Readers of this blog are familiar with my propensity to link seemingly unrelated news items. This may be a symptom of personal pathology (some loose wirings in the brain?), but I find that comparison often discloses otherwise hidden realities. I will now proceed to look at two news stories, both dated July 6, 2014, greatly different both in content and source.
I got the first story from Law and Religion Headlines, the eminently useful online publication of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University. It appears daily, even as in this case on the Sunday of a three-day July 4 weekend (the outfit must have either a very smart computer program or a very devoted staff). This particular item was culled from the recent American subsidiary of Al Jazeera, the controversial but by now widely watched television network with headquarters in Qatar (the controversy comes from what many have seen as pro-Islamist reporting, something rather irrelevant in this instance).
The story by Tara Isabella Burton is titled “The Rise of Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Caucasus”. The focus is on Armenia, though there is also mention of Georgia. The topic is intriguing even if you do not share my fascination with religious curiosities. Until recently this was a religiously homogeneous country: about 93% of its population of around three million belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church (one of several so-called Oriental churches, who come out of Eastern Christianity but are not in communion with Constantinople, because they do not recognize the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon, 451 CE, about the relation between the divine and human aspects of Jesus Christ—I will resist the temptation of going into the fascinating details of this history).
If Armenians are rebuked for being stubbornly out of tune with most everyone else (Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Protestants and the great majority of Eastern Orthodox Christians), they are prone to point out (correctly) that their ancient kingdom was the first state to make Christianity the official religion, in 301 CE (Rome, Moscow and Canterbury can only look down with embarrassment). Not surprisingly, there has been a close identification of Armenian nationality and the Armenian church ever since, throughout the largely tragic centuries of Armenian history. A Catholic or Protestant Armenian is an identity as startling as that of a Jew adhering to any branch of Christianity. All the more amazing is the fast growth of religious diversity since restored Armenian sovereignty emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Most of this was brought about through an invasion by American Evangelical missionaries, many of them Pentecostal. But two other American-originated faiths have also settled in the shade of Mount Ararat (the Armenian holy mountain, supposedly the landing place of Noah’s Ark). There are now an estimated 3,000 Mormons, outrun by an estimated 11,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Also on July 6, 2014, The New York Times carried a story by Joseph Goldstein and Jeffrey Singer about a recent development in the Times Square area of Manhattan. Chinese men in Buddhist monastic garb, and a smaller number of similarly dressed Chinese women claiming to be Taoist nuns, have been engaging in aggressive solicitation for donations. The story suggests that the pretended religious identities are not genuine. The area is frequented by masses of tourists. Some of them are entertained by yet another colorful spectacle—and there are many such spectacles around, including that of topless women available to be photographed with tourists. Other pedestrians have been annoyed, as have Buddhist leaders who understandably feel that these happenings are giving Buddhism a bad name. When asked, the putative monks were unable to name any of the basic Buddhist precepts or to identify the temples for which the donations are allegedly intended. Except for a few charges for “aggressive panhandling”, the police have not interfered. Not only is any public exercise asserting to be religious protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, it is not illegal to walk around unusually dressed and to solicit contributions for dubious institutions. The New York City Police Department is obviously unable to make judgments as to what is authentic Buddhism (or Taoism) and what is not.
What is the underlying reality disclosed by these two news stories? It is that of globalized religious pluralism. I have for quite a few years proposed that pluralism, and not secularization, is the major contemporary challenge to religious faith. [I will assert another constitutionally protected right here, that of “commercial speech”: My (hopefully persuasive) outline of a sociological theory of pluralism will be unveiled in my forthcoming book The Many Altars of Modernity, to be published by DeGruyter in September 2014.]
For historically well-known reasons, American society has been exuberantly pluralist from its beginnings. The globalization of religious pluralism is not only or even primarily due to direct American influence, but rather to the fact that the pluralization of beliefs and values is an intrinsic consequence of modernity (it can be resisted, but only at great cost). However, there is direct American influence as well, some of it by religious movements that originated in the United States, and some by the general impact of American culture (even American progressive movements, such as feminism and gay rights, have been globalized). In terms of religious influences, the most important has been American Protestantism, especially in its Evangelical and Pentecostal versions. The Edinburgh conference on missions in 1910, mostly dominated by British and American Protestants, looked forward to a century of missionary achievements. Not even the most optimistic prognoses in 1910 could have foreseen the enormous success of the Protestant missionary enterprise. Since then Protestantism has grown explosively in eastern Asia (South Korea is the principal case, though China may follow, despite government efforts to clamp down), sub-Saharan Africa (for example, there is a thriving Lutheran church in Ethiopia), and Latin America (no longer an exclusively Catholic continent).
Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are distinctly American movements, both now with large international branches. The Latter-Day Saints, as Mormons like to call themselves, originated in two events–in 1823, when the angel Moroni first appeared to Joseph Smith in upstate New York (in the region called the Burnt-Over District, because it was the locale of one revival movement after another)–and 1847, when Brigham Young arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in what is now Utah after an epic trek and there established the New Zion. There are an estimated 12 million Mormons in the world today, only half of them in America.
Jehovah’s Witnesses originated a little later, in the 1870s. Led consecutively by Charles Russell and Joseph Rutherford, they are an offshoot of American Adventists, a group consumed with avid expectation of the imminent return of Jesus. Based on arcane Biblical calculations, different dates were given for this much postponed event; most Adventists, including the Witnesses, now limit themselves to saying that it would occur “soon”. The holy city of the Witnesses is not Salt Lake City but Brooklyn, New York, where the large complex of the Watchtower Society (the central organization of their church) is located. The official claim for worldwide members is 8 million. (Brooklyn may seem an unlikely address for a holy city, until one recalls that the same part of New York City, notably in Boro Park and Williamsburg, also houses the international headquarters of several ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups.) Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are not generally accepted by Protestant denominations, but they are perceived in many countries as being part of a general Protestant invasion. This is understandable. Their doctrines and forms of piety, however peculiar they may seem to outsiders, easily testify to their Protestant origins. If I may put it this way (no pejorative judgment is intended), they “smell Protestant”–incidentally, just as the Oriental churches, no matter their rejection of Chalcedonian Christology, “smell Orthodox”.
Thus our first story belongs to the general phenomenon of the global reach of Protestantism, most of it first emanating from America. The second story (however grotesque its immediate topic) shows that Asia is returning the compliment. Religious ideas and practices rooted in India and East Asia have been penetrating American culture, far beyond the converts to Buddhism or Hinduism–reincarnation and karma, meditation and martial arts. It seems to me that believers and practitioners in all the major religious traditions should not bemoan this development: It impels them to reflect on what is the core of their faith and what is peripheral.