Nearly fifty years ago an Oxford sociologist named Bryan Wilson wrote the groundbreaking article “An Analysis of Sect Development” in American Sociological Review. He observed:
“It is here hypothesized that sects experience different types of tension which vary according to their own constellation of values, as well as the circumstances of their origin. In response to such tensions, in the attempt at their management, we may expect to find the genesis of processes which cause some sects to develop into denominations, others to wither, some to be exterminated, some to fragment, and some to remain, over several generations, as sects.” Wilson’s work explained why some sects (like the Assemblies of God) become denominations, and some (like Jehovah’s Witnesses) never quite get there.
But Wilson didn’t think to ask: can denominations regress? In other words, having arrived in the theological mainstream, can religious groups start sliding back down the evolutionary slope towards sect and cult? Or do they just split, with the “denominationalists” going one way and the sectarians another? When you look at the current state of the Episcopal Church, the Southern Baptists and the Roman Catholic Church, you have to wonder: are these groups turning back to their long ago abandoned sectarian ways?
The National Catholic Reporter, for instance, analyzes a Pew Research Center poll showing that Catholics like torture again. (And you thought that went out with the end of the Inquisition.) And Southern Baptists, who began ordaining women to the ministry in the mid-1960’s, no longer do, explaining that “the office of pastor is limited to men.” And the Archbishop of Canterbury, spritual leader of the Anglican Communion (the “mother church” of the Episcopal Church) has just defended Nigerian Primate Peter Akinola’s decidedly un-Christ-like defense of rioting Christians.
Entropy, it seems, infects even religious movements. Of course, that’s nothing new: the Revelation of John issued a scathing indictment of the church at Ephesus for “forsaking” its early fervor for the gospel. (Revelation 2:4)
Political movements are entropic of course. Even democratic governments inevitably drift towards authoritarianism, and thus are ever in need of vigilance to curb their decline. But they usually last a bit longer than they did in Afghanistan. This week the world has watched with fascinated horror as a Kabul court put Abdul Rahman on trial for apostasy, in what could have led to a death sentence. Rahman, who became a Christian 17 years ago, was likely freed today not because the Court ruled in favor of religious freedom, but because of the furor over the case from West, the court citing “gaps” in the evidence, as well as the possibility that the defendant was mentally ill. This, in a nation with a “democratically elected” government, whose constitution was mid-wifed by America, and whose “freedom” was purchased with American blood.
The neo-cons seem genuinely puzzled that the regime of thugs they put in place after the regime of thugs they ousted would act like such thugs. Michelle Malkin cried “Who Will Save Abdul Rahman?” Andrew Sullivan sniffed “that a religious faith contains this kind of fanatical intolerance and violence anywhere is disturbing.” And the Unification Church (that bastion of religious tolerance and democratic freedom), pontificated in its Washington Times: “If this manipulation of the law can save the life of a man who is only following his conscience, we must be grateful for that much.” The Moonie owned Times also noted that its favorite Christian, George W. Bush, was “deeply troubled” that “a country we helped liberate would hold a person to account because they chose a particular religion over another.”
Maybe the Afghans don’t really believe in democracy after all. Or maybe they did, but then gave up, like John’s Ephesian Church. But, is a democracy imposed by an imperial power in any sense a democracy at all? And if it’s not, why not choose entropy instead?