H.L. Mencken was asked why he chose to live in America. He replied: “Why does a man go to the circus?”—What follows here is a bevy of Americana in the field of religion, most of them reported on November 6, 2014, by Religion News Service and a couple of other pickings from the jungle of the Internet.
* * *Megachurches are those huge, mostly Evangelical establishments which, in addition to worship services attended by thousands of people, provide programs serving the needs of all sorts of people, ranging from different professions to sufferers from various diseases. Megachurches are an American invention, though the largest in the world is in Seoul, South Korea—Yoido Full Gospel Church, founded in 1958 and now claiming 800,000 members in branches all over the country. Are megachurches the wave of the future? Maybe not. Mars Hill Church is located in Seattle, but it has 15 congregations scattered through the Northwest. Its “megastar pastor,” Mark Driscoll, has resigned after being criticized for being “bullying, hyper macho, intolerant”. The congregations linked to Mars Hill will now become independent or go out of business.Sarah Pulliam Bailey of RNS, who wrote the story, asks “Can a megachurch survive the departure of its megastar pastor?” The record on this is mixed. Usually these churches are founded and led by larger-than-life charismatic personalities. They are hard to replace. Probably most do not survive or shrink into more normal congregations. Bailey asks whether Driscoll could make a comeback somewhere else? Perhaps. Evangelicals love stories of forgiveness, redemption and second chances. But they also tend to think of pastoral success in terms of church growth, and the numbers that flocked to Mars Hill will be hard to replicate.But not to worry. On the same date as the RNS story about Mars Hill, the Pew Research Center, which crunches out numbers about religion (seemingly on a 24-7 basis) released a study on religion and electronic media. On an average week one in five Americans talk about their faith online in social media. White Evangelicals and African-American Protestants have the highest rates. This is not surprising. More relevant for the future is the finding that young adults are twice as likely as people over fifty to have recourse to this type of religious communication. The possibilities seem limitless for the gathering of huge congregations via Facebook or Twitter. I can imagine one of these megastars telling potential members, “Why schlepp yourself across town if you can follow my message in the comfort of your home? And as I speak to you online, you can make your contribution on my website.”(I had a relevant experience last week. I was supposed to give a lecture in New York but couldn’t make it because of a minor mishap preventing me from traveling. Instead I spoke via Skype, for the first time in my life. I think of myself as a good speaker. But a friend of mine who attended the lecture in New York thought that I was much more impressive on the large screen than I am in person—like the powerful avatar of a Hindu god speaking from the clouds!)
* * *RNS also had a story by Kimberly Winston: “Election night was not a good night for Democrats. Ditto for atheists”. Two openly atheists (both Democrats) were defeated: James Woods, running for the U.S. House of Representatives from Arizona, and Daniel Moran for the Texas legislature. But the atheist Juan Mendez, famous for making a “secular invocation” in the Arizona legislature, won a second term in that body. In Rhode Island a teenage atheist, Jessica Ahlquist, had successfully agitated to have a religious banner removed from her high school. Democrat Peter Palumbo lost his bid for the state legislature; he had called Jessica an “evil little thing”. And Allan Fung, Republican mayor of Jessica’s town, who had wanted the banner to stay, will not be governor. Also defeated was Susanne Atanus, also a Republican, who was running for Congress; she had declared that bad weather, autism and other diseases were God’s punishments for gay marriage. It seems that Godders didn’t do that well either.
* * *The U.S. Supreme Court refused to take a case of the Episcopal diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, versus the national Episcopal Church. In 2008 the entire diocese voted to quit that body and join the dissidents who now prefer to call themselves Anglicans (some of these have asked conservative bishops from Africa to oversee them—a belated revenge for British imperialism). The dissidence has been triggered by several issues—the ordination of women, the election of an openly gay bishop, and the tolerance of theological heresies. It is the same issues that are threatening a global schism in the global Anglican communion.The Supreme Court was understandably reluctant to take yet another case involving the complexities of First Amendment legislation. The Supreme Court had established a precedent in 1872. That case came from a split between pro-slavery and anti-slavery Presbyterians (of course there was no more slavery in 1872, but Presbyterians in the old Confederacy held on to old grudges). This time around the contention was not over slavery but over another form of property, namely real estate: Who owned the buildings and grounds of churches, local jurisdictions or the national denomination?The Court decided to give “deference” to the theological self-definition of the groups in question; it distinguished “hierarchical” churches (such as Presbyterians and Episcopalians) from those who give ultimate authority to the local congregation (such as Congregationalists and Baptists). This forced the justices to delve into theological intricacies that made them uneasy, not only because this was territory that many of them were not prepared for, but because it might be seen as unconstitutional state interference with the free exercise of religion. Such “deference” would naturally tend to favor national bodies over local ones in “hierarchical” churches. It might also be more congenial to those who occupy the top position of another hierarchy, that of the American legal system: It doesn’t require the jaundiced perspective of a sociologist to perceive Supreme Court justices as the nine archpriests, robes and all, of a different cult.In more recent times, the Court has veered toward “neutral principles”, that is the ordinary provisions of property law. This makes the justices and their clerks pore over real estate registries, wills and trust agreements, rather than theological esoterica. It also tends to favor local over more remote bodies. At issue in the current dispute is a huge amount of property: The diocese of Fort Worth contains 47 parishes in 24 counties, with property worth more than 100 million dollars. The lawyers advised the diocese to take the case directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, although it has not been finally decided in the Texas court system. Archpriests do not have to explain themselves unless they pronounce judgment: The U.S. Supreme Court, as usual, gave no reason for refusing to take the case.From the perspective of those conservative Anglicans in Texas, insult is added to potential injury in this lawsuit: The presiding bishop of the US Episcopal Church is a woman, Katharine Jefferts Schori. She was installed in 2006, the first woman to be primate (presiding bishop) in any country. Before she became a priest, she received a doctorate in oceanography; she is also a certified pilot. Both skills should be useful as she steers her ecclesial ship through stormy waters. One must assume that she is being consulted in the aforementioned lawsuit. I wonder how all this is seen by bishops in Africa (where more people attend Anglican services weekly than their coreligionists in America and England combined). The theological sympathies of African bishops must be with the Fort Worth conservatives; their vested interests as bishops probably are similar to those of Bishop Schori. This is what political scientists call “cross-pressures.
* * *In an address to the Roman Rota (the highest ecclesiastical court in the Catholic Church, which handles annulments), Pope Francis I disclosed that he had dismissed a church official for taking thousands of dollars in annulment cases (it is not clear whether this was for bribes or excessive fees). The Pope said that this procedure must not become “some kind of business”, should be fair and efficient, and might in future have no fees. This must be seen in the context of the current debate about access to communion for Catholics who have divorced and remarried without their previous marriage having been annulled (which, in canon law, has meant that their new marriage is adulterous). In the debate at the recent Synod on the Family it was quite clear that the Pope favored a more lenient policy, while still adhering to the doctrine that marriage is indissoluble. A major opponent of such a policy is Cardinal Raymond Burke, former Archbishop of St.Louis and present head of the Roman Rota.I have the highest respect for Pope Francis. If I were a Roman Catholic, I would welcome most of the views he has expressed (with the exception of his apparent perspective on the economy). No disrespect is intended if I yield to the temptation of telling the following joke, which might have been made by Woody Allen: On the Day of Judgment people are lined up by country or region. A long line of mostly very nervous New Yorkers are lined up, waiting to be judged. A shout goes up from near the front of the line. The news is whispered toward the back: They are not counting adultery!
* * *One of the more bizarre winners in the recent election was Gordon Klingenschmitt, elected to the Colorado legislature with 70% of the vote in a district near Colorado Springs. Klingenschmitt is a former Navy chaplain, who got into trouble in the military for praying “in the name of Jesus” regardless of his audience. He is a pro-life and anti-gay activist. He is best known for having performed an exorcism on a young woman, driving out her “evil spirit of lesbianism”. Allegedly she has now become an evangelist and has started to date boys. Klingenschmitt has said that Obama is ruled by demons, and that Obamacare intends to kill the elderly.Only in America…