Topics in the News
Acrimony within Mainline Protestantism
The 1980s marked the third consecutive decade of declining membership for America's top mainline Protestant churches. The United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Church of Christ, and the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. all experienced decreases in membership. For the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and the Episcopal Church the decline was 25 and 28 percent, respectively, between 1965 and 1989, while the United Methodists, the nation's second largest Protestant body, reported losses of 18 percent during that same period. The loss of membership was accompanied by severe decreases in revenue for some denominations. The National Council of Churches (NCC), the umbrella organization for mainline Protestant denominations, suffered great financial hardship in 1989 and was forced to eliminate four hundred staff positions. Mainline churches also faced decreasing enrollments in their programs; Sunday school programs, once a staple of Protestantism, for example, had declined 55 percent during the previous two decades. Missionary work abroad had also declined: in 1965 mainline churches had more than four thousand missionary workers, but by 1989 the number was down to slightly more than twelve hundred. With these losses, mainline churches found it difficult to remain the shapers of American values. Faced with this reality, mainline...
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Activism and the Mainline Church
Mainline churches were heavily involved in the growing antinuclear movement of the 1980s. The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), the Unitarian-Universalists, and the United Church of Christ launched separate large-scale campaigns against the creation and use of nuclear weapons. The Quakers' "New Call to Peacemaking" campaign, which was first launched in 1979, stressed the role that churches had in the peace process and encouraged mainline churches to become more involved in this crucial issue. In 1982 the Reverend Billy Graham, the respected Baptist minister and friend to several U.S. presidents, became involved in the antinuclear movement despite being urged not to by the Reagan administration. Graham traveled to the Soviet Union to attend the World Conference on Religious Workers for Saving the Sacred Gift of Life from Nuclear Catastrophe, sponsored by the Russian Orthodox Church. This event brought together more than six hundred
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Born Again: The Evangelical Movement
The growth of evangelicalism and fundamentalism in the 1980s was a phenomenon that extended well beyond the religious sphere into the cultural and political. Known by many names (born-again Christians, evangelicals, Pentecostals, The New Religious Right) these Christians, mostly Protestants, grew in numbers like no single Protestant denomination. In the 1980s fundamentalists, or militant evangelicals, shared a disregard for modernity as sinful and insisted on the inerrancy of the Bible, the doctrine of dispensational premillennialism in regard to the Second Coming of Christ (the Rapture), and the separation of their churches from other Christian groups that did not believe as they did. They also actively pursued an entrance into the arena of conservative politics. The premier fundamentalist preachers of the era were the Reverend Jerry Falwell, Rev. Richard Zone, Rev. James Robison, and the Rev. Marion "Pat" Robertson. While Evangelicals, or Protestants actively involved in converting others to their beliefs about Jesus Christ, generally hold conservative beliefs toward religion and issues of morality, they may or may not interpret the Bible literally and are not opposed in principle to inter-acting with other Christian churches. A survey taken in 1986 showed that 31 percent of the American population identified themselves as evangelicals. The major evangelical churches of the decade...
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The diversity of Catholics in the United States reflected the diversity of the nation. Catholicism remained the largest single religious organization in the nation, representing 28 percent of the general population. The decade of the 1980s marked the bicentennial of the Catholic hierarchy in the independent United States and the church proved in this decade that it had become a formidable force in the United States, particularly in the areas of politics, policy, and morality. The Catholic Church continued its mission to reach out to immigrants. One in five Catholics belonged to a minority group. The two largest new Catholic populations were Hispanics, who made up 16 percent of Catholics, and African Americans who were about 3 percent of the population, or 2 million people. Struggling to meet the special needs of these new groups as well as tackle the growing dissent in its ranks was the contemporary challenge of the Catholic Church. John Paul II, the newly elected pope, faced a sometimes belligerent American public and clergy who felt that many of the old ideas of the Catholic Church were not fully applicable to the United States and needed to be updated to fit the times. The battle of tradition versus modernity was a conflict that was fought on all levels throughout the decade.
Transition.American Catholicism faced a difficult...
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Catholics Speak Out
In possibly its boldest maneuver of the decade the Catholic Church launched an official condemnation of nuclear warfare and the military buildup that was taking place in the United States. The official pastoral letter titled "The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response" was a 155-page statement issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops on 3 May 1983. The document was two years in the making. During that difficult period bishops debated the merits of issuing such a statement, the political implications of their action, the theory of just war, and United States national security concerns. While the bishops were slow to act, several priests from around the nation took it upon themselves to respond to what they saw as the biggest moral crisis of recent decades. Arch-bishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle, Washington, became an ardent protester against nuclear weapons, so much so that in 1982 he publicly stated that he would withhold half of his federal taxes as a symbolic gesture. Hunthausen was later punished by the Vatican for his association with radical peace-activist groups. Prior to Hunthausen's reprimand Father Daniel Berrigan, a long-time activist, was arrested in 1980 for damaging warhead cones in a Pennsylvania factory.
The bishops' pastoral letter when it was issued had greater...
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Cultural Change and Judaism
The quest to maintain individual identity in the ever-growing pluralist society was a struggle that constantly plagued Jewish culture and increased in the 1980s because of several cultural and demographic factors. The Jewish population had remained steady at less than 6 million since the early 1970s, but with increasingly low birth rates and growths in intermarriage the future of Judaism was in question in the 1980s. In November 1983 a conference on Jewish Population Growth was held in New York to look at these trends and consider ways to reverse them. Jewish intermarriage reached a rate of 30 percent and had tripled in the last three decades. Most traditional faiths frowned on intermarriage, but in Jewish culture this issue was a matter of premier importance, All four divisions of American Judaism viewed intermarriage as a crisis, and all found different ways to cope with this latest threat to the integrity of the culture. Conversion, the process by which a Gentile converts to Judaism, had increased dramatically, easing some tensions in the process of intermarriage, but it was accepted with reservations by some, particularly Orthodox Jews. A major issue to spin off from the intermarriage debate was the question of what religion to consider children born of that union. The Reformed Jewish Church, the second largest division of American Judaism, declared that a child born of a...
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Empowerment and the African American Religious Community
Black Church Growth.
The connection between African Americans and their churches remained a tie that bound, as they consistently led poll after poll as the most religious people in the United States. Ebony magazine estimated in 1984 that there were between 18 million to 20 million nominal black Christians in the United States, of whom approximately one-fourth were regular churchgoers. The largest single African American religious organization throughout the 1980s was the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc., (NBCUSA), which boasted a membership of more than 7 million. The NBCUSA, long a conservative religious group in both its sermons and politics, entered the mainstream with the election of T. J. Jemison as its president in 1982. Jemison wanted to take this century-old organization into the mainstream to help combat some of the social ills that had inflicted the black community. NBCUSA actions, long overdue in the eyes of many African American preachers, came at the perfect time for Democratic presidential candidate Rev. Jesse Jackson, who enlisted the support of the black churches for his political campaigns in 1984 and 1988. The influence of African American preachers on their constituencies remained high. With the growth in gang violence, drugs in the inner city, and teenage pregnancy, African American church leaders focused much of their time dealing with the targeted...
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The New Age Movement
The New Age movement was not a religion as much as it was an amalgamation of several Eastern philosophies blended with postmodernism. Initially some-what of a fringe movement, New Age broke into the mainstream in the mid 1980s and soon found its way into contemporary society in several ways. New Age music, speakers, and books became readily available across the United States as stores selling New Age materials proliferated, unashamed to mix consumerism with religious tenets. American Bookseller in 1988 lists more than twenty-five hundred New Age bookstores, twenty-five thousand titles in print, and $1 billion in sales in 1987 alone. New Age became an immensely profitable endeavor, as well as a somewhat contradictory one. The contradictions arose because the movement's teachings of individuality, counterculture sensibility, oneness with nature, and simple lifestyles clashed with its commercial obsession and use of the media and celebrities—as one Time magazine reporter observed in 1987, its "slightly greedy tone." Curiously, the movement was easily accepted by Americans, many of whom were not particularly religious or already belonged to an established church.
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Bernardin, Joseph Cardinal 1928-
ROMAN CATHOLIC CARDINAL
Joseph Cardinal Bernardin became the symbol, even if unknowingly, of the U.S. Catholic Church's struggle with modernity. A quiet, devout man, he rose in the ranks of the church in the 1980s to lead American Catholicism into a more progressive era. He was an instrumental part of the creation of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' pastoral letters on nuclear weapons, the economy, and AIDS. Bernardin's positions ranged between innovation and traditional Vatican teachings; yet, with his skills of negotiation he was almost always able to forge a compromise. It was his ability to listen clearly as well as speak strongly that separated his vision and actions from other officials in the Catholic Church hierarchy. Bernardin's modesty did not allow him to view him-self as a pure instrument of change, but only as a symbol doing the work that was required of him. As he once said in an interview with Time magazine, "There is a real spiritual hunger on the part of the people. They are not reaching out to me. They are reaching out to the Lord. Perhaps there is a personal dimension, but I am just...
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Falwell, Jerry 1933-
The integration of fundamentalist religion with electoral politics in the 1980s was largely designed by the Reverend Jerry Falwell. Falwell was the spokesman for the conservative religious organization known as the Moral Majority, and he was also the premier symbol for the New Right movement. His realization of the Impact that conservative religious leaders blended with impassioned followers and modern media could have on politics hoisted him to the forefront of a political movement.
Jerry Falwell built his conservative base of operations in the small town where he was born in 1933, Lynchburg, Virginia. He began studying fundamentalism about the age of eighteen and attended Bible Baptist College in Springfield, Missouri, Falwell eventually became a popular fundamentalist preacher and host of his own syndicated television program, The Old Time Gospel Hour. His Thomas Road Baptist Church grew to feature several...
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Harris, Barbara Clementine 1930-
EPISCOPAL BISHOP AND ACTIVIST
Voice of the Voiceless.
Destined never to take the well-traveled or easy path to success, Barbara Clementine Harris made history in 1989 when she became the first woman bishop in the World-wide Anglican Communion. Harris, an African American Episcopal pastor, had always chosen to be a leader and not a follower, both within and outside her church. Her elevation to bishop amazed many, as it provided a towering example of how far women had come in their struggle for equality in mainline Protestant churches. Harris's goal was to extend the boundaries of her church, continually pushing for a more progressive message from Episcopalians on issues of civil rights, sexism, and fairness. Harris's history as a social activist before joining the priesthood remained ingrained and served as a guide in all her religious actions.
Harris was born on 12 June 1930 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a youth Harris attended Saint Barnabas Episcopal Church in Philadelphia and developed a strong relationship with her church and its vision. Harris completed...
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Kahane, Meir 1932-1990
RABBI ZIONIST, AND FOUNDER OF JDL
Rabbi Meir Kahane was obsessed with what he believed to be rampant anti-Semitism in America and abroad. He chose to be always on the offensive, attacking his enemies, allies, or fellow Jews if they disagreed with his tactics. He founded the Jewish Defense League, or JDL, in the late 1960s for the specific purpose of defending American Jews from any form of persecution—real or perceived. He popularized the post-Holocaust slogan "Never Again," vowing that Jews would from this point forward always be prepared. Kahane's extremist views were well beyond the mainstream; he was seen as fanatic by most. In the 1970s after being in trouble with the law in the United States, he turned his attention toward Israel, where his ultra-Zionist views and actions brought him worldwide attention. His entrance into Israeli politics and his racist position toward Arabs added fire and tension to an already volatile situation in a sensitive part of the world.
Kahane was born in Brooklyn, New York, on 1 August 1932, into a distinguished heritage of Jewish rabbis. His great-grandfather had been a rabbi in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and his grandfather and father were rabbis in Palestine. As a child Kahane was prone to getting into trouble in his Flatbush neighbor-hood, but he turned...
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Swaggart, Jimmy 1935-
Image Pop-UpJimmy Swaggart
Prophet or Charlatan?
With as much fame and power as any other televangelist preacher in the 1980s, Jimmy Swaggart was on top of the conservative religious world. From his base in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Swaggart created an empire based on fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible, charismatic performances, and on the condemnation of all groups and religions that did not bow down to his limited perspectives of faith. His devastating fall from grace in February 1988 shocked the nation and put into question the merit of the entire evangelical movement. Swaggart's adultery considerably dimmed the halo of the electronic church.
Rise to Fame.
Swaggart was viewed as a controversial figure even as a youth because of his early relationship with his famous rock 'n' roll cousin, Jerry Lee Lewis. Swaggart was born in Ferriday, a small town in rural Louisiana on 15 March 1935. His impoverished family actively participated in the local Assemblies of God congregation. Swaggart was a rebellious youth and a high-school dropout. His discovery of religion was the catalyst to his personal turnaround. He...
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People in the News
On 11 November 1985 Ezra Taft Benson, a former agriculture secretary in President Dwight Eisenhower's cabinet, became president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
On 13 May 1980 a Chicago theologian, Ralph Wendell Burhoe, became the first American to receive the prestigious Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.
Richard Dortch, PTL president, was dismissed by Jerry Falwell following revelations of his role in the PTL scandal on 28 April 1987.
Fundamentalist Moral Majority leader Rev. Jerry Falwell scolded the United States for "bellyaching" and urged that it give "unswerving support" to President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines on 11 November 1985.
Controversial Nation of Islam leader minister Louis Farrakhan announced on 1 May 1985 that he had accepted a $5 million interest-free loan from Libyan leader Col. Mu'ammar al-Gadhafi.
Rev. Billy Graham issued a bold, controversial speech to a convention of religious broadcasters in Washington, D.C., warning of the "dangers" of television evangelism on 28 January 1981.
In September 1982 T. J. Jemison became the president of the NBCUSA, succeeding Joseph H. Jackson, the president of the organization for twenty-nine years.
On 15 March 1988...
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Rev. Herbert W. Armstrong, 93, religious evangelist, broadcaster, and founder of the Worldwide Church of God, 16 January 1986.
Eugene Carlson Blake, 78, religious leader and a dominant figure in mainline Protestantism expounding the ideas of ecumenicalism, 31 July 1985.
John Patrick Cardinal Cody, 74, head of the Roman Catholic Church's largest U.S. archdiocese, Chicago, for more than fifteen years, 25 April 1982.
Terrence Cardinal Cooke, 62, Roman Catholic Church cardinal of New York City, 6 October 1983.
Dorothy Day, 83, activist, pacifist, and founder of the Catholic Worker movement, 29 November 1980.
John Francis Cardinal Dearden, 80, Roman Catholic cardinal of the archdiocese of Detroit and head of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1 August 1988.
Father John J. Dougherty, 78, Catholic priest and host of The Catholic Hour on radio and television, 20 March 1986.
Rev. V. Carney Hargroves, 85, former president of the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. and the Baptist World Alliance, 25 June 1986.
L. Ron Hubbard, 74, founder of the controversial Church of Scientology, 24 January 1986.
Rabbi Mordecai Menahem...
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Nancy Tatom Ammerman, Bible Believers: Fundamentalism in the Modern World (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987);
Karen Armstrong, The Gospel According to Women: Christianity's Creation of the Sex Wars in the West (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor/Doubleday, 1987);
William Sims Bainbridge, The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985);
Randall Baimer, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture of America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989);
Robert N. Bellah and others, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985);
Richard C. Brown, The Presbyterians: Two Hundred Years in Danville, 1784-1984 (Danville, Ky.: Presbyterian Church, 1983);
Kennon L. Callahan, Twelve Keys to an Effective Church (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983);
Joseph Castelli and Jim Gremillion, The Emerging Parish: The Notre Dame Study of Catholic Life Since Vatican II (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987);
Steven M. Cohen, American Assimilation or Jewish Revival (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988);...
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Important Events in Religion, 1980–1989
- On January 24, delegates from ten Protestant denominations seeking church unity approve a proposal for a common ministry for a projected united church. The new church would be known as the Church of Christ Uniting.
- In April, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) celebrates 150 years of institutional existence.
- On April 29, more than two hundred thousand evangelical Christians gather in Washington, D.C., for a "Washington for Jesus" rally and march.
- On May 4, Pope John Paul II issues a directive banning all Roman Catholic priests and nuns from serving in public office.
- On August 4, Roman Catholic nun and 1979 Nobel Prize winner Mother Teresa visits the United States on a four-day mission.
- On October 11, Rev. Jerry Falwell says that he believes that God hears the prayers of Jews, reversing his earlier position.
- On November 4, Ronald Reagan is elected president after being greatly supported by the New Christian Right.
- Richard A. Viguerie's book The New Right: We're Ready to Lead, revised after the national elections, is published.
- The Dalai Lama conducts a six-week tour of the United States.
- On March 26, the Moral...
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