God, man, faith, FIFA and the World Cup

God, man, faith, FIFA and the World Cup

History buffs probing the origins of the Cross of St. George will find themselves exploring a labyrinth of faith and legend in the Late Middle Ages.

But to see this heraldry symbol, just look at England's flag -- a bright red cross on a white background. Soccer fans may notice that the English side's 2018 World Cup kits feature a St. George's Cross on the back collar. During "away" games, a subtle cross covers the entire front of the red jersey.

This is interesting, since the International Football Association Board's "Laws of the Game" -- used at the FIFA World Cup -- state: "Equipment must not have any political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images." This rule "applies to all equipment (including clothing) worn by players," according to IFAB guidelines.

Does this apply to religious symbols woven into the flags and traditions of many nations?

"It's important to remember that the rules of soccer came from Europe," said Jennifer Bryson, director of the Islam and Religious Freedom office at the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C. "The IFAB began in England. FIFA began in Europe. Both of these organizations are supposed to be truly international -- but their roots are European.

"Basically, the word 'religion' in these rules means 'Christianity.' … FIFA is still trying to come to terms with the rest of the world."

It's hard to imagine a more challenging task than imposing modern European secularism on this very religious planet, said Bryson, in a telephone interview. England's Cross of St. George is just one example of faith mixing with football. Players from Iran wear their nation's flag, with a red "Allah" symbol and two bold horizontal bars consisting of 11 repetitions of "Allahu akbar (God is greatest)." Can Brazilian evangelicals keep wearing "I belong to Jesus" t-shirts under their jerseys?

Bryson has paid close attention during World Cup 2018, looking for expressions of religious faith. She summarized her early findings in a late June lecture in Washington entitled "Exorcisms and Exercise, Crosses and Cross Passes: What the World Cup has to do with Religious Freedom."

The quiet (in terms of news coverage) rise of a secular coalition in US politics

The quiet (in terms of news coverage) rise of a secular coalition in US politics

NEW YORK -- Believe it or not, most Americans think their nation is becoming more tolerant, at least when it comes to warm feelings about most religious believers.

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that, in terms of "thermometer" ratings, Americans felt "warmer" about nearly all religious groups than they did in 2014. Even chilly ratings for atheists and Muslims are approaching a neutral 50 score.

But there was one glitch in this warming trend, with evangelical Protestants stuck on a plateau. Christianity Today magazine noted that, when the views of evangelicals were removed from the mix, only a third of non-evangelical Americans had warm feelings toward evangelicals. Flip that around and that means two-thirds of non-evangelicals have lukewarm or cold feelings about evangelical Christians.

"There's a sharp divide in this country and it's getting stronger. … This tension has been obvious for years, for anyone with the eyes to see," said political scientist Louis Bolce of Baruch College in the City University of New York. "It's all about moral and social issues. Some people don't like the judgmental streak that they see in traditional forms of Christianity, like in evangelicalism and among traditional Roman Catholics."

Bolce and colleague Gerald De Maio have, over two decades, mustered research demonstrating that journalists have shown little or no interest in the liberal side of this divide. While offering in-depth coverage of the Christian Right, journalists have all but ignored a corresponding rise in what the Baruch College duo have called "anti-fundamentalist" activists. Among Democrats, the term "evangelical" has become as negative as the old "fundamentalist" label.

When journalists deal with religion and politics, "prejudice is attributed to people on the Religious Right, but not to people on the secular and religious left. Everything flows from that," said De Maio.

Rise of the "secular Catholics"

As a rule, opinion polls are not as important to bishops as they are to politicians. Nevertheless, CNN anchor Kyra Phillips recently asked Bishop Joseph Malone of Maine if he realized just how out of step he is with current doctrinal trends in his own flock.

"So, bishop, times are changing," she said. "Views are changing. ... So, why not get on board with the 43 percent of Catholics?"

The puzzled bishop replied: "The 43 percent who?"

"Who have no problem with gay marriage," said Phillips.

"Well, their thinking is outside the realm of Catholic teaching for 2,000 years," the bishop responded.

The bishop, of course, was talking about how traditional Catholics wrestle with moral issues, while the CNN anchor was describing views now common with a completely different kind of Catholic.

But in the polls, these days, a Catholic is a Catholic.

"I don't know of anyone who thinks religious identity should be based on polling," said theologian Tom Beaudoin, who teaches at the Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York City.

Nevertheless, he said, it's time for to note what researchers are learning about the lives and beliefs of what he called "secular Catholics." For starters, bishops need to admit that they exist and that some of them want to stay in the church -- while practicing their own personalized approaches to faith.

"Secular Catholics are people who were baptized as Catholics, but they find it impossible to make Catholicism the center of lives, by which I mean Catholicism as defined by the official teachings of the church," said Beaudoin. For these believers, there are "things that they learned about faith from Catholicism. Then there are things they learned from their jobs, from school experiences, from their music and from their favorite movies.

"They are hybrid believers and their faith comes from all over the place."

This is precisely the audience of "liberal" and "nominal" Catholics who were targeted recently with a blunt New York Times advertisement that urged them to quit the Catholic church altogether.

"If you imagine you can change the church from within -- get it to lighten up on birth control, gay rights, marriage equality, embryonic stem-cell research -- you're deluding yourself," argued leaders of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. "By remaining a 'good Catholic,' you are doing 'bad' to women's rights. ... Apparently, you're like the battered women who, after being beaten down every Sunday, feels she has no place else to go."

This advertisement probably says more about critics of Catholicism than it does about Catholic life, noted Beaudoin. Still, it could inspire constructive conversations about how "deconversions" are affecting church life. After all, a 2009 survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that one-in-10 American adults have left the Catholic faith. Four Americans exit Catholicism for every one that converts into the faith.

These numbers matter, said Beaudoin, but it's more important to see the larger picture, which is the growing number of Catholics who are living their spiritual lives in a kind of tense Catholic limbo. Some never go to Mass, while others do so occasionally. The vast majority of them have no idea what they would confess, if they ever went to confession, because they disagree with church authorities on what constitutes sin in the modern world.

In the end, it's impossible to ignore this mass of "secular Catholics" because it's such a large chunk of today's church, he said. In some parts of America, various kinds of "secular Catholics" now constitute a clear majority, while those who affirm traditional dogmas and doctrines are a minority.

Some of these "secular Catholics" eventually leave the church. Others choose to remain on membership rolls, on their own terms, because they find it hard to walk away, said Beaudoin. After all, there are parts of Catholicism that they affirm and they know they can ignore the parts that they reject. They have changed the church for themselves.

From his perspective, Beaudoin said it's important to believe that this trend is "not the result of lethargy, laziness, relativism, heresy or apostasy. ... There will be Catholics who insist on saying that these secular Catholics are falling away from traditional Catholic norms. But I think it would be more helpful to talk about them not as having fallen away from the Catholic faith, but as having created new, evolving spiritual lives for themselves."

Evangelicals vs. 'secularists' (2011)

When evangelical leaders look at the United States of America, they do not see a country defined by the familiar Gallup Poll statistic stating that 92 percent of its citizens profess some kind of belief in God. Nor do they see a land that is only 1.6 percent atheist and 2.4 percent agnostic, according to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. They do not see a land in which another 12.1 percent of the people do not embrace any one religion "in particular," but insist that "spirituality" plays some role in their lives.

In other words, they do not see a remarkably, if somewhat vaguely, religious nation -- especially in comparison with other modern industrialized lands.

No, when elite evangelicals see America today the word that comes to mind is "secular."

In fact, 92 percent of evangelical leaders from the United States who took part in a new Pew Forum survey said they are convinced that secularism is a "major threat" to the health of evangelical Christianity in their land, a threat even greater than materialism, consumerism and the rising tide of sex and violence in popular culture.

In a related question, a majority of U.S. evangelical leaders -- 82 percent -- said they are convinced that their churches are currently losing clout in American life.

In this study, researchers surveyed nearly 2,200 evangelical leaders from around the world who were invited to participate in last year's Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Cape Town, South Africa.

"This rising fear of secularism" among top American evangelicals "really surprised us, especially when you compared their feelings to the more optimistic attitudes among evangelicals in other parts the world," noted John C. Green of the University of Akron, a senior Pew Forum research advisor.

So what is happening? For generations, he explained, evangelicals have "primarily been defined in terms of their conflicts with other religious groups, with other faiths. ... But now, it seems that they are increasingly starting to see themselves in terms of conflicts with those who are either indifferent to religion or who are openly hostile to traditional forms of religion."

Thus, it seemed that when these evangelical leaders used the term "secularism" they were not always referring to people and groups with no religious convictions at all. Instead, they were expressing their concerns about the rising numbers of people in America and around the world that simply do not practice any one form of faith, as traditionally defined.

"They don't seem to know what to call the unorthodox expressions of faith that you see among the so-called 'spiritual, but not religious' people," said Green. Thus, the frustrated evangelical leaders may be "lumping them all together under the term 'secularism.' "

In contrast to this surge of pessimism in North America, evangelicals from other parts of the world were more optimistic about the future. This was especially true among those from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the rest of the so-called "Global South." Other survey results included:

* While only 41 percent of northern leaders believed the state of evangelicalism would improve in the next five years, 71 percent of those in the Global South were convinced things would be "better than now" for their churches. In the Global North, 33 percent of those surveyed thought things would soon get worse.

* While in overwhelming agreement (96 percent) that "Christianity is the one, true faith," these evangelical leaders were somewhat divided on a key authority issue, with 50 percent saying the "Bible should be read literally, word for word" and 48 percent saying "not everything in the Bible should be taken literally."

* Not surprisingly, 90 percent of evangelicals from Muslim-majority nations said Islam poses a major threat to their future work, compared with 41 percent from those living elsewhere. However, survey participants from Muslim lands held more favorable views of Muslims and their faith than did evangelical leaders from other countries.

* The Lausanne Congress participants were convinced that evangelicals in the Global South currently have "too little influence" in the leadership of world Christianity. Researchers found it particularly interesting that leaders in the United States and other parts of the Global North were even more likely to hold this point of view -- 78 percent compared to 62 percent -- than their counterparts in the Global South.

Xmas is fake, so deal with it

As the Christmas pageant dress rehearsal rolled to its bold finale, reporter Hank Stuever found his mind drifting away to an unlikely artistic destination -- a masterpiece from the Cubist movement.

The cast of "It's a Wonderful Life 2" reassembled on stage at Celebration Covenant Church, a suburban megachurch north of Dallas. There were characters from a Victorian tableau, along with Frosty the Snowman, young ballerinas and children dressed as penguins. Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus were there, too.

Then, entering from stage right, came "an adult Christ stripped down to his loincloth and smeared with Dracula blood, dragging a cross to center stage while being whipped by two centurion guards," writes Stuever, in "Tinsel," his open-a-vein study of Christmas in the American marketplace.

"Here is where the Nativity, Dickens and Burl Ives collide head-on with Good Friday, as Jesus is crucified while everyone sings 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing,' ending on a long, noisy note: 'newborn kiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing.'

"Then they freeze.

"Hold it for applause."

The scene was achingly sincere and painfully bizarre, with holy images jammed into a pop framework next to crass materialism. For millions of Americans, this is the real Christmas.

"I wrote it in my notes, right there in that church," said Stuever. "I wrote, 'It's Picasso.' ... I just couldn't believe it."

There is nothing new about a journalist "embedding" himself to experience life on the front lines. Rather than heading to Iraq, Stuever moved to the Bible Belt. He lived in Frisco, Texas, for six months in 2006, then made 12 short follow-up trips during the next two years.

The veteran Washington Post reporter convinced three families to let him see Christmas through their eyes, from the Back Friday craziness to the somber trashing of mountains of ripped wrapping paper. The book's credo is voiced by Tammie Parnell, a 40-something business dynamo who decorates McMansions for women who are too busy to prepare for a Texas-sized Christmas.

"Fake is okay here," she tells Stuever. "Diamond earrings. Christmas trees. If you want me to prove that fake is okay here, let's you and I go to the Stonebriar Country Club pool one day and check everyone out."

The bottom line? Most Americans say they want Bethlehem and the North Pole, but the truth is that they invest more time, energy and money at the North Pole. That's fine with Stuever, who is openly gay and calls himself a "Christmas loser" -- while wrestling with the lessons of his Jesuit education and the loss of his Catholic faith.

"A dip into even the most reverent inquiries by Bible scholars," he argues, "easily leads to the conclusion that there was no actual manger scene in Bethlehem, no shepherds dropping by to see the baby, no star in the east, no Magi, no frankincense, no myrrh. ... Many scholars have concluded, some more gently than others, that the Christmas story is intentionally fictive, written by the earliest, first-century evangelists to beef up Jesus' street cred as a believable Jewish Messiah. Like any superhero, Christ needed an origin story rife with the drama, metaphors and the meaningful symbols of the era."

Thus, "Tinsel" seeks the meaning of Christmas in the material world itself, in the blitz of shopping, in houses draped in high-voltage lights, in the complex joys and tensions of family life. Stuever argues that the binges of shopping and feasting are as ancient -- and more significant today -- than the rites of praying and believing.

For Stuever, Christmas is fake, but that's fine because fake is all there is. He argues that millions of Americans struggle to find the "total moments" of nostalgia and joy that they seek at Christmas because they are not being honest about why they do what they do during the all-consuming dash to Dec. 25.

"It's so easy to see all of the craziness on TV and say, 'Oh, those poor, stupid people,' " he said. "But when you get down there in the middle of it with them and listen to what people are saying and try to feel what they are feeling, you realize that all of that wildness is not just about buying the new Wii at Best Buy. ...

"It's a religious experience for them, even though it couldn't be more secular. They're out there searching for transcendence, trying to find what they think is the magic of Christmas."

Pew gap continues on abortion

If researchers want to uncover the roots of America's bitter divisions on abortion, the first thing they should do is ask millions of citizens this question: How often do you attend worship services? This has been a consistent pattern in recent surveys and it can be seen in most pews, from conservative evangelicals to liberal mainline Protestants, said Greg Smith, senior researcher at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. This pattern is especially clear among American Catholics.

"The people who attend worship services more often are going to be opposed to abortion and those who rarely or never attend are going to support legalized abortion," he said. "You go once a week? It's going to be about two-thirds against. Rarely if ever? It's about two-thirds in favor. ...

"That division is still there. But the big news is that both of these groups have been moving in the same direction for the past year or so. We're seeing support for abortion rights weakening across the board."

A new Pew Forum survey found that the percentage of Americans saying they believe abortion should be "legal in all/most cases" fell from 54 to 47 percent during a single year. Meanwhile, the percentage of people who said they believe abortion should be "illegal in all/most cases" rose from 40 to 44 percent. The "undecided" camp grew from 6 to 9 percent of those polled.

"The nation remains pretty evenly divided," said Smith. "However, what we can see is that support for legalized abortion is weakening in many groups and it's stalled in others. ... How much people practice their faith is a crucial factor in this."

Support for abortion rights remains high among American Jews, but the latest Pew survey showed a drop from 86 percent in favor a year ago to 76 percent now. Support among Americans with no religious affiliation at all fell from 71 percent in favor of legalized abortion to 68 percent.

One of the most dramatic shifts came among members of white mainline Protestants -- liberal churches that have consistently supported abortion rights. The numbers were especially dramatic when church attendance was factored into the equation, noted Smith.

Support for abortion rights among mainliners who attended church once a week fell from 54 to 42 percent, while support among those who said they attended less often than that fell from 68 to 60 percent.

To no one's surprise, opposition to abortion rights among evangelical Protestants remains high, but the numbers have risen even higher in the past year. Church attendance is a major factor, with 79 percent of white evangelicals who worship once a week saying abortion should be "illegal in all/most cases." A year ago, 73 percent took that stance. Among white evangelicals who go to church less often, opposition to abortion rose a dramatic 12 percent -- from 47 to 58 percent.

The contrast between regular and occasional worshippers was also dramatic among white Catholics. Opposition to abortion rights rose from 57 to 67 percent among Catholics who reported going to Mass once a week. Among those who said they attended Mass less often, support for legalized abortion declined slightly during the past year, from 65 to 62 percent.

These numbers are logical because Catholics who are active in the church are exposed more often to sermons, prayers and ministries that incarnate church teachings on the sanctity of human life, said Deirdre McQuade of the pro-life office at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"Those who are less invested in the sacraments -- attending church, receiving the Eucharist and going to confession -- may have less access to the truth about life, and fewer resources to believe and accept it," she said.

In the end, stressed Smith, this survey underlines two realities. First, there is little evidence that America's debates about abortion are fading. Second, it's clear that religious faith and practice remains one of the most crucial dividing lines on this issue.

"It's important to realize that millions of Americans see themselves as caught in the middle" on abortion issues, he said. "Take those mainline Protestants, for example. Even though it seems that their support for legalized abortion is weakening, they probably see themselves as moving from one position in the middle to another position in the middle. They may be changing what they believe, but not very much."

Stalking the anti-fundamentalist voter

Any Top 10 list of slogans for abortion-rights signs would include "Curb your dogma" and "If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament."

At the recent March for Women's Lives, one nurse weighed the tensions between Sen. John Kerry and the Vatican and proclaimed: "I'm a Catholic, I take Communion ... and I'm Pro-Choice." She could have added: "And I vote."

George W. Bush will receive few votes from these voters. They're not fond of Pope John Paul II, Jerry Falwell and other conservative religious leaders, either.

Political scientists Gerald De Maio and Louis Bolce call them "anti-fundamentalist voters" and their rise has been a crucial -- yet untold -- story in U.S. politics. Many are true secularists, such as atheists, agnostics and those who answer "none" when asked to pick a faith. Others think of themselves as progressive believers. The tie that binds is their disgust for Christian conservatives.

"This trend represents a big change, because 40 or 50 years ago all the divisive religious issues in American politics rotated around the Catholics. People argued about money for Catholic schools or whether the Vatican was trying to control American politics," said Bolce, who, with De Maio, teaches at Baruch College in the City University of New York.

"That remains a concern for some people. But today, they worry about all those fundamentalists and evangelicals. That's where the real animus is."

In fact, Bolce and De Maio argue that historians must dig back to the bitter pre-Great Depression battles rooted in ethnic and religious prejudices -- battles about immigration, public education, prohibition and "blue laws" -- to find a time when voting patterns were influenced to the same degree by antipathy toward a specific religious group.

Prior to the rise of Bill Clinton, "anti-fundamentalist" voters were evenly divided between the major parties. Now they're more than twice as likely to be Democrats, forming a power bloc with secularists that the researchers believe has become as powerful as the labor vote.

Bolce, an Episcopalian, and De Maio, a Roman Catholic, have focused much of their work on the "thermometer scale" used in the 2000 American National Election Study and those that preceded it. Low temperatures indicate distrust or hatred while high numbers show trust and respect. Thus, "anti-fundamentalist voters" are those who gave fundamentalists a rating of 25 degrees or colder. By contrast, the rating "strong liberals" gave to "strong conservatives" was a moderate 47 degrees.

Yet 89 percent of white delegates to the 1992 Democratic National Convention qualified as "anti-fundamentalist voters," along with 57 percent of Jewish voters, 51 percent of "moral liberals," 48 percent of school-prayer opponents, 44 percent of secularists and 31 percent of "pro-choice" voters. In 1992, 53 percent of those white Democratic delegates gave Christian fundamentalists a thermometer rating of zero.

"Anti-fundamentalist voter" patterns are not seen among black voters, noted De Maio. Researchers are now paying closer attention to trends among Hispanics.

What about the prejudices of the fundamentalists? Their average thermometer rating toward Catholics was a friendly 62 degrees, toward blacks 66 degrees and Jews 68 degrees.

To no one's surprise, the "anti-fundamentalist voter" trend is linked to the emergence of energized fundamentalist voters in post-Woodstock American life.

"The subculture of the evangelicals was a pretty safe place to live until the 1960s," said De Maio. "Then everything started changing. They have been fighting a rear-guard operation ever since. Once they mobilized, there was this huge counter-mobilization on the left -- which only built on the counter-cultural trends that affected the Democratic Party so much in the 1970s."

It's hard to learn about this political reality in elite media.

Between 1990 and 2000, Bolce and De Maio found that the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post published 929 stories about the political clout of conservative Christians and 59 about that of secularists. Only 18 stories addressed the religious disconnect between the major parties. They searched abstracts at the Vanderbilt University television news archive for similar stories in 2003 and 2004 and found zero.

"What we have found is a prejudice that is not taboo in our educational, political and media elites," said Bolce. "Anti-fundamentalist attitudes are sanctioned at the highest levels of American life."