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America Taps Religious Roots In Year of Spiritual Questing

Amercans' engagement with issues of the spirit and faith broadened in 1996, though often in an inchoate and haphazard manner.

The continuing spiritual ferment was readily apparent - from an increased popular fascination with the symbol of angels to the growing number of small groups studying scripture. A nondenominational "Promise Keepers" retreat for ministers drew 39,000 clergy from coast to coast, and New Age workshops continued to thrive. Savvy new evangelical churches with congregations of 1,000 to 15,000 are still growing, despite the emergence of a tough critique charging that the megachurches have altered traditional spiritual messages to fit marketing techniques.

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Churches and religion were much in the news in 1996, in a year that mixed light and darkness. Church burnings last spring damaged some 75 churches, about half of them serving black congregations, in what some experts felt was as much an attack against a symbol of faith as against the traditional heart of black identity and protest.

Presbyterians, Methodists, and Episcopalians, meanwhile, struggled with the question of ordaining gay ministers. And a pattern of financial scandals, in regional church offices and local parishes, continued. In the public-policy arena, the Christian right, led by Ralph Reed, helped deliver the crucial South Carolina GOP primary to presidential candidate Bob Dole. The late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin and other religious leaders formally opposed the "right-to-die" rulings that the Supreme Court will take up early in January.

At the grass-roots level, many experts and ministers are finding greater spiritual searching and maturing among Americans. While not yet reaching the fervor of a traditional revival, the cry for more study, help, comfort, and knowledge is often coming from the pews.

"There's a lot of reheating of the atoms out there," says sociologist Donald Luidens of Hope College in Holland, Mich. "The new revivals among evangelicals and in megachurches are feeding off the times we are in, the social temperature in this late modern period. I don't know if it is a major revival. But ... a new kind of understanding based on experience is coming along."

"I sense a tremendous discontent with things as they have been, things as they are," says Peter Gomes, minister at the Harvard University Memorial Church in Cambridge, Mass., and author of "The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Heart and Mind." "People ... have decided that they are going to really ... search for the Grail. You can feel it across the country. Everywhere you go, ... there is this hunger and thirsting after the deep things of life."

At the Acton-Boxborough Congregational Church in Massachusetts, which has grown to 500 members and two Sunday services, a rigorous, two-year program is being set up to teach a dozen adherents to become "lay ministers," committed to helping their fellow members. During the Christmas season, pastor Tim Gorman of the Faith United Church in Milwaukee used Handel's "Messiah" as a Bible study and found members wanting to "articulate what the church has said for 2,000 years - but in their own language." Bill Moyers's series on Genesis, which appeared recently on public television, has sparked an in-depth analysis of the Bible's first book from Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Catholic, and Protestant perspectives.

"One difference today is that people want a 'thicker' spiritual experience," says William Willimon, minister at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "It's a mixed blessing. You sometimes get a lot of goofy stuff among people who are spiritually unschooled."

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Veteran observers of the American religious scene warn against a tendency among the faithful, as well as the media, to overstate the scope of religious interest in the US. In the past two decades, a "return to faith" has been proclaimed regularly by various media every three or four years - even as mainline denominations have experienced a steady erosion in churchgoing.

Still, the long-standing predictions of theologians - that modern secularizing forces such as market economics, science, and technology would drive faith out of American life - have not been entirely borne out. At Duke University this fall, a well-known professor proposed closing the college chapel, saying religion seemed "outmoded" in academic life. Over several weeks, the school paper was deluged with letters opposing the idea, not just from Christian students, but also from Hindus, New Age seekers, Bahais, and Jews. "Instead of sounding contemporary," says Dr. Willimon, "the call to close the chapel sounded like a voice from the past."

In fact, churches are again becoming a vital part of the social fabric. "Among those looking at trend analysis, it has recently been taken as a fact that churches are part of the civil society," says Jeanne Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Even in America's so-called culture industry, spirituality is selling. Films such as Academy-Award-winning "Dead Man Walking" depict faith unabashedly. "What some critics didn't get about 'Dead Man' is that the only thing that woke up the murderer was the strong Christian love of the nun," says Marilynne Mason, a Denver arts critic. "Ten years ago you wouldn't find that in Hollywood."

The unprecedented interest in the role of the mental state, and prayer, in treatment of illness continued to grow among doctors and patients in 1996. A poll last spring found that 77 percent of Americans believe God can intervene to cure a "serious illness," and 82 percent believe prayer can heal.

Still, many religious thinkers say the latest popular forms of spiritual questing have not much altered a hard core of religious indifference in American centers of power. They continue to warn about a tendency in modern life to forget ethics and faith in the face of a culture that touts stimulation and sensation.

One story last year that is likely to have a broad impact on religious freedom was the US Supreme Court's decision to let stand a $1.5 million civil award against four Christian Scientists in Minnesota. The four, including the mother of 11-year-old Ian Lundman, relied on prayer in treating the boy. A medical examiner attributed the boy's later death to diabetes.

The civil damages ruling by the Minnesota Supreme Court leaves religious practice no longer protected under First Amendment religious-freedom laws that have normally been accorded to religious ministry. In an opinion piece in the Jan. 31 New York Times, Yale Law Prof. Stephen Carter noted, "By refusing to intervene in [the case], the Supreme Court has reinforced a societal message that has grown depressingly common: It is perfectly OK to believe in the power of prayer, so long as one does not believe in it so sincerely that one actually expects it to work - a peculiar fate indeed for our 'most inalienable' right."

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