A preview of my upcoming talk on social media, emerging adults, and religiosity

Ahead of my participation in the “Emerging Adults: Formation for Mission” conference taking place soon on the Wheaton College campus is an interview regarding my talk:

I would describe the use of social media by emerging adults as a mix of excitement and resignation. A vast majority of emerging adults participate. They describe learning about relationships they already have, connecting with friends and family, seeing pictures, sharing jokes.

They find out about events and news through social media. They search for romantic partners through social media.

On the other side, they can articulate some of the downsides of this use including a lack of focus, not spending time with people (just their feeds), and the conflict that can arise in social media. Not participating means missing key connections and knowledge that others can access. Current emerging adults have known and participated in social media all of their lives and will continue to use social media as they age beyond this life stage.

The emerging adults of today are immersed in social media, technology, and other forms of media and they bring this with them as they consider faith and church.

While there is a lot of work looking at social media or social network site (SNS) use, relatively little of it in sociology and other disciplines addresses how this activity is influenced by or influences religion. This talk will help bring together several years of research projects with my sociology colleagues Peter Mundey and Jon Hill.

Suburban ministry accepts notorious convicted murderer as resident

Suburbanites do not want to be associated with crime, particularly notorious ones. So a recent action by a Christian ministry in Aurora is notable:

Wayside Cross Ministries of Aurora officials said Monday that by accepting “Ripper Crew” murderer Thomas Kokoraleis as a resident, the organization is doing what God commands everyone to do: Show kindness and mercy to all, even enemies, the ungrateful and the wicked.

“We are mandated by our Lord Jesus Christ to love our neighbors. According to Luke 16, anyone in a genuine need is a neighbor,” Executive Director James Lukose said in a news release that Wayside Cross also posted on its website, waysidecross.org

Kokoraleis, 58, was released from prison Friday after serving half his 70-year sentence. He is not on parole, and is free to live where he wants, as long as he informs police…

Kokoraleis was one of four men suspected of killing as many as 17 women in Chicago and the suburbs in the early 1980s. His younger brother, Andrew, was one of them and was executed in 1999.

The Chicago Tribune wrote an editorial several days ago on Kokoraleis’s release:

A judge chose to sentence him to life in prison. But his conviction was struck down over legal errors, and the case was resolved with the defendant pleading guilty and being sentenced to 70 years. Thanks to the rules in effect back then, which allowed him to cut his time in half through good behavior, Kokoraleis was released Friday at age 58. He is expected to live at a Christian-oriented facility in the Wheaton area…

We won’t relitigate Thomas Kokoraleis’ case or his guilt. But we feel no hesitation in saying that life behind bars should have been the certain sentence for what he did. There is something profoundly exasperating about seeing someone who took part in such wanton slaughter being allowed to walk free among civilized people.

I wonder if this will cause any furor long-term in Aurora and the surrounding area. UPDATE APRIL 2, 2019 – The mayor of Aurora is not happy about this.

“In light of the unspeakable nature of the crimes committed by the Ripper Crew, I would hope that Wayside would reconsider the decision that brought Kokoraleis to Aurora — particularly given the Ministries’ close proximity to parks, churches and day care centers,” Irvin said in a statement Monday evening. “I absolutely disagree with Wayside Cross Ministries’ decision to allow Kokoraleis to reside at their facility in Aurora.”

Presumably, there are plenty of nearby residents with possible competing loyalties in this particular case: they would claim Christian faith and also be at least hesitant about living near such a murderer. There would be few suburban cases at this level that could push suburbanites to consider balancing justice and forgiveness – and both suburban and American history suggest they would almost always settle on the side of justice and keeping the issue as far away from their homes and community as possible.

I hope there will be a follow-up either way, whether Kokoraleis lives quietly or falls into trouble again.

1960s white religious leaders: God told us to love our neighbors but did not mean to pick our neighbors for us

My history colleague Karen Johnson recently delivered the first Faith and Learning lecture on the Wheaton College campus titled “Place Matters:  The vocation of where we live and how we live there.” See the talk here.

One quote from her talk (roughly 35:50 into the talk) stuck with me. In opposing open housing efforts in the 1960s through the Illinois Association of Real Estate Boards, white religious leaders said:

“We don’t doubt the words of Him who said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,’ but we do doubt, gentlemen, that He meant to disturb our American heritage and freedoms by picking these neighbors for us.”
Three features of this stand out:
1. I suspect this logic is still in use in many American communities today. Individual liberty about where to live is more prized than government intervention to help those who cannot move to certain places unless they have help (usually for reasons connected to social class and race and ethnicity). While it is couched in religious terms in this quote, I don’t think it needs religious backing to be widely supported by many suburbanites or wealthier residents.
2. Connected to the first point, few white and wealthier residents would today explicitly say that their opposition to affordable housing or government intervention to bring new people to communities is because of race and ethnicity (some government intervention in housing is more than acceptable as long as it helps the right people). They might talk in terms of social class or the character of the community. But, it still often comes down to race and who are desirable neighbors.
3. The mixing of American and religious values is strong. For American Christians, where do individual liberties end and Christian responsibilities begin? Which takes precedence? All religious groups have to think about which ideas and values to take on within particular contexts (whether nations, communities, or subgroups). A good portion of the critique of conservative Protestants often seems to involve the blurring of these lines: can these Christians see when their own stated religious commitments do not align with particular American commitments?

“Distinctive behaviors of the actively religious” across countries

Pew analyzed international data and found that individuals who are actively religious have different behaviors than others in their nation in a number of countries:

DistinctiveBehaviorsoftheActivelyReligious.png

It appears that religiosity affects certain areas more consistently – particularly smoking, voting, happiness, and participation in nonreligious organizations – than others even as these relationships between religiosity and health, well-being, and prosocial behaviors can differ across countries. Of course, why some of these relationships and not others exist, even in the same categories like the example that the more religious do not smoke but religiosity has no impact on obesity or exercise, gets more complicated…

Religiosity of 116th Congress both does and does not reflect changes in American religion

Comparing the religious makeup of the newest Congress to previous Congresses shows several interesting patterns:

http://www.pewforum.org/2019/01/03/faith-on-the-hill-116/

A few patterns to note:

  1. The number of Protestants has dropped dramatically – roughly a loss of 100 from sixty years ago – even as the percent of Protestants in Congress (54%) continues to be higher than the percent of Protestants in the U.S. population (48%).
  2. The number of Catholics in Congress increased from the 1960s into the late 1970s and early 1980s and then has stayed relatively stable. There are more Catholics in Congress (30%) than in the U.S. population as a whole (21%).
  3. The number of religious others is still low and hasn’t changed much over time.
  4. As noted in the summary of the findings:

But by far the largest difference between the U.S. public and Congress is in the share who are unaffiliated with a religious group. In the general public, 23% say they are atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” In Congress, just one person – Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who was recently elected to the Senate after three terms in the House – says she is religiously unaffiliated, making the share of “nones” in Congress 0.2%.

When asked about their religious affiliation, a growing number of members of Congress decline to specify (categorized as “don’t know/refused”). This group – all Democrats – numbers 18, or 3% of Congress, up from 10 members (2%) in the 115th Congress. Their reasons for this decision may vary. But one member in this category, Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., announced in 2017 that he identifies as a humanist and says he is not sure God exists. Huffman remains categorized as “don’t know/refused” because he declined to state his religious identity in the CQ Roll Call questionnaire used to collect data for this report.3

In summary, Congress is overwhelmingly religious and Christian. While America as a whole is still solidly majority religious and Christian, Congress is even more so. This seems to suggest Americans still like to elect people who have a faith affiliation even if there is less information on the actual beliefs and practices of the Representatives and Senators (this data “does not attempt to measure their religious beliefs or practices. “).

From largest Midwest Methodist church to ruins to possible public garden

A prominent Methodist church in Gary, Indiana may not look promising now – no roof for the sanctuary, graffiti – but it could have a future as a unique public space:

Mario Longoni, an urban research manager for the Field Museum, took part in a workshop March 22 coordinated by the Gary Redevelopment Commission to get public suggestions on what should become of the building, which opened Oct. 3, 1926, and at its peak in 1952 was the largest Methodist congregation in the Midwestern U.S. with 3,185 parishioners, officials said.

It closed as a church on Oct. 5, 1975, with a congregation that had shrunk to 320 people.

A 1997 fire and vandals throughout the years have left the building in ruins. Yet Longoni suggested other industrial sites around the world that have been converted into public places, including one in Berlin where he said that redevelopers set aside a wall where graffiti is encouraged…

City officials have suggested the building could become an urban ruins garden, based off of the heavy layers of ivy that cover the outer walls during the summer months…

“It went from being the largest Methodist church in the Midwest to closing its doors within two decades,” he said. “It’s tied in with deindustrialization, urban decay and white flight, it’s the story of urban America.”

There are many churches in the United States, particularly those in Mainline denominations that have lost millions of members in recent decades, that could be utilized for similar functions. If religious congregations disappear or religious groups can no longer maintain the building (such as with some Catholic churches in Chicago), what will become of these structures that were once vibrant? One option is to let them be used for private development, particularly residences. See earlier posts here and here. But, this does not work as well in poorer neighborhoods where there is little demand for property.

Using an older church for public space could fulfill two important purposes. First, it can become a place for the community to gather. Well-maintained public spaces are in short supply in many communities. Of course, this requires money and/or effort from the municipality and neighbors. But, a more vibrant street life and community is a good payoff for putting some resources into a building that already exists. Second, while the church building would become a public space, it can help acknowledge the presence of the religious group in the neighborhood. Many older churches have a particular architecture that is hard to mistake with a commercial or civic structure. The church lives on in a way if the building is repurposed and can provide less-obvious spiritual meaning for future generations. Perhaps the ongoing presence and influence of the church building can be part of the larger cultural victory of mainline Protestants (an argument made by sociologist Jay Demerath) even if the congregation is no longer there.

The end of global evangelists?

The passing of Billy Graham led me to ponder whether another religious leader can rise to a similar stature in today’s world. On one hand, the world is more connected than ever. When Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama are on Twitter, it is not hard to follow religious leaders or to find their words and actions in news sources. An increasingly connected world means that any leader, religious or otherwise, could quickly connect with billions around the globe.

Yet, it strikes me that there were certain conditions in play that helped contribute to the rise of Billy Graham. These would be difficult to duplicate:

  1. The end of World War II and the prosperity of the United States. As an American, Graham emerged from the country that helped end World War II and became the global democratic superpower. Graham could push against communism and project American strength and cool.
  2. The rise of the United States was accompanied by a religious resurgence in the US. As Finke and Stark argue in The Churching of America, church attendance rose through the 1950s before leveling off in the 1960s.
  3. A rising middle-class individualism in the United States that Graham could appeal to. While he often addressed social issues, the path to solving these problems started with changing individual hearts. This individualistic appeal – not new in American religion – now had a broad audience.
  4. A particular evangelistic and global missionary zeal in the United States where fundamentalists and evangelicals had both the resources and energy to try to spread the Gospel. This has cooled off to some degree.
  5. The emergence of evangelicals as a category from the dust heap of fundamentalism which had been pushed to the sidelines of American society in the early 1900s.
  6. The rise of mass media, particularly television, and the regular access billions had to it. Graham was telegenic enough. Yet, this mass media was not the same as today: it had a limited number of outlets so the audience was not as fragmented as later on.

This is not to say that religion is an inert force in today’s world or that new religious leaders could not emerge. Yet, they will do so in different conditions than that experienced by Graham and several generations of world citizens.