Hurricanes and political storms, near my desk in D.C.

A long time ago (in digital terms), back at the beginning of this here weblog, I sat at my desk in West Palm Beach, Fla., listening to the sound of an oncoming hurricane and thinking about a very practical issue: How does one blog about religion news on a daily basis if the power goes out for, let’s say, a week?

Well, that happened to me twice back in the fall of 2004.

That led me to write about a whole mess of bizarre religion stories in short, machine-gun bursts of commentary — on topics ranging from Britney Spears (still in the news today, alas) to the voice of U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, one of the last of the old-school, culturally conservative Democrats. The whole idea was to get some news into cyberspace for GetReligion readers to think about when I vanished.

But I also ended that post this way:

… (You) know what, I am really more interested in requesting the prayers of GetReligion readers who are into that kind of thing. The hurricane shutters on our house are almost totally up and we have just made the decision that, unless something changes radically, we are riding the storm out here in West Palm Beach. …

Palm Beach Atlantic University, where I teach, is on the canal in downtown. If we take a direct hit and Palm Beach island goes under water, the campus will suddenly be facing the storm surge. This has not happened since 1928 or so and the city is a radically different place now. No one really knows what will happen downtown. …

This morning, I took the “essentials” out of my campus office. It is an interesting thing, trying to choose what goes in one box to take out of the flood zone.

All my academic books are still there on the shelves, covered by plastic trash bags. Then there are the four tall filing cabinets full of notes from 25 years of reporting. They could be ruined. All those manila folders full of notes scribbled in Flair pen — the ink that runs when it gets wet.

I saved things that cannot be replaced, like lecture notes, icons from Greece, a few marked-up books and old video tapes. Oh, that and the large oil painting of Aslan. Further up and further in.

One box. To go. It was a sobering process. And not a bad thing to have to do, every now and then.

So now my office is a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol and the streets here inside the ultimate Beltway are very, very quiet — people-wise. No buses. No subways. No Amtrak or commuter trains. I am here, with my students, riding out the storm. All of those files full of Flair pen notes survived the Florida storms and are now stashed in a leaky basement in our blue-collar neighborhood just south of Baltimore. I would appreciate prayers that they survive Sandy and that the giant tree in front of our creaky old house stays upright, in its current location.

So what should we talk about today, as the winds begin to howl? I am told by the Divine Mrs. M.Z. Hemingway that the power rarely goes down here on The Hill, so I think I will be around, or back online, pretty quick this time. So let’s talk about another kind of storm — the volatile combination of race, moral theology and politics that is swirling around several ballot-box issues in Maryland, with same-sex marriage in the middle of all of it all. That mix came up the other day, of course, in my post about the interesting case of Angela McCaskill, the Gallaudet University diversity officer.

Now, The Washington Post has waded into similar waters with a piece that ran under this headline: “Maryland referendums on gambling, gay marriage and immigrant tuition prompt soul-searching among black churchgoers.”

A GetReligion reader offered this viewpoint via email:

WaPo had an interesting article about PG County churches and voters and their relationship with the big ballot issues in Maryland this election (the Dream Act, same-sex marriage and casinos). I wish it were a bit longer, but it’s quite good. It gives a lot of context for the religiosity of PG County, and it’s not “brainless Biblical literalists vs. nuanced progressives” on the gay marriage stuff, which is nice. It even gets into the idea of the Dream Act being a social justice issue that Maryland religious groups are mostly supporting, so it’s a wonderful change from the “religious = Republican” meme.

It’s kind of hard for me to comment on this particular piece, because one of the authors is a close friend of mine — veteran Post metro reporter Hamil Harris, a man with a seminary degree to his credit (as well as a NCAA national-championship ring from his Florid State University football days). However, let me note the following as an example of the kind of material that reporters are looking for if they want to take African-American believers seriously.

This is how the story opens.

With the fog still burning off at 7:30 a.m., the Rev. Henry P. Davis III was just warming up, settling into the rhythm of a sermon about relying on faith during hard times. But two hours later, as the congregants filed out, many still remembered, word for word, one line.

“No matter what is on the ballot, I am going to stand on the word of God,” said Davis, pastor of First Baptist Church of Highland Park, a brick building with a white steeple just over a knoll from FedEx Field in Prince George’s County.

Although he’d been vague, his flock knew exactly what he meant. And on a Sunday morning before the Nov. 6 election, in a county with 800 mostly black churches, it was a familiar refrain.

What didn’t need to be said was that Davis believes the Bible teaches that homosexuality and gambling are sins; that he will vote against measures to legalize same-sex marriage and to allow the state’s largest casino. And he would hope his congregants would do the same. On a third controversial measure, which would allow in-state tuition breaks for some illegal immigrants, Davis sees it as many other clergy do — as the kind of charity lauded by the Bible.

Not since Maryland voters were asked to weigh in on abortion 20 years ago has a ballot so deeply drawn church leaders in to the state’s political fray. Then, however, there was one emotional issue, and most were on the same side. This time, the religious community has focused on three key measures, and conflicting interpretations of Scripture and priorities have roiled congregations statewide.

And what are the basic facts on the ground?

… Maryland’s ballot measures have come to a head in Prince George’s more than anywhere else. And with polls showing that voters are leaning slightly in favor of same-sex marriage and the gambling measure a toss-up, the county could play a pivotal role in whether the measures pass.

The county is among the most religious in the state: Three quarters of likely voters in the majority African American county say they attend services at least monthly, according to a mid-October poll by The Washington Post.

Fully 45 percent of registered voters in the county who are African American say they have heard about same-sex marriage from their clergy, compared with 31 percent of blacks in the rest of the state.

And when religious leaders have spoken about gay marriage, fully 80 percent of the voters say they have heard their pastor register opposition and 9 percent heard a supportive message; 11 percent heard a mix of opinions. Roughly two-thirds of voters — black or white — who oppose same-sex marriage say their religious beliefs have the biggest influence on their views.

Read it all.

That is, assuming that YOUR power stays on.

IMAGE: Hurricane Sandy, via NASA.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Mike

    ” if they want to take African-American believers seriously.”

    Well, at least believers at one church and the views of a single minister. So much for balance. This seems to be the counter to Bobby’s recent puff pieces in the Seattle Times, only the puffing is happening from the other perspective. At least the Seattle Times story had a balance of voices. Here, not so much.

  • tmatt

    MIKE:

    I should have mentioned this. The Post has already offered quite a few stories on the religious left — including African American voices — and Amendment 6.

    I don’t write well in hurricanes.

  • Ted Seeber

    How about the possible effect on modern elections if the power goes out for three weeks and all the Diebold machines are dark on election day?

  • sari

    tmatt,
    Stay safe.

  • dalea

    For wet papers, throw them into the freezer. The idea is to create freezer burn, where the liquids extrude as ice. Every few days, take them out and shake them. Eventually, the papers will be dry enough to defrost. Best wishes Terry.


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