Panelist describes religious influences, impacts today


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Photo by Conor Alwell |

James Johnson, a professor in the Department of Religion, speaks as part of panel about British evangelicals Wednesday at the Douglass Campus Center.


An ancient mysterious exile has caused religious controversy in modern times, as a string of disputed claims have emerged after a couple of ancient Hebrew tribes disappeared in the Babylonian period.

Panelists spoke to a crowd of more than 100 people in the Douglass Campus Center on Wednesday about the effects of Jewish heritage on Evangelical and Mormon sects, which profess a direct relation to these tribes.

Though Hebrew Scriptures were scrutinized for generations, it was 19th century Britain that saw the rise of a new kind of movement, said Joseph Williams, an assistant professor in the Department of Religion.

The word for covenant — “Brit” — was combined with the word for man — “ish” — which popularized the notion that the “British” were men of the covenant, he said.

Christian support for the state of Israel and the Jewish people is causing some alarm regarding the ramifications this could have on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Williams said.

“They’re convinced the so-called Second Coming can only occur when a Jewish state is in place,” Williams said. “For many but not all evangelicals, the bottom line is that God gave Israel to the Jews. So any part on Israeli politicians of moving toward a two-[state] solution is denying God’s plan.”

James Johnson, a professor in the Department of Religion, said evangelicals are not the only religious group that claims a lineage to the all-but-forgotten tribes. Mormons have made this their symbol of pride as well.

With Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney capturing headlines during the pre-election debates, unfair criticism has been directed at Mormons for holding anti-American values, said Matthew Bowman, a professor of religion at Hampden-Sydney University.

“Mormons shop at T.J. Maxx just like you do,” said Bowman, author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.” “They have no desire to undermine the Republic. They don’t feel odd. They don’t feel their faith comes into conflict with their desire to be a part of American life.”

Bowman said Mormonism is being criticized for its hierarchical system and community focus because people in the United States tend to tolerate faiths they are familiar with at a certain time.

In the past, people of different religions have come under similar scrutiny, like John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president of the United States.

“For Americans, a good religion should be compatible with American ideals of independence, self-governance and rationality,” Bowman said.

He said many U.S. religions have found themselves in conflict with these ideas.

“When we talk about Mormonism’s struggle, we’re really talking about the nature of religion in America more generally,” he said.

The evangelical subsection is also trying to integrate into another society through going beyond expressing support for the state of Israel, Williams said. A strong movement of Judaic tradition has emerged within the church, which has raised eyebrows in Orthodox Jewish communities.

“Christian Zionism has come to include connecting to the Jewish roots of Christianity and re-conceptualize their worship and identity by borrowing Jewish symbols and rituals,” Williams said. “They directly utilize them to demonstrate that they, too, are God’s children.”

Mormonism is also undergoing a significant evolution in its culture. Stigmas that seem to have always been attached to Mormonism are now being challenged as the religion faces pivotal change because of its reach in the third world, Bowman said.

“Mormonism is known as the rich, white religion,” Bowman said. “The way they worship reflect this, the way they dress reflect this. Putting this religion in poor countries is forcing the church to look at itself, ask itself some hard questions and adapt in a way that’s not really comfortable.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misquoted assistant professor Joseph Williams and professor James Johnson. The quotes were removed. 


By Lisa Berkman

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