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Oscar Sosa for The New York Times: A prayer walk to the site of Super Bowl XXXIX took place on Saturday.
Oscar Sosa for The New York Times
A prayer walk to the site of Super Bowl XXXIX took place on Saturday.

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: January 30, 2005
Latest Update: January 30, 2005

E-Mail Icon jeannecurran@habermas.org
takata@uwp.edu

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A New York Times article on Sunday, January 30, 2005, reminded me of religion as a present social issue in this country. I know scholars, respected scholars in the academic community, who believe that religion is the source of all evil as much as fundamentalists believe that modernism is the source of all evil. This semester our goal is to try to understand how otherwise learned academics and "good" people imbued with the spirit of Jesus, or Mohammed, or Noah can reach a barrier to communication in which they see each other as satanic.

First, there is no monolithic "they" on either side. Every fundamentalist is as much a unique individual as every secularist. Some of the secularists are even religious. It's our job to try to understand the underlying currents that have grown out of our culture and our history, and to try to find some way in which we can all begin to talk to each other again, as humans.

There is tremendous judgment involved in calling people "good" or "bad," and in defining a dualistic world in which you're either "for me or against me." What a sad and boring world it would be if we were all alike. But what a scary world it is when we learn that post modern space and time no longer permit us to keep each other separate unto our own group. For the Wild West individualist that's a good thing - lot's of individual creativity and potential. But for the ones who have known security in their own group, how scary, how normless, how alienating. Maybe, just maybe we need to try to understand each others' feelings, tolerate and respect them.

The NY times article, In Jacksonville, Faith, Hope and Charity at a Super Bowl, is an example of an event where that might be a possibility:

Although religion is also a fundamental component of several Super Bowl week events sanctioned by the National Football League - like the Convoy of Hope, the Athletes in Action breakfast and the Super Bowl Gospel Celebration - those activities are supposed to be inclusive.

"The idea is not to have an event that would allow people to recruit or promote one religion over another," Mr. McCarthy said. "The idea is to be attractive to a wide variety of people."

"Inclusive" is a word that can mean openness to understanding and respect. Of course, it's a social construct, and, as such, is going to mean somewhat different things in different social infrastructures. And there is some reason for secularists to feel concern over at least one wink at the NFL's "no proselytizing.":

[T]he Convoy of Hope [is] scheduled for the day before the Super Bowl in Brentwood Park, a narrow stretch of grass ringed by public housing projects. In addition to a gospel concert, the convoy will offer free food, a car show, a children's zone and such random benefits as free cholesterol testing. Pastor Nick Phoenix, the head of the food subcommittee, told Mr. Garrett and seven other volunteers that the convoy, formed by more than 100 local churches, would be the largest faith-based outreach event that the N.F.L. had ever seen.

"I think this event will really give us a glimpse of how heaven is going to look," Pastor Phoenix said.

The volunteers sipped pink lemonade and unsweetened tea. "Pray Hard" and "Fired Up for Jesus" T-shirts hung on a bulletin board, from which they could be bought for $10. Pastor Phoenix expects 10,000 to 15,000 people to show up at the convoy.

"If you want to hand out tracts, cards that say that you love someone, that's your business," Pastor Phoenix said, winking at N.F.L. rules against overt evangelism. "Sometimes it's as easy as going out and saying, 'I just want you to know, sister, that God has a wonderful plan for your life.' Touch 'em on the hand, look 'em in the eye; it's a memory they'll never forget." (Emphasis added.)

What do we think of that bit of evangelism? What about free speech? Doesn't that give us the right to to say to others: "I just want you to know, sister, that God has a wonderful plan for your life."? But they're creating a car show and childrens's show and health clinic to attract people. What about advertising? And yet just a week or so ago a minister and his wife created a store front in which they invited people in for hot chocolate or tea and storytelling, free. A neighborhood gathering place. But on Sunday, the minister's church group met there. Liberals in the little town were horrified that their children were being invited in for stories as a subterfuge to converting them to this fundamentalist religion. There was no prior indication that the storytelling and gatherings were church-related. (In the NY Times in this past week or so.) See how complex this stuff gets?

Dr. James Dobson is complaining that SpongeBob is making a plea for "accepting as right" homosexuality, just by holding hands and being a social sponge. How different is that from opening a store front storytelling and gathering place that is, in fact, church related? It was the minister's wife who ran the story-telling sessions and gatherings.

Don't make up your mind too quickly. These are all gray areas of persuasion in a world in which we have learned to persuade by investing millions in advertising. And advertising succeeds by creating needs that weren't there before, by suggesting them to us in a setting in which they look attractive. Lots to think on here.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why and how does proselytizing affect religion as a present day issue?

    One plausible answer is that the more power and money the group has the greater their ability to proselytize. Consider this in the same light we currently consider the problem with elections in which 527s and PACS with a great deal of money can gain greater access for their issues and candidates. How does that affect good faith governance discourse? Consider unequal access to dissemination of information.

  2. How would the use of the Presidency to give messages of Christian faith become a present day social problem for a member of Islam?

    One plausible answer is that the power of the Presidency transfers to the President's identification with the fundamental Christian faith, meaning an imbalance of access to social acceptance of a different faith.

  3. Why do you think I saw this NFL Super Bowl possibility as an opportunity to begin illocutionary discourse on religion?

    One plausible answer is that the events have been organized in a geographical locale that is very active in religion. This wasn't imported just for the NFL game. Also at least some of the leaders, as reported in the article, are anxious to bring some of the good things they see in their religion to the community as a whole. That's a positive approach. They are providing entertainment, health care. These are places to start on which communities can agree. And, whether in keeping with NFL demands or on their own, they are limiting their proselytizing to a sentence or two and love, caring, and support. All those things offer opportunities for us to start listening to each other in good faith.

    One dilemma. If you tell me God has great things in mind for me, and I am Jewish, and know that you wish to convert me to Christianity, I may be a little taken aback as to what to say. I need to think on a positive answer that politely reasserts the love of my own God or spirituality or secular spirituality or mythos while assuming that the Christian will be pleased to know I am already saved, in my sense of that term. That is a problem for fundamentalists, who believe that I can only be saved by their perspective, but we ought to be able to come up with some warm and caring responses that simply hold fast to our own beliefs. If we can find some plausible responses that are warm and assuring we will be well on the way to some illocutionary discourse. Good practice.



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