The Economist on the resurgence of religion

religion in the economistIf there is one edition of The Economist you should pick up off the newsstand, it is this week’s because of its special report on the state of religion in the world.

Quite appropriately, The Economist notes that it was wrong when it wrote in December 1999 that God’s career was over. If any other journalists felt the same way lately, they should have reconsidered that thought a long time ago.

There is so much that could be said about this report. Generally from what I have read they get it. The general message is that religion matters in the world. Moreover, you have to get it to function.

As you can see from the cover, the big issue of the day is why religion has inspired violence in the modern era. Much of the leading report discusses how the world should “deal with” religion as if all its readers are secular and are frustrated with religion’s role in the world. To me that’s a flawed approach, but not that surprising from The Economist:

Part of that secular fury, especially in Europe, comes from exasperation. After all, it has been a canon of progressive thought since the Enlightenment that modernity — that heady combination of science, learning and democracy — would kill religion. Plainly, this has not happened. Numbers about religious observance are notoriously untrustworthy, but most of them seem to indicate that any drift towards secularism has been halted, and some show religion to be on the increase. The proportion of people attached to the world’s four biggest religions — Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism — rose from 67% in 1900 to 73% in 2005 and may reach 80% by 2050 (see chart 2).

Moreover, from a secularist point of view, the wrong sorts of religion are flourishing, and in the wrong places. In general, it is the tougher versions of religion that are doing best — the sort that claim Adam and Eve met 6,003 years ago. Some of the new converts are from the ranks of the underprivileged (Pentecostalism has spread rapidly in the favelas of Brazil), but many are not. American evangelicals tend to be well-educated and well-off. In India and Turkey religious parties have been driven by the up-and-coming bourgeoisie.

With modernity now religion’s friend, an eternal subject has become fashionable. Father Richard John Neuhaus points out that when he founded his Centre for Religion and Society in 1984, there were only four centres of religion and public life in America; now, he thinks, there are more than 200. Religious people are getting more vocal in all sorts of fields, including business. Religion is also cropping up in economics. Niall Ferguson, a Scottish historian, re-examined Max Weber’s theory of the Protestant work ethic to explain why Europeans work less than Americans.

One of the things I enjoy most about reading The Economist is its respect and understanding of the broad scope of history. If there is a news report from a far-off place, such as Pakistan, The Economist generally makes the background of the story, particularly if there is a long history behind it, fairly clear. You can debate the conclusions, but at least something is there and it’s generally fairly sound.

In this instance, the report takes a step back and tries to pinpoint when religion in the world decided it was not going anywhere:

In retrospect, the turning point came long before Osama bin Laden declared his jihad on Jews and Crusaders. For Timothy Shah, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York who is writing a book on secularism, the symbolic turning point was the six-day war of 1967. It marked a crushing defeat for secular pan-Arabism; meanwhile Israel’s “miraculous” triumph gave God a stronger voice in its politics, emboldening the settler movement. In the same year a Hindu nationalist party won 9.4% of the vote in India.

By the end of the 1970s this counter-revolution was in full swing. America had elected its first proudly born-again Christian, Jimmy Carter; Jerry Falwell had founded the Moral Majority; Iran had replaced the worldly shah with Ayatollah Khomeini; Zia ul Haq was busy Islamising Pakistan; Buddhism had been formally granted the foremost place in Sri Lanka’s constitution; and an anti-communist Pole had become head of the Catholic church.

Is it fair and accurate to lump those religious movements together like that? Are they responding in unity to the first revolution of the 1960s?

If you do not have time to read the entire special report or cannot find a place to buy it, check out this free audio interview with John Micklethwait, editor of The Economist and author of the special report. This is Micklethwait’s first special report, and he says he chose religion because of the demand for religion news and commentary.

I hope other journalists are hearing that. If a leading numbers-crunching, libertarian-leaning publication finds religion news in demand and important in today’s society, how can other newspapers serving a more general interest see otherwise?

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Scientology-embracing pastors craziness

south park scientologyWe’ve received so many of your notes regarding this bizarre story that we just had to address it. Maybe it’s because so many people check so frequently. The story, headlined “Some Christian pastors embrace Scientology,” is fairly shallow and shabby in its lack of proper definitions.

Reader Jason had this to say about the story:

The reporter seems to frame this as a mixing of theology — “theological hybrid” — but most of the quotes –and there are a lot of them, to the reporter’s credit — are about just using some of the philosophies to help affect changes in peoples lives with the Gospel. I am curious to know about Ross’ religious beliefs and would like to know what kinds of criticism “other pastors” offer.

Ross is, according to CNN, a “court-certified Scientology expert,” whatever that means, and is quoted warning that “mainstream acceptance makes it easier for the Scientologists to achieve their ultimate goal — new recruits.” It’s a scary world we live in, isn’t it?

Here’s the heart of the story. In typical television journalism fashion, the potential reach of Scientology is unbounded and could even be in, heaven forbid, your own community!

The Rev. Charles Kennedy, of the Glorious Church of God in Christ, a Pentecostal church in Tampa, Florida, and the Rev. James McLaughlin, of the Wayman Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, are among the theological hybrids.

… Kennedy, McLaughlin and a handful of other Christian church leaders — no one can say how many — are finding answers to their communities’ needs in Scientology’s social programs.

For Kennedy, it began two years ago when he attended a meeting at the Church of Scientology’s spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, Florida. He was introduced to a book called “The Way to Happiness” — Hubbard’s 64-page, self-described “common sense guide to better living.”

In the book, which lays out ways to maintain a temperate lifestyle, Kennedy found a message he believed could help lift his predominantly lower income African-American congregation. He said the book’s 21 principles help them with their struggle in an urban environment where there is too much crime and addiction and too little opportunity.

Kennedy knew that before he could introduce any Scientology-related text to his congregation, he would have to prove that it did not contradict his Christian beliefs. And so, he found Scripture to match each of the 21 principles.

What are published reports and what does “other religions and ethnic groups” mean?

And there are more questions. What are social programs and “temperate lifestyles”? How do church leaders see Hubbard’s book as better than the millions of other self-help books out there? Do the members of a church become part of Scientology automatically, or do they have to be admitted individually?

These and many other questions come up in a story like this, and considering that the reporters on this story only found a couple of examples, I question whether this is very significant as a trend.

The reporters’ reliance on Ross gets out of hand, and it’s fairly clear that the piece is less about exploring how inner-city churches are looking to Scientology for help and more about scaring people into believing that churches are adopting cult-like practices.

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Of the making of lists there is no end

SgtPepperThe right-of-center Daily Telegraph, Great Britain’s only remaining broadsheet, has published a list of what its editors consider the 100 most influential conservatives and liberals in the United States. The list tells us a lot about how the British see our next presidential election. It’s also a peek into how journalists across the pond understand America’s political power structure. Where do they rank the leaders of our political, business, social and, yes, religious institutions?

Like many others, I tend to find lists like these silly and, by definition, flawed. But they are reasonably interesting conversation pieces worth mentioning, and it is often the subsequent discussion that produces the most interesting insights.

It’s not that surprising to see former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani lead the conservative list, but who would have predicted Hillary Clinton down at number four with her husband leading at number one? Also, is it really that surprising that President Bush wasn’t in the top 20? The Telegraph thought it was significant enough to put in a special word for why the country’s president failed to crack the top 20.

With that aside, for the purposes of this blog, who were the leading conservative and liberal religious figures on the list and how do their rankings compare? The list is fairly focused on people who might have a direct influence on the election (and likely make an endorsement in the primary). It has missed the people, particularly in religious communities, who will probably end up influencing the election in a more indirect but significant way.

That said, here is the Telegraph‘s rather interesting disclaimer about the list:

When in doubt, we have leant towards those likely to be most influential in the future rather than those whose careers and impact lies in the past. But some historical figures cast such a long shadow that it would have been perverse to have excluded them.

The mere holding of a high office did not guarantee inclusion, though it was often an important factor. The future influence of some figures will depend largely on whether the candidate they are associated with wins their party’s nomination or the presidency. Certainly, a year and a week from today, these lists will probably be very — though by no means entirely — different.

Now consider whether the people on this list will exercise future influence or whether they’re just “historical figures” casting a “long shadow.”

On the conservative side, the closest religious figure in the top 20 is Mike Huckabee, the former Baptist preacher and Arkansas governor who’s now running for president. He’s definitely among the future influential people. On the other hand, Focus on the Family president James Dobson appears at number 26 (one spot in front of Christopher Hitchens), former presidential candidate Gary Bauer is at 70 and the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins is number 81. There are others on the list who express religious sentiments regularly, but that isn’t their primary purpose.

On the liberal side, the list of religious figures is a bit shorter: Former presidential candidates and civil rights activists Jesse Jackson (number 44) and Al Sharpton (88). That’s it. Apparently the emerging religious left hasn’t given notice to the folks across the pond that they have influence these days.

From my perspective, this is a fairly significant oversight. There was no room for Jim Wallis of Sojourners, author of God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It? Or is it too difficult to pin him down as a liberal?

The challenge with some of the religious leaders is that they are difficult to pigeonhole on the right or left. Where would you place Rick Warren, if you think he should be on there at all? Perhaps that is this list’s fundamental flaw. What about the leaders of the Episcopal Church? Do Mike Gerson’s efforts to make the Republican Party more aware of Catholic social issues make him somewhat significant?

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Prayer in the Indiana Statehouse

IndianaCapitol 01There’s been a surprisingly low level of news coverage on a trial judge’s ruling that “sectarian prayers” on the floor of Indiana’s House (the lower level of its General Assembly) violated the “constitutional separation of church and state.” Most recently, an appeals court tossed the case on procedural grounds, but didn’t look at the merits of the case because the plaintiffs didn’t have standing.

As the local Indianapolis blog Advance Indiana noted when the news first broke, many news organizations interpreted this to mean that there was a prayer ban in the first place. The original court ruling just barred sectarian prayers, whatever that means. Indiana’s nearly two-century tradition of opening General Assembly sessions with guest prayers didn’t go anywhere. The prayers were just limited in what they could say to the Almighty.

As later stories noted, this just means that the speech limits are gone for now, but this legal battle is far from over:

In its 2-1 opinion, the court ruled there were no expenditures directly tied to the prayers. Therefore, as taxpayers, the plaintiffs had no standing to sue.

But that doesn’t mean the legislature should resume its practice of sectarian prayers, said Ken Falk, an attorney for the ACLU of Indiana.

“The one bit of caution is that the 7th Circuit did not approve the prayer practices, and I would hope that the result of this is that the state does not go back to this practice of sectarian prayer,” Falk said. “If that would occur, there could be people who could bring litigation.”

An angle that most reporters have focused on is how the legal battle, which was originally started by a Republican leader of the House, continued when the Democrats took over the House in the 2006 elections. Part of it deals with how legislatures don’t like to be told what they can do in their part of the State House. The other part is that Democrats are pretty sensitive to the fact that many people in this state listen to their pastors before they listen to ACLU directors. Throughout this story you see references to religious freedom, free speech and their universal importance to people of all faiths.

A major aspect missing from the stories is any direct quotation from the kind of prayers that were offered. I wish I could get myself a more complete list, but Advance Indiana says that one of them was a “sing-along to a song entitled ‘Let’s Take a Walk With Jesus.’” Needless to say, non-Christian members of the House didn’t feel very comfortable with that, and this lawsuit came about as a result. That lack of context leaves readers thinking that all that was banned was the mention of Jesus at the end of the prayer.

In a rather unexpected development to non-Hoosiers, the South Bend Tribune has a story headlined with a quote by the Democratic House Speaker B. Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, saying that the “Christian majority justifies House prayer.” Last time I checked, you’re not supposed to start your stories with a question for the reader, but that is what Jeff Parrott does in leading off his story on the subject:

Does might make right?

It does when it comes to the issue of Statehouse prayer, House Speaker B. Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, said Wednesday. …

“The majority of people in this state are Christian,” Bauer said, pausing a few seconds before continuing, “but if you exclude a minority, then you have a problem.”

Bauer derided as “censorship” a November 2005 injunction, ordered by U.S. District Judge David Hamilton, against the House’s long-held tradition of preceding business with prayers that contain words such as Jesus Christ and savior.

“Censoring one particular religion is almost reverse discrimination,” Bauer said. “We’ve had the Jewish faith and even a Muslim over the years.”

In some ways the headline writers for this story cherry-picked the “majority of people” quote, but nevertheless, he said it, and if you think about it, the statement doesn’t really make much sense. Would it have been helpful to note that the civil rights aren’t there to protect the rights of the majority, but to protect the rights of the minority, however small? Maybe, but that comes close to crossing the line of a reporter injecting his views into the story.

The next development in this story is what kind of prayer will be offered in House in the next session of the General Assembly. That will make for an interesting decision by whoever is asked to make that prayer. Whatever way you cut it, prayer has become a political football in Indiana, and the Democrats are loathe to lose the conservative Democratic voters, many of them in the southern portions of the state, to Republican candidates. The ACLU has maintained that it will file suit the next time a regular participant expresses discomfort with the prayers.

The story is now in the hands of those who are called to pray.

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Wicca in the heartland

pagan circleThe Chicago Tribune had a potentially tremendous story to tell Sunday about a witch school setting up shop in Rossville, Ill., a small, economically struggling town in the heartland. The perspective of the story — about Wiccans trying to fit into a Bible Belt community — is what first jumped out at me.

By the fourth paragraph, a resident was quoted saying the Salam Witch Trials were back and traditional churches and members of the community were rallying against this strange group that had set up shop in a local storefront. The story, which has a reasonably interesting ending that I won’t share in this post, seems headed toward a brawl:

In a town that sometimes feels closer to the Bible Belt than to the city, churches had been holding weekly prayer sessions for months in hopes of driving the outsiders away. They also had erected a billboard denouncing Wiccan beliefs, proclaiming, “Worship the Creator not Creation.”

Fueling their sense of urgency was a ball held by the Wiccans last weekend to celebrate Samhain, their new year’s festival, which falls on Halloween.

As more than 150 people filed into the shuttered high school Wednesday night for the meeting, Andy Thomas, youth minister at the Rossville Church of Christ, said residents had a spiritual responsibility to drive the witches out. If they didn’t, he said, young people were in danger of being pulled off the Christian path.

“Rossville has fallen on hard times,” Thomas said. “The school closed. This is a popular place for meth. We’re like, ‘Great, now a witch school.’ It feels like we’re being attacked.”

Donald Lewis, who serves as CEO of Witch School International, said it was the other way around.

“They’re trying to make us scapegoats,” he said as he slipped into the meeting unannounced.

Lewis, a rotund 44-year-old with a silver ponytail and goatee, said he started the online school in 2001 with two friends he met through the neo-pagan community in Chicago. All three were devoted practitioners of Wicca, a controversial movement that, by some estimates, has hundreds of thousands of adherents nationwide.

Five of the school’s administrators operate out of a humble, white building with a green awning on Chicago Street, the main strip in downtown Rossville, which looks like an abandoned Hollywood set of a small town. Their office, which consists of five computers, copiers and a fax machine, is in the back of a store that sells silver wands, incense and colored candles wrapped in spells.

Attached to the story is a decent video that does a good job of putting names with faces. This was the future of journalism 10 years ago. It’s great to see it in practice.

The Wiccans’ side of the story isn’t entirely ignored. They get their quotes in there, but this story is definitely less about them than about the town’s residents. A reader of ours, Christopher, mentioned in a note to us that the story is largely about a community dealing with “economic decline, arson, and drugs.”

Megan Twohey, the reporter on this story, delves into the background of the Wiccan group. They left Chicago in search of cheaper rents and headed for small-town America. They moved to Rossville after a “lynch mob” drove them out of another town, and now they’re dealing with hostile neighbors once again. And by the way, Rossville’s downtown probably doesn’t look as much like a Hollywood set than, um, a downtown of an average Midwestern small city. (Since when does a Hollywood set make a better illustration than real life?)

A lot of this reminds me of the “pentancle wars” that the Department of Veterans Affairs dealt with over that last few years.

The story ends up being about how the Bible Belt responds to outsiders and less about what Wiccans believe. There are references to their beliefs, but there is little mention that Wiccans represent a very diverse group of traditions. From what I understand, Wicca isn’t exactly some strange East Coast religion that Middle America knows nothing about. Middle America is where Wicca has quite a number of followers, depending on how you count them, but that doesn’t mean they’re always accepted, as we see in this story.

This story had only broad, unsubstantiated estimates on the number of Wiccans. The general point of the story is about whether other religions are tolerated in the heartland. As Christopher said in his note, “the story is really about the local Christian community” and Wiccans are “little more than a foil for the community’s fears and anxieties.”

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Richard Land, Romney and monotheism

romney and mormonismOK, we’ve waited long enough. Nearly a week after the news from that Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, described Mormonism as “the fourth Abrahamic faith,” little has been said of this rather significant statement.

The statement came on one of those Sunday political talk shows (Bloomberg’s Political Capital with Al Hunt) where celebrity journalists interview other famously important people about the big issues of the day. Perhaps that limited the media’s appetite to cover this? My deeper suspicion is that this is a tricky issue that has no clear boundaries or context for what this statement means.

Time‘s David Van Biema picked up the issue on Wednesday and published an analysis that rather deftly covers the issue and raises an important question:

This raises all sorts of interesting questions. One, is it a promotion or a demotion? “Abrahamic religion” sounds a lot grander than “cult.” However, Land also seems to suggest that Mormonism is no more Christian than is Islam. The second is whether it makes it any easier for a Southern Baptist concerned with theological niceties to vote for Romney. A third is whether Land, an extremely well educated and articulate man, is crediting Mormonism with being monotheistic, which is arguably what Abraham was all about. Many evangelicals contend that the LDS are polytheists, believing in plural Gods. Mormons respond that their tenets are no more polytheistic than the Christian belief in the Trinity.

What explains Land’s venture into religious taxonomy? Perhaps the fact that as the Wall Street Journal noted last April, he is “a man waiting to be courted, [who] on behalf of religious conservatives is playing hard to get.” Land has repeatedly hinted that he might be able to vote for Romney, who reportedly came to him and asked for advice on how to handle the religion issue; Land told him, in effect, that he needed to de-fang the issue much as John Fitzgerald Kennedy did with his famous 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. As the columnist E.J. Dionne points out, however, JFK’s speech clearly separated his Catholicism from his politics. It will be much more difficult for any G.O.P. candidate to relegate his religion to the sidelines in the same way.

Until Romney can pull off that trick, Land must walk his own tightrope between his theologically conservative Convention and his pragmatic desire to see an electable socially conservative Republican presidential candidate. The Abrahamic remark can be understood as an impressive act of political equipoise: being less snarky about Romney’s status without letting him totally off the hook. At some future point in time, perhaps Land will come back and work out the theological niceties.

Van Biema is on top of the theological issues raised in Romney’s attempt to appeal to conservative evangelicals despite his Mormon faith, and recognizes their significance. The story, as Van Biema indicates, is not even close to trailing off the pages, but the trickiness of the story is not going away either.

Stories showing this or that percentage of evangelicals willing to vote for a Mormon presidential candidate in this or that state are significant, but an equally important story is whether evangelical leaders are willing to bend or finesse theological definitions in order to endorse Romney. The big question, after the election is over, is how this clever theological dancing will affect evangelicals’ opinions about Mormons.

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The Post’s snark on Bush’s hugs

bush huggingWe’ve established that The Washington Post Style section likes to be snarky. In the Post‘s effort to cover substantive news and issues, the snark will often get in the way. It’s almost like they’re trying to entertain us, rather then inform us. Since when does an important, serious, American news organization behave that way? Oh wait, never mind.

Most recently, Style writer Paul Farhi, observed that President Bush likes to embrace people and doesn’t mind reporters photographing him doing it. Fahri covers a nice range of issues (hugging was first mentioned by The Economist in July 2006), but the snark permeates the piece:

The wildfires in Southern California this week have served to remind the world once more about one of the singular and underappreciated skills of George W. Bush: The man is a generous hugger.

There he was, amid the charred remains of some formerly upscale neighborhood, embracing the weary and the dazed victims of the fire. He made a little speech as one of the unfortunate locals was snuggled up to his side, his arm clinching her close. The gesture suggested strength, solidarity, compassion. The resident looked almost reassured.

Long after his presidency is history, some of the most memorable images of Bush’s years in office will involve hugs. Flip through the mental photo album: Bush, standing on that legendary rubble pile on Sept. 14, 2001, one arm vise-clamping a firefighter, the other gripping a bullhorn; Bush, in New Orleans and Mississippi, handing out embraces like the Red Cross hands out relief supplies; Bush, at Virginia Tech, hugging the relatives of 32 murdered students.

For a president who doesn’t necessarily come across as a touchy-feely guy, he sure does touch a lot. In just the past six months, according to a database search, he has hugged hundreds of people in public: the families of dead firefighters and police officers; the parents of a posthumous Medal of Honor winner; workers at a Nashville bread company; the mayor of Huntsville, Ala.; the jockey who rode the winning horse at the Kentucky Derby; the survivors of a Kansas tornado; departing political mastermind Karl Rove; press secretary Dana Perino. He touches nobodies and world leaders alike.

The act of hugging and greeting other people is a fascinating issue, and it says a lot about one’s personality and culture. My wife and I watched the excellent Kite Runner over the weekend, and we were struck by the formalism of Afghani culture, particularly in their greetings.

I don’t sense that America has any well-established greetings customs. It tends to range from the fairly awkward, formal, stiff handshake to a peck on the check. Somewhere in between those two extremes is the hug, which has many varieties from the awkward side-hug to the full embrace.

Farhi gets into the formalism and lack thereof in presidential history, but really doesn’t get beyond the former occupants of the White House. Farhi could have asked what kind of hugger Bush tends to be. A church hugger? A Texan hugger? What’s the difference anyway?

Speaking of churches, how does Bush’s religious faith play into his tendency to hug people? What kind of church members tend to be huggers? To what extent is there a spiritual motive in a person wanting to embrace someone closely when greeting them or trying to comfort them?

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Why does ‘evangelical product’ sell so well?

megachurchThe Wall Street Journal‘s opinion section has a solid review of what appears to be a solid book on the growth of evangelical, seeker-friendly megachurches. The growth of megachurches, along with the decline of the traditional mainline churches, is one of the biggest stories in religion these days, and this reviews highlights some important aspects.

Naomi Schaefer Riley’s review of James B. Twitchell’s Shopping for God: How Christianity Went from In Your Heart to In Your Face looks at church attendance and participation from an economic perspective. Riley appropriately punts the question of whether religion should be different from any other capitalist brand war, because that answer is for another book. Here is the big question being asked in this story: Why do (not should) megachurches thrive in today’s America?:

But what is it about the evangelical “product” that makes it so desirable? Any number of scholars have noted that, in recent years, it has been the churches that demand the most of people — tithing, bowing to firm doctrines, observing strict rules of conduct — that have grown the fastest. There seems to be something in our nature that requires from religion not just feel-good spirituality but strong moral direction. We are willing to make sacrifices to live by the dictates of a religiously grounded truth.

Mr. Twitchell manages to reduce this profound idea to the dictates of basic consumer theory. Sacrifice, he says — not least, tithing — signifies value. The more you sacrifice, the more you visibly value the product for which you are giving something up, and the more you show other people that you value it, too. “Why do true believers sometimes puncture themselves, walk on their knees until they bleed, fast until they are skeletal or join a monastery and go mum?” Mr. Twitchell asks. “Brand allegiance.”

Oddly, this sacrificial principle doesn’t easily apply to megachurches. As Mr. Twitchell acknowledges, most don’t have “high barriers to entry” — that is, they don’t demand a lot of their congregants. They’re often referred to as “seeker” churches because they appeal to nonbelievers — and not always successfully. It’s easy to get in; but it’s also easy to get out.

So “pastorpreneurs,” as Mr. Twitchell calls them, face a challenge: How do you get more people to join than quit? One way is by having current members proselytize. The fastest-growing denominations, Mr. Twitchell says, are “selling, selling, selling.”

The theories in Shopping for God aren’t exactly new, but Riley approaches them from a new perspective. One major aspect that goes unaddressed, at least in the review, is the social battle that challenges individuals’ interest in attending or joining mainline congregations.

For reporters, there are theories worth pursuing out of this book. Do local megachurches (or just seeker-friendly churches) see themselves as marketing religion in a nonspiritual way? How do the leaders of these congregations feel and how does that compare with the average member or visitor? Why are people attending these seeker-friendly churches?

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