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...]

Can a Christian Benefit from Sociology?

By George Yancey

(Part 2 in a series. Read Part 1 here)

Okay so can a Christian benefit from sociology? I like to think so. It is my chosen discipline. I do not want to think that what I study has little meaning to my faith.

So how can sociology inform my Christianity? When I first became a Christian I was surrounded by a lot of wonderful people. They were incredibly kind and loving. But they were also very politically conservative and I just did not agree with them on all of those issues. Naturally, I had to wonder if I was wrong and just needed to accept their perspectives.

But then I started studying sociology. I began to see what was happening. My Christian friends tended to have a very individualistic way of looking at the world. I am not saying that the way they looked at the world is wrong. I rather state that it is incomplete. My studies as a sociologist showed me the importance of social structures in shaping our social reality. I tend to look to both individuals’ volition and social structures to understand why things happen in our society. My Christian friends tended to only look at our volition, or free will, to explain social actions. My differences with them on the importance of social structures often shaped our social and political disagreements.

The best way to illustrate this is with my expertise in race and ethnicity. [Read more...]

Why Joe Paterno’s Death Makes Us Feel Bad

Joe Paterno’s death at 85 would not be nearly so sad to us—after all, 85 is not young—if it weren’t for the fact that he was fired just two months ago in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky fiasco. I think it’s fair to admit that not a few of us wonder and fear that—amidst collective anger at Sandusky—Paterno deserved better than to be a fall guy whose last months were spent watching a career’s worth of good deeds get trampled on by a scandal he didn’t create. Legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant was likewise dead within weeks of his retirement, but this feels different. It feels incomplete, wrong.

I can only imagine how blindsided Paterno must have felt to be caught up in this saga in late 2011, nine years after his assistant coach informed him about what he saw in the locker room. To be sure, Paterno regrets how he handled what he heard. But a pair of statements he made during his last interview, just days ago, continues to haunt me. When describing his assistant’s revelation of Sandusky’s actions, Paterno said, “You know, he (the assistant) didn’t want to get specific.” I understand that, having interviewed many dozens of people about their own sexual behavior. People prefer to speak in vague generalities about sexual matters, and will tend to do so unless asked to get specific. But what Paterno said next was even more telling: “And to be frank with you I don’t know that it would have done any good (if his assistant had been specific), because I never heard of, of, rape and a man.” With this jumbled assertion, [Read more...]

Why Even Go to Church?

By Richard Flory

Yesterday, Jeremy Rhodes wrote about a new survey from Barna Group that shows that almost 50% of regularly attending American churchgoers say that their lives haven’t changed in any way as a result of their churchgoing habits. In the interest of full disclosure, David Kinnaman, President of Barna, is a former student of mine, and while I am proud of what he has done (and he’s taking Barna in good, new directions), I can’t take any credit for his success. Now back to the issue: church attendance doesn’t do much for half of those who go to church regularly. Without challenging Jeremy’s perspective—which I don’t disagree with at all other than I have absolutely no love for anything Disney—here is perhaps another way to think about the survey and what it might mean for churchgoing Americans.

Now, if I’m a pastor and I read the results of this survey (which I’m not, although I did grow up a pastor’s kid, a fact that probably goes a long way toward explaining why I’m a sociologist interested in religion), I’m thinking that these results suggest that about one-half of my congregation either doesn’t listen to the sermons, or maybe doesn’t understand the key points, or worse, that they find what I have to say completely irrelevant to their lives. Indeed, fully 60% said that they could not recall an important new religious insight from the last time they attended church, and 50% couldn’t remember any insight from the previous week’s service. That has to hurt the pastoral ego.

At the same time (and obviously), [Read more...]

The Church Has No Effect on Your Life?

By Jeremy Rhodes

A recent poll conducted by the Barna Group reveals that 46% of church-going Americans claim their lives have not changed at all due to their time spent in the pews. This seems like quite a large number. Certainly, one immediate reaction to this news is to think about the church’s effectiveness (or apparent ineffectiveness, in this case) when it comes to its goals of transforming lives through spiritual instruction and opportunities for service. No doubt, much could be written (and has) about the failings of the church as it attempts to be a relevant force in the day-to-day lives of its congregants. I distinctly remember reading a report 10 years ago about an urgent spike in church attendance right after the events of 9/11, which was followed by an almost-immediate return to prior levels. One writer pointed out, “After 9/11, Americans turned to the church in droves, only to be reminded why they weren’t attending in the first place.”

As a sociologist, however, I think the claims by these 46% are pretty dubious. One quintessential claim of sociology is that the socialization we receive is not only powerful and consuming, but is also subtle, often leaving us unaware of the forces that have shaped us. Of course, the fact that these 46% believe their church to have no impact on their lives is certainly an interesting fact, and tells us something important about their relationship with their church (and is likely correlated with their frequency of church attendance). But I would say that it is their belief that is the interesting finding here, not a reality that church actually has no effect on people. Does this reflect a special inability of religious organizations to affect change in the lives of believers, or is it merely another example of the difficulty we have noticing and acknowledging the social forces that shape us?

I see this difficulty every semester in my Introductory Sociology classes. When we begin discussing socialization, [Read more...]


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