With God on Obama’s side (maybe)


You would think that if the Los Angeles Times put two reporters on a story, they would make a little effort to pick up the phone. Unfortunately, this was not the case on a recent piece titled “Obama administration has religion on its side.” That’s quite the exaggeration, considering 37 percent of Americans polled said they see President Obama as religion-friendly. That’s not a majority, is it? So why do the reporters make it seem like Obama has captured all religious voters? I can forgive a lame headline once in a while since I hear the copy editor side from my husband, but the story reads like a press release for the administration.

The reporters compare Obama to the Democratic Party, which garnered 29 percent of the vote for religion-friendly.

The findings aren’t surprising. During his campaign for the presidency, Obama courted religious voters more aggressively than most recent Democratic presidential candidates by putting faith front and center.

In July 2008, during the height of the presidential race, then-Sen. Obama pledged to expand a controversial White House program that gives federal grants to churches and small community groups.

Later that summer, during a forum at evangelical Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Orange County, Obama, a Christian, spoke of “walking humbly with our God” and quoted from the Gospel of Matthew.

It paid off.

This analysis seems a bit weak, as if Obama’s policies on issues like abortion didn’t matter–just sprinkle in a biblical phrase here and there and you’ll get them religious voters. Also, I seem to remember that one of the negative takeaways for Obama’s appearance at Saddleback was his remark that determining when life begins is “above my pay grade.” I’m just wondering again why the reporter didn’t pick up the phone and call one of the scholars who worked on the survey. Perhaps a scholar could connect the dots a little bit better than a few observations.

Also, few reporters are still covering Obama’s religious outreach (or lack thereof). Eric Metaxas highlights a bit from a New York Times article that suggests the White House was planning a “non-religious Christmas celebration–hardly a surprising idea for an administration making a special effort to reach out to other faiths.” Actually, that is surprising. As Metaxas writes, “For those of you confused by that, it’s just like a ‘non-religious’ Yom Kippur celebration, or a ‘non-Irish’ St. Patrick’s Day celebration, or an ‘international’ July 4th celebration.” There were discussions about whether or not to display a creche. Why is that piece of info buried in the 13th paragraph of the Times article?

Also, while reporters were focused on party crashers, Ed Stetzer wanted to know why they did not cover Obama’s leading words at his first state dinner where he highlighted his participation at a Hindu and a Sikh religious event.

Regardless of whether you like President Obama or not, it seems like “news” to me that the President would make these his first words at his first state dinner. It seems news to me that he would mention his celebration of major religious events in two religions. Regardless of whether you are a Democrat, Republican, or independent, I cannot picture JFK or Ronald Reagan doing such a thing in their day– and President Obama points out that he was the “first” to do these things in the White House.

Back to the LA Times article, it compares the final election results, but it would be nice to see more numbers. Here’s what we get:

Forty-three percent of voters who said they attend church weekly chose Obama over Republican John McCain, according to the National Election Pool exit survey, a change from recent election trends, in which religious voters overwhelmingly chose Republican candidates. Among occasional worshipers, Obama won 57% of the vote.

I’d like to know what numbers John McCain garnered, and what the exact percentage change was from the last election.

Down further in the story, we find out that 48 percent of those polled viewed the GOP as friendly toward religion. What were Obama’s numbers again? 37 percent? Looks like religion isn’t necessarily “on his side.”

I glanced through the summary of the report and found a few more tidbits that could have been noteworthy. For example, the report breaks down the parties’ popularity vs. friendly-toward-religion.

For Obama as well as for both political parties, being viewed as friendly toward religion is closely associated with popularity generally. Among those who say the Obama administration is friendly toward religion, fully three-quarters approve of the job he is doing (77%), compared with half of those who say the administration is neutral toward religion (51%) and a scant 7% of those who say it is unfriendly.

For the Republican Party, the link is less pronounced. Almost half of those who say the GOP is friendly toward religion view the party favorably (48%), compared with 41% among those who say it is neutral and 21% for those who say it is unfriendly.

The report also breaks down the religion factor for Hollywood (47 percent see Hollywood as unfriendly toward religion while 11 percent say it’s friendly) and science (35 percent say scientists are unfriendly toward religion and 12 percent see scientists as friendly).

Here’s one last bit from the poll that GetReligion readers might find interesting: 42 percent say the news media are neutral toward religion, 35 percent say it’s unfriendly toward religion, while 14 percent of those polled said they view the news media as friendly toward religion. Is anyone surprised?

Photo via DanBrady on Flickr’s Creative Commons.

Area Christians try to be hip

barSome of my favorite headlines from The Onion are ones about your average Joe as if it’s a big deal, like “Area Man Consults Internet Whenever Possible” or “Local Girlfriend Always Wants To Do Stuff.”

Those headlines came to mind when I started reading a story from the Chicago Tribune about a new church plant in Chicago.

A pastor walks into bar.

No, this isn’t a joke; it’s a new scene for American Christianity: Young guys in their 20s and 30s forming Christian communities in pubs, concert halls, cafes and art galleries.

Christians haven’t met in bars, concert halls or art galleries before now? It’s a little bit like the story on churches meeting in pubs that Elizabeth’s Evans critiqued as “meet cute.” I don’t want to diminish the story because it is an interesting one, but the reporter could have gone in some different directions that would have made it more compelling.

For example, if the web headline is true, “New churches: Chicago seen as a fertile field for congregations to branch out,” that’s very interesting. I would love to see reasons why pastors see Chicago as a good place to plant a church. For example, what makes it more fertile than Dallas, Atlanta, or Boston? Are there attributes that Chicago has that makes it a more welcoming environment?

Reporter Kate Shellnutt provides some interesting data about church plants, including the numbers in Chicago.

Nationwide, about 4,000 churches are planted each year, a new church every two hours or so, according to Dave Olson, the head of the American Church Research Project and the Evangelical Covenant Church’s church planting director.

There are more than 50 congregations considering planting churches in Chicago in the year ahead, said Sam Smith, of the Chicago Partnership for Church Planting, and the city has already seen a boom in new, hip churches.

In Lakeview, an indie-rock praise band performs before a few dozen people in the candle lit backroom of Schubas Tavern; in Wicker Park, Christians discuss God in an art studio; in Lincoln Park, churchgoers wear jeans and sip Intelligentsia coffee.

These are good examples of new churches being formed, but I’d like to know what kinds of churches they are (are they part of denomination, for example). The examples make it seem like all Chicago Christians are abandoning their traditional buildings. It would be interesting to hear from young pastors who have considered the bar, cafe, art studio approach but chose to stick with meeting in a church building.

The story focuses on a pastor who is planting a church by meeting with potential churchgoers through neighborhood coffee houses and bars.

In West Town, that guy is Mark Bergin, 29, who leads prayer meetings wearing a cap embroidered with the Guinness logo. The self-described “hot-dog-eating, baseball-loving, tool-owning missionary” is part of the church planting movement in the United States — an effort to start thousands of churches a year that reach people in more culturally relevant ways.

The reporter makes it seem like church planting is a new idea or an American idea, but Christians have been planting churches for, oh, 2,000 years or so. The pastor is planting a church with financial assistance from Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Now that’s interesting. How often are churches planting others half way across the country? I don’t know, but it raises all sorts of questions for nondenominational churches, like does this pastor report to anyone? What happens if he gets in trouble, financial or otherwise? Does Mars Hill step in or is this pastor out on his own now?

I’d also like to know a little bit more about this new pastor’s background, but this is a little bit of what we know:

Mars Hill’s celebrity pastor Mark Driscoll coupled conservative, humble, Neo-Calvinist theology with a contemporary style of worship. His church-planting network has started more than 250 churches in the past decade. A year ago, Bergin was a new elder at one of Mars Hill’s Seattle campuses. He preached before the congregation only twice before being called to start a church in Chicago.

Does Bergin hold Driscoll’s “Neo-Calvinist theology” (an explanation of what this means would be helpful)? Where did he go to seminary? What does “being called to start a church” mean for Bergin?

The story is a good one–not many reporters are covering churches that are still planting in difficult economic times–but a few angles could have been strengthened.

Photo via

Bob Casey: Like father like son?


Bob Casey Jr. must be really irritated with father-son comparisons by now. In 1992, the Democratic Party denied a speaking slot to his father, then-Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey Sr., at the national convention. Casey Jr. spoke at the 2008 Democratic National Convention but merely mentioned his “honest disagreement” with President Obama on abortion.

Casey’s pro-life stance now puts him in an uncomfortable spot during health care debates over whether the government should fund abortion. It appears that he didn’t anticipate the disputes. “I can’t speak for what the House is doing and what members are doing in the House, but in the Senate, I don’t think that it (the abortion issue) is going to be an impediment to getting this legislation passed,” Casey told CNSNews.com in July.

In recent articles, The New York Times and Time magazine paint Casey as the middle ground in the dispute.

Starting with the Times, David Kirkpatrick gives some helpful history and context about Casey and his father, but stops a little bit short.

Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania wants to talk about health care, Medicare, children’s insurance, a public option–anything but abortion.

But that is pretty much impossible because Mr. Casey is the country’s most prominent “pro-life” Democrat.

This is where Kirkpatrick could expand a bit more because from what I understand, Casey isn’t exactly the darling of the pro-life movement. For example, Casey was criticized earlier this year for voting to allow federal funding for overseas clinics that provide abortions by overturning the Mexico City policy.

Kirkpatrick sets up Casey as the compromise in the debates, and buried way way down, we see one of his suggested solutions.

Senate Democratic aides and outside advocates, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the legislation was still being shaped, have said for weeks that Mr. Casey and his staff members were quietly conferring with Senate Democratic leaders about modifying the bill in a way that might make it easier for those opposed to abortion to support.

Among the ideas said to have been discussed were removing a requirement that an insurance plan covering abortion be available in every market, precluding the government-run insurer from paying for the procedure, or fortifying the accounting rules to segregate any federal subsidies from abortion payments.

However, I want to know whether pro-choice and pro-life sides consider this a compromise. How would they respond to this idea?

Also buried in the article, we see how Casey dealt with the health care issue earlier this summer.

He broke with his party to vote in favor of an amendment adding the same abortion restrictions as the House bill. But when the amendment failed narrowly, he voted to approve the resulting bill anyway.

In a statement when the Senate opened debate last Saturday, he repeated that he thought the current segregated-accounts provisions
still fell short of avoiding taxpayer financing of abortion and “will require more work as the bill is debated on the Senate floor.” But he again stopped short of threatening to vote against the measure as it is.

The Times writes that The National Right to Life Committee is passing out copies of a speech that his father gave on the subject, but to whom? Is Casey receiving any other pressure besides that and a column in National Review? Kirkpatrick writes that abortion rights advocates say Catholic bishops are pressuring him, but is there a way to verify that?

It appears Kirkpatrick spoke with Casey, but he doesn’t seem to be able to get much out of him. I am sympathetic because I know reporters often get a very short time to interview politicians, but I wish someone could pin him down more. Instead, Casey gives vague quotes like this about his lack of success.

“Human nature being what it is, people don’t want to acknowledge that a problem exists when they know they have 35 other problems to deal with,” Mr. Casey said. “Like everything else, hindsight is 20-20.”

Similarly, Time breaks little ground with their article titled “Can a Pro-Life Dem Bridge the Health Care Divide?”

While Casey is speaking with other Senators on the issue and is considering other amendments, he’s “not drawing any lines in the sand,” he says. “I just think that there’s going to be enough momentum to get a bill passed that one issue–even one very important issue–will not prevent passage.” That said, when pressed, Casey, with a faint smile on his face, echoed the same line he told Stabenow in the meeting with faith leaders: “There’s still a good bit of work to be done.”

It’s hard to believe that Casey will bridge the divide without a more concrete solution.

The Hill used similar quotes in a blog post about how Sen. Ben Nelson introduced a Stupak-like amendment.

Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), an abortion-rights opponent whom Reid tapped to craft an abortion compromise, emphasized a more measured approach.

Casey emphasized that negotiations over an abortion compromise were continuing, and urged fellow senators to resist sticking to too firm of positions in negotiations.

“It’s ongoing,” he said. “‘Ongoing’ is probably the best word.”

“I’ve tried not to draw any lines, and I would hope none would either,” he said in reference to his colleagues.

Casey said he’s been in touch with Reid’s office on the abortion issue and a number of other issues in recent days.

How is that “a more measured” approach than what Nelson is doing? He sounds fairly vague to me. Can anyone pin Casey down and get more details about this compromise? Otherwise, I’m not sure it’s fair to paint him as the solution to the debates.

Fishing for an evangelical trend

<a href=fishing1It’s odd to see some of your former classmates quoted in The New York Times as if they are newsworthy. Don’t get me wrong–many of them are doing cool and interesting things. Samuel G. Freedman profiles one of these classmates in a nice, upbeat story to show how young evangelicals are taking up interests in climate change, AIDS and poverty in his On Religion column for the Times.

However, I initially groaned when I started reading the piece. There were so many stories about “the broadening of the evangelical agenda” during the 2008 election that someone suggested we start a drinking game for the phrase. Thankfully, though, Freedman did not fall into the trap of implying that all older evangelicals care about is abortion and same-sex marriage. Also, unlike other reporters, he doesn’t feel the need to suggest any political implications.

Freedman looks at this trend through the lens of Jenna Liao, a Wheaton graduate who now works at World Relief, an agency that helps refugees. He does do a nice job of helping us understand how Liao’s faith informs her social justice work, citing the Beatitudes. The examples eventually apply to a larger story on younger evangelicals.

For in coming to the work of refugee resettlement, and more broadly of seeking social justice in a fallen world, Ms. Liao embodied a dramatic change among her generation of evangelical Christians.

Without disowning longstanding causes for evangelical activists like opposition to abortion or support for school vouchers, these young evangelicals have taken up issues previously abdicated to secular and religious liberals: climate change, AIDS prevention and treatment, Third World poverty.

The problem here is that Freedman makes these assertions with no data. For example, is this social justice trend just among Liao’s generation of evangelicals? What about California megachurch pastor Rick Warren, who is perhaps one of the most recognizable faces for AIDS outreach and doesn’t exactly represent recent college graduates?

Also, while climate change seems somewhat new for evangelicals (within the last five years or so), haven’t they long been involved in AIDS prevention and fighting poverty (especially overseas) for a while now? Evangelicals have long been involved in social justice areas like starting soup kitchens, hospitals and charity groups. Globally focused and still popular organizations like World Vision and Heifer International have been around for more than 50 years. Even later in the article, Freedman writes that World Relief opened in 1984.

Evangelicals might be experiencing a trend of focusing on climate change, AIDS and poverty. When I was at Wheaton, there was a definite emphasis on these areas because Bono had just visited the campus and President Duane Litfin had just signed the Evangelical Climate Initiative. Those of us in the student newspaper office often joked about “chapeltisements,” chapels that turned into an advertisement for whatever social justice group gave their spiel of the day. I also remember some students lamenting that there was just one limp week dedicated to raising money for pregnancy centers. Freedman just doesn’t provide data or more examples of this surge we’re supposed to be seeing that wasn’t there before. Even speaking with a professor who has spent more than four years at Wheaton could strengthen his angle and provide examples of how students’ emphasis has changed over the years.

Also, the story seems to completely ignore Wheaton’s history. This is the same school that served as a stop on the Underground Railroad and sent out Jim Elliot and friends (the missionaries who were killed by the natives in Ecuador in 1956). Freedman and several other writers during the 2008 election seemed surprised see evangelicals are more globally and social justice oriented. That just doesn’t seem new to me, especially given Wheaton’s and evangelicals’ longstanding emphasis on missions.

I also have a few quibbles with Freedman’s word choice in places. Back to Liao, the Wheaton graduate whom Freedman focuses on, he writes that she has a hand in resettling 400 or so families each year.

… [T]here was little in the upbringing of these young evangelicals that made social justice the obvious career choice or theological focus. Ms. Liao is the daughter of a career Army officer who served in both Iraq wars. She was home-schooled for several years, and she cried the night Bill Clinton defeated Senator Bob Dole, a World War II veteran, to win his second term as president.

I think we could use a little more background here. How would Liao’s military child upbringing, homeschooling or reaction to Clinton’s election play into her theological focus? Instead, I’m interested in what kind of church she grew up in. For example, if she grew up in an Anabaptist or Reformed tradition, that could theologically impact how she would see Christians’ involvement in the world. In other words, Freedman’s description of her upbringing tells us more about her politically conservative family than her religious upbringing.

Coming to the United States from a military base in Germany to start college, Ms. Liao enrolled at Wheaton College, the alma mater of the Rev. Billy Graham and the center of a region of suburban Chicago known as the “evangelical Vatican.”

I don’t know anybody who calls Wheaton the “evangelical Vatican.” By its very fragmented nature, there is no evangelical Vatican comparison. No one solitary group is making statements on behalf of evangelicalism, which is why you see lots of different heads of groups signing statements like the Manhattan Declaration. You also probably won’t see statements like that coming directly from a place like Wheaton, which is more academically inclined than activist inclined because it’s a college. I have heard Wheaton described as the “evangelical Mecca”–where evangelicals might tend to flock, but I thought Colorado Springs stole that title.

Overall, Freedman does a nice job of humanizing a trend he sees, but hopefully the next story on evangelical activism will provide proof that there’s something there that wasn’t there before.

Those spooky evangelical churches


Halloween is over, folks, but we’re still seeing some “scary” descriptions popping up.

Take a look at this piece titled “Highlands Church takes all-inclusive approach to homosexuality” by Electa Draper for The Denver Post.

An evangelical church can be a scary place for gay people, yet the Rev. Mark Tidd’s Highlands Church in Denver is trying “to live and love without labels” in an inclusive community.

This kind of open-minded approach to full church life for gay, lesbian and transgender people, along with everyone else, Tidd said, could be “kind of the kiss of death” for a new congregation, one started just last Christmas.

“But I knew it was the right thing to do,” Tidd said.

Whoa. Hold on there. Why would an evangelical church be a scary place for gay people? Are we supposed to just know what she’s talking about? When I think of the word “scary,” I think of bears, dungeons, hurricanes, not entering a building where people might disagree with me. Nevertheless, Draper should ask the pastor for some examples of how it might be scary for gay people.

Also, let’s look at that headline again: “Highlands Church takes all-inclusive approach to homosexuality.” Reporters don’t usually write the headlines, but why would a newspaper use “inclusive” to describe a church that doesn’t include people who believe the traditional Christian interpretation of sexuality. How is that inclusive?

Moving on, it looks like Draper was actually covering a symposium “offering a progressive perspective on homosexuality and Christianity.” Yes, the church offers one perspective. She writes that the pastor lost half of his congregation and two-thirds of his financial support, but what did those people have to say about dropping their support?

Then she quotes another pastor who changed his preaching style.

“Any of us who take steps in this direction soon find ourselves in a hornet’s nest,” said theology professor Mark Achtemeier of Dubuque Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian who no longer preaches church exclusion of gay relationships.

“If you had told me 10 years ago I would be standing here . . . speaking out in favor of gay marriage and ordination, I would have told you (that) you were crazy,” Achtemeier said.

What changed him was witnessing the real lives of gay Christians who were persuaded that same-gender attraction was a disorder and genuinely tried to embrace celibacy or live as heterosexuals.

I still don’t understand–Why does Achtemeier find himself in a hornet’s nest? I also don’t get how watching “the real lives of gay Christians” changed his mind to stop preaching against gay relationships. Instead of quoting Achtemeier, she quotes the first pastor again and then paraphrases:

“Achtemeier said Christians shouldn’t settle for an interpretation of the Bible that doesn’t make powerful sense of ordinary human lives.”

What does making “powerful sense of ordinary human lives” even mean?

Draper ends the story with this bit:

The symposium drew more than 100 people, most of them heterosexuals, event organizer Joe Quillin said. People from several churches and ministries attended.

Quillin said his search for speakers reminded him of “how scary it still is” to be gay and Christian.

It is interesting that different pastors would come together for a symposium like this, but it feels so one-sided for an event that only drew about 100 people. Draper again assumes we know what she’s talking about. What about his search was scary? Why leave this to our imagination?

Three in one

TrinityIt’s not every day you read a story where the reporter describes the same person as a Jehovah’s Witness, a fundamentalist and an evangelical.

Read through these first few paragraphs the short Lexington Herald-Leader story and see if you can help me sort this out.

When Monica Marks was growing up a Jehovah’s Witness in Eastern Kentucky, she dreamed one day of getting an education.

Now that dream will take her from the University of Louisville to the University of Oxford in England as a Rhodes Scholar.

“Where I grew up, it was never which college are you going to, it was if college was possible,” Marks said Saturday, just hours after learning in Indianapolis that she had been awarded the prestigious scholarship. “For me, it was just so rebellious to even consider that.”

Marks, 23, grew up in Rush, Ky., in a fundamentalist evangelical family, but her parents respected her hunger for education.

I’m so confused. Was she a Jehovah’s Witness but her parents were evangelicals or fundamentalist?

First, take a look at GetReligion’s previous exegeses of the Associated Press’ style on the word fundamentalist.

fundamentalist The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians. In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.

What’s unclear in the story is whether Monica Marks describes her upbringing as fundamentalist or whether the reporter Janet Patton assumed that it was fundamentalist. Also, does she call herself an evangelical? In my experience, most people do not consider themselves both an evangelical and a fundamentalist. Here’s what the 2007 AP guide says about evangelicals:

evangelical Historically, evangelical was used as an adjective describing dedication to conveying the message of Christ. Today it also is used as a noun, referring to a category of doctrinally conservative Christians. They emphasize the need for a definite, adult commitment or conversion to faith in Christ and the duty of call believers to persuade others to accept Christ.

Also, how could she be an evangelical and Jehovah’s Witness when their core beliefs about Jesus and the Trinity are completely different?

Let’s look at one of the reporter’s descriptions above once more:

When Monica Marks was growing up a Jehovah’s Witness in Eastern Kentucky, she dreamed one day of getting an education.

The reporter assumes that it’s inconceivable that a Jehovah’s Witness would get an education. Would she have used the same phrase if she were describing a Catholic or Jew? Her religious background may have been a roadblock from getting an education, but the reporter doesn’t explain how. It comes up again here:

Marks, 23, grew up in Rush, Ky., in a fundamentalist evangelical family, but her parents respected her hunger for education.

Why the but? Are her religion and education mutually exclusive for some reason? How did her parents respect her hunger for education? What did they do to make that happen? Was she homeschooled? Did she attend a religious private school? The student then compares her upbringing to Islam.

Her background shaped her choice of what to study as well: Marks is presently researching Islamic law in Turkey as a Fulbright Scholar and plans to continue those studies at Oxford, where she will research comparative human rights and Sharia law.

Winning the Rhodes scholarship, “really resonates with me on a deep personal level,” Marks said. “It’s a vote of confidence in your future.”

She said she is often struck by the patriarchal similarities between Islam and her fundamentalist Christian upbringing.

This reporter assumes that we know what Monica Marks is talking about. What are the patriarchal similarities that she’s referring to?

There are several questions left unanswered in this story. Writing a short, localized article doesn’t mean that you should spend less time checking your facts. Monica Marks may very well feel that her religious background shapes her study of Islamic law, but I want to know how.

Who’s offended?


I know from personal experience that Terre Haute, Indiana, is not the most happening place. But is “Church sign raises objection” really one of the most newsworthy items of the day?

Bear with me, and read the beginning of the story.

A sign at a Terre Haute church bearing a message that many people would deem “intolerant” has raised an objection from a concerned teenager who could not let the message go unchallenged.

Saagarika Coleman submitted a letter to the editor of the Tribune-Star (see page A8) stating that she was “hit with a wave of shock. I was horrified” when she saw the sign at Bible Baptist Church as her father drove her to school Monday morning.

The sign stated, “Jesus died and rose and lives for you. What did Allah do.”

To Coleman and others, the message seems to challenge or belittle the Muslim faith. At best, such sentiments strike some people as an un-Christian approach to tolerance of other beliefs.

Stop the presses. A 13-year-old is upset? I don’t want to diminish a 13-year-old’s opinion, but just because one person objects, that makes it news? Later in the story, the pastor of the church said he had received three comments about the sign. That’s it?

The Associated Press also picked up the story and wrote, “A Terre Haute church upset some residents with a message on its outdoor sign that mentioned Allah.” Some residents?

Anyway, Lisa Trigg writes that “many would deem [the message] ‘intolerant,’” but no one in her story does anyone call it intolerant. She also writes that the message “seems to challenge or belittle the Muslim faith,” but no one uses those words. Then she says at best such sentiments strike some people as an “un-Christian approach.” Some people? Who?

It’s unfortunate that Trigg didn’t interview Coleman, who wrote an articulately worded letter, and could have provided a colorful argument for the story being newsworthy in the first place.

Trigg spoke with the pastor, who defended the sign, saying “It just means the founder of Christianity still lives.” Perhaps she could have asked him about why his church believes exclusively in Jesus, though this is not a shocker to a lot of Christians. She then quotes someone from the Islamic Center of Terre Haute:

“Allah means God. God is the Creator. Allah,” he said, agreeing that Jesus is the Son of God, as Christians believe. Muslims also believe in Jesus, he pointed out. “We have to believe in Jesus. If we don’t, we’re not Muslim,”

This leaves the false impression that Islam and Christianity are essentially the same. Instead of explaining how they are different, she writes:

Terre Haute is a diverse community, with many people of the faiths of Judaism, Islam and Hinduism residing, working, raising families and being active in the community. However, the dominance of Christian churches and worship centers may give the impression that Christianity is the only organized religion in the area.

For Hindus, the nearest temple for worship is in Indianapolis, but weekly visits to a temple are not required for worship, unlike Christianity, which urges regular attendance at worship services.

Terre Haute is diverse? It would have been helpful for Trigg to provide some numerical data to prove her point.

I have no data to prove that this might be happening, but perhaps she could use the anecdote to pursue a story on how fewer churches seem to be using church signs. I’m just guessing that there are debates over whether you can effectively communicate a Christian message in a headline burst. Besides, who wants to end up on a blog like this?

Photo via Mel B. from Flickr Creative Commons.

Cutesy phrases aside

ramseytvMy family and friends are a little obsessed with a Monopoly/Risk/Axis & Allies-like game called Settlers of Catan–too obsessed that my husband won’t play with me because I become too competitive that we stop speaking to each other. After several rounds of winning one Christmas, it inspired me to get my sheep, wood, wheat and ore in order in real life.

I began checking out personal finance books from the library, mostly popular materials from Suze Orman and Wall Street Journal guides. Then out of curiosity, I searched for some Christian personal finance books, and after very few books came up in the system, one of my friends told me about Dave Ramsey. I didn’t spend much time with his material when I didn’t see something radically different from the books that I had read. So when I read The Atlantic‘s profile on Ramsey, I wondered whether it would help me see how Christian personal finance is different from a Christian who gives personal finance advice. (Another colleague will look at Hanna Rosin’s cover story “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?“)

Overall, the story is more about debt than it is about religion, but Megan McArdle does a nice job at looking at it from a religion angle. If I can be a little nitpicky, though, she starts off pretty poorly: “Dave Ramsey looks nothing like a televangelist.” Well, duh. He’s a Christian financial adviser that appears on television. He may talk about Jesus, but it’s like comparing Mike Huckabee to a televangelist. Yes, he’s a Christian and yes, he’s on TV. But would you compare him to a televangelist? I don’t think so. Anyway, McArdle proceeds to caricature televangelists.

He’s a little on the short side, neither fat nor thin, and he wears jeans and a sports jacket, not a shiny suit and an oily smile. With his goatee and what’s left of his graying hair trimmed close to his head, he looks mostly like what he is-a well-groomed, middle- to upper-middle-class American professional. But when he runs out onstage and starts dispensing financial advice, you realize that he could have been a great preacher.

Do you think shiny suit or oily smile when you think of Robert H. Schuller, James Robison, or Pat Robertson? A similar stereotype in a piece about Wall Street bankers probably wouldn’t pass through the first copy edit.

McArdle uses lots of cutesy religious hints to get her message across.

Here are some examples:

“the format was more tent revival than accounting seminar”

“his disciples routinely shun lucrative financing deals”

“Ramsey is not the first evangelical to sell financial advice to his co-religionists”

“Ramsey devotees”

Why can’t she show us through descriptions and quotes instead of telling us using these little canned phrases?

Also, McArdle uses the term “evangelical financial adviser” a bit loosely here.

“But although other evangelical financial advisers flourish mostly within their religious communities, Ramsey has made himself the breakout act, bringing his basic message to the wider world.”

Using evangelical as an adjective can get a bit tricky. Ramsey isn’t just an evangelical financial adviser — there are probably hundreds of financial advisers who happen to be evangelical. What sets Ramsey apart, though, is that he markets himself to evangelical Christians.

ramseyplanningOverall, however, McArdle gives a colorful picture of Ramsey, weaving her personal life into her experience attending one of his seminars. She does a nice job of explaining Ramsey’s obsession with debt and why it matters to the economy.

Ramsey offers some investment advice (much of which would have struck horror in my business-school professors), but for most of his followers, the main attraction is a simple program: give 10 percent of your income to charity, save 15 percent for retirement, build up a sizable emergency stash and a college fund for your kids, and above all, stop borrowing money. Ramsey devotees pay cash for everything they can. They are allowed only one exception to the no-more-debt rule: a 15-year fixed-rate mortgage.

Ramsey tells the audience about Jesus, but McArdle isn’t moved.

Ramsey closed his talk in Detroit with a sober lecture on taking care of yourself mentally, physically, emotionally, and of course, spiritually. “Bluntly,” he said, “I’m talking about this man named Jesus, and if you don’t know him, you need to be introduced.” The arena erupted in a joyous roar.
Though I did take the audio CD of Ramsey’s personal witness being handed out free at the exit, I’m afraid that Jesus and I aren’t really any better acquainted than we were before.

This comes across as fairly obligatory (don’t worry, fellow journalists. I didn’t convert.)

She ends with: “You don’t need to be a Christian to look for a better way. Even an unbeliever knew enough to listen up when he saw the bright light on the road to Damascus.” There goes that cutesy language again.

Despite some of these nitpicks, the article really is worth the read–McArdle is right to recognize how big Ramsey is in Christian circles. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like McArdle tried to interview Ramsey, which is where she could have probed him on what makes him different from another financial planner. Maybe the next story about Ramsey can tell us what is Christian about his financial planning more than how he quotes Bible verses and appeals to Christians.

Photos via imelda and Matt McGee from Flickr creative commons.