Stranger in a Strange Land takes place in the future, but it's the future as imagined in the 1950s. This whole past's future conundrum gives the novel's world a sort of retro vibe. The taxis fly and are driven by robots, and men have created spaceships that travel to Mars. Yet, nothing resembling the Internet exists, all phones are land-lined, and one gets the sneaking suspicion that dot printers still rule the day.
Just like the tech, Heinlein constructs the cultural morals and social mores of his future world by drawing from the morals and mores of what would have been his world, i.e., America of the late 1950s. That means that this world still embodies a religious, social, and moral code reminiscent of a conservative America that had yet to be drastically shaped by the 1960s, civil rights, or MTV. You know, a world like one from a Norman Rockwell painting or The Andy Griffith Show.
It can be helpful to remember what Ursula Le Guin said in her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness: "science fiction isn't about the future […] Science fiction is metaphor" (Source, 27). In this case, the future is a metaphor for the past. Could it get any more confusing than that? Sure, if we had the time-traveling car from Back to the Future, but where are we going to find one of those?
Mike spends his first days on Earth in this hospital, and it acts more as a prison than a place to rest up. Even though hospitals are meant to help and heal their patients, they can also be a place where individual liberty is revoked in the pursuit of said health. Mike gets his first taste of confinement at Bethesda (see the "Freedom and Confinement" section under Themes for more on that).
We are also introduced to Jill at Bethesda Hospital. By seeing her interactions with the hospital staff and patients, we get to understand Jill's character right away. We know that she's kind and gentle because of how she treats the patients, even if her interactions with the staff suggest juvenile tendencies. When both characters leave the hospital together, like mother and baby leaving a maternity ward, their coming-of-age journey begins.
A good deal of the novel is spent in Jubal's home, and the house comes with some pretty high-tech gadgets (remember, high tech in a retrofuture kind of way). It has an electric fence, a vault, flood lights, a huge library, and video phones. It also has a stereovision (Heinlein's future answer to TV), but Jubal only hooks it up on rare occasions.
It's a good idea to pay attention to the features of Jubal's house; after all, they say a great deal about Jubal's habits, values, and worldviews (just like anybody's home, really). For example, the electric fence might suggest Jubal is a man who likes his privacy but the fact that he only turns it on in rare instances suggests that he's more concerned about keeping his privacy from certain types of people.
Jubal's influence hugely affects Mike, and Mike spends a great deal of time at Jubal's house early in his developing process, so pay attention to links between Jubal's environment and Mike's progress.
A carnival in the future? And no Gravitron or Zipper rides? What gives? Actually, Mike learns one of his most important lessons here. You see, at a carnival, everyone that isn't a carnie is considered a mark, someone whom you wow and dazzle to the point that they don't know they are being robbed of their money. Kind of like the Fosterite church, right? Mike takes these lessons with him to his new church, assuming he must wow and dazzle his audience to get them to hear him out.
The Fosterite Church is an odd cocktail: one part evangelical church shaken with one part Vegas casino with a dash of Monty Python craziness to taste. The church has bars and slot machines in its entrance way, and the services come with all the pomp and flash of Vegas show—but wait, the Fosterite doctrine is built on the idea that these are all sinful behaviors. As long as people sin inside the church's walls (with products purchased by the church), then all is forgiven. Hmmm.
Mike groks wrongness while in the Fosterite tabernacle, but he's majorly into the way people inside the church grow closer—that has a distinctly Martian vibe.
Here's a bedtime story for you. Once upon a time in a poorly lit bar, Robert Heinlein was having a drink with his friend, one L. Ron Hubbard, a fellow science fiction writer. The two get to talking about religion and how religious institutions get all sorts of social, cultural, and financial perks. People just hand you money, you don't have to pay taxes, and you can do whatever you want whenever you want to (you just have to claim it's religious in nature and the government can't do a thing about it).
A few drinks more and a bet is made. The first one to start his own religion and get rich off of it wins. Heinlein wrote Stranger in a Strange Land, and Hubbard started what is easily the most controversial religion of the last century: Scientology. Hubbard wins. (Source.)
Okay, so there's probably more myth to that story than fact. Sure, Heinlein and Hubbard were friends, but many Heinlein scholars believe such a bet wasn't in Heinlein's nature and never actually happened. Scientologists say the same thing about Hubbard.
Still, the story might contain some truth regarding Heinlein's beliefs on religion. He did think they had more legal freedom than most institutions, and they could get away with stuff any individual couldn't dream of. Also, things people would never, ever consider doing were suddenly doable just so long as they did them under the name of religion. Snake handling, anyone?
The Church of All Worlds takes Heinlein's views on religion (i.e., everything we just mentioned) and blends them with various aspects of Martian and human culture in the novel. For example, the Fosterite church has three levels of membership, while Mike's has nine levels his followers must progress through. In the Inner Circle, called the Nest, the occupants walk around nude, share everything with each other from food to money, and engage freely in sex. Oh, and swimming pools, let's not forget the swimming pools.
These inner levels and what happens in them are kept secret from anyone outside the church, even the government's prying eyes. Whether this is a good or a bad thing seems to depend on the religion. Since Heinlein was a devout believer in personal freedom, the Church of All Worlds is structured to give personal freedom in abundance.
Also, pay attention to how the entire structure borrows heavily from the various people and places Mike contacts. To really get the gist as to why it's set up like it is, you need to really pay attention to what Mike groks as wrong and right in the story leading up to the Church's creation. You can play a little game and try to catch all the things Mike borrows from the other places and people in creating his own church. Then, see if you can make connections between how Mike built his religion in the novel and how other religions—Scientology? Christianity?—were formed.
Hey, wait a minute. Didn't Dante's version of Hell in the Inferno come with nine circles of progression? Huh, we wonder if there's something to that…