publications such as the book Understanding Your Mormon Neighbor (Zondervan, 2011) by Ross Anderson. In the Introduction, Anderson answers the question “Is Mormonism a Cult?.” After noting the association of cultism with groups like Heaven’s Gate and Jonestown in popular media, Anderson states that, “This kind of labeling leads to a narrow, inaccurate view of the LDS people. I believe that Mormonism is theologically in error, but we don’t need to assign a pejorative label to sustain that claim.” Additional examples could be cited, but these illustrate that a new mindset is present within evangelicalism that includes a willingness to consider Mormonism in less pejorative terms, even where substantial theological disagreement is recognized.

In addition to the “younger evangelicals” and their desire to understand Mormonism more in terms of religious culture than cult, there is also an evangelical move that demonstrates more interest in dialogue than denunciation. A number of examples can be cited in this regard. For several years a group of evangelical scholars have been meeting on an annual basis with their Mormon counterparts. The venues for these meetings differ, but relationships have developed and a deeper understanding of their religions has occurred on both sides of the divide. Such dialogue has also taken place on a grassroots level in various places in Utah where small groups of evangelicals and Mormons have met in homes. These meetings began with shared common stories of personal testimonies of faith, and have then progressed to more difficult and in-depth issues of doctrine and practice.

Beyond these dialogical activities, the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy (FRD) also promises to contribute positively to evangelical and Mormon interactions, as well as to America’s broader interreligious environment. Founded by Charles Randall Paul, a Latter-day Saint, FRD describes its efforts as involving “[i]nterreligious diplomacy [that] builds respect and trust between people of integrity who hold opposing religious or ideological beliefs. The goal is not to resolve inevitable differences but to sustain them in peaceful tension by engaging in dialogue that includes sharing personal testimonies and respectful contestation.” FRD has established chapters within various religious traditions so as to help train those within these traditions in more appropriate and effective forms of dialogue. Recently, the Evangelical Chapter was formed as it seeks to involve evangelicals on academic and grassroots levels in dialogue.

American evangelicals have a long way to go in navigating the challenging waters of American pluralism and post-Christendom. For years it was a given that America’s presidential candidates would bring some kind of traditionally Christian background to office. The presence of candidates like Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman bring a renewed awareness of the diversity of America’s religious landscape, and the implications for the political sphere. Although many evangelicals still bristle at the idea of president from a religion with a long history of conflict with the religious mainstream, a small and growing movement is present within the evangelical subculture that must also be considered for a complete understanding of this significant facet of America’s religious and political landscape.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

God's Ghost Busters: When Will Evangelicals Move Beyond Church Lady Approaches to Halloween and the Paranormal?

The Halloween season is upon us, and while many are enjoying this time of festive celebration with its ghosts and goblins, not everyone finds pleasure in such things. It is not uncommon for Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists to express grave concern over the alleged dangers of the holiday itself, as well as the various elements associated with it. Many times books are released touching on evangelical concerns related to this time of year, and thanks to The Wild Hunt I was recently made aware of the 2011 contribution to this evangelical phenomenon.

God's Ghostbusters: Vampires? Ghosts? Aliens? Werewolves? Creatures of the Night Beware! (Defender Publishing LLC, 2011) was published last month, just in time for the multi-author contributors of this volume to register their concern about all things horrific. Much can be learned about the perspective and background of this book by considering the product description (with additional insights provided by this YouTube clip):

Recently some 300 exorcists flocked to Poland for a week-long congress to examine the current fashion for vampirism the world-over and the apparent connection between this fascination and a surge in demonic possession.

This comes as the world is experiencing an explosion of ancient occultism combined with wicked fascination for ghosts and all things paranormal. In the United States alone, there are now more than two hundred thousand registered witches and as many as 8 million unregistered practitioners of “the craft.” On college and high school campuses, vampires, werewolves, and other “creatures of the night” are esteemed as objects of desire and idolized by young men and women who view them as cult icons of envious mystical power. Church goers are enchanted by the darkness as well. An April 13, 2011 article “Mysticism Infecting Nazarene Beliefs” was preceded only a few days before by a Telegraph article describing how a “surge in Satanism” inside the church has sparked a “rise in demand for exorcists” within traditional religious settings.”
If readers are looking for an analysis of horror in popular culture, as well as various aspects of Western esotericism, and the paranormal, coupled with academic theological analysis, this is not the volume in which such things can be found. (Many of the weaknesses of other evangelical books on this topic apply to this volume as well.) The contributors are obviously out of their depth in addressing the subject matter with competency. A few examples of this include the fact that statistics are provided that cannot be substantiated and which confirms the worst fears of evangelicals regarding certain minority religions. The volume also gives no indication of awareness of sound demographic studies on Paganism, minority religions and identity groups, or the paranormal. It also continues to connect various minority religious traditions, as well as the paranormal, with Satanism, demonstrating a misunderstanding of Satanism, as well as the paranormal and minority religions themselves.

What this volume actually does is tell us more about the contributors, their audience, and the sociophobics of the religious other within the evangelical subculture than it does about Western esotericism, minority religions, or the paranormal. In reflecting on this volume I couldn't help but be reminded of Dana Carvey's Church Lady character on Saturday Night Live. This character makes audiences laugh because of not only the confirmation of stereotypes, but also because of the one-dimensional nature of her concerns about the culture around her where Satan is behind every alleged transgression. In the same way the theological analysis of this volume is thin and simplistic, trotting out a well-worn dualism, with satanic forces seemingly far more powerful and present than the divine.

I hope that one Halloween season evangelicals will demonstrate a willingness to stop bearing false witness against their neighbors involved in various facets of popular occulture, and that they move beyond a response worthy of the Church Lady.

Related posts:

"Interview with the authors of Paranormal America"

"Wicca as America's Third Largest Religion?: Unfortunate Evangelical Sensationalism"

"Summary Thoughts: New Book Generation Hex"

Monday, October 03, 2011 Are Aliens Part of God's Plan Too? includes an essay with the intriguing title "Are Alien's Part of God's Plan Too?: Finding E.T. Could Change Religion Forever." The essay mentions a gathering of "Christian thinkers" at the 100 Year Starship Symposium that considered the ramifications of intergalactic travel. As one of the participants put it in regards to the theological aspects of the symposium:

In other words, "Did Jesus die for Klingons too?" as philosophy professor Christian Weidemannof Germany's Ruhr-University Bochum titled his talk at a panel on the philosophical and religious considerations of visiting other worlds.

This issue is a pressing one for theologians who interact with contemporary cosmology and astronomy, and it presents challenges not only to assumptions about life on earth and its relation to the divine, but also about soteriology and incarnation.

See the previous post of mine on "An Astrotheology of Extraterrestrial Life" and a presentation by theologian Ted Peters on the issue that relates to this topic.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Jeet-Kei Leung: Burning Man and Transformational Festivals

The Wild Hunt blog recently posted on the video above: Jason Pitzl-Waters wrote:
The TEDx Youtube channel recently uploaded a talk by Jeet Kei Leung from TEDxVancouver 2010 on transformational festivals. The half-hour presentation focuses on West Coast-oriented festivals and events like Faerieworlds and Burning Man and talks about how these events re-merge spiritual/religious practices with secular festival culture.
As Jason offers his commentary on Leung's work he also connects this idea of transformational festivals to Dragon*Con, a fascinating idea which has merit as I've noted in the religious elements in the Star Trek subculture and in my past posts elsewhere (see below) on the similarities between Burning Man Festival and Dragon*Con.

Near the end of Leung's analysis he summarizes some of the key elements in these festivals. His mention of co-creation in participation, and returning a sense of mythos are especially significant for those in Western Christendom with ears to hears the winds of change among the cultural creatives.

I'm glad to see others picking up on the spiritual and religious significance of these events, and I'm looking forward to Leung's book.

See my related posts "Star Trek as a Religious Phenomenon," "Star Trek Conventions as Sacred Pilgrimage," and "Fan Culture Documentaries: Back to Space-Con, and Four Days at Dragon*Con."