God's new party

Here’s a twist. Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin has hauled off and said that Sen. John Kerry’s slight rise in recent polls toward dead-heat status is clearly the work of the Holy Spirit. Well, OK, he didn’t put it that way. He said the president is down and Kerry is up and “That’s how God wants it to be.” There was no immediate response from press officials working for the Rev. Pat Robertson.

Location, location, location

It is interesting to have to turn to Baptist Press for coverage of an event in the Roman Catholic community — for the most part — in Miami-Dade County. The Democratic League there has decided not to endorse Sen. John Kerry, primarily because of religious and cultural issues. The Baptists note that it has “more than 1,000 members and a reach that expands to 100,000 pro-life, pro-family Democrats in Miami” and that it is “primarily led by Hispanic-American Democrats.” It’s impossible to read the group’s 10 reasons for rejecting Kerry without hearing the voice of Pope John Paul II. I can’t find national coverage of this story, other than this weak nod in that direction.

Ghost in the ghost story: Gannett has no doubts

priest ghostLongtime readers of GetReligion may remember the defining image used in the very first post on this blog. It has shown up in headlines several times since then.

I am talking about the idea of religion “ghosts” that haunt many reality-based news stories in mainstream media. It is our belief that these moral and religious implications often go unreported, in part because, as Bill Moyers like to say, too many journalists are “tone deaf” to the religious themes that are all around them. In other words, these journalists do not “get” religion.

Today I ran into a ghost while reading a story about, well, ghosts. USA Weekend ran a pop culture feature story by Gwen Moran titled “Real-Life Ghost Busters” that was, on the surface, quite ordinary. Here is a sample, about the work of the husband-wife team of Dave Oester and Sharon Gill:

When you’ve investigated more than 1,000 hauntings in the past 14 years, you’re used to the unexplained. Oester, 56, and Gill, 55, are founders of the International Ghost Hunters Society, a group of nearly 15,000 ghost investigators and enthusiasts. Armed with digital cameras, voice recorders and a fascination with the freaky, the Deming, N.M.-based couple travels the country investigating haunted places. And with more than one-third of Americans sharing a belief in ghosts, according to a 2003 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, there are many places to investigate.

Unexplained noises (such as knocking, footsteps or muffled voices), electrical appliances turning on and off by themselves and other mysterious happenings can be signs of an active ghost. … Some people in haunted settings have a feeling that they’re not alone, or they get inexplicably cold. In the most extreme cases, people feel they’ve been touched by something or have seen objects move, even when there’s no one there.

Pretty straightforward stuff. But as I read it again something hit me, like a cold chill running down my spine, as the mystery began to sink in. There was nothing in this story that offered the slightest hint that the journalism professionals at the mainstream Gannett newspaper empire had any doubts about the reality of the spiritual world implied by this report. Shocking, huh?

Try to imagine a similar hands-off attitude toward a story on other claims of supernatural religious experiences. Try to imagine a pack of charismatic Episcopalians getting to make claims about the power of the Holy Spirit, without scads of doubters getting to share their viewpoints. Ditto for Eastern Orthodox parishioners with myrrh-weeping icons. Ditto for neo-Madonna mystics doing whatever they are doing at the moment. And, you know what? That skepticism is a good thing. It’s good to see reporters pushed to chart the edges of supernatural claims. It’s good to ask tough questions of people who claim to have had mystical experiences. Just do it.

But don’t look for questions of this kind in this fluffy feature. The high point, for me, was the helpful “news you can use” sidebar entitled “How to get along with ghosts.” This is simply too rich to edit.

Calm down. “Sometimes, ghosts aren’t that different from 12-year-old boys,” ghost hunter Dave Oester says. “They’re having fun spooking you.” It’s no longer fun if you aren’t scared.

Talk it out. Give your ghost a name. If the ghost performs dangerous pranks, like turning on a gas stove, explain why it can’t do that. “It may be that your ghost is trying to get your attention,” Sharon Gill says. “Acknowledging it may be enough to get it to stop.”

Get positive. If you have an angry spirit, it’s likely because someone in your home has the same kind of energy, Oester says. He and Gill worked with a family in which a spirit was slamming doors, scaring the family. “We helped them create a rule where all of the problems were to be left on the front porch before anyone came in the house. They had to work on being positive in the house,” says Oester, who notes that the family reported a ghost-free house within months.

Oh, but Moran is sure about one thing: “Blessings, exorcisms and the like are nonsense.”

So you can chat the ghost up and help it wrestle with its self-esteem issues, but do not — repeat, do not — think that calling a priest will help. No sir. No doubts about that, either. Whatever you do, don’t take seriously the claims of traditional religious teachings on the subject of good and evil, heaven and hell, angels and demons.

P.S. Those interested in another mysterious story in a mainstream newspaper can turn to The Dallas Morning News, where friend-of-this-blog Rod Dreher has published a chilling little essay titled “A ghost in the family: Did Grandfather’s spirit stay behind to mend broken bonds?” Honest, Dreher has a great book stashed in his head that could be called Confessions of a Bayou Exorcist and some smart publisher needs to pay him big bucks to get it written.

Druids and goddesses and Episcopalians, oh my

midsummerdruids.jpgEvery now and then, a religion story breaks out online that truly defies a quick and easy blog report. This is certainly the case with the slap-fest that is taking place between our friends at the Christianity Today blog and the trailblazing liturgists at the Episcopal Church’s Office of Women’s Ministries.

To get up to speed on the amazing story of the little neo-pagan Eucharist that could, start with Ted Olsen’s initial reporting at the CT blog. Read it all. There is no way for me to crunch this story down into a few paragraphs, but I can at least let you see the most explosive summary statement. And note that Ted Olsen absolutely nails the larger global story here, the larger story that we will have to look for in the mainstream media. That is, we can look for it once the mainstream media finishes with John Kerry and George Bush and realizes that the front lines in the bitter Anglican sex war may have moved. Here is how the story begins:

Imagine for one moment that you’re a leader in the Episcopal Church USA. You know that within the next few days, a global commission is going to release a report on how the global Anglican Communion should respond to your church, and is likely to be critical of the ordination of an actively homosexual man as bishop. You know, and have said yourself, that the debate isn’t just about sexuality: It’s about how one views the Bible. And you know that all eyes will be on your denomination over the next few weeks. What do you do?

What the real leaders of the Episcopal Church did was to take an action that makes ordaining a homosexual man as a bishop almost a non-issue. They started promoting the worship of pagan deities. This is not a joke nor an overstatement. In all truth and seriousness, leaders of the Episcopal Church USA are promoting pagan rites to pagan deities.

These sentences were written an eternity ago, in blogosphere terms. So much has happened since then, including the church’s establishment lashing out at Christianity Today, a magazine with a staff that is more than a few people who fluently speak the lingo of Episcopalians and even neo-feminists. It also should be noted that the main links to the controversial liturgy have — surprise — suddenly gone dead. But the printable version is still over here on another page. That’s where you will find all kinds of interesting images, such as:

“Blessed are you, Mother God, for the fertility of this world. We thank you for the sight and scent of flowers, for the way their shape evokes in us the unfolding of our own sexuality, and for their power to remind us of the glory and the impermanence of physical beauty. May our days of blossoming and of fading be days spent in your presence.”

Dipping her fingers into the bowl of salt water, one of the women says, “Sisters, this is the water of life. From the womb of the sea, Mother Earth brought forth life. From the womb waters of our own bodies our children are born. In the womb shaped fonts of our churches, we are baptized into community. This is the water of life.” Touching the water again, she continues. “This, too, is the water of our tears. Our power to weep is an expression of God’s love in and through us. We weep in sorrow for that which we have lost. We weep in anger for the pain of others. We weep in hope of healing and wholeness, and we weep in joy when our hearts are too full to contain our feelings.”

Dipping her fingers in the water, each traces a tear on the cheek of the woman beside her saying, “Remember, sister, tears are the water of life.”

That’s really old by now. Journalists should print out a copy quick for the files before that vanishes as well.

The Anglican blogosphere is all over this, especially the conservative heavy hitters here and here, the digital turf of Dr. Kendall Harmon and the amazing Canadian Anglican Web Elves (don’t ask). And CT continues to fight on, especially with this long and very detailed report.

There is so much to report, from the work of the Episcopal priest named Bill Melnyk, who is the same person as the Druid leader Oakwyse, and his neo-pagan partner Glispa, who is also the Rev. Glyn Ruppe-Melnyk — the woman who helped steer the feminist Eucharistic rite onto the Episcopal website in the first place. And the roots of some of these rites run back to their work with the modern druid clan called Tuatha de Brighid and perhaps, via some raisin cakes (it’s a long story) to the ancient goddess Asherah, the female counterpart to Baal.

Rites that connect to Baal worship are generally frowned on in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Like I said, we will have to see how the mainstream press handles this story, if it does. Watch the unusual interfaith evangelism forums, such as Beliefnet.com and the award-winning religion pages of the Dallas Morning News.

This story is moving rapidly, but keep clicking and hang on.

Let me close with two observations.

The first is that this story is old, old, old in several ways. After all, it has been more than a decade since I witnessed an Episcopal diocesan bishop lead a Eucharist that included this chant:

OBA ye Oba yo Yemanja
Oba ye Oba yo O Yemanja
Oby ye Oba yo O O Ausar
Oba ye Oba yo O Ra Ausar

Praises to Obatala, ruler of the Heavens
Praises to Obatala, ruler of the Heavens
Praises to Yemenja, ruler of the waters of life
Praises to Yemenja, ruler of the waters of life
Praises to Ausar, ruler of Amenta, the realm of the ancestors
Praises to Ra and Ausar, rulers of the light and the resurrected soul.

– From the printed worship booklet for “Liturgy and Sermon, Earth Mass — Missa Gaia,” distributed on Oct. 3, 1993, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

And second, it was just a few days ago that the bookish Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright said that the key to the splintering of the Anglican Communion is that there are issues even more important than the redefinition of the Sacrament of Marriage and the blessing of same-sex unions. What happens if Anglican Christians start worshipping other gods? Will they still be Christians? Remember, Wright said:

The critical thing is there are some differences which would divide the church. For instance, if somebody decided to propose that instead of reading the Bible in church, we should read the Bhagavad-Gita or the Qur’an, most Christians would say this is no longer a church and that’s a difference that we simply cannot live with.

I also believe that the Decalogue in the modernized Book of Common Prayer continues to contain these words:

God spake these words, and said: I am the Lord thy God who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have none other gods but me. Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.

You can bet the farm on the fact that the worship of other gods, by name, is frowned upon in the growing Anglican churches of Africa and Asia, tense regions in which doctrinal clashes between Christianity and pagan religions are not taken lightly. It may be trendy for hip American clerics to experiment with the worship of ancient gods and goddesses from Africa. But African Christians will not be amused.

If the Episcopalians have decided to drop, edit or re-refine the Decalogue, those of us who cover the Godbeat/godsbeat will really have a story on our hands.

Define evangelical: give three examples before Nov. 2

Pk_dc1That sound you hear right now on the Religious Right is stunned silence about the president’s change of heart on same-sex unions.

The rank and file are trying to figure out why President Bush did one of the only things he could possibly do to drown the enthusiasm of his base a few days before the election. Not only did he go Sister Souljah on them, he didn’t seem aware — surprise — of the reality-based details of the issue at hand. Frankly, I have also been amazed at the low-key media response. Everyone knows that Bush needs a massive pew-gap turn out from religious conservatives to win, or his strategists sure seem to think so.

Thus, we have seen some coverage of the complexity — which is real, by the way — that is found among voters on the evangelical, “born again” and culturally conservative side of the aisle. It’s time to start reminding people that it is immature, or even bad theology, to go into the voting booth and pull that lever based on one or two religious issues, such as abortion. It’s time for religious conservatives to be more mature and nuanced. Here is a sample from a Christianity Today editorial along these lines.

The dark side of single-issue politics is that it has forced evangelicals to become ever more shrill and ever less imaginative. Dominant-issue politics shows greater promise in addressing our society amid all the pressing issues our society faces, including terrorism, economic justice, church-state relations, gay marriage, embryonic stem-cell research, and so on.

Abortion is a monstrous tragedy for the nation, but our Christian commitment to a culture of life does not permit us the luxury of abandoning other important issues. While single-mindedness in following Christ is always wise, single-issue voting may not be.

This is the kind of language that makes Republicans have nightmares and lash out. Take my word for it. I’ve got people writing me angry emails right now saying that I tried to take Bush down a notch or two in my Scripps Howard column this week.

There is no way to know the motives of journalists involved in writing these stories, so don’t even try to go there. But this is a real story. The bottom line is that the world of evangelicalism is more complex than people in some newsrooms (and many pulpits) want to admit. Thus, there is no one “evangelical” view on Bush.

For starters, it is hard to know what any of the old religious labels mean, anymore. It might help some reporters to glance through materials posted at the home page of George Barna, one of America’s most influential pollsters on all things “evangelical.”

It is important to note that Barna separates “evangelicals” from the “born again” and he says that a mere 8 percent of the nation qualifies as “evangelical.” Here is how he defines this flock:

We categorize an evangelical based upon their answers to nine questions about faith matters. Those included in this segment meet the criteria for being born again; say their faith is very important in their life today; believe they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believe that Satan exists; believe that the eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believe that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and describe God as the all-knowing , all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Thus, evangelicals are a subset of the born again population.

In other words, Barna uses doctrinal standards to define this term — a kind of free-church Protestant creed. This is a frightening concept to many low-church Protestants, especially Baptists. Barna’s definition of “born again” is different. It is experiential. “Born again” believers are people who say that they have been “born again” and have some kind of ongoing relationship with the Christian faith, however they choose to define this. According to Barna, 33 percent of the nation is “born again,” but not truly “evangelical.”

Meanwhile, another 44 percent of the population gets any even foggier label — “notional Christians.” Notional Christians are people who say they are Christians — period. And what does the term “Christian” mean in this context? Who knows. For a look at the rest of Barna’s labels and definitions, click here.

Please remember that this is one merely set of definitions. I once asked Billy Graham if he could define “evangelical” and he said he had no idea what the word meant. One person’s evangelical is another’s fundamentalist. Ask the New York Times. Another person’s “moderate” evangelical is another’s heretic. Ask Bill Clinton, or Tony Campolo, or the theology departments at many Baptist schools.

So there are evangelicals who are pro-life, but oppose Bush on all kinds of justice and peace issues. There are evangelicals whose “sola scriptura” approach to the Bible has led them to swing left on issues of sexual morality. There are lots of evangelicals who love “Will & Grace” and “Oprah” and think it’s just time for everybody to get along. Maybe their voices are hard to hear in the barrage of media coverage of the Christian right, but these progressive evangelicals are out there and they plan to vote for Kerry. Take that, Jerry Falwell.

For a glimpse into this world, click here and listen in as Chicago Sun-Times religion writer Cathleen Falsani visits with five of her Wheaton College roommates. Here is her survey of this evangelical landscape:

Moderate evangelicals, who hold more-or-less traditional Christian beliefs but are slightly less active in church than those who better fit the “religious right” stereotype, make up about 10 percent of the electorate, according to John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron.

Then there are the liberal evangelicals, more theologically liberal than their moderate brethren but still firmly encamped inside evangelical denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention. This most curious minority, which makes up about 2.5 percent of voters, could end up swinging the election in Sen. John Kerry’s favor, Green and other pol watchers say.

Reporter Peter Wallsten of the Los Angeles Times recently ventured into the same corner of the electorate in a story entitled: “Conflicted Evangelicals Could Cost Bush Votes.” You can almost hear the copy desk cheering as that headline went to the press.

Once again, the emphasis is on the “freestyle evangelicals” who, more than anything else, abhor the Religious Right. Many are pro-life Democrats who have been locked out of their own party’s halls of power. Some are Catholic Republicans who wish they could get Republicans to read Vatican documents on war and peace, social justice, health care, labor and other non-conservative concerns. Every now and then, these concerns bubble into public view. Wallsten notes one major example:

Within the evangelical community, the complicated fabric of politics was underscored this month when the board of the National Assn. of Evangelicals unanimously approved a document laying out a new “Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility.” The document embraces traditional opposition to abortion, gay marriage and embryonic stem cell research. But it also mirrors aspects of the Democratic Party platform, quoting scripture to endorse policies that encourage racial and economic equity and promote a cleaner environment.

“You can’t shoehorn the Bible into one political party’s ideology,” said Richard Cizik, a vice president of the association and an author of the report.

This affects ordinary people as well as policy documents.

Here is one sample, from a Wallsten interview with a frustrated evangelical named Wendy Skroch in the battleground state of Wisconsin. She is not alone and, in a race this tight, her voice matters. Is she a Democrat from the age before Roe v. Wade? Is she a Republican who has been mugged by economic realities? Listen.

A speech pathologist who works part time at a senior care center and has three children, Skroch said she sees firsthand the problems of the healthcare system. Her family’s insurance plan doesn’t cover their needs. Bush did nothing to fix the system, she said.

One day Kerry showed up at her office for a campaign visit. A woman asked the Democrat why he voted against the ban on what critics call partial-birth abortion. To Skroch’s dismay, she said, he didn’t have an answer.

“I feel disenfranchised,” she said. “Sometimes I think the best thing for me to do if I can’t make up my mind is to just not vote.”

God, sex, Kristof

Rob Moll at the always wide-ranging blog at ChristianityToday.com has a fine piece online addressing some of Nicholas Kristof’s recent efforts to praise, dissect and criticize evangelical Christians and other believers who he sees as irrationally old fashioned. It seems that Christian tradition is a good thing, when he agrees with it, and a very bad thing, when it crimps his cultural style. Kristof wants readers to think he is seriously investigating Christian history and thought, then he throws in cheap shots such as this: “When a Texas governor, Miriam ‘Ma’ Ferguson, barred the teaching of foreign languages about 80 years ago, saying, ‘If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for us.’”

"The Swan" credo: There's power in the blood

Swan_bookPardon me while I rant for a minute.

I was reading my newspaper the other day and hit a story that just made me sick. I don’t watch a lot of commercial television and, somehow, I had missed one of the hot shows in the tornado of “reality TV” programming. I refer to “The Swan,” from those cultural conservatives at Fox.

Years ago, I saw a bumper sticker — I think it was from Feminists For Life — with this slogan: “Better lives for men through surgery on women.” That’s what I thought of as I read the Washington Post report by Kathy Blumenstock entitled “Yet again, contestants flock to Swan for `life transformation.’ ”

So, you ask, is this really a “religion story”? From my perspective — hell yes.

This show performs miracles in the lives of women, helps them exorcize their inner demons through secular forms of confession and produces transformations that could only be called “born again” experiences. Oh, there’s lots of ritual cutting involved, too. Blood must be shed, if you want a new life. Here’s the opening of the story:

Rachel Love-Fraser, crowned The Swan last season on Fox’s combination reality show-beauty pageant, has some advice for this season’s swans: Surrender to the process.

“You can’t be resistant to change,” she said. “That is what you are there to do. People say they want to make a change, but there is no magic wand. The entire group that they have assembled is not going to change your life. Some people can be given the world and still can’t change. It’s up to you.”

Love-Fraser should know. She totally remodeled her life and her looks — thanks largely to the show’s litany of “life transformation” options. In addition to fitness training, nutritional guidance and therapy, Love-Fraser also opted for a nose job, lip enhancement, liposuction, a chin implant, a brow lift and a breast lift.

The change isn’t skin deep, you see. But, in the end, the goal is a kind of post-feminist leap into a super-hot self image that — truth be told — just doesn’t happen without a face and a body that can cut it in the post-Sex and the City marketplace. It’s not about plastic surgery. But how do you achieve this miracle without it?

Nely Galan, the “Ugly Duckling” fan who created the show, defends “The Swan” with one overwhelming statistical reality — 500,000 women applied to be on the sequel. How can old-fashioned people argue with that? It’s marketplace morality.

Galan said the common denominator for participants is that they feel stuck in their lives, wishing for change but unsure how to achieve it. “Most people don’t have the resources to know what to do. …

“But I am saying, pick whatever you want. If you want to become a vegan, knock yourself out. If you’ve had a bunch of kids and your stomach sags, it’s not a big deal if you want help with that. Life is really short and really hard for women, and whatever is going to make you feel better about yourself, do it.”

I wonder if many female journalists are watching this show and, if so, are they (a) thrilled, (b) mortified or (c) sincerely interested in the realities that would cause women to yearn for this kind of religious experience. What is the message to young girls?

I hope journalists get interested and manage to convince their editors — male and female — to take a look.

GOP seeking ghosts in black pews and voting booths

Church_ladiesIn the three years I have lived in Palm Beach County, I have met legions of people who have stopped their subscriptions to the Palm Beach Post, in large part because of the newspaper’s relentless attacks on religious believers who take a traditional approach to faith and morality. I started out trying to calm these people down, assuming they were blowing things out of proportion.

Well, I finally broke down and stopped taking the Palm Beach Post the other day. I can’t defend it anymore, especially on its coverage of religious and cultural issues. It shows no interest in diversity, zero evidence that it wants to be fair to competing religious voices.

So what do I do with my journalism students? As it turns out, the Sun-Sentinel down in Fort Lauderdale has made a strategic decision to try to attract readers in Palm Beach County, so I’m giving them a try. It helps that they have a veteran religion writer — James Davis — whose work I have followed for quite some time. It seems like a pretty normal paper for progressive South Florida, but it does offer interesting voices a chance to make a case for a variety of beliefs. Amen.

For example, this past Sunday reporter Gregory Lewis took on a hot election-year topic down here in the kingdom of chads — Republican efforts to court African-American voters. The story was pretty straight forward, which meant it quickly ran into the ghosts in the pews and, thus, voting booths. Lewis gets right down to business in the lead paragraphs:

The Rev. O’Neal Dozier recently spent a weekend knocking on doors in West Palm Beach’s black community canvassing votes for President Bush.

“The results were very mixed,” said Dozier, pastor of Worldwide Christian Center in Pompano Beach. “At one house they’d tell you, `I’m not interested. I’m going to vote for Kerry.’ But at the next house, they would sit and listen.”

Dozier, who was appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush to Broward County’s judicial nominating committee in 2001, said his pitch might emphasize the Republican Party’s abolitionist roots. If the family regarded themselves as Christians, he would focus on the president’s opposition to homosexual marriage and abortion.

Over and over, religion hooks keep showing up in this political story.

It’s clear that loyalty to the Democratic Party remains high, but not as high as it once was. Lewis quotes a DC think-tank study indicating that blacks between the ages of 51 and 64 had shifted their support this year from 75 percent Democrat and 5 percent Republican, to 66 percent Democrat and 12 percent Republican. The issues that are peeling away some some black voters are religious and moral, including the tricky issue of government vouchers that help parents evacuate their children from low-grade public schools.

Some leaders in African-American institutions, such as churches, think the Democrats take them for granted. Some believe that the Democrats are automatically hostile to any public action that seems “faith-based.” Some think it’s time to spread their chips around on the political game board.

But the religion card is crucial. Jamaican-American Andre Cadogan, chair of the Black Republican Caucus of Palm Beach County, throws down these fighting words:

“We’re all Republicans,” Cadogan said. “Some of us are aware of it and others are not. The values of Republicans are shared by blacks. We agree on church, faith-based initiatives and the sanction of marriage.”

So far so good. What bothered me about this piece was that it never dug into the reasons that so many other black voters stay loyal to the Democrats and, in many cases, believe they have faith-based reasons for doing so. In other words, if this is an emotional topic in these church pews, let us hear from the preachers on both sides. Let both choirs sing.

Then it would help to dig deeper into the black church’s struggles to address the shattered lives of many of its families, especially the painful fallout of so many young black males growing up with little or no contact with their fathers. What do the black Republicans say about that? What do black Democrats have to say about that?

So it was a good story. Now let’s hang on for the other side. I expect high-ranking Democrats to be in those pulpits sooner, rather than later.