Religious Freedom: An Endangered Liberty in the U.S.?

In December, Georgetown scholars Tom Farr and Tim Shah organized an online debate through the New York Times that asked if religious freedom is under threat in the U.S.  was particular struck by the viewpoints of representatives of minority religions in the U.S.– such as Sikhs and Muslims–who feel misunderstood, mis-represented, and often find it difficult to carry out their basic religious duties.

Noah Feldblum’s contribution to the debate, however, puts their narratives into historical context. Feldblum, a legal scholar, makes the excellent point that, in the past, America experienced waves of ill feelings towards Mormons, Catholics and Jews. Just as these prejudices faced, he looks forward to the day where we can say the same for other religious minorities in the U.S. who feel discriminated against today.

I encourage you to read all of the testimonies in this debate, and to follow the work of Tim Shah and Tom Farr, the co-director and director, respectively, of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.

Religious freedom–the freedom to worship, the freedom to express one’s religious views in public, the freedom from religious discrimination–is an important part of the U.S. legal and cultural heritage. In this time of religious misunderstandings and conflicts, the U.S. may not be perfect, but our model can be an example for other nations to follow. Protecting religious freedom, especially for minorities, may not come without a struggle, but if history is our guide, that should neither surprise us nor discourage us. As Jerry Park wrote in another post on this blog, some groups have protested shows that depict Muslims as All-American as their Protestant, Catholic or Jewish neighbors. But with time, these media images may contributed to a greater understanding of the Muslim faith.

But, as Mitch McConnell’s piece highlights, threats to religious freedom in the U.S. [Read more...]

The Black Church in America: Martin Luther King’s Legacy, The Social Gospel and the Prosperity Gospel

A Professor in Princeton University’s Religion department, Eric Gregory, once told me that many students in his Christian Ethics class know that Martin Luther King was a civil rights leader but do not know he was religious leader. Forgetting the religious roots of Reverend Martin Luther King’s legacy represents an at best impoverishment of knowledge, or perhaps as suggested in this article by Justin Dyer and Kevin Stewart on Public Discourse, an attempt to present in exclusively secular terms what Reverend King saw as a theologically and philosophically based argument: that African-Americans deserve full legal and substantive benefits of U.S. citizenship. As I’ve mentioned before on BWG, civil religion is an American tradition with many important legacies in American politics, and Martin Luther King is one example of this civil religion.

Although few of the black and white sociology of religion students I teach in the south do not know that Martin Luther King was a Christian pastor, many are nonetheless more familiar with the messages prosperity gospel preachers than with the social gospel of any kind. Realizing this blind spot made me more passionate to teach my students the historical roots of the political and social engagement of black churches. As early as the 18th century, when African-Americans lacked many other rights, African Americans organized their own churches as early as the 18th century. The religious freedom granted to African-Americans was used for their civic and political empowerment, producing powerful leaders like Martin Luther King.

To explain the close link between the black church and political mobilization, in their classic book, The Black Church in the African-American Experience, C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya stated:

“other-worldly religious transcendence can be related dialectically to the motivation, discipline, and courage needed for this-worldly political action.” (Lincoln and Mamiya, Black Church, p. 234)

In other words, the black church’s often passionate Pentecostal tradition, its belief in God’s providence, his love for his people, generate the much needed-virtues of perseverance and courage to go against the tide.

The social gospel, such as promoting civil rights for African-Americans, certainly went against the tide of many [Read more...]

God and Suffering: Remembering the Haitian Earthquake of January 2010

January 10, 2012, marks the 2nd anniversary of the earthquake that devastated Haiti. Having spent much time in Haiti and among Haitian migrants, the tragedy struck me in the heart. Tears rolled down my face when I heard the Archbishop of Port-au-Prince had been killed in the collapsed cathedral.

One of the major themes of my Faith Makes Us Live: Surviving and Thriving in the Haitian Diaspora was about Haitians’ resilient faith. In my initial reaction to the tragedy, I doubted my own confidence in Haiti’s ability to recover, my own hope for Haiti’s future.

Then I saw on the news that the Auxiliary Bishop of Port-au-Prince celebrated Mass outside the ruins. The songs they sang reminded me of the same church songs I sang in the Haitian choirs during my research and brought back my hope, my ability to imagine a better future for Haiti.

Just a few months later, in March 2010, I visited [Read more...]

Religion and Depression: Too Soon to Conclude about Asian-Americans

I read with great interest my colleague Jerry Park’s recent blog about Asian-American religion and depression. I am familiar with the database used, Add Health, and with the broader literature on religion and depression. Given my knowledge, I would caution against drawing strong conclusions from this study Asian-Americans youth who are religious are more  depressed.

First, as Park mentions, Christian religions generally require regular participation but Buddhist, Confucian and other Asian religions do not. For this reason, most studies of religion and mental health only look at Christians, so unless the measures of what it means to be religious take account of great differences between Christians and non-Christians, it is best to drop the non-Christians in the study.

Second, in this same study, only attending religious services, but not religious importance, made Asians more depressed (once self-esteem is controlled for). The two variables should be tested in the same model, which I suspect would erase any effect of religious participation on increasing Asian-American depression.

Third, as the study authors mention, Add Health only [Read more...]


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