sociology of religion

Cardinal Dolan at Le Moyne: sociological reflections (not culture war material, sorry)

Le Moyne College has made the news recently because we have invited Timothy Cardinal Dolan to be our commencement speaker and receive an honorary degree. A group of students started a petition to disinvite Dolan because of his role in the Church’s response the child sex abuse scandal and because of statements he’s made about same sex relationships.

I was interviewed a few times by different journalists, but my comments weren’t used –I’d guess because I didn’t really have anything controversial to say. I didn’t sign the petition, and except for rather limited contact with just a few students who have signed the petition or are involved in various forms of protest, I haven’t really been involved. I’ll wear a rainbow sash during Sunday’s commencement ceremony, as will several other faculty members. When Cardinal Dolan speaks, I’ll probably be just as uninterested as I ever am in commencement speakers.

Probably the biggest media splash was yesterday when two representatives of Le Moyne, our president Dr. Linda LeMura, and director of mission and identity, Fr. David McCallum chose to appear on Fox & Friends to discuss the ‘controversy.’ Honestly, I was under the impression things had mostly died down here on campus. Yes, there is some slight civil disobedience planned for Sunday, but the man is speaking and I’ll be very surprised if any Le Moyne students engage in disruptive protest.

Fox News, and in particular Fox & Friends, make their money by stoking the culture war (also see this silly piece in National Review Online). To hear the segment from the morning ‘news’ show, you’d think ‘leftist, secularist’ students were flipping the pope mobile. On the contrary, this is the most active protest having to do with religious issues I’ve seen in my 10 years here, and it’s decidedly civil and reasonable. There are good reasons to be upset that Le Moyne has invited Fr. Dolan (apparently an invitation offered by our Eric Dolphy loving past president), just as there are good reasons to invite the Archbishop of New York to be the speaker at Jesuit Le Moyne College (this is why I didn’t sign the petition, defensible choice or not).

Because I’m a sociologist of religion, however, this is certainly an opportunity to think about the sociological meaning of the protest on our campus.

Le Moyne got more Catholic after we moved to lay presidents. It’s a case study in the processes of secularization and resacralization. With Jesuit presidents, we just were Catholic. It was more difficult for outsiders to question it. Now it’s easier to question, so it has be demonstrated more overtly. We got our first director of mission and identity, and we are increasingly offered opportunities to explore our Ignation heritage.

However, were I to guess, I think our student body follows the general trends of their generation in terms of religiosity. When I ask, as I regularly do, students rarely say they’ve come because the school is Catholic, and less because it is Jesuit. Many seniors barely know what a Jesuit is, and I think we see that as more of a problem now than we used to. There is probably a selection effect as I teach social science electives, and I’d not be surprised if more religious students avoid me because of my relatively outspoken attitudes about atheism. But, I don’t think there is much self-organized religious activism on campus, orthodox or progressive. The Dolan reaction is the most I recall in my time here. I’m sure there is support, but it’s not organized like the opposition. I think that is indicative of the general apathy about religious issues on campus. The Dolan protest isn’t about Catholicism, per se. It’s more about sexuality and sexual assault, issues common across college campuses, Catholic or not.

The Pledge of Allegiance and Interaction Ritual

Per Smith wrote a short response to a Salon article about a court case in Massachusetts challenging the inclusion of ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance. Per is right to note that ritual is about action and the solidarity it potentially creates. I believe the arguments about ritual and solidarity, and in this case I believe the Pledge of Allegiance can effectively foster an imagined national community (if it did or does is another question). I believe it probably fails for a lot of people who don’t feel particularly included or excluded, that it actively excludes a good number of others, and that the 1950’s addition of ‘under God‘ made the ‘indivisible’ that follows a happy irony for anyone teaching sociology of religion in this day of increasing ‘nones.’

One of my favorite exercises when I teach sociology of religion is to have the students recite the Pledge as they know it, including “under God,” and then in its pre-1954 language, without the phrase. Some students do hesitate. It makes them uncomfortable. The thing is sacred, after all, and I’m asking them to profane it (for science!). Once we’ve done it, we then talk about how this national prayer establishes religion in our culture, and about how it is potentially as divisive as it is unifying.

I’m not even sure why, but yesterday in my Research Methods course I started to recite the Pledge from somewhere in the middle, right before indivisible (oh right, we were talking about the individual as an indivisible unit of analysis). I said something like, “you know what indivisible means, right, like in the Pledge of Allegiance, one nation, something, something, indivisible…” Probably half of the students gave me a funny look and said, “under God!” One student, I think joking, said to me, “that’s un-American!”

Per suggests we focus on the efficacy of the Pledge rather than its meaning, and argues that daily recitation bound generations of Americans into national community. I agree*, and here I want to apply his argument about the efficacy of the ritual to the interaction ritual I just described. All those years of reciting that pledge, of saying “under God” in the context of affirming patriotism resulted in our classroom interaction. The student didn’t say, “what are you, an atheist?” She said, “that’s un-American.” My skipping over “under God” started our own little interaction ritual because of the meaning she (as a joke or not) attributed to my mumble. I focused on the student, the class focused on us, and I riffed for a minute or two from my sociology of religion lecture about the addition of that divisive phrase. But this was a Methods class, so I assure you we got back to our discussion of units of analysis right away (i.e. This is no dispatch from the front lines of the culture war).

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*l also think we need to focus on the contested meanings of rituals, especially of those rituals supported by the state. I doubt very much that Per would disagree with me on that point as he was arguing against those who might call ritual meaningless, which it clearly isn’t (hence the court case).

 

Radical Catholic Activists?

Here in the Diocese of Syracuse, for the last 5 or 6 years, a fairly well organized movement of lay Catholics has emerged to express dissent from the local bishop and the wider Church. Today, this movement is mostly visible in the activities of Faithful Catholics Concerned (FCC), a group I wrote about just under a year ago. FCC’s goals include opposing the local bishop and the USCCB when they become involved in ‘partisan politics’ and are shared by Catholics across the U.S.  A few weeks ago FCC hosted a day long workshop with a keynote address by Fr. Jon Sivalon, who some Catholics certainly identify as radical. At the workshop, Fr. Sivalon quoted Thomas Merton to call for a lay-centered, ‘Vatican II’ Church.  Local activists promote what could be called a theology of community, meaning that they understand God to be active whenever ‘two or more are gathered,’ and hence they see the institutional church as secondary to the substance of being Catholic. Does this attitude about the institutional Catholic Church make them radical? (more…)

A diverse parish? What’s that mean?

What does it mean to be a diverse congregation? Most congregations aren’t very diverse, meaning the vast majority of American places of worship tend to be mostly folks of one race. For example, Emerson and Kim report that 90% of U.S. congregations are at least 90% one racial group (2003: 217).  They define a multiracial congregation as one in which no racial group makes up more than 80% of the membership, and find that less than 8% of U.S. congregations meet that standard. Yes, those data are a little old, but I’d be surprised if it has changed very much.

Over the last 5 years, or so, I’ve been paying attention to significant changes taking place in the Catholic diocese of Syracuse. Because of a lack of priests, the diocese has closed a relatively large number of parishes. One of the parishes that was closed was considered by many in the city to be the ‘Black Catholic Parish.’ The data I have on this parish, qualitative and quantitative, show that to be a semi-reasonable claim. Its members were more likely to be African American than at other parishes, and it probably did meet Emerson and Kim’s criterion for diversity. When I interviewed white people, they certainly thought of it as a ‘Black Parish,’ and they valued that diversity. African Americans I interviewed also valued the diversity of the place, but they were less likely to think of it as explicitly ‘black.’ They would point out that it wasn’t just a white and black place, but that there were other people of color there too. Not to mention worshipers from a variety of class situations.

When this parish closed as part of the changes in the diocese, it merged with a parish that was relatively progressive and considered by Catholics of color to be a welcoming place. But, it was a very white parish, and wouldn’t have qualified as diverse according to Emerson and Kim. It was definitely not as ‘multicultural’ as the closed parish, and this is confirmed with interviews I did with people who attended there after the merger. The merger, importantly, created a new place of worship inside the building of the mostly white parish. Some from the former ‘black’ parish said the new place was diverse because they brought that diversity with them. To them, the ‘diversity’ was the same faces from their old parish, and still they weren’t all African American. For the worshipers who didn’t have to go anywhere for the merger, this new community was “definitely” more diverse.

The new place is diverse according to the measure developed by Emerson and Kim, but the experience of that diversity is not the same for everybody. For some it was new, and an adjustment. For others it was much the same as before, but not exactly. Besides having moved to a new building, there was the fact that in the old parish they were simply being Catholic, but now, to some extent, they were ‘the diversity.’

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Emerson, Michael O. and Karen Chai Kim. 2003. “Multiracial Congregations: An Analysis of Their Development and a Typology.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 42(2):217-227.

Public Sociology: Mark Regnerus on porn and same-sex marriage

Mark Regnerus contributed a short piece on a correlation he found between watching pornography and support for same sex marriage to The Witherspoon Institute’s ‘Public Discourse.’ In the essay, he attempts to be very clear about what he is not saying. He’s not writing about “any correlation between same-sex relationships and porn use (although that would be an answerable research question)” and he’s not “talking about women’s support for same-sex marriage” because women just aren’t that in to porn. His question is “Does heightened porn use matter for fashioning attitudes about marriage?”

Here is the data analysis Regnerus presents as an exploration of his question: (more…)

Making Sense of the Shootings

Friday’s attack on Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT is difficult to comprehend. Nonetheless, a social science that can’t use its tools to begin to make sense of the act and the political and social response to it is not worth pursuing. Since 11 am on Friday, this is about the only issue to which I’ve given serious thought. I’ve watched hours of television coverage, mostly on CNN, I’ve read news articles and watched countless relevant tweets scroll by, and I’ve tweeted a lot about it myself. I’m fortunate to have very thoughtful friends from multiple disciplines, and we spent some time Saturday night discussing the shootings and the response. I’d guess my experiences are similar to many others who are trying to make sense of what is undeniably awful news.

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Frames of Catholic Conflict

Yesterday in Syracuse, NY, there was a homily given in protest, and a protest of the homily. The homily was given by Bishop Robert J. Cunningham to those gathered inside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, and the protest was performed outside the cathedral by Faithful Catholics Concerned, a local activist group organized in opposition to the Bishop’s message. News coverage of the event can be read here and here.

The topic of the Bishop’s homily reflected the USCCB’s ‘Fortnight for Freedom.’ In response to federal health care policies requiring Catholic institutions to provide health coverage for services the Church opposes, including contraception, the Bishops have dedicated the weeks of June 21st through July 4th to “emphasize both our Christian and American heritage of liberty.” According to the USCCB, the Fortnight coincides with the liturgical celebration of several saints martyred for defending their faith “in the face of persecution by political power,” and will end with a closing mass to be given in Washington D.C. on U.S. Independence Day. A letter sent by Bishop Cunningham to parishes in the Syracuse diocese on May 23rd tells readers that the “’Fortnight for Freedom’ is in direct response to the federally imposed HHS mandate that will require most Catholic institutions to pay for employee health coverage that includes abortion-inducing drugs, sterilizations and contraception,” and closes with the Bishop asking local parishioners to “join me and fellow Catholics as we pray for a new birth of freedom in our great land.” (more…)