Tag Archives: american religion

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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The Battle of Faith-Based Films

From left to right: Son of God, Heaven Is for Real, and Noah

From left to right: Son of God, Heaven Is for Real, and Noah

Hollywood is Hell on Earth. This is what some Christians, at least in the South, would have you believe. Many of these people view Hollywood as a place filled with celebrities whose views have long strayed from those of mainstream Americans. A place used as a scapegoat for the “downfall of America.” A place where Christianity is almost nonexistent. A place not to be looked up to in any way. Oh yeah, and that place where all your favorite movies originate.

For years, Christians have complained about the lack of Bible-related films coming out of Hollywood. That is not the case this year. In 2014, there will be four major, religion-themed movies coming to a theater near you: Son of God, Noah, Heaven Is for Real, and Exodus. One would think Christians might be satisfied with so many of these films being released soon, but that is not exactly the case. Seemingly every time a Bible-related film hits theaters, there are numerous religious organizations lining up to criticize the storyline or accuracy of the movie. Paramount, the studio releasing Noah, recently announced that the following clarification would be included with the film:

The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values, and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.

I mean, it’s not like Hollywood has a track record of embellishing the narrative of a “based on true events” movie.  Dr. Jerry Johnson, President of the NRB, summarizes the Christian viewpoint in his article about Noah as, “If the world made it, we are against it, and can provide the list to tell you why.” Instead of continually trying to pick a fight with Hollywood, Christians ought to embrace the fact that the film industry is spending millions of dollars to essentially tell the story of the Jesus and the Bible.

In a similar article, Phil Cooke makes the case for why Christians should support the movie Noah, and other comparable movies. For starters, the story of Noah written in the Bible is fairly short. As with many parts of the Bible, this story leaves many blanks unfilled and leaves the imagination with room to wander. This means that in order to create a feature film, some creative freedom must be left to the writers and producers. This does not discount the entire story as worthless, though. Instead, this introduces a new viewpoint, perhaps never considered by the person watching. Furthermore, I know it may be hard for some to fathom, but there are a seemingly infinite number of interpretations of the Bible. This could be embraced as a way to promote an open dialogue about Christ and the many forms that He takes in different cultures.

These movies are not intended to replace the Bible. Instead of complaining about trivial details, Christians should look to use these movies as a facilitator for nonbelievers. The art of filmmaking has the power to reach an audience untouched by the Christian community. These movies could lead to someone picking up a Bible for the first time in their lives. And, in the end, is that not what all Christians want?

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White Jesus, is that you?

It was opening night of the 2013 Yeezus tour, and rapper Kanye West surprised fans with a dramatic intro to his set. Etherial classical music filled the stadium while a man stood on stage wearing a jeweled black mask. Suddenly, a tall, white, barefoot, bearded man in a long white robe made his way across the stage. As this man approached, the lights around brightened and the image of Jesus was revealed. The masked man removed his disguise, and the crowd cheered on none other than Kanye West. In awe of Jesus, Kanye asked, “White Jesus, is that you?” Jesus then engaged in dialogue with Kanye, revealed that he is there to “show people the light- the light of truth in you [Kanye]”, and slowly exited the stage. Then, Kanye fell to his knees as the beat to his hit single “Jesus Walks” stirred the crowd.

Fans were both surprised and confused as to why Kanye would employ a Jesus impersonator to perform on tour with him. In his interview with San Francisco’s Wild 94.9 JV Show, Kanye stated that bringing Jesus on stage was just another example of the artistry similar to Michelangelo painting Jesus in the Sistine chapel, a sculptor crafting a masterpiece, or an actor performing in a play. Kanye emphasized in this interview that what makes Christianity special and important to him is that he (and other followers) are freely allowed to portray and create images of holy figures. Although there has been controversy around the incident, West ensured fans that he believed his heart was in the right place, and that God knew that his intentions were good. 

Kanye’s Roman Catholic upbringing reinforces his idea that an actor playing Jesus isn’t something that should be seen as controversial.  Like the Jesuits in early America, discussed in “The Color of Christ” by Paul Harvey and Edward J. Blum, West puts emphasis on the power of the physical images of Christ. Not only does he hire a man to play Jesus on stage, but he also wears jeweled interpretations of Jesus’s face and incorporates symbols like light, crosses, halos, and fire into his music video for “Jesus Walks”. These “icons” serve as a symbol of faith for Kanye, and they make the idea of Jesus more tangible and relatable. Unlike the Puritans in early America, West has created physical representations of Jesus which support his belief that people can easily talk to Jesus, walk with Jesus, and have a relationship with him. For Kanye, these physical symbols create an emotional connection and a feeling of closeness to Jesus. West also has similar theological ideas as the Native Americans influenced by the French Jesuits. These Native Americans took the image of Jesus (a “man-god”) that the Jesuits had and combined that image with their own concept of a great hunter that they bargained and exchanged with. Similarly, Kanye creates an image of Jesus that resembles a regular man that can be talked to, walked with, and befriended. The goal, for Kanye, is to create an image and idea of Jesus that reflects the closeness felt by friends or family (a “Jesus is my homeboy” idea) because that’s the image he feels most comfortable relating to. This could be seen as a way to reach out to those who normally wouldn’t experience Jesus in everyday life (like some of the groups addressed in “Jesus Walks”) or to provide a new face to a religion that can be seen as intolerant, hateful, and exclusive toward the groups of people that primarily listen to Kanye West’s music.

The interesting aspects of West’s opening performance were not only that the Jesus was white, but that Kanye specifically called him “White Jesus”. Why employ a white male to represent Jesus when in the music video for “Jesus Walks” the people persecuting the African Americans are white? Other groups of people are mentioned in the lyrics and varying races shown in the music video, but they all represent the different types of typical sinners like hustlers, drug dealers, and strippers. These groups of people are encouraged to walk with Jesus and listen to his words. The main race relation in question is that between the Whites and the African Americans. White security guards with large guns beat and pat down the chained, African American men while another white man cuts down wood to create a cross to burn (in the video, he is eventually revealed to be wear KKK-like garb). This image of race relations created by Kanye is similar to the image in “The Color of Christ” from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In the image, two African American slaves are beating another African American slave. Jesus and the slaveowner are present but on the sides of the scene (Jesus on the left and the slaveowner on the right). Both Jesus and the slaveowner are white in color, but the slaveowner has a more open, dominant role in the picture seen by the face that he is facing forward, exposing more of his body. Through this own style of art (music videos and concert tours), Kanye West creates this same picture which forces us to ask questions about race relations and religion despite the amount of progress people believe has been made.

In the case of “Jesus Walks”, the slaveowner is represented by the men with guns in the video, Jesus is represented by the barefoot, bearded actor used on tour, and the beaten slave (other Jesus-like character) would be represented by West. When the Jesus character on West’s tour enters the stage, he promises that the audience will be shown the light and truth which lies within Kanye. Therefore, Kanye is the truth and the light, and is god-like in the way that he can lead others to walk with this White Jesus. What is it that makes him personify Jesus as white? Is it his Catholic upbringing which would have shown him pictures of a white Jesus? West makes the point in “Jesus Walks” that topics like sex, drugs, and alcohol cover the media and music, but he received doubt and criticism for mentioning Jesus. Therefore, this White Jesus could represent an image easily accepted by the media, a white male, combined with the more chaotic rap music components. There are many controversies surrounding Kanye West’s work, but it can’t be denied that he forces us to take a step back and analyze the relationship between the seemingly opposite worlds of religion and rap.

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The Changing Faces of Marvel and America

ImageEarlier this month, Marvel released the first issue of Ms. Marvel starring Kamala Khan, a Muslim-American teenager. Khan is the first Muslim-American superhero to star in a Marvel comic, though Marvel has featured other Muslim-American characters in the past. The former Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers, has been rebranded as Captain Marvel, a member of the Avengers, leaving the role of Ms. Marvel to be filled by Khan. 

The series is written by G. Willow Wilson, an American convert to Islam. In an interview with NPR this January, Wilson says she initially, “wasn’t sure that the world was kind of ready for a character like this,” but that she has tried to create an authentic character. In creating Kamala’s character, Wilson worked closely with editors Sana Amanat and Steve Wacker. Amanat revealed in a video for the Washington Post that the inspiration for a Muslim-American lead character actually came from a conversation between herself and Wacker, about her experience growing up as a Muslim-American. Wilson said the three “spent a lot of time before [they] actually sat down to script the series working on background issues so that she felt like a real human being. “

Ms. Marvel

Wilson said readers can expect the typical action of a comic book, combined with new challenges unique to Kamala’s immigrant family background. Her family members range from more traditional Muslims, like Kamala’s brother, to more “relaxed” Muslims, like Kamala. But the overarching storyline is one of changing identity, both of Ms. Marvel’s change from white, blonde Carol Danvers to Muslim-American Kamala Khan, and Kamala Khan’s change from normal teenager to superhero.

Marvel’s decision to have a Muslim-American girl star in her own comic will face criticism from some parties for being “un-American,” but perhaps these critics are wrong. If we look at the changing face of superheroes like we look at the changing face of Jesus, we can see a pattern of change of identity central to American religion. Just as the portrayal of Jesus changes as the face of American religion and culture changes, so does the portrayal of other “superhuman” figures.

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In their book The Color of Christ, Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey discuss how differences in Jesus’s appearance over time reflect the view of Jesus Americans held at that moment in time. During the early colonial period in New England, where many Puritans immigrated seeking religious freedom, visual representations of Jesus could not be found, because the Puritans believed that to look to an image of Jesus would constitute breaking the second commandment. However, in Catholic areas, Jesus was often depicted as bloody, and to many Native Americans in French-settled areas, Jesus was portrayed as a “Manitou,” or powerful hunter spirit. Visions of Jesus were changed by every group of people who came into contact with him, and his image came to reflect the views of these groups of people. Eventually, Jesus came to be known as the white man depicted in Warner Salman’s famous Head of Christ (shown above) in 1941. To Blum and Harvey, this showed that, “by wrapping itself with the alleged form of Jesus, whiteness gave itself a holy face,” and you’ll notice that this depiction came to the forefront of the American depiction of Jesus just before the civil rights movement began. 

Though they are in no way recognized as a part of any organized religion I know of, superheroes are still seen as important, prominent, though fictional, figures in American culture, just as Jesus is. Can’t they represent the changing landscape of religion in America, just as images of Jesus represents the view of Christians in America? Perhaps Marvel’s choice better reflects the landscape of America today than past comic series have. As people continue to immigrate to the United States, bringing with them their own religions and traditions, it becomes impossible to ignore the growing number of non-white, non-christians in America, and the need for our superheroes to represent that changing face of American religion. 

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