Hot on HuffPost:

See More Stories

American Religion and the Notre Dame Protests

6 years ago
  0 Comments Say Something  »
Text Size

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.

Outbrain - The Most Trusted Content Discovery Platform

Get Your Content Discovered.

Promote your content on premium websites

Learn More ›

Outbrain Amplify:
Get your content discovered

Your content will be promoted on the web's largest and most respected media properties, including, Slate and ESPN. We make sure it's seen precisely when people will find it most interesting.

Learn More

Outbrain Engage: The solution for a modern publisher

Outbrain Engage is a full stack software solution that empowers an entire media organization to more effectively manage its online content and programming experience.

Learn More

The world's largest content discovery platform

We bring together premium publishers and marketers of all sizes (including many of the world's leading brands) into the world's largest and most vibrant content marketplace. Learn more about Outbrain ›

561 Million

The global audience reached by Outbrain each month*

190 Billion

The total recommendations we serve consumers monthly


Of the world’s leading brands use Outbrain

* Audience reach according to comScore, September 2014. Leading brands via Ad Age DataCenter / Kantar Media, 2014.

Andy Blau
We selected Outbrain not only because the revenues were higher than others, but because its engine drives better recommendations than others.
Andy Blau
Senior Vice President, Group General Manager
Time Inc.
Dan Horowitz
It's less about buying traffic than it is about reaching the right people with relevant headlines to get them to your content.
Dan Horowitz
EVP and Senior Partner
Fleishman-Hillard Digital
Katrina Craigwell
Our goal is always to deliver content that adds value to the conversations being held by the end user. Outbrain allows us to do just that.
Katrina Craigwell
Global Manager of Digital Marketing
Bailey Foote
The fact that we’re able to drive these kinds of transactions with consumers at scale and with increasing efficiency has made Outbrain paramount to our marketing strategy.
Bailey Foote
E-commerce Manager
The Line
Neal Moore
You cannot leave it to chance that someone will find and engage with your content. Outbrain can put your content in the midst of the world’s most prestigious publications.
Neal Moore
Zach Zavos
Having links to our content appearing directly on premium publisher sites helped us establish our brand.
Zach Zavos
Conversant Media
Mike Brito
Outbrain is one of those [critical] components helping us deliver the right messages to the right contingent at massive scale and in real time to counter a crisis.
Mike Brito
Group Director

A global footprint of service

We operate offices in 11 global territories and we partner with publishers and marketers in over 55 countries, including the U.S., UK, France, Brazil, India and Japan. Come join us ›

Our New Approach to Comments

In an effort to encourage the same level of civil dialogue among Politics Daily’s readers that we expect of our writers – a “civilogue,” to use the term coined by PD’s Jeffrey Weiss – we are requiring commenters to use their AOL or AIM screen names to submit a comment, and we are reading all comments before publishing them. Personal attacks (on writers, other readers, Nancy Pelosi, George W. Bush, or anyone at all) and comments that are not productive additions to the conversation will not be published, period, to make room for a discussion among those with ideas to kick around. Please read our Help and Feedback section for more info.

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum Comment Moderation Enabled. Your comment will appear after it is cleared by an editor.

Follow Politics Daily

  • Woman UP Video
politics daily videos
Weekly Videos
Woman Up, Politics Daily's Online Sunday ShowMore»
politics daily videos
TV Appearances
Showcasing appearances by Politics Daily staff and contributors.More>>