The difficulties of defining religion, COVID-19 religious exemptions edition

With people seeking religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates, the question of how to define religion arises.

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Exemption requests are testing the boundaries of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees who object to work requirements based on religious beliefs that are “sincerely held.”

To the benefit of objectors like Holmes, the provision defines “religion” broadly. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has specified that religious objections do not have to be recognized by an organized religion and can be beliefs that are new, uncommon or “seem illogical or unreasonable to others.”

They cannot, however, be based only on social or political beliefs. That means employers must try to distinguish between primarily political objections from people who may happen to be religious and objections that are actually religious at their core.

For many skeptics, resistance tends to be based not on formal teachings from an established faith leader but an ad hoc blend of online conspiracies and misinformation, conservative media and conversations with like-minded friends and family members.

This would not be a surprise to sociologists of religion and others who analyze religion in the United States. On the one hand, American religiosity has formal patterns. There are established religious traditions, denominations, and congregations. Christianity has been a dominant religious form and so its beliefs and practices are widespread. The First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion and no state religion have provided room for religious groups to develop and grow.

On the other hand, for at least a few decades, American religion has been marked by a willingness by many to decide what their own religion will be comprised of. This ranges from people who attend a congregation but do not necessarily agree with important doctrines or practices to those who create a highly individualized faith that draws on multiple traditions. From the “Sheilaism” of the 1980s discussed in Habits of the Heart to those today who would say they are spiritual but not religious,

This then means that a definition of religion is difficult. Is it as simply as saying that someone “would know religion when they see it?” If the law needs precision in order to make decisions, this definition and its interpretation will be very important to deciding who has a viable religious exemption and who does not.

Getting more suburban churches to develop affordable housing

As churches in cities develop affordable housing, how about more suburban churches doing the same? First, what some Atlanta churches are doing:

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The project is one of several in Atlanta where faith leaders are investing in affordable housing for the sake of their communities. Across the country, churches with property in prime locations are turning over one block, one building, one lot at a time through movements like “Yes in God’s Backyard” in California. Atlanta-area pastor Rev. David Lewicki discusses the calling of affordable housing as a ministry.

“We are increasingly convinced that affordable housing is the foundation of beloved community,” the Presbyterian minister wrote at Faith & Leadership. “Housing is a profound and even holy good.”…

Lewicki’s church got involved in lobbying for more inclusionary zoning policies to allow for lower-priced options in their area and began to create a land trust so they could get involved in addressing the legacy of racial and economic segregation in the city…

Affordable housing and community development can seem like just business ventures—which they are—but pastors know how much these issues directly affect their congregants and stem from biblical calls for community.

Here are a few compelling reasons why suburban churches should follow this course:

  1. Affordable housing is needed throughout metropolitan regions. For example, in the Chicago region, experts suggests there is a need for tens of thousands of units. And the need is not limited to Chicago or just specific communities; it is needed in many locations.
  2. Welcoming people goes beyond Sunday morning and indicating to people that they are wanted in the community all week round. It is one thing to be part of a church community; it is another to be fully welcomed into all of the community.
  3. Housing is critical in a suburban environment as it helps in access to jobs, schools, parks, and other amenities that lead to a higher quality of life. Plus, homeownership is highly valued in suburbs so if there are opportunities for congregations to provide affordable single-family homes, this helps attendees match suburban aspirations with reality.
  4. Suburban churches have funds and local power to make this happen. It takes money to buy, develop, and maintain properties. It takes expertise and influence to work with municipalities and concerned neighbors. Congregations are often viewed as assets in communities and they often have built up goodwill over the years.

While this may not be an easy task in many suburban locations as neighbors and communities resist providing housing for residents with fewer resources, religious congregations could help lead the way.

Facebook as the home for religious congregations?

Facebook is interested in partnering more with religious congregations and becoming the online home for their activity:

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Facebook, which recently passed $1 trillion in market capitalization, may seem like an unusual partner for a church whose primary goal is to share the message of Jesus. But the company has been cultivating partnerships with a wide range of faith communities over the past few years, from individual congregations to large denominations, like the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ.

Now, after the coronavirus pandemic pushed religious groups to explore new ways to operate, Facebook sees even greater strategic opportunity to draw highly engaged users onto its platform. The company aims to become the virtual home for religious community, and wants churches, mosques, synagogues and others to embed their religious life into its platform, from hosting worship services and socializing more casually to soliciting money. It is developing new products, including audio and prayer sharing, aimed at faith groups…

Many of Facebook’s partnerships involve asking religious organizations to test or brainstorm new products, and those groups seem undeterred by Facebook’s larger controversies. This year Facebook tested a prayer feature, where members of some Facebook groups can post prayer requests and others can respond. The creator of YouVersion, the popular Bible app, worked with the company to test it…

They decided to try two Facebook tools: subscriptions where users pay, for example, $9.99 per month and receive exclusive content, like messages from the bishop; and another tool for worshipers watching services online to send donations in real time. Leaders decided against a third feature: advertisements during video streams…

“Consumer isn’t the right word,” he said, correcting himself. “Reach the parishioner better.”

Doing church and religion online is well established and not going away. Yet, as the article notes, this raises a whole host of issues. Here are a few of my thoughts in response:

  1. I first noticed the importance of Facebook for multiple congregations when working with data based on congregational websites. Many congregations have websites, of varying degrees of sophistication and presentation, but not all. Some of those same congregations with websites also have Facebook pages and some without websites have Facebook pages. Do congregations really need both? Do they serve different audiences? The advantage of being on a social media platform is that people are already there (as opposed to searching for or typing in a website) and it offers the opportunity for interaction (usually not possible on a website).
  2. This makes sense from Facebook’s end as religious congregations tend to be durable social groups. If there are particular services Facebook can offer (such as helping congregations gather funds), they can gain a sizable market share of religious interaction and gathering.
  3. The religious people interviewed for the story suggested social media was really good for evangelism or reaching out to people. Yet, it is then easy to slip into a particular approach to people – see the conflation of “consumer” and “parishioner” above – and possibly difficult to transition from online interaction to embodied interaction. Worshiping online fits with many American religious features such as individualism and voluntary association but long-standing concerns about helping people move from an individualistic or response-to-evangelism faith to something deeper will continue in this model.
  4. I have lots of possible thoughts on how online religious gatherings function compared to meeting in a physical building shaped by the congregation. While my co-author and I did not address this directly in our book Building Faith, we argue buildings are very important for worship and fellowship.

Designing religious buildings, for function and flourishing

Building off yesterday’s post about the small percent of American buildings that are designed, I was reminded of the book Robert Brenneman and I released in 2020 about religious buildings. Here are several connections between our work and arguments about designing the American built environment:

  1. Different religious traditions and groups place a different level of emphasis on the importance of design and details for religious buildings. A number of Protestant congregations downplay the need for a designed building or the importance of a building. Take the megachurch with its theater/performance space sanctuary or the gym that could be home to services, meals, and basketball games. Yet, we found that congregations can put a lot of effort and energy into the process of constructing and maintaining their building. A building matters for religious groups and it has the potential to shape both the experience of the transcendent and the community for those who use and visit the building.
  2. In Chapter 5, Robert talked with three architects who work with different religious groups to realize their dreams for buildings. These architects have ideas about what religious buildings could or should look like and they interact with congregations to help produce what the congregation and the architect agree on.
  3. Congregations also have the ability to take the space they can access – determined by resources, networks, etc. – and add function and/or their own aesthetics. In Chapter 6, we have multiple case studies of congregations that took existing buildings and molded them to their purposes. Our cases included converting a former military barracks, a church building constructed by another congregation, a factory, and a high school.
  4. Enhancing and adapting buildings is an ongoing process for both religious buildings and congregations. Over time, a religious buildings could be home to multiple traditions and uses. A congregation may find that its needs evolve or they have different resources. Maintaining a beneficial built environment requires effort beyond the initial design.

The fate of religious buildings after COVID-19: different building energy

As congregations and religious groups look forward to attendance after COVID-19, how the congregation experiences the building and services could change. One religious leader hints at this:

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The All Dulles Area Muslim Society, whose main campus is in Sterling, Virginia, said some of its 11 locations have reopened to worshippers with safety measures.“If COVID is gone 100%, I firmly believe our community would be fully back because people crave … to be together,” said Rizwan Jaka, chair of interfaith and media relations.

This is one way congregations could go: they are excited to fully return and resume activity. The energy a building helps create by fostering community connections and particular worship practices is one that many religious people enjoy. Collective effervescence is an important component of religious congregations as the shared experiences within a confined space provides both collective and individual energy. There is something that happens within that physical space that is difficult to replicate elsewhere, let alone via a streamed service or gathering.

On the other hand, some congregations might find the post-COVID-19 gatherings different in terms of building energy. If you have a large space and it is not as full or if there are noticeable changes to buildings and practices, the collective experience might be something different. Changes take time to adjust to and some buildings may not be as well-suited for the changes COVID-19 wrought.

All of this might be hard to predict after a year-plus of significant time away from a religious building. Do attendees return and remember what made the building important and sacred? Do they come back and experience a letdown with a changed experience and context? As my colleague Robert Brenneman and I argue in Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures, religious buildings play an important role in shaping worship and community.

The fate of religious buildings after COVID-19: using space differently

In thinking about religious services and gathering after the COVID-19 pandemic, how congregations use their physical space may be different. One pastor and lecturer notes what likely helped congregations during COVID-19:

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Those that are successful in reemerging from the COVID-19 lockdowns will likely be those that did a better job adapting to the pandemic, said White-Hammond. Eight in 10 congregants in the U.S. reported that their services were being streamed online, Pew said.

Adaptation comes in multiple forms, including in how congregations use their religious buildings. During COVID-19, buildings may have been empty, changing the regular pattern of use with regular services and meetings. The buildings may have been used but in different ways, perhaps with fewer people attending and/or with spacing to try to cut down on spreading COVID-19.

This could lead to long-term changes to how congregations use their space. Do they need their sanctuary of a particular size? Did they need to make room for a broadcast center (lights, microphones, cameras) to better suit services via Zoom? If congregations are providing food and other things for the community during a time of economic and social trial, do they use kitchens and other spaces more?

The most radical turn might be abandoning larger religious buildings for smaller structures where smaller gatherings can happen and there is all the equipment necessary for permanent streaming capabilities. If attendance goes down and more people are interested in accessing services via the Internet/apps/phones, congregations don’t need the same kind of building. I could even imagine a large congregation moving to an office suite in a building and streaming a full and exciting service from there and having better control over lights, sound, and video.

Congregations will have opportunities to assess their space needs during and after COVID-19. As my colleague Robert Brenneman and I argue in Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures, religious buildings play an important role in shaping worship and community.

The fate of religious buildings after COVID-19: building maintenance

As religious groups and congregations ponder attendance post-COVID-19, the condition of their buildings is also important to consider:

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In San Francisco, the historic Old St. Mary’s Cathedral survived when members rebuilt after a fire following the 1906 earthquake but it has struggled mightily during the pandemic to stay open.

The 160-year-old Roman Catholic church, which is heavily dependent on older worshippers and tourists, lost most of its revenue after parishes closed during the pandemic. During those “dark hours,” the Rev. John Ardis had to dismiss most of the lay staff, cut the salary of a priest and close the parish preschool.

The plaster is crumbling, the paint is peeling off the walls and dozens of its stained-glass windows need to be replaced.

Any building requires regular maintenance in order for it to best meet the needs of its users. Churches and religious buildings are no exception. Roofs, heaters and air conditioners, floors, walls, paint, exteriors, and more need checking, repairs, and replacing on a cycle.

The example above hints at two problems COVID-19 brings for the maintenance of religious buildings. First, many congregations depend on tithes or gifts from people in order to keep their building in order. If attendance is down or people are not in the building, they may not give as much in order to take care of the structure. With less money, there are needs to prioritize and basics of the building might fall outside of this as the congregation tries to get by. Second, building maintenance might be tied to the regular presence of people within the building. If a congregation does not meet in the structure for months at a time and/or the group meets online, the building is out of sight and out of mind. It does not need to be maintained in the same way as a structure that regularly has people in and out throughout the week.

Those who do return to services and gatherings post-COVID-19 might find the building needs some work. As my colleague Robert Brenneman and I argue in Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures, religious buildings play an important role in shaping worship and community. Depending on the age of the structure, the funding during COVID-19, and maintenance over the year-plus, the building may need attention or at least to return to its regular maintenance cycle.

The fate of religious buildings after COVID-19: will they be used again?

What will happen to church attendance after COVID-19 is up in the air with one article suggesting “Surveys do show signs of hopefulness — and also cause for concern.” But, the same piece also hints that some religious buildings will not survive because of the trouble from COVID-19:

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In Maine, Judy Grant, 77, was a newcomer to Waldoboro who started watching the services online and then began attending in person…

“I’m extremely disappointed,” she said. “A lot of churches are closing. I think COVID had a big part in this latest shrinkage, but they were shrinking even before that,” she said…

Afterward, people began removing some of the church’s contents, including religious paintings, some furniture, and other items.

Grant said some hope the building will come alive again with a new congregation: “We have to be positive — and pray.”

With all that has happened, some religious congregations will stop meeting and will no longer need their building. If there is an uptick in closings of religious congregations, there might be a lot of religious buildings on the market as religious groups look to sell empty buildings.

As the example above suggests, the existing religious structure could be used by another religious group. Building a new structure is a costly task and a new congregation might jump at the opportunity to acquire and modify an existing building. The religious building could be converted to another use, whether a business office or residences. Or, a developer might see the land as good site for another use all together. Some religious buildings occupy important spaces in communities.

Even as religious groups respond to the winding down of COVID-19, it will be worth paying attention to religious buildings as well as religious congregations. As my colleague Robert Brenneman and I argue in Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures, religious buildings play an important role in shaping worship and community.

The suburbanization of Islam in America

A new study of mosques in the United States highlights the locations of the surveyed respondents:

The location of mosques in terms of the urban-suburban-town parameters are changing significantly. Mosques in downtown areas and in town/small city locations are decreasing. In 2010, 20% of mosques were in towns/small cities, but in 2020 that percentage is down to 6%. One of the reasons for this decline might be linked to the dynamic that the children of mosque participants are moving away to seek education and better jobs. Many town and small city mosques were established by doctors from overseas who were incentivized in past decades to set up practices in underserved locations. These doctors are now retiring, and mosque attendance is dwindling. The decrease in downtown mosques is most likely tied to the decline of African American mosques and the general move of immigrant mosques to the suburbs.

Mosques are moving and being established in suburbs. Mosques in older suburbs went from 21% in 2010 to 33% in 2020. Mosques in new suburbs went from 7% in 2010 to 15% in 2020. The age-old pattern of immigrants achieving financial success and moving away from cities seems to be repeating itself in the American Muslim community.

If I am reading these categories correctly, the percent of mosques in the American suburbs is close to the percent of Americans overall who live in the suburbs (just over 50%).

But, perhaps more interesting, is the change from 2010 to 2020. Mosques became more suburban over this time frame. The explanation with Figure 4 gives reasons for this: specific migration patterns and general migration patterns in American life with immigrants moving from cities to suburbs over time (known as spatial assimilation). It would be interesting to see if the established research in recent decades on segmented assimilation – or other kinds of assimilation according to scholars – has more to say about different groups of Muslims who may or may not follow these general patterns.

For more on this, I recommend the 2018 book Suburban Islam which examines the experience of a Muslim institution in the suburbs of Chicago. Similarly, the 2015 book Religion & Community in the New Urban America considers congregations in a number of religious traditions in the Chicago region (city and suburbs).

Religious parents, congregations, and passing on faith

Sociologists Christian Smith and Amy Adamczyk have a new book where they look at parents and passing down religion to children. In an interview, here is how Smith describes some of the findings:

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The other big surprise was parents’ views of their religious congregations. The common story is that laypeople just want to dump their kids off at church and have religion taken care of by youth ministers. But we found parents just want church to be friendly and a good environment, but they think it’s their job to take care of religious things. That seemed to be kind of a mismatch in how clergy and youth ministers think about parental involvement and the way parents described that involvement…

In the book, you say that a central part of your argument is that what religion is has fundamentally changed from a “communal solidarity project” to a “personal identity accessory.” Can you elaborate briefly on what that means?

This is my historical interpretation of our findings, trying to make the best theoretical sense I can of what’s going on. The idea of a communal solidarity project is that in a former time in American history, religion would have been much more of a collective, community-based experience. It would have been something people shared in common and that had much more of a social dynamic to it. The parents wouldn’t have had so much burden to promote religion because it would’ve just been living in the community. Over time, that world has dissolved…

And you raised the question of mismatch earlier, but I would say this is the real mismatch. Not so much strategy differences between parents and youth ministers, but what church is for. I think some of the main actors that are gathered in congregations have very different ideas of what they’re even doing there. What’s fascinating, sociologically, is how they can continue that mismatch for years and not really figure out the differences between each other—like not really have it dawn on them, “Oh, we have totally different realities going on here.”

These are big picture issues regarding religion in the United States: what is the role or place for parents even alongside the common idea that children should be able to make their own choices? What are religious congregations about: places of religious community and solidarity or places for individual consumers to take what they can get? How do parents and churches interact when their goals might be similar but their means and/or expectations differ?

One notable feature in the books Smith and his colleagues have written about the faith of teenagers and emerging adults is how these patterns among younger adults help shed light on broader patterns in American society. What teenagers take in and how they act does not come out of nowhere. They may be exacerbating existing trends or remixing elements of culture, but they are building on what is already happening with adults, institutions, families, and others.