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Church-state debate never simple, LU group discovers

By Elaine


Separation of church and state - it's clearly stated in the Constitution, right? And it follows that a country that prides itself on the tolerance of its secular society isn't supposed to choose sides. But maybe it's not that simple and never has been.

The topic is timely because the nature of the political campaigns this year has drawn particular attention to the role of religion in our lives.

Learning Unlimited focused on the issue in its March program with the expertise of Dr. Barbara Burke and Dr. Stephen Gross of the University of Minnesota, Morris. What the group found is that religion is as important as ever, but its expression is changing.

Gross, of the History Department, is an avid student of the history of religion in Minnesota and watches national trends as well. He offered three propositions: First, that religion has always played a significant role in American civic culture and politics.

Secondly, we are now experiencing new challenges, proceeding from the ambiguity of the First Amendment and the legacy of the second Great Awakening that occurred at the beginning of the 19th century. The challenges include a growing tendency toward religious illiteracy and new kinds of concerns, such as abortion and euthanasia. There is even a new list of "sins" that reflects contemporary concerns floating around.

Lastly, we are in the advent of "strong religion," characterized by an authoritarian, apocalyptic vision.

Elaborating on these ideas, Dr. Gross described the evolution of the "marriage" of politics and religion since the Evangelical and reform movements, including the Civil Rights movement, that followed the Great Awakening. At that time, how one voted was determined by their ethnicity and religious affiliation. Today, as we've seen with Mitt Romney, a Mormon (and more recently with Barack Obama's attachment to what is known as the Black Church and Liberation Theology), most voters reported wanting to vote for a person of faith, as long as that faith is fairly mainstream.

American and European responses to such developments have differed as Europe experiences more Muslim immigration. But a preference for spirituality over doctrine seems to be everywhere. Increasing ignorance of doctrine has produced some startling results . . . in one poll, 10 percent of respondents said that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife.

Barbara Burke, of UMM's Speech Department, is a scholar of the media and how it operates in a pluralistic society. She began with some statistics from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that, in many respects, supported Gross' observations. The forum found an increasing number of people who do not identify with any particular religious affiliation, and 44 percent are not tied to the faith of their upbringing. Granted, the study targeted 21-30-year olds in order to show future trends, and circumstances may change as the need for stability grows, but it does point to a less homogeneous society than in the past.

When the Pew study addressed where people who "leave" are going and why, the reasons varied: some seek alternate forms of spirituality and others change because their usual place of worship has become too liberal or not theologically sound in their view. The rise of mega churches has also influenced how people view church membership.

Burke rounded out her talk with some thoughts on the media and its constraints. The idea that religion has become not a matter of affiliation but of meaning and being in the contemporary world has spawned fresh trends in journalism. New programs at the University of Indiana and the University of Missouri at Columbia capture the essence of this trend. Things that once had theological meaning now have popular status; for example, Christian music, rather than, say, the content of a sermon, is covered in the religion beat. And recent magazine articles have cast social justice in a framework of religious responsibility and environmental concerns as the future of religion.

The audience proved that Morris holds a range of viewpoints. Some bemoaned the conflicting attitudes of their own children; some described local efforts at reform movements in their traditions; and some echoed the panel discussion by reporting either increased intolerance or more tolerance of issues that used to be cut and dried. But everyone has noticed the growing role of the media as a tool of consumerism that brings religious values into the marketplace and commercial values into religion.

This month, Learning Unlimited joins with the Morris Area Senior Citizens Center to celebrate Minnesota's Sesquicentennial year.

Charlie Maguire, Minnesota's Singing Ranger, is bringing his songs and stories back to Morris as part of Heritage Days on Friday, April 25.

Charlie has a tradition of composing an original work based on Morris area history whenever he visits. Last time he premiered Sam Smith, which is on his latest album.

There are two chances to see Charlie: at 10 a.m. in the Senior Center, and at 1:30 p.m. in the Elementary School Concert Hall. Both concerts are free.

For more information call Elaine Simonds-Jaradat at (320) 589-4394, extension 7, or Phyllis Gausman at (320) 589-2299.