Ethnic Religions
Published on: January 16, 2013
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  • Nikolas Gvosdev

    Within the Orthodox Churches in this country, there has been a way to reconcile exclusive ethnicity with universality: re-casting an ethnic jurisdictional identity as a “tradition.” The Antiochian Archdiocese–the one you referenced as taking in a large body of Evangelicals during the 1980s, has consciously redefined itself from being a “Syrian/Arab” diocese to “Antiochian”–with the connotation that “Antiochian” refers both to a geographic definition of the patriarchate in the Middle East (so Arab Orthodox coming from Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, the Gulf, etc. are “Antiochian”) but also to a tradition, an outlook, a theological perspective rooted in the Church of Antioch open to anyone. So a Samawi or a Smith can equally be “Antiochian” and both can lay claim to that identity. To a lesser extent, we see this with the identification of the Ukrainian Orthodox with a particular “Kievan” version of Orthodoxy, and the Russian Orthodox Church has now for years promoted the idea of a “Russian Orthodox tradition” that is not limited to ethnic Russians (the more expansive national identity of Russia, rooted in imperial expansion, and having assimmilated so many different groups, also helps with this). Even within the Greek Archdiocese, promotion of the idea of Hellenism as being both the property of ethnic Greeks but also a state of mind and a tradition (even if, however, use of the Greek language is part and parcel of this) has been a way to bring in newcomers.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    One of the prototypical non-denominational churches in the U.S. is the Shepherd of the Hills Church in suburban Porter Ranch in Los Angeles County. It is an evangelical Christian megachurch with average attendance at 9,673 according to Wikipedia. The church grew from 350 people in 1987.

    The senior pastor, Dudley Rutherford, is an ex-basketball player. His daughter was a college basketball player. The ministry of the church is centered on several basketball leagues with a large basketball court that can accommodate spectators. The church is famous for having a number of college and National Basketball Association (NBA) professional basketball players as members. A look at the church’s sports ministry website shows photos of teams composed of black, White, Asian, and Latino and Arabic members.

    Most importantly, many Black college and professional basketball players find assimilation by marrying white women. Thus, the non-denominational California megachurch has replaced the ethnic Black, Latino, and White churches partly on the legitimation of inter-ethnic marriage.

    The church’s senior pastor supported Proposition 8 on the California ballot to limit marriage to a man and a woman. Sociologists find that opposition to gay marriage is strongest in Black and evangelical churches, even in California. One of the most ethnically inclusive churches in California is at the same time opposed to gay marriage. Liberal politicians appended the number 8 to Proposition 8 to rhyme with the word “hate.” But the Shepherd of the Hills Church seems to be the opposite of the stereotype of the Klu Klux Klan.

    The future of the Black church may well be determined by the success of non-denominational and inter-ethnic Christian churches, especially those that offer assimilation by intermarriage.

  • What is Black Christianity? Please define it.

  • John Barker

    I think the deeper question is, what is the difference between religion and spirituality?

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    I should have added in the above comment that there are seemingly two systems of ethnic assimilation and social mobility in the U.S. One is based in voluntary church associations and Protestant economic culture as depicted by the Shepherd of the Hills Church. The other is politically based in affirmative action laws with patronage jobs set aside for gays along with various ethnic groups.

    The Shepherd of the Hills Church is opposed to gay marriage because conventional marriage is the key to ethnic assimilation and social mobility. Likewise gay marriage advocates are opposed to conventional marriage in part because of all the political patronage jobs and sinecures for those meeting the category definition of gay. To legitimate one is to deny the other. As sociologist Max Weber pointed out religion and economic interests are often intertwined.

    As recently described by Robert Royal in First Things magazine –- “France’s Surprising Resistance to Gay Marriage” (Jan. 15, 2013) — France’s socialist government has recently formed a surveillance agency –- the National Observatory of Secularism – that will “monitor” religious groups with the objective of “dissolving cases of religious pathology.” It is interesting to note that secularism is attempting to establish itself as a counter religion not just a political social movement. Religion uncoupled from denominational forms is perhaps what sociologist Thomas Luckmann was referring to in his book The Invisible Religion.

    Ironically, Royal reports that two thirds of the French population support legalization of gay marriage. Presumably this includes many French Catholics who are considered religiously “pathological” and now have formed a counter-counter cultural movement against the excesses of the gay marriage movement: adoption by gay parents and artificial insemination for lesbians.

    In other words, gay marriage advocates want to keep their political sinecures while also having legally sanctioned marriages including children. Gay marriage advocates want to keep their political patronage by ruling class consensus rather than by voluntary cultural institutions.

    It is instructive to study Roman history in this conflict. The first codified law of the Roman Republic was the Twelve Tables that specifically banned intermarriage between the Patrician and the Plebian classes. However, leading Plebians who had distinguished military careers were eventually allowed to intermarry into Patrician families and the marriage prohibition of the Twelve Tables was abolished. As historian Klaus Bringmann writes in his History of the Roman Republic:

    “Evidently, alongside meritorious deeds in war, family alliances which crossed class boundaries were an important precondition for advancement and integration.” He further states: “The ties between the rising plebian families were also strengthened through the instrument of adoption…the idea of patrician hostility to plebs and the corresponding assumption of plebian hostility to the patriciate is a cliché with only limited accuracy.”

    Likewise, the widespread media stereotype of Evangelical Christian churches as bastions of hatred against gays seems to be a convenient political cliché. But in socialist France or Progressive California, both want to marginalize religious institutions as “pathological” and discriminatory. The success of Roman family law was it brought about social integration not conflict.

    Sociologist Peter Berger and Brigitte Berger set out a possible way to mediate this conflict in their 1984 book: “War Over the Family: Capturing the Middle Ground.”

  • Chancellor Smith

    Shepard of the Hills church opposes gay marriage “because conventional marriage is the key to ethnic assimilation and social mobility.”? No, they oppose it since they view homosexuality as a sin and because God designed marriage. Direct blog reference from Pastor Rutherford: http://dudleyrutherford.blogspot.com/2008/10/letter-on-prop-8.html

  • Gary Novak

    In “The Social Sources of Denominationalism” (a work Berger has referenced a number of times over the years) H. Richard Niebuhr describes denominationalism as “an unacknowledged hypocrisy . . . [which] represents the accommodation of Christianity to the caste-system of human society” (p. 6). The black and Greek churches are just two more examples of a perennial problem in the church. Niebuhr was more concerned about the class origins of denominations than the ethnic origins, but undue social influences of any kind on the life of the church will prevent it from representing the universality of the faith.

    And the problem deepens when the church which fails to represent the universality of the faith is successful in representing something else: slavery, black theology, socialism, bourgeois refinement, or carbon sequestration. The problem is generalizable beyond religion. Discussing “the complexities of solidarity” (in “Race in the Mind of America’) Paul Wachtel writes that solidarity and identification “are an enormous strength to any group, but are especially important for a people struggling to overcome oppression and discrimination. At the same time, however, they may lead to drawing a tight boundary around the group, and thereby to a potentially restrictive separation of the group from the rest of society” (p. 173).

    Richard Rodriguez tells of his visit to a Los Angeles high school where all the lunch tables were rigidly (but, of course, voluntarily) segregated by race and ethnicity. Even the Mexican-Americans and Chicanos did not mix. One thinks of blacks who are the first in their family to attend college—and live in a black dorm and major in ethnic studies. These are, of course, familiar problems, but they become more distressing when they occur in the church, the one institution which, if it lives up to its mission, should be able to effect identity alternations. When even the church does not liberate but tightens the boundary around the social self, what hope is there? When the salt has lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted?

    But we can head for the hills—The Shepherd of the Hills Church! Unlike traditional ethnic churches, such churches may have an easy time explaining their existence within the tumultuous religious and cultural pluralism of America. But I wonder if, even there, the church is leading the way or simply recruiting those who have found a path to inter-ethnic solidarity somewhere else—say, the basketball court. What I am fairly sure of, unfortunately, is that until society reaches that magic tipping point when racial preferences (and, therefore, racial identity) are obsolete, those who fashioned their identities in the race industry (Jesse Jackson, Jeremiah Wright, etc.) will continue to be more upset than heartened by the spectacle of “inauthentic blacks” (John McWhorter, Ward Connerly, etc.) loosening the boundaries.

  • Berger has written in another setting of how visiting Martians might wonder at our multiple realities (unless it had picked up decades of programming from SETI beamed into space to maybe civilizations). Berger’s 3 questions are seminal and cut to the key curiosities that any Martians would see and ask about upon their arrival:

    1. “How does a church that only contains blacks or only Greeks [or other ethnic] represent the universality of the faith?”
    2. “How to explain their existence within the tumultuous religious and cultural pluralism of America?”
    3. “What does my tradition have to offer to people not raised in it?”

    Our Martians would wonder how we could ask how any can use the term “universal” when each group has so many gods, from the thousands of the Hindus to the hundreds of Roman Catholicism (saints and all that), or the three of strict Trinitarians, leaving them, as outsiders, seeing only one religion with one god: Judaism. They will wonder how so many with so many similarities can each claim to be “the one” when all fit the “universal.” “They might even think they understand a phrase they over hear, “all roads lead to Rome,” until they realize there are so many that claim to be Rome.

    Or the Martians might cut to the chase and simply ask, “Who is really in charge? Who is your leader?”

    Will they think they have stumbled onto the answer to the question of Babel, of how people of different tongues can find their way to the top of the same Jacob’s ladder? This is at the heart of both religious and political fundamentalism, as well as religious and political relativism (which also addresses the question Berger sets aside for the moment, endorsements by tax-exempt institutions).

    And how is it that two of the most irrelevant volunteer organizations have achieved almost Black Denominational status, albeit secular, and used by politicians as being the high priests of what the Black community wants, speaking “The Word,” when less that half of one percent of Blacks in America belong to the NAACP, and less than one tenth of one percent are members of the Urban League?

    Berger aptly reminds us that “as Reinhold Niebuhr long ago showed, the denomination is the prototypically American religious institution—that is, a religious institution which is based on voluntary association and which recognizes the right of other such institutions to exist in the society.” Today’s political and religious denominations seem to have the prayers of the Civil War combatants Lincoln referenced in his second inaugural (the “hypocrisy” discussed by Niebuhr noted by Novak): “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.” Today’s culture wars are similar, God’s children on one side praying to Got to defeat God’s children on the other side, and vice versa.

    And what of Black organizations becoming what we could call secular denominations? First we had Obama as the “savior” in “ethnic Black Christianity” (recall Jamie Foxx calling the President “our Lord and Savior”). Then the Rev. Andy Stanley from North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga., said, after Obama’s visit to Sandy Hook, that he should be called the “Pastor in Chief”? And then the Sunday before the inauguration, Pastor Ronald E. Braxton, Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, declared, with the President and family in attendance, that the Republicans were the enemies, comparing Obama with Moses, and declaring that Obama’s opponents were like the Biblical enemies of Moses.

    Despite the nod to the altars of secularism (Lusvardi’s helpful alert regarding the “National Observatory of Secularism” demonstrates the strength of the attempt. Hollende announced the forming of the NOS last month, as he gave a hats off to sociologist Emile Poulat, who helped to “promote secularism as an essential value of our living-together”. The NOS will “monitor” religious groups with the objective of “dissolving cases of religious pathology.” This is a reminder that the French adopted a law in 1905 establishing secularism as state policy in France.”

    The affirmation of our Declaration of Independence: “that all men are created equal” with “certain unalienable rights”, is a synthesis not just of Christianity, but also a synthesis of the Enlightenment, a “both/and” statement, not, as with the French, an “either/or” statement. Our Declaration is also clear rejection of feudalism and the “old rule” known as the Ancien Régime. It fits the enlightenment’s canon that objectivity is, as Irving Louis Horowitz used to say, “its own reward”. My sense is that Berger and Weber would agree.

    As an aside, as public schools continue to eliminate recess and P.E., as well as the arts and music, churches that build gymnasiums to enable team sports as well as a state at one end for the performing arts, will begin to become a magnet for young people as education money goes more and more to pensions, COLAs, and current and retirement health care obligations and not the class room. As the schools abdicate these area and churches pick them up, evangelism will take on an athletic or physical movement nature, as Lusvardi’s excellent example of Shepherd of the Hills Church in suburban Porter Ranch in Los Angeles County demonstrates. In such “extra curricular” activities, churches may well find a working formula to demonstrate to others a more expansive effort of demonstrating what their tradition has to offer to people not raised in it.

    The Red Shield Youth Center where I played in the mid-1950s, in the Ramparts area (Little Korea now), that its presence took the area off the Los Angeles 10 worst areas of juvenile delinquency. That’s a civil influence in society that any tradition would, it seems to me, be thankful and proud to have helped achieve.

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