Tag Archives: Albanese

American Christianity: A Story of Pick-and-Choose Protestantism

The Affordable Care Act has constantly been making headlines since its inception back in 2009, and now is no exception. As previously mentioned on this blog, Hobby Lobby, an American crafts company, has a case against the Obamacare contraception mandate that is headed to the Supreme Court. Hobby Lobby is not the only organization complaining about this apparent infringement on its freedom of religion—there have been several other cases like this one in the past.

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Americans protest Obamacare on the grounds of religious freedom.

Hobby Lobby is an Evangelical company, so it only makes sense that it would fit the Evangelical political mold in its displeasure with certain contraceptives that are believed to be similar to abortions in their use. But have Evangelicals always thought this way? As Jamelle Bouie, author of the Slate.com article entitled “God Does Not Regard the Fetus as a Soul”, tells it, Evangelicals certainly have not always been “obsessed” with abortion and contraception. As the article explains, Evangelicals—and most other Protestant Christians—in America, at the time of Roe v. Wade, were actually quite apathetic to abortion. Some Evangelical denominations, namely the Southern Baptists, openly preached during the 1960s and 1970s that the use of abortions in most situations was perfectly acceptable. It wasn’t the Evangelicals, but the Catholics who firmly discouraged abortion consistently throughout these culturally-turbulent decades. By the 1980s, however, most Evangelical and other conservative Christian denominations came to join forces with their Catholic counterparts and advocate the moral flaws inherent with abortion.

But how can such a change happen, and in so short of a time?

The American attitude has always been one of freedom and preservation of the individual. Among the first settlers of what would become the United States were those who sought religious freedom. Those men and women would inevitably establish a Protestant America, a trend that remains even to this day—51.3% of Americans self-identify as Protestant Christians, according to the most recent PewResearch Report on American religious affiliation. Why has Protestantism thrived throughout American history, even with over two centuries of immigration introducing other denominations and religions to the public?

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Some of Protestantism’s many denominations and how they’ve evolved across time.

Protestantism and the American identity grew together as the country established itself. America has been a hotbed of Protestant thought, fostering the creation or maintenance of several thousand denominations, by some estimates. The ideals of both American thought and Protestant thought are essentially the same. They were founded off the same notion.

America was founded as a result of the Enlightenment and revolutionary philosophical ideas. Freedom was essential to the new nation. To be able to do as one wished was fundamental in the United States, and it still is to this day. Protestantism was founded as a result of the Reformation, which was also a revolution—but instead of rebelling against the British Monarch, the people were revolting against the established Catholic Church. This was the first step in forming what has become characteristic of what it is to be American: the ability to pick and choose what an individual wanted to belief. It was one of the first radical events to occur in the western world on the front of individualism.

America is a pick-and-choose nation. An individual’s ideals and preferences are almost sacred in this country. This environment has created the perfect setting for a religion as subjective as Protestant Christianity to thrive in.

Because of this, American Christianity is especially subject to change with the times, or, as Bouie put it, to not be “immune to the winds of the world around [it]”. American Protestants are especially vulnerable to this cultural-moral shifting, but American Catholics are not necessarily exempt, either.

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Breakdown of American Catholic legal views on abortion according to the Pew Research Forum.

Catholicism, unlike Protestantism, has maintained the same doctrine throughout the existence of the Church. It is required that Catholics follow this teaching in order to be in full communion with the Church. That doesn’t stop American Catholics from falling victim to their national environment, though: according to the PewResearch Forum, 16% of all American Catholics believe abortion is legal in all cases, and 32% believe it is legal in most cases. This is a far cry from the Vatican’s official teaching.

The American atmosphere is one that is inherently Protestant. Its very nature is to change and pick and choose its own ideals, and no two people are guaranteed to have the same ideals. Any religion introduced to America is almost guaranteed, upon some degree of assimilation, to become a little bit more Protestant and a little bit more American—those two things may not be quite as different as they seem. As Catherine Albanese puts it in her book America: Religions and Religion, there is a Protestant cultural establishment. All subsequent religions must either fight through or conform to this American, Protestant institution.

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Passover and Immigrants

The Jewish festival of Passover begins next week. During Passover there is a tradition called the Seder (“order”) Meal where the story of the Israelites being delivered from captivity in Egypt is retold. The overall story is the same, generally, for Seder Meals, but there are many different variations for the Haggadah, the Seder narrative.

Huffington Post recently published an article of “25 Alternative Haggadahs” , one of which was a narrative that focused on justice of immigrants.

In class and our walkthrough of Albanese’s book “America: Religions and Religion” we have looked at the combination of religion and immigration and how the two affect each other. We have discussed a good bit of how immigration has affected religion in America. Because different peoples have come to America different religions have been introduced. Freedom of religion is no longer just a nice way to say we can tolerate all Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, but now religions with different gods and sacred texts are involved. It became a practice instead of simply an idea.

One thing we have not focused on as much, though, is how religion has affected immigration. One of the 25 unique Haggadahs mentioned in the Huffington Post article is one named “Immigrant Roots, Immigrant Rights.” This Seder narrative, written by Jews United for Justice (JUFJ) located in Washington D.C., walks through the story of Passover and the deliverance from Egyptian bondage, but there are additional readings. These additions range from personal stories of immigrants’ struggles for justice after coming to America, information about laws and bills written for rights of immigrants, and ties between the Passover story itself with modern day injustice and oppression.

This Haggadah calls for the Jewish people to recognize that they were once foreigners with no rights and challenges the community to stand up for immigrants of all kinds. At the end of the packet, there is a page full of campaigns and projects led by the JUFJ in order to help aid immigrants in its community.

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Like I said before, in class we have looked a lot at how immigration has influenced religion, and now it’s neat to see how religion can influence immigration.

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Hobby Lobby takes their Religious Freedom Fight to the Supreme Court

If you have paid any attention to the political scene in America lately, you will proabably have heard about Obamacare, as it is colloquially known, or the Affordable Care Act.  It has been making waves for a number of political reasons, but a key religious freedom argument has arisen from it.  Hobby Lobby has sued the governement (or actually Kathleen Sebelius who is the Secretary of Health and Human Services) over being forced to provide contraception that they, and the FDA, have deemed could prevent a fertilized egg from implanting on the uterine wall, which is “technincally” an abortion and against Steve Green, the owner of Hobby Lobby, and his family’s Christian beliefs.

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Hobby Lobby is a Crafts Company owned by Steve Green and his family.

In this article from Religion News Services, they discuss not only Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, which is being heard by the Supreme Court this month, but also Steve Green’s religion.  The first oral arguments are scheduled to be heard March 25th.  For years, even before the mandate was sent out, Hobby Lobby has been providing 16 of the 20 FDA approved contraception methods as part of their insurance plan.  They merely have an issue with the others, specifically IUD’s and pills like the Plan B pill.  There grounds are that these could technically result in an abortion, and since abortion is against their Christian beliefs, they should not be required to pay for it.  What the case really boils down to, in my opinion, is does Hobby Lobby as a corporation have the same protection under the First Amendment as a person.

 

There is no doubt that Hobby Lobby, much like Chick-fil-a is an overtly Christian company.  Not only are they closed on Sunday, but on their Hours sign, for Sunday it says “Closed Sunday to allow employees time for family and worship”, but they also refuse to do business with companies that promote alcohol.  The Green Family Foundation is even opening a Bible Museum in Washington DC that will display thousands of ancient texts.  There is no denying that the Hobby Lobby Corporation as a whole is clearly an overtly Christian Corporation and should be afforded the same rights as a person. 

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Hobby Lobby is closed Sunday for “family and worship”

When we were reading Albanese’s book, we also discussed in class how the first amendment in America was unlike anything that had ever been done before.  There was to be a complete distinction between the religion in America and the government in America.  The question this case is raising, is how far does the protection given in the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment.  Hobby Lobby is claiming that the government forcing them to pay for things that violate their religion is a breach of the Free Exercise Clause, specifically “Congress shall make no law […] prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.

 

The reason Hobby Lobby might have a chance is that Hobby Lobby is filed as a Closely Held Corporation.  This means that they are owned by a few select individuals, which in the case of Hobby Lobby, and in most Closely Held Corporations, is almost entirely members of the Green family.  This basically means that even though it is a large corporation, it is still a family owned business, and since the family members are the people who are liable for the company, they technically are the company. 

 

No matter what way this turns out, it will be a landmark case in the religious freedoms in America at this time.  Be sure to look out in the coming future about the results of this case.

 

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Ash Wednesday and Public Christianity

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Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the forty days of Lent on the Christian calendar, has been celebrated for centuries in many churches. As a representation of repentance and dependence on Jesus, Christians across America come together to be blessed with the words of Genesis 3:19 and marked with ashes in the shape of a cross on their foreheads. The ritual is not uncommon and widely practiced in American church culture, but what happens when it is taken to the general public, outside the confines of a strictly Christian sanctuary? Ashes To Go, a national organization that was started about seven years ago, has done just that: church officials bring ashes to public places, blessing people as they pass by and marking them with the symbolic cross of ashes.

We take ashes to the street corner because that reminder of need, humility, and healing shouldn’t be confined to a church building.  We probably need it more when we are in the middle of our daily business! The ashes we receive are to remind us throughout the day of our need for God, and of God’s call to us.

Ashes To Go, as seen in the above quote taken from their national website, is all about the mission to remind people of their need for repentance, even if that reminder comes in the middle of a crowded urban street corner. On the national website for the organization, stories of joyful reactions and “smiles of gratitude” are described. But America is not a country of one-sided opinions, and in fact many negative responses have been shared in a number of articles about this national phenomenon since its beginning. One particular piece in The Washington Post by Michelle Boorstein features both sides of the argument, noting that even though the majority of people walking by Ashes To Go at Union Station would identify themselves as Christians, the reactions to being asked to represent this faith on their foreheads seemed to vary.

But why do so many people object to the idea of making this ritual public for those who would like to participate, and why are so many of those objecting people Christians themselves? According to Boorstein’s article, the many Americans who call themselves “unaffiliated” with any particular religious group include a portion of Christians. As the custom of wearing the ash cross for Lent is mainly associated with what the article calls “traditional Christian denominations,” it follows that people of the Christian faith who do not want to be associated with specified tradition would in fact not want to take part in such a conventional practice. But this simply cannot account for all the Christians passing by Ashes To Go at Union Station who were not willing to participate in what is widely accepted as customary for their faith. Why were people hesitant to proclaim their religion in such a way that it could literally be seen on their foreheads?

The answer may lie in American culture today. In a country that emphasizes religious and cultural freedom, it is not surprising to find that people are hesitant to show what they truly believe in such a straightforward fashion. Modern culture in America is seemingly geared toward imaging and outward appearance. How a person looks or what a person wears is paramount to the way that person is viewed by society. For example, someone sporting large, dark-framed glasses and colored, tight-fitting jeans might be labeled in American culture as a hipster. Outsiders may associate this identification with any number of characteristics and connotations, whether they are true or not. In the same way, many people, including Christians, could be opposed to being branded by a cross on their foreheads for Ash Wednesday. The implications that come with being publicly labeled as a Christian are enough to make some believers pass by the Ashes To Go station rather than receive the blessing.

In her book America: Religions & Religion, Catherine Albanese continuously returns to the theme of religious change brought on by an evolving environment and America’s “manyness.” The effect of national religious diversity and changing culture can be seen even today. The controversy of Ashes To Go and public labeling of faith illustrates just how much American culture can influence religious perception.

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Christian Denominations: One Faith or Separate Religions?

Throughout history, Christianity has been at the forefront of America’s religious culture, and that still holds true for the present. It is the most popular religion in the United States today—in fact, the PewResearch Religious Landscape Survey shows that nearly 78.4% of American adults identify themselves as Christians—but is this religion really one unified faith? There is something to be said about the fact that the poll lists major denominations as separate entities (even dividing Evangelical Protestants and Mainline Protestants), and what is even more interesting is the sheer number of subcategories listed under each tradition. Many varying beliefs comprise most American religions (“Catholic,” “Jehovah’s Witness,” “Other World Religions,” and “Don’t Know/Refused” were the only traditions in the PewResearch survey that did not have subcategories listed), but Christianity’s ubiquitous differences are undoubtedly the most prominent.

Why is it that Christianity in America seems to be defined by contrasting theology? Can it really be classified as one unified faith, or are the differences enough to call the varying denominations separate religions? A great example of this concept is illustrated in this episode of Cheers, where a married couple fears for the sustainability of their relationship due to religious differences—specifically differences of denomination.

In this dramatized example of religious tension in America, Kelly and Woody are not even of different faiths. Not only are they both Christian, but they are also both Lutheran—they simply belong to different subsets within the Lutheran church. If the seemingly minor contrasts between the Lutheran Church of Missouri Synod and the Lutheran Church of America are large enough to cause inter-personal issues such as these, what is there to say about Christian denominations as a whole? Woody’s statement that he and Kelly are “from different religions” seems to be a comical exaggeration, but is there actually merit to this claim?

In America: Religions & Religion, Albanese defines a religious system in terms of four variables: creed, code, cultus, and community. A comparison of denominations of the Christian faith would in fact show that there are distinct differences in each of these categories. The creeds, or explanations about the meaning of life, vary if even by a small factor. This is illustrated humorously in the above Cheers episode. The codes, or rules for everyday living, are very distinct among denominations too. How often in Christian culture are people arguing about how others of the same faith are living? The cultuses, or rituals to act out the understandings of the creeds and codes, most certainly differ; each denomination has a different idea about baptism, communion, worship, prayer, and other church rituals. The variance in community is the most prominent, as tight-knit church culture is pervasive in Christianity today.

So if each category in Albanese’s definition of a religious system is different for each denomination in the Christian faith, does this make each one a separate religion? This is a possibility to think about, but the answer may be deeper than just generic characterization. According to studied definition, people of Christian faith may belong to many different religions; yet they identify themselves with each other, bonding over a sense of shared beliefs. It follows that this idea of common community and personal connection does not come from the strict categories that Albanese and other religious scholars put forth to attempt to define religion; it comes from the idea that they have unified faith. Many endeavors have been made to characterize and explain religion, but it seems that even ones as broad as Albanese’s fall short when it comes to conundrums like denominations within Christianity. Defining religion is a difficult undertaking; even the most prominent example of religion in America doesn’t seem to fit perfectly into a label. Maybe this is a result of identifying the term with the wrong definition. Perhaps faith and religion are two very different matters, or perhaps denominations are simply examples of “religion inception” (religions within the main religion of Christianity); either way, the lines appear to be blurred, and maybe they always will be.

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Bird Jesus and the Rise of a Religion in a Week

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On February 13th, a social experiment began. An anonymously-run account on Twitch.tv, a website that streams media live, set up a stream for a play-through of Pokémon Red Version, which is a popular game released in America in 1998. Here’s the trick: the viewers control the gameplay by typing key commands into the chat feature of the site. Some special coding allows for these commands to go directly into the game. Essentially, instead of one player controlling the game, it’s a collaborative effort on the parts of everyone who comments. The project is called “Twitch Plays Pokémon”, and can be found here.

A week into the experiment, nothing was going as expected. The project gained rapid popularity with a peak of over 120,000 viewers, drawing massive attention and creating utter chaos. In spite of the conflicting orders by viewers in the chat box, the group was able to make tremendous progress in the game—but this wasn’t the only surprising outcome.

Somehow, Twitch Plays Pokémon has created an entire religion for itself. This is made complete with plenty of conflict, lore, and schisms to boot. Here is the “definitive religion chart” posted by the Twitch Plays Pokémon Facebook page on February 22nd. It’s messy and complicated and almost impossible for anyone who isn’t directly involved to understand—but those who are there contributing to this saga don’t only understand it, they feel it.

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One of many elaborate histories of TPP religion.

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Stained glass window featuring the prominent figures of TPP religion.

Anyone who has watched the live stream would be able to identify themselves to you by their denomination—and justify their stance, too. You can find Anarchists who serve the “Great Helix Fossil” and find their salvation in “Bird Jesus”. In contrast, you may stumble across those who follow the “False Prophet” Flareon and worship the Dome Fossil as their god, citing Democracy as the right path. These two groups struggle against each other for control of the game. Twitch Plays Pokémon, after less than a week of playing, was no longer about playing a video game. This social experiment became its own religion, and then started its own religious war.

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Viewers create art imitating established religious symbols.

According to the definition of a religious system in America: Religion and Religions by Catherine L. Albanese, the products of Twitch Plays Pokémon are indeed classifiable as a religious system. The Albanese definition from the introduction of the book states that religions that include creeds, codes, cultuses, and communities are considered religious systems. Because of the heavy borrowing from Christianity, the Twitch Plays Pokémon religion fulfills the creeds, codes, and cultus aspects with terminology and practice almost identical to those of Christianity—just substitute the names of major figures. The community facet is the only portion of the religious system that was present even before the religious themes became prominent. The community was there from the very beginning of the game online.

How does something like this happen? Something as simple as a group of people working through a video game together has very rapidly generated an entire slough of religious denominations each with their own histories, legends, philosophies, and even artwork. From a Religious Studies standpoint, this is remarkable. So many questions can be asked about this experiment and its products, but the most glaring is this: Why religion?

Why would an internet-based, collaborative video game play-through turn itself into an elaborate religious system? Why not stop at the themes of Anarchy and Democracy and create a political climate? What about keeping to the norms of internet culture, or sticking to the theme of Pokémon games? The incorporation of religion could have happened for several reasons, but the total religious overhaul was entirely unprecedented—and it all started from a game for kids.

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The Racial Makeup of American Churches

After visiting a predominately African-American church as a child, I had a question: “Why is our church mostly white, and theirs mostly black?” Reverend Thomas Barclay, the new head of the United Pentecostal Council of the Assemblies of God had a similar experience with Assembly of God churches.  Since being elected four years ago, he has now tried to bring the two denominations together. While they are not yet trying to merge, they still intend to try to bring the two denominations closer.  The UPCAG has around 70 predominately black churches in America and a couple other countries.  The Assembly of God operates over 360,000 worldwide churches with around 300 predominantly black churches in the US.  

Reverend Thomas Barclay, the man behind the coming together of the UPCAG and the Assembly of God.

Reverend Thomas Barclay, the man behind the coming together of the UPCAG and the Assembly of God.

While I am not Pentecostal, I can still relate to the racial differences in churches.  Growing up in South Georgia, I was raised in a very traditional Southern Baptist Church.  We had black members who attended regularly, however they were by far the minority, as 99% of the congregation was white.  However, being in South Georgia I had many friend who attended predominately African-American churches, and I visited with them on many occasions.  The style and feeling is so different between the two, that I was uncomfortable at their church and they were uncomfortable at mine.  It had nothing to do with race, it had to do with the style of worship and praise you grew up in.

A recent poll of Senior Pastors on diversity.

A recent poll of Senior Pastors on diversity.

A recent LifeWay Research poll shows that 85% of Senior Pastors when asked said that every church should strive to be racially diverse, but only 13% said their church had more than one predominant racial or ethnic group in their congregation.   Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research said that this is due, in part to human nature because, “Everybody wants diversity, but many don’t want to be around people who are different.”  While I do not agree with this statement entirely, I do think there is some truth to it.  While most people do prefer to be around people like them, I would like to believe that many other people are more comfortable with anyone that worships the same God being in the pew beside them.

In America: Religions and Religion by Catherine Albanese, we talked about historical churches during slavery, and how while many slave owners brought their slaves to church with them, there was also a large slave religion in the background, sometimes even unknown by the slave owners.  As the last blog post pointed out, most churches in Tuscaloosa were integrated before the Civil War and slave owners and slaves worshiped side by side, however today Tuscaloosa’s churches, like most around America are predominately one racial or ethnic makeup.  However, this time period in American history also divided lots of religions and denominations in America, because of the issue of slavery.  Segregation is the time period where, like the rest of America, the church you attended was decided by color.  Although in present day America, a black man and a white man can sit side by side at a diner, they are still most likely not going to sit side by side in church, even if they adhere to the exact same religion.

Even when a church is multi-racial in America, they do not tend to stay that way.  In this slightly dated, but still relevant CNN Article, some stories from interracial congregations are shared.  Pastors of interracial churches share that, when preaching and even talking in normal conversation to their congregation, they have to pay careful attention to what they say, because one slip of the tongue could start a firestorm.  They share that it is like being in a campaign.  The article says that, just like in normal culture, skirmishes can still arise over who’s in power and racial issues like interracial dating.  Curtiss Paul DeYoung, co-author of United by Faith, which examines interracial churches, was once the pastor of an interracial church in Minnesota but as he puts it, “I left after five years, I was worn out from the battles”.  The church he was a pastor at eventually went all black.

This raises a question in my mind.  While yes, most people believe that all churches should strive to be interracial as the poll pointed out, is it really a bad thing if they are not? Shouldn’t people be allowed to worship wherever they feel comfortable?  As long as no one is forbidding people to worship in interracial setting, is it such a bad thing if people don’t?  I just feel that people should worship where they feel comfortable, and if that is in a small intimate sanctuary full of people exactly like them or a mega church with many races and ethnicities represented, they are free to do so.

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Water to Wine and Wine to Beer: The Role of the Bar in Religious Combination

header4“Praise the Lord and pass the beer”- decidedly unexpected words to overhear between hymns and sermons. However, Brett McCracken describes the emerging trend of “bar churches,” religious gatherings and services that take place in the comfortable, slightly disarming setting of a traditional bar. Churches like the North Brooklyn Vineyard or Fort Worth’s Kyrie advertise themselves as unorthodox beer-friendly places of worship aimed at reaching the common man. These holy ale-houses serve as communal meeting places filled with daily debates and the casual exchange of ideas. Some churches don’t go as far as establishing an actual service in the bar, but rather focus on Bible studies or ministries with a more alcohol-friendly policy.

Beer and Christianity are not as historically antithetical as you might think. Early Christian monks drank their own homemade beer in lieu of often unsanitary water that spread disease. Monasteries were places of refuge for weary travelers, offering safety, food and drink. Beer and wine were safe and necessary parts of everyday life. The more recent Puritans brought at least 10,000 gallons of beer and 120 barrels of malt to produce even more upon arrival at the New World. Like the monastic brewers, Puritans brewed beer as a way to enjoy already boiled water- which was known to be both safe and unpleasantly tasteless. To be clear- the Puritans did (over)enjoy their alcohol, but the emphasis on beer was due to both necessity and enjoyment. In true American immigrant fashion, the Puritans brought both their religion, and their cultural affinity for beer.

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But in the long and complex narrative of American religious history, why is this small, recent movement significant? Is it a short-lived movement doomed to attract only craft beer aficionados and self-proclaimed edgy Christians? McCracken suggests that the trend is not new, but a return to an older tradition of beer and Christianity. However, the modern relationship is clearly not born of necessity- few people go to bars because they’re worried about their safety. The importance of this trend is not even found in the beer itself, but rather in setting and community in which it is consumed.

Tom Smilie, writer and brewer, explains how beer and bars have allowed him to share and receive ideas. “Sometimes I’ll go alone to a bar and have a great conversation with a person about sports, politics and most often religion.” The bar as a meeting place is important because it creates a space for honest, simple conversation about important cultural ideas. Bars can be seen as a microcosm of their surrounding areas- concentrated pockets of diversity within the larger cultural framework.

In America: Religions & Religion, Catherine Albanese describes the way that different immigrant religious groups interacted in the American religious history narrative. Religious combination between different groups was facilitated by diversity and proximity. American postpluralism, or the borrowing of ideas and practices, resulted increasingly from the new closeness that mass immigration brought. A similar yet culturally microscopic phenomenon takes place in American taverns and pubs that bring together people who would otherwise never speak freely in the ordered structure of a formal church. Scott Sullivan, owner of the Greenbush Brewing Company in Sawyer, Michigan, offers his observations. “We are the community gathering place…I’ll often have a pastor sitting next to an atheist talking about all sorts of things, which isn’t something that can happen in a conventional church setting.”

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The true value of the beer Christianity movement can be seen in the sense of community and simplicity it evokes. It is important to consider the kind of local religious combination that makes up postpluralism on a macroscopic cultural level. This local religious combination is seen not in political arenas or imposing cathedrals, but the mundane places that frame everyday interactions between the common people of America. After all, according to the wisdom of author Ernest Hemingway, “If you want to know about a culture, spend a night in its bars.”

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The Ultimate Confluence: Michael Sam and the Spirit of Christ in America

In his famous book Crossings and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion, religious studies scholar Thomas Tweed describes religions as “confluences of organic-cultural flows that intensify joy and confront suffering” (Tweed). I can think of no better modern example of that idea than the subject matter behind Adam Ericksen’s blog post for God’s Politics entitled “How a Gay Football Player Could Help Redeem the Church”. Michael Sam’s coming out,  and his future as potentially the first gay professional football player, according to Ericksen, has a distinctly Christ-like feel to it.

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Let’s first consider for a second all of the ideas wrapped up in that one title. I want to break it down phrase by phrase.

Michael Sam is gay. Not only is he gay, but he is now in a unique position of prominence in America. Sam’s now famous homosexuality goes along with Catherine L. Albanese’s description of “nations within nations” in her book America: Religions and Religion. According to a Williams Institute study in 2011, about 3.5 percent of Americans identify as LGBT, which is over eight million people. Sam, whether he intended  to be or not, is now a pioneer for the LGBT “nation” in America.

That nation, by Sam’s coming out, is expanding its reach occupationally. Now we are into the “Football Player” portion of Erickson’s title. Through Sam, being openly gay will now be tested on its most popular stage. 111.5 million people watched the Super Bowl a couple of weeks ago, and the league set a record this season by generating over 10 billion dollars in revenue. Needless to say, Sam’s audience is both loyal and eager, and he will certainly have a lot of eyeballs on whatever he does in his rookie season.

The confusing part of Ericksen’s title, at least to me, was the last one. How could a gay football player “redeem” the church? As a protestant Christian myself, I am very hesitant to use the word “redeem” about anyone. Where did we get to the point in America, considering the original state of the American protestant church, that the idea of a redemptive gay football player could even be possible? It seems bizarre, but I think Albanese’s narrative of “manyness” as well as Americanization both apply in this context.

Ericksen’s post seeks to prove the point that Sam’s attitude in and of itself is an example of a Christ-like sense of self-assuredness and gentleness.

“Michael Sam is the right person to be in the spotlight not just for promoting gay rights, but because, when it comes to a sense of identity, he is a good model for the church to follow.” – Adam Erickson, God’s Politics

Sam first came out to his coach prior to the 2013 season, then his teammates, and then, as of last week, to the world. Ericksen’s main point in his article is that his handling of his sudden fame, which brought with its inception a lot of attention both positive and negative, is an excellent example of humility and acceptance for Christians to follow. He describes how Sam’s ability to resist the urge to “mirror” the hostility pointed towards him, and how he embraces the idea that Christians should “take responsibility for how we respond to that negativity” (Ericksen). Sam’s example of a man being confident in who he is, as well as accepting of the criticism of others, is the Christian example according to Ericksen.

As I believe Albanese and Tweed would observe it, this story is a massive collision and collaboration of sexual identity, racial identity, and occupational identity, all observed from a Protestant perspective. Even in the midst of a story that seemingly goes against what the modern conservative church would promote as “redemptive”, the 21st century Americanization of protestant Christianity has allowed us to observe stories like this through a Christian lens, and write blog posts that address them explicitly as such. Where else could you find a story about an openly gay black man who plays a game for a living written by a white male who sees his story as a model of Christ? Only in an America full of confluence.

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Gaga Over Gaga

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In America: Religions and Religion, Catherine Albanese defines ordinary religion as “the religion that is more or less synonymous with culture.”  Each culture has its own style of music, and most people would probably consider music a part of their ordinary religion. Furthermore, many religions also use music as a form of worship in their extraordinary religions, or “the religion that helps people to transcend, or move beyond, their everyday culture and concerns.”

Lady Gaga intertwines music as a part of extraordinary and ordinary religions by singing songs that are played on the radio for people of every religion to hear, but she also sings about a Christian God who loves all people. Gaga focuses on painting an image of a God who accepts all sexualities, including lesbians, gays, transgenders, and bisexuals. For example, in her song “Born This Way,” Gaga sings “There’s nothin’ wrong with lovin’ who you are, ’cause he made you perfect, babe.” These lyrics are a prime example of Gaga’s actions that are angering conservative Christians, who believe that the Bible teaches relationships should be strictly between a man and a woman. Furthermore, Gaga pushes the boundaries of the extraordinary religion that she identifies herself with. In her music video to the song “Judas,” Lady Gaga sexualizes Jesus Christ, bathes with him, and suggests adultery. Again, this video is shockingly offensive to Christians that believe that Jesus was able to die for our sins because he lived a sinless life. The Jesus in Lady Gaga’s music video clearly gives into temptations.

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In Idol Worship: The Beatitudes of Gaga, Xarissa Holdaway describes how Lady Gaga has become a sort of idol to people in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community. Holdaway says, “Her act, living at the intersection of camp’s sheer excess, queer theory’s rejection of heteronormative gender roles, and Christ’s admonishment to love our neighbor and the stranger equally, goes well beyond style and stagecraft.” This is where her music transcends that of ordinary religion into extraordinary religion. Catherine Albanese states that extraordinary religions must have creeds, codes, cultuses, and communities. For Lady Gaga, her creed would be that of all Christians: Get to Heaven. But, Gaga believes in a very accepting God that allows all types of people into Heaven, and that is where her creed speaks to her followers who she labels “monsters.” Next, the creed would simply state “love yourself,” because Lady Gaga believes that is of utmost importance. The code for Gaga’s monsters  in this hypothetical religion has looser rules than that of conservative Christianity, as Gaga disregards normal gender roles. Whether or not Gaga’s followers have all of the components required to be considered an extraordinary religion, they certainly have cultuses. Gaga’s concerts give monsters a feeling of freedom in a place where they feel they can truly be themselves because Lady Gaga has given them permission to do so. Lastly, the community in this case consists of those people who see Lady Gaga as their idol. This community centers around her and her openness  and acceptance. Whether or not Lady Gaga and her followers can actually be considered an extraordinary religion, this example proves how people today are willing to turn to almost anyone or anything to feel accepted into that community that Albanese mentions.

Lady Gaga and her concerts remind me of the sacramentalism Albanese mentions in her chapter on Catholicism. She says, “A sacrament is a place where a divine world is experienced as breaking into the human one.” Moreover, Roman Catholics believed that any object could become a sacrament and would allow them to experience God’s grace. Gaga’s followers seem to have turned her concerts into a sacrament. In that open environment, people of all kinds are able to experience the grace of God that Lady Gaga sings about.

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