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The future of religion in America
The future of religion in America
by Wayne Besen - SGN Contributing Writer

On Sunday, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof discussed religious and cultural extremism in Pakistan, where a new cabinet member, Israr Ullah Zardari, defended the torture-murder of five women and girls who were buried alive (three girls wanted to choose their own husbands, and two women wanted to protect them). The Times had another article on Monday about an all-girl rock band in Saudi Arabia that is forbidden from playing live concerts because of their gender.

At home, former Arkansas governor and pastor, Mike Huckabee, appeared on ABC's The View and said that Gay and Lesbian equality was not the same as civil rights because homosexuals have not had their skulls cracked and were not hosed down by police. Apparently, he is unaware of the latest FBI hate crime statistics that show bias attacks based on sexual orientation making up 15.5 percent of all reported hate crimes.

In Rome, Pope Benedict XVI is being criticized this week for questioning the usefulness of Interfaith dialogue in a letter he wrote to Italian politician Marcello Pera. What the pope fails to point out is that thanks to intransigent absolutists, like the pontiff, finding common ground is nearly impossible.

How can we expect interfaith dialogue when we can't even have Interstate dialogue between two Mormon universities 45 miles apart because they have literally turned religion into a political football? When the secular University of Utah played its religious school rival, Brigham Young University (BYU), last weekend, the teams treated the end zone as if it were the Promised Land.

"It's like a lot of other rivalries, except for those at the extremes," Michael Anastasi, managing editor of the Salt Lake Tribune told the New York Times. "For them, it's not only that your school is weak, you're going to Hell, too."

Two years ago, the rivalry was further soured after BYU quarterback John Beck threw a touchdown pass to receiver Jonny Harline, who sank to his knees - as if in prayer - to make the winning catch. Describing the "miraculous" play, another B.Y.U. receiver, Austin Collie, concluded it occurred because students at the religious school lived cleaner lives.

"Obviously, if you do what's right on and off the field, I think the Lord steps in and plays a part in it," said Collie. (For the record, the holier-than-thou BYU was crushed 48-24 in this weekend's game. I'm guessing the Lord was upset at Mormon involvement in California 's Prop. 8 banning same-sex marriages)

If religious groups become fratricidal based on football allegiance, it seems there is little hope for genuine reconciliation with Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender people. We must still work to enlighten the flock where we can, but fundamentalist leaders will only transform their anti-Gay views when popular opinion decidedly turns against them - as it did with race relations in the 1960s and 1970s.

The strategy for the GLBT movement has been to circumvent the ideologues and create change within mainline denominations. I wholeheartedly support such efforts and have contributed to them. Unfortunately, there is scant evidence to suggest that these religious institutions will thrive and form a substantial bulwark against fundamentalism.

In America Theocracy, author Kevin Phillips documents the steep decline of reasonable religion in favor of the rabble-rousing variety.

"Between 1940 and 1985 mainline Protestantism's share of all U.S. religious adherents was steadily plummeting ... Between 1960 and 1997 - the Presbyterian Church, The Episcopal Church, The United Church of Christ and the Methodists lost between 500,000 and 2 million members each. In the meantime, the Southern Baptist Convention added 6 million, the Mormons 3.3 million, the Pentacostal Assemblies of God 2 million and the Church of God (Tennessee) some 600,000."

The implications are that the GLBT movement may be placing its eggs in a basket that is rapidly fraying. It seems that people are either gravitating towards religious extremism or secular humanism, with little appetite for mainline faith. The internet also offers easy access to eclectic spiritual beliefs that one can follow without organized religion. So, the hope that mainstream religion, as we know it, will supplant anti-Gay denominations seems far-fetched.

The trends of urbanization and the discrediting of corporate Republican-style religion will lead, in my view, to more people losing their faith. However, fundamentalist sects will continue to consolidate market share for those who feel estranged or displaced by modernity. In other words, America will look much like Europe in the coming decades - with a secular majority and a small, but still vocal, fundamentalist minority. (Mostly Islamic in Europe.)

I can hear objections from those who rightfully point out that America is more religious than Europe. But, Kevin Phillips reminds us that Europe was once was hyper-religious too - but circumstances change over time.

"As the 21st Century began," writes Phillips. "None of the western countries in which Reformation Protestantism bred its radical or anarchic sects nearly five hundred years earlier - England, Scotland, Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands - still had congregations of any great magnitude adhering to that theology."

© 2008 Wayne Besen. All rights reserved.

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