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American Religion and the Notre Dame Protests

5 years ago
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People should stop scattering plastic baby corpses across Notre Dame's campus. Some think they're scaring the children - and the rest of America.

But such zealous protests, and anti-protests, continue to take place at the University of Notre Dame, a traditionally Roman Catholic institution where President Obama will speak this weekend at commencement. Traditional, pro-life Catholics are opposed to hosting the pro-choice Obama.

To object to the president's invitation -- which also includes the rewarding of an honorary degree -- super-charged out-criers have taken up the old call to battle. Armed with fake dead babies, bloodied and in strollers, picket signs, and banners with life size photos of aborted fetuses and quotes like "Tiny People are not Trash," these fervent believers, will continue to toe the hard line of their Catholic beliefs through Sunday.

Neither new nor unique, this kind of fervor shouldn't be a surprise. However, according to an April report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, it may be putting a bad taste in the mouths of an increasing number of people. The report, which is titled "Faith in Flux," was brought to my attention after reading an article at The American Prospect online in which author Courtney Martin condemns "the religious right's era of unquestioning Christianity." Martin points out a Pew finding that says "roughly half of U.S. adults have changed religion at some point in their life," indicating a clear fluidity of religious beliefs.

Why all the changing? Martin rightly acknowledges that most Americans' relationship with God is complex. Many find themselves trying to reconcile the rules of religion and their own personal experiences, finding better religious matches as they get older.

But Martin also says that with all of this fluidity, more and more people are winding up on the wayside. Rather than finding a good fit, they choose to remain unaffiliated. According to Martin, that's mostly because they think religious people are loony. As Martin notes, half of the religiously unaffiliated (now 1 in 6 Americans) think of "religious people as hypocritical, judgmental or insincere." These so-called religious "nones" think religious organizations are too structured, have too many rules, and don't focus enough on basic human spirituality.

She translates this all to mean that "Americans [don't] just reject the politics of the religious right. They [reject] the hubris and simplistic nature of strict religion" (italics mine). People aren't only being driven away by the melding of church and state, as exemplified by the sort of Bush-era faith-based politics that allowed for a National Prayer Day service in the East Room of the White House. It is general religious zealotry and fanaticism, a so-called mark of the religious right, that's making a growing number of people squirm. Equating these qualities to closed-mindedness, non-inclusion, and hubris, Martin concludes that more Americans are turned-off by fanatical and steadfast devotion, like the kind that is fueling the Notre Dame protests. They prefer a measured spirituality instead.

While Martin seems to suggest that world religions lose supporters when they engage in practices that are too hard-lined and uncompromising, Notre Dame's Dr. Carol Halperin says that history proves just the opposite. Halperin has taught a course on America's history with utopian communities, cults, and mainstream religions, and says that as the church waters down doctrine and becomes more "reasonable," the appeal and value of belonging to it decreases. "Denominations that have become more mainstream have in the process lost supporters, lost strength," says Halperin. This leads to widespread defection. As Halperin notes, when religions "maintain their original fervor and don't compromise on their core values, like Mormonism for example, [they] have gained in strength and population."

Meanwhile, Halperin says that while we typically moan and gripe about religious rules, expectations, and limits, we actually really want them. It's just a matter of deciding which set. So while the religious non-identifiers are currently the fastest growing group on the American faith landscape, this doesn't mean that "nones" choose spiritual laxity over spiritual fervor. The non-affiliated actually have the lowest retention rates, and most Americans who were raised unaffiliated now belong to a religious group or tradition. Many non-identifiers seem to be simply in limbo, testing the waters of various religious lives.

There are those who want to portray the fervent Notre Dame pro-lifers as extremists, cultish zealots whose whack-o and self-righteous tendencies are to be avoided, certainly not embraced as a part of religion. But Halperin says these protests are healthy, forcing not just Catholics but all people of faith to think about what they stand for and who they are. While she's not a protester, Halperin understands their motivations. "I would rather belong to a religion that stands for something and endures persecution for it than be popular and/or harmless," she says.

"Catholics, at least practicing Catholics, expect their religious leaders to be uncompromising . . . to take a hard line position on the sanctity of life," says Halperin, singling out a top rule of Catholicism - no abortion. "They'd be disillusioned and disappointed otherwise." Disappointment and disillusion is what we're seeing with the Notre Dame protesters, who feel the storied Roman Catholic institution has sold out for glamor and prestige when it would not have done so in the past.

"A rational person, Catholic or not, will see [the protests] as simply passionate," says Halperin, who acknowledges that at their heart, a lot of Catholics feel just as passionately about the issue but choose to express it in less crude ways. "As for them being non-inclusive and close-minded . . . that's their role."

"This is the foundation of Catholicism, that life begins at conceptions and must be regarded as sacred, so I think this controversy will ultimately strengthen the Church," Halperin says. "But there are also those who are disappointed in Notre Dame, even Catholic Obama supporters, because they feel Notre Dame is supposed to hold itself to higher standards."

The presence of such a controversy speaks to the university's double bind - the willingness to shift toward what may stand for long-term tolerance and moderation while at the same time maintaining the strict tenets of Catholicism. For those who will not be in attendance as Obama takes the stage, but will rather be at the Grotto with rosary in hand, their religion's survival comes before their university's wider brand. It's a battle of belief underpinning the abortion debate. They're not crazy for fighting it.

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