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One nation under gods

By John W. Kennedy

Gone are the days when a local pastor gives the invocation at a high school graduation, a Nativity scene is displayed in the town square, or government workers are given Good Friday as a holiday.

These days, a Hindu cleric recites a prayer to open a state legislative session. A Wiccan chaplain is appointed to a maximum-security prison. The postal service issues stamps honoring Muslim holy days.

Clearly, Christianity is still the dominant faith in the United States, but court decisions, ordinances, and a vocal and increasingly diverse minority have altered the spiritual landscape. This nation, with its heritage of individualism and entrepreneurship, leads the world in embracing false religions. America has become one nation under gods.

The United States is the most religiously diverse country in history, according to J. Gordon Melton, author of the Encyclopedia of American Religion. The tome outlines 2,630 faith groups in the nation, some with practices that include psychedelic drug use, cloning, channeling, nudism, mummifying bodies to await resurrection, drinking blood and a belief in communicating with flying saucers. Altogether, Melton says 1,000 of the groups are non-Christian. He classifies them into 10 families: ancient wisdom, New Age-psychic, magical religions, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Indian faiths such as Hindu, liberals such as Unitarians and atheists, communal clusters such as Heaven’s Gate and metaphysical groups.

“With a high rate of urbanization that allows for anonymity, all types of odd religious movements can grow without pressures from neighbors,” Melton says. “In one sense, God-talk has gone away from the public square because a [wide] variety of religious talk is allowed.”

“A population filled with swamis, priestesses, gurus, shamans and imams may have difficulty distinguishing the salvation offered by Jesus the Son of God,” says Assemblies of God Home Missions Executive Director Charles E. Hackett. “That’s why it’s important that our ministries are on the front lines in spiritually dark places. Church planters, chaplains, Chi Alpha leaders and others are offering the message of hope through Jesus Christ.”

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Today, mosques spring up in tiny subdivisions. Buddhist concepts from nirvana to reincarnation are part of the culture’s lexicon. Corporations teach transcendental meditation techniques. This is, in part, the result of the federal government easing immigration restrictions in 1965, which opened the door for new religions to export their beliefs from Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

“Many of the new religions are really old religions that are finding a new audience,” says Melton.

The inroads an Eastern religion can make in a community are illustrated by the presence of transcendental meditators, who moved en masse in 1974 to Fairfield, Iowa. Today, TM followers, who represent about one-third of the town’s 9,000 residents, operate a fully accredited school, Maharishi University of Management, and trek to golden meditation domes twice daily.

In 2001, some TMers incorporated a new town, Maharishi Vedic City, on the outskirts of Fairfield. Followers of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi have based their borderless “Global Country of World Peace” in the hamlet, complete with its own constitution, flag and currency, the Raam Mudra. The colorful bills include Sanskrit declarations of peace.

Stephen Higdon planted First Assembly of God in Fairfield in 1981, long after TMers had started proclaiming the community’s importance as the world’s center for utopian peace because of their presence. “When you share the life of Christ with nonbelievers here it’s almost as if they are so tired of unfulfilled promises that they won’t give you a chance,” Higdon says. “When you have such diversity and false religion in a concentrated area the unsaved become very callous to Christianity.”

Doyle Robinson, an Assemblies of God church planter in downtown Denver, ministers in the shadow of another Eastern religion: a nearby Buddhist temple takes up an entire block. The group has moved into the mainstream, opening apartments, a restaurant and grocery store on the site. Elementary school- children take tours of the shrine.

The Rocky Mountain Shambhala Center in Red Feather Lakes near the Colorado capital is the most elaborate Buddhist temple outside Asia. A shrine that rises 108 feet depicts Buddha in a meditative pose on a throne. The temple, which took 14 years to build before a nine-day consecration ceremony in 2001, is designed as “an expression of the aspiration for peace, harmony and equanimity for all beings.”

Robinson, who runs a ministry to street kids, regularly encounters non-standard religious convictions among teens. Many wear a pentagram around their neck, rely upon tarot cards for guidance or drink blood as a theoretical vampire method for healing. “Everyone has a belief system and an interest in spiritual things, but most, if not all, of the kids I come in contact with have a negative view of Christianity and the church.”

For nearly two centuries, Christianity was the dominant religion in the United States, both in practice of worship and in influence over institutions. Including God in public proclamations intensified during the communist scare in the 1950s as a means to counter atheism. The Pledge of Allegiance added the words “under God” in 1954. U.S. coins began including the phrase “In God we trust” in 1955. During 1956, “In God we trust” became the national motto.

Yet God’s name fell out of favor in the courts during the turbulent 1960s. In 1962 in Engel v. Vitale, the Supreme Court ruled that authorities could not compose official prayers for recitation in public school. School-sponsored Bible reading and prayer in the classroom were banned by the nation’s highest court as a result of the Abington School District v. Schempp and Murray v. Curlett cases in 1963.

The U.S. Supreme Court stopped school-sponsored graduation prayers in 1992. The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled last year that the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance are unconstitutional because they are “a profession of a religious belief, namely, a belief in monotheism.” The case has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. But in November, Congress — with only five dissenting votes — reaffirmed references to God in the Pledge of Allegiance and the national motto. And Congress continues to start every session with a chaplain-led prayer.

“The light and the power of Christianity has dimmed in the United States in the last 50 years,” says apologist Douglas Groothuis, consulting editor of Dictionary of Contemporary Religion in the Western World. “As it has, there’s more and more room for the encroachment of non-Christian religions.”

Groothuis sees the First Amendment — which prohibits the establishment of a state religion and allows competition among belief systems to flourish — as a mixed blessing.

“The Bible doesn’t command us to coerce or frighten people into the faith or to create laws that exclude non-Christians,” Groothuis says. “On the other hand, because we are committed to the gospel of Jesus, we can’t celebrate the rise of Islam or Buddhism in the United States.”

Meanwhile, unbelief has become a religion, fueled by atheistic and humanist movements on many college campuses. Students for a Nonreligious Ethos at the University of California-Berkeley is one of the largest groups under the umbrella of the Secular Student Alliance. “There is a great deal of competition to get messages to students’ ears,” says Patrick Yeghnazar of the Chi Alpha chapter on Berkeley’s campus. Yeghnazar says SANE regularly sponsors lecture series featuring atheists.

A 2001 American Religious Identification Survey showed that 14 percent of the population claimed to have no religion, up from 8 percent in 1990.

Numerous atheistic philosophers and secular social scientists predicted that people would discard religion as useless when society modernized and technology advanced. Instead, America has become a melting pot of religion.

Efforts to rid the culture of Christianity have been accompanied by a campaign to introduce other gods. Today’s military reflects the new multiculturalism. “The Army Chaplaincy offers ministers, priests, imams and rabbis the unique opportunity to guide soldiers and their families through life’s triumphs and tragedies,” according to a military Web site.

State-appointed chaplains must facilitate all faiths, according to Kenneth N. George, Assemblies of God chaplain at Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution in Plymouth, Wis. “We can’t tell non-Christians that they are wrong; however, we can treat them as Christ treated all the people He encountered,” George says. “A number of men have asked why I treated them fairly, without regard for their religious preference. They may not change their mind while inside, but they remember where to go when they are on the outside.”

A quest for relativism is apparent at Ohio State University’s campus in Columbus, where an atheist student group has battled to remove the words “in the year of our Lord” from student diplomas and to halt invocations at graduation. Meanwhile an interfaith group that includes Muslims, Hindus and Baha’is has been active and widely accepted on campus, according to Chi Alpha Pastor Jeff Alexander.

“They don’t stand for anything except for a coming together of all faiths,” Alexander says. “The university has embraced the group’s message that no faith should tell another faith that their beliefs aren’t right.”

In March, in Manhattan, Kan., the American Civil Liberties Union intervened on behalf of a 17-year-old high school student who insisted that he be allowed to wear a red robe to classes on special occasions. This is in addition to the usual priest’s collar and necklace with an inverted pentagram that he claims are required because he is an ordained satanic priest.

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