Matters of faith

Religious liberalism grows in US

Much has been made of the "conservatizing" of American faith - with membership declining in liberal mainline Christian denominations and pews filling up in more conservative churches. A new analysis of data from four decades of University of Chicago's General Social Survey tells a different story.

Religious liberalism has been rising faster than fundamentalism, says Copernicus Marketing Consulting and Research, of Waltham, Mass., which did the analysis. The number of Americans who consider themselves "religiously liberal" rose from 18 percent in 1972 to 29 percent in 2002, while those calling themselves "fundamentalist" increased from 27 percent to 30 percent. The dramatic decline came among "moderates," from 52 percent to 36 percent.

While moderates still hold a slight edge, "American society today is just as religiously liberal as it is fundamentalist," says Claire Cropper, a vice president at Copernicus. Some 1,500 to 2,000 adults are surveyed each year.

One clue to the apparent contradiction: A study in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion found that only about 21 percent of Americans attend services on a given Sunday, though twice as many tell pollsters that they do.

Tougher stand on intolerance

To promote religious freedom around the world, the United States has been keeping tabs on other nations that restrict freedom or allow persecution against religious minorities. US law calls for sanctions against countries with egregious violations. While an annual report spotlights shortcomings, following up with action has been hard to do.

In its 2005 report released last week, the US State Department pointed to the same eight "countries of particular concern" it cited in 2004: Burma (Myanmar), China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Vietnam.

Since last year, only tiny Eritrea has been sanctioned. (In September, a ban was put on commercial export of some defense materials to the country.) Vietnam has promised in an agreement to improve conditions. Many criticized countries take issue with the report.

But the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a government-appointed watchdog made up of religious leaders and scholars from various faiths, is calling for stronger action - particularly against Saudi Arabia.

And it insists that other nations are being let off the hook: namely Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan - US allies in the war against terrorism.

"The omission of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan is particularly troubling," says USCIRF chairman Michael Cromartie. The commission sees both countries as among the most repressive in the world, and as rebuffing US efforts to discuss religious freedom issues.

The State Department bit the bullet on Saudi Arabia for the first time last year, saying that "freedom of religion does not exist" there. But it has waived action on sanctions. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was to take up the issue on her visit to Riyadh last Sunday.

Anglican rift persists

The estrangement in the US Episcopal Church and global Anglican Communion over homosexuality seems to be solidifying, with all eyes now focused on the American church's convention in June.

More than 2,000 disaffected Episcopalians gathered Nov. 10-12 in Pittsburgh, where seven Anglican archbishops from the global south encouraged the group to break from the church and align firmly with the new Anglican Communion Network. The network opposes the decision taken at the last convention to ordain a gay bishop and allow for blessing same-sex unions.

Some leaders in the Communion, which represents 77 million Anglicans, warn of schism unless Western churches repent.

"This is a separation that looks like it's headed for divorce," says the Rev. Kendall Harmon of the South Carolina diocese. It's "a strong pushback against the new theology of the Western churches, and the form it takes will depend on how the June convention responds."

While the majority in the Episcopal Church seek to preserve unity, allowing for differing perspectives, the conservatives say this is all about maintaining the authority of the Holy Scriptures.

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