Religion's Profile Rises in Pop Culture

1997 was a seminal year for the emergence of faith and spirit as forces shaping larger events.

From the Promise Keepers march on Washington to the tragic suicide of Heaven's Gate cult members, religion played an increasingly visible role in American culture in 1997.

The United States has always been in the midst of some form of religious ferment, from the abolitionists to the anti-abortionists. But in recent decades - a period of increasing secularism - religion and faith rarely found their way into the mainstream in a manner that helped shape the contemporary spirit of US culture.

Yet recently, including 1997, a religious dimension is evident in more high-impact stories that either symbolize deeper cultural trends or have serious implications for the direction of events at home and abroad.

Questions of religious interpretation and meaning long ignored or buried in tiny journals are Page 1 news. TV networks and book publishers - bellwethers of popular taste - feature prime-time programming and bestselling titles dealing with spirituality that would have seemed impossible a decade ago.

"People are comfortable thinking of themselves as spiritual seekers nowadays, which results in religion being defined more broadly," says David Heim, managing editor of The Christian Century in Chicago.

"Also, from cloning to the 'right to die,' issues once thought to be medically or socially unthinkable have forced people back to fundamental moral and religious claims."

Many of the top religion stories were themselves top stories in the secular press this year. The Religion Newswriters Association membership voted "the life and death of Mother Teresa" as its No. 1 story of the year, followed by the Promise Keepers and black women's marches. The editors of The Christian Century chose the 39 suicides of Heaven's Gate as the No. 1 story, with the growing outcry in the US and the State Department over religious persecution abroad as No. 2.

Main stories include genetic discoveries like the cloning of Dolly the sheep by a Scottish scientist, raising major ethical questions about the uses of science. A Supreme Court ruling in June striking down an accommodation for religious exercise puts minority faiths at a disadvantage.

Theological disputes dating to the 15th century arose in Philadelphia as five US denominations debated whether to unite. The Southern Baptist boycott of Disney is another product of the culture wars.

Abroad, religious tensions and persecutions created problems for US foreign policy: Conflict between Orthodox and secular Jews in Israel influences Arab-Israeli relations. Beijing's ongoing crackdown on Christian "home churches" and Tibetan Buddhists fuels fires on Capitol Hill. Still unclear is a US response to the law passed in Moscow to "protect" the Russian Orthodox Church by restricting the activities of "nonrecognized" faiths, which include many Protestant and Catholic sects.

One unlikely development is the number of weekly TV shows, from dramas about angels to sit-coms about priests, on the air this year. In 1995 "Touched by an Angel," an experiment by CBS, was the first overtly religious program to break into the Nielson Top 10 ratings.

Based on that success, four shows with a religious theme or character were put on the air last year. This fall, three more shows appeared, including the somewhat controversial "Nothing Sacred," about an urban Roman Catholic parish - all coming from a Hollywood long uninterested, or even hostile, to faith.

Network research shows viewers have a new spiritual curiosity and desire for more wholesome entertainment. "Religion is something that across America viewers seem to be seeking out," says NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield.

Similarly, in publishing, books related to a spiritual search were the only type of adult nonfiction that did not lose sales last year, according to the American Booksellers Association.

Causes for the recent higher profile for religion and faith are quite diverse. They include a bulge of baby boomers seeking more stable values for themselves and their children, who are used to many choices in the marketplace and are often unsatisfied with the church or temple they grew up in.

Scholars point to an ethos of cultural diversity in recent decades in which tolerance for a wide variety of traditions and faiths has been taught in public schools - a "multireligious" awareness that corresponds with a rise in multiethnic America.

MINISTERS and many other practitioners of faith would argue that people have an innate desire for truth and a sense of holiness that is bestowed by a parent God, and that this is constantly reasserting itself, however awkwardly.

The start of a new millennium is causing religious excitement and expectation among various seekers and is reflected in the media. The Heaven's Gate episode showed a darker side to some claims to "spirituality." "One lesson in these suicides is that seeking religious truth is not always the same as finding," notes a Christian Century editorial.

Certainly one of the central dynamics attributed to a new religious interest is the end of the cold war in 1989-90 - something that started changes in the structures of knowledge and belief that are just recently appearing.

The startlingly quick break up of what many said was a permanent ideological standoff between East and West brought with it a willingness to question many assumptions, scholars say. If the end of the Stalinist empire is possible, perhaps many other things once-thought impossible are too, including transcendence and faith - or so goes the thinking.

In part, the East bloc was itself toppled by ferment caused by religious and human-rights dissenters in Poland and East Germany, which gave faith more currency as a factor in geopolitics. Yet the end of the standoff between democratic capitalism and Marxism also unleashed new and often troubling ways for people to identify themselves along narrow ethnic, religious, and tribal lines.

"The end of the cold war accelerated a process in which political stories have a religious dimension, often tied to ethnic identity," says Mark Silk, director of the Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. "Religion is now part of the mix of news. It is regarded, along with economics and personal ambition and power, as a moving force."

Top Religion News Stories For 1997

The Religion Newswriters Association and The Christian Century voted for the top stories of the year. Their picks:

The Christian Century

1. Heaven's Gate suicides

2. Religious persecution abroad: China and Sudan

3. Tension between branches of Judaism in US and Israel

4. Cloning of sheep

5. Promise Keepers rally

Religion Newswriters Association

1. Legacy of Mother Teresa

2. Promise Keepers and black women's rallies

3. Heaven's Gate suicides

4. Cloning of sheep

5. Approval of full communion by four denominations

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