Battle of the God covers

In a previous post today, I referred to Time and Newsweek competing with each other for the best religion-centered cover story last week. Newsweek offered a package of articles (here’s the mainbar) about the Religious Right, while Time offered a more tightly focused debate between Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins.

Newsweek clearly would win for the week if the effort were judged by comprehensiveness. But Newsweek‘s package offered fewer cases in which a reasonably informed reader will mark the text because it contains some new information or insight.

Some reporters find it difficult to write big-picture articles about the Religious Right without making ridiculous generalizations. For instance, a photo caption on p. 37 of Newsweek purports to show a racially mixed congregation in Philadelphia standing and applauding — upon hearing of the nomination of Samuel Alito’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Somehow I think the moment consisted of a bit more than that.

Michael Gerson writes a fine meditation on how evangelicals want to engage social issues more than is generally recognized, and Sam Harris issues his familiar warning that any mixture of faith and politics inevitably leads to barbarism.

I highlighted only two portions of the entire package.

The first highlight was for this silly dismissal:

But there is clearly discomfort with the movement’s apparent obsession with sins of the flesh.

The second highlight involved entertaining wordplay from former Rep. Dick Armey, speaking of his new nemesis, James Dobson:

“It’s painful to have him angry at you. . . . He responds in a manner that’s damaging. You know, he’ll say, ‘I’m leaving, and I promise you, I’m taking a lot of people with me.’ Well, elected officials know what that means . . . I think we call it a Dobson’s choice.”

Time brings greater firepower, especially in the person of David Van Biema. In setting up a lengthy dialogue between Dawkins the atheist and Collins the Christian (by adult conversion), Van Biema writes of how most Americans aren’t really comfortable with the winner-take-all approach to debating evolution and religion:

Most Americans occupy the middle ground: we want it all. We want to cheer on science’s strides and still humble ourselves on the Sabbath. We want access to both MRIs and miracles. We want debates about issues like stem cells without conceding that the positions are so intrinsically inimical as to make discussion fruitless. And to balance formidable standard bearers like Dawkins, we seek those who possess religious conviction but also scientific achievements to credibly argue the widespread hope that science and God are in harmony — that, indeed, science is of God.

Once Dawkins and Collins begin engaging each other, Dawkins resorts to his patented aggression, calling Collins’ positions cop-outs (one is even “the mother and father of all cop-outs”) and trotting out another variation on his “flying spaghetti monster” strawman:

DAWKINS: There could be something incredibly grand and incomprehensible and beyond our present understanding.

COLLINS: That’s God.

DAWKINS: Yes. But it could be any of a billion Gods. It could be God of the Martians or of the inhabitants of Alpha Centauri. The chance of its being a particular God, Yahweh, the God of Jesus, is vanishingly small — at the least, the onus is on you to demonstrate why you think that’s the case.

At least he resisted the temptation to compare Collins to Joseph Goebbels — a temptation he did not resist as his opening salvo when greeting Ted Haggard at New Life Church, as part of his documentary on religion, The Root of All Evil? (See a six-minute excerpt courtesy of YouTube.)

Collins stays patient through most of the exchange, and finally offers this marvelous bit of understatement amid Dawkins’ rhetorical fireworks:

DAWKINS: What Francis was just saying about Genesis was, of course, a little private quarrel between him and his Fundamentalist colleagues …

COLLINS: It’s not so private. It’s rather public. [Laughs.]

DAWKINS: . . . It would be unseemly for me to enter in except to suggest that he’d save himself an awful lot of trouble if he just simply ceased to give them the time of day. Why bother with these clowns?

COLLINS: Richard, I think we don’t do a service to dialogue between science and faith to characterize sincere people by calling them names. That inspires an even more dug-in position. Atheists sometimes come across as a bit arrogant in this regard, and characterizing faith as something only an idiot would attach themselves to is not likely to help your case.

Well, thanks for trying, Dr. Collins.

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Too correct for beers

PrestonJones2The cover copy for the November Wired invokes the giddy atheist triumphalism of John Lennon’s “Imagine”: “The New Atheism: No Heaven. No Hell. Just Science. Inside the Crusade Against Religion.”

Theistic readers of Wired may be relieved to know that contributing editor Gary Wolf’s report of 7,000 words does not deliver on the cover’s double-barreled marketing copy, especially on its promise of “Just Science.” Wolf repeatedly expresses misgivings about the certitude and belligerence of what he calls the New Atheism. (In a revealing MP3 interview on Wired‘s website, Wolf describes his beliefs as a matter of temperament: “I find that when I’m among religious people I tend to think of myself as an atheist, but among the atheists I tend to think of myself as religious.”)

Wolf devotes his first three paragraphs to comparing New Atheism with revivalist preaching:

My friends, I must ask you an important question today: Where do you stand on God?

It’s a question you may prefer not to be asked. But I’m afraid I have no choice. We find ourselves, this very autumn, three and a half centuries after the intellectual martyrdom of Galileo, caught up in a struggle of ultimate importance, when each one of us must make a commitment. It is time to declare our position.

This is the challenge posed by the New Atheists. We are called upon, we lax agnostics, we noncommittal nonbelievers, we vague deists who would be embarrassed to defend antique absurdities like the Virgin Birth or the notion that Mary rose into heaven without dying, or any other blatant myth; we are called out, we fence-sitters, and told to help exorcise this debilitating curse: the curse of faith.

Wolf profiles the three heaviest hitters of New Atheism, beginning at the most belligerent end of the spectrum (Richard Dawkins), moving to Sam Harris, then closing with Daniel Dennett, who is kind enough not to shatter children’s faith in Santa Claus:

He is a renowned philosopher, an atheist, and the possessor of a full white beard. I suspect he must have designed this Father Christmas look intentionally, but in fact it just evolved. “In the ’60s, I looked like Rasputin,” he says. Children have come up to him in airports, checking to see if he is on vacation from the North Pole. When it happens, he does not torment them with knowledge that the person they mistake him for is not real. Instead, the philosopher puts his fingers to his lips and says conspiratorially: “Shhhh.”

As Wolf talks with Dawkins and Sam Harris, and makes a Sunday pilgrimage to The Center for Inquiry West near Hollywood, he describes the social challenges of being a vocal atheist: Is it possible to be a New Atheist without becoming a nuisance to people who believe in God? We hear Dawkins equate theism with belief in a “Flying Spaghetti Monster,” which says more about Dawkins’ taste for caricature and contempt than about whether Dawkins’ atheism stands on a solid foundation of science.

Wolf performs an efficient critique of Dawkins’ notion that New Atheism is in the same place as the gay-rights movement was a few decades ago:

When atheists finally begin to gain some power, what then? Here is where Dawkins’ analogy breaks down. Gay politics is strictly civil rights: Live and let live. But the atheist movement, by his lights, has no choice but to aggressively spread the good news. Evangelism is a moral imperative. Dawkins does not merely disagree with religious myths. He disagrees with tolerating them, with cooperating in their colonization of the brains of innocent tykes.

At The Center for Inquiry West, Wolf retreats from the room when a guest speaker “starts to recite the names of atheists who may have contributed to the television program Mr. Show With Bob and David between 1995 and 1998.”

Other Wired contributors provide brief profiles of four other well-known atheists: Greg Graffin of the punk band Bad Religion (who recently collaborated with history professor Preston Jones on the book Is Belief in God Good, Bad or Irrelevant?; Penn & Teller (the latter breaks his frequent silence to deliver this battle cry: “Atheists are saying, ‘All right, we’ve had enough’”); and Warren Allen Smith, author of Who’s Who in Hell.

Wolf’s report reminds me of Al Craig, who lives in Colorado and — like Dennett — could easily pass for Santa. I met Al in the early 1990s, when I was working within the Christian subculture and found myself missing good arguments about ideas. I attended a Great Books discussion group in search of such discussions. On my first night at Great Books, Al cheerily described himself as “a former born-again” who was an agnostic bordering on an atheist. I called him later that week, and he has been one of my dearest friends ever since. Al and I have argued about faith every time we’ve spoken, repeating ourselves to the exasperation of my wife and our mutual friends, but our affection for each other has always been clear. One reason we enjoy each other so much is that we both care enough about religion to consider it worth a lively argument.

On a grander scale, G.K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw would hold public debates about faith and then retire to the nearest bar for beers. The ideologically hardened atheism that Wolf describes does not seem to have much room for sharing beers with mere theists, which renders it less interesting, less culturally engaged and less likely to persuade many God-fearing souls to join the secular cause.

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The Post’s proven power to shake faith

bibleonsinglepageRemember that pre-Easter slate of stories attempting to debunk Christianity? There was the shocking lost “Gospel of Judas” story. The Jesus walked on an ice floe (not water) that forms once every few millennia story. The Jesus’ father was a Roman soldier named Pantera story and the Jesus didn’t die on the cross so much as pass out after being doped up story.

Somehow the foundations of Christianity remained unharmed.

But I think Alan Cooperman, religion reporter for The Washington Post, has gone and done it. I mean, from reading the first few graphs of his shocking story in Saturday’s paper, it looks like he may have broken a story that will cause all Christians to question their faith:

If 40 percent of Americans refuse to believe that humans evolved from earlier hominids, how many will accept that the book we know as the Bible evolved from earlier texts and was not handed down, in toto, by God in its present form?

The fossil evidence for human evolution is permanently on display at the American Museum of Natural History. Hard evidence that the Bible took its present shape over centuries will be on display for the next 11 weeks, from today through Jan. 7, across the Mall at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

They are rarer than dinosaur bones, these fragments of papyrus and animal skin that tell the Bible’s story. With names such as Codex Sinaiticus, the Macregol Gospels and the Valenciennes Apocalypse, they evoke lost empires and ancient monasteries as surely as archaeopteryx and ceratosaurus conjure up primeval swamps and forests.

See, if there is one thing I learned as a lifelong Christian, it is that the Bible was handed down in the New King James Version directly from God. And as a Christian, the foundations of my faith would be shaken if I were to be told that God did not hand down the books of the New Testament in English along with a printing press in the year A.D. 33 Every Christian knows that the canon was dictated by God Himself speaking directly to Jesus, right?

That’s why I love Cooperman’s opening graph so much. It resonates with me. I like how it ties together skepticism of human evolution with skepticism about canon development. I have never felt better understood by mainstream media than I do in Cooperman’s hands.

Sigh.

The exhibit at the Sackler Gallery sounds fantastic. My husband and I plan to go see it, in fact. But it looks like we better watch out:

These are documents with the proven power to shake faith. That’s what happened to Bart D. Ehrman, author of the 2005 bestseller “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.”

Ah, yes, Bart Ehrman. Reporters love to get Ehrman talking about how he lost his faith once he realized that the Bible was not handed down in its present form. Whether his story is cause for skepticism about the Bible or Bart Ehrman is for the reader to decide. But can’t we expand the Rolodex a bit more than this? Ehrman was quoted in all of those Christianity-in-Danger stories from Easter 2006. But if these documents have such a dramatic “proven power to shake faith” (Hide the women! Protect the children!), it’s interesting that he’s one of such a small number of people reporters talk to when this type of story rolls out on cue.

Cooperman has promised a story about documents that have the power to shake faith. What are these documents? What could they be? I can’t wait to get to the part of the story where he sheds light on what doctrinal tenets are undercut by historical research! Let’s take a look:

“If people come looking to find something new about Jesus, they won’t find it in this exhibit. That’s not what it’s saying. But it is saying that we didn’t start out with this,” [Michelle P. Brown, guest curator] said, producing a red [Gideons] Bible from her Washington hotel room and giving it a resounding thwack with the palm of her hand.

Okay, so who are these people who believe that God delivered red Gideons Bibles straight from heaven? And what happened to writing about faith-shaking documents? Oh wait, I found that part of his story. It’s in the 23rd paragraph of the 27-paragraph story. Here we go:

Ehrman noted that [the Codex Sinaiticus'] version of the Gospel of John is missing the story of the woman taken in adultery, the famous parable in which Jesus says to those who would kill the woman, “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” He and many other textual scholars believe the adultery story was not introduced into John until the Middle Ages.

And . . . scene! That’s it. Other than a casual mention of a few passages that weren’t included in the final canon, this is the faith-shattering proof from the article. The millennia of critical thought, the many deliberations over what to include in the canon, heck, all the work that’s gone into just this issue since the Codex Sinaiticus was discovered 150 years ago — all brushed away.

The sad thing is that Cooperman actually wrote a rather nice review of the Sackler exhibit complete with interesting historical facts and discussions with its curator. But when he went to frame the story or give it broader context, he went for the dramatic faith-shaking angle.

In so doing, he managed to cast Christians as unwitting fools who believe the Bible was delivered in Gideons form in some ahistorical manner. Was that really necessary?

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Breeding is believing

cassatMolly Moore, who writes about France for The Washington Post, filed a report on French fertility. It is an anecdote-driven, uncritical look at French regulations’ effect on working mothers. It’s a bit light on data for being so heavy on conjecture, but here’s the nut:

While falling birthrates threaten to undermine economies and social stability across much of an aging Europe, French fertility rates are increasing. France now has the second-highest fertility rate in Europe — 1.94 children born per woman, exceeded slightly by Ireland’s rate of 1.99. The U.S. fertility rate is 2.01 children.

. . . But the propensity of women here to have more babies has little to do with notions of French romance or the population’s formerly strong religious ties to the Roman Catholic Church.

France heavily subsidizes children and families from pregnancy to young adulthood with liberal maternity leaves and part-time work laws for women.

The article describes how the many labor regulations make it easier for professional women to have children. And we all should know that regulations incentivize behavior. In other words, if you pay a woman to have a child, she’ll be more likely to do so. This is why American regulations that gave single mothers — but not married women — access to welfare ended up incentivizing women to stay single. This is also why a wonderful restaurateur in Paris told me he had a hard time finding employees since unemployment benefits were so high.

But is this all about incentivizing women to have children? Does this really have nothing to do with religion? Let’s get the biggest ghost in this story out of the way. What is the second-largest religion in France, practiced by as many as 5 to 10 percent of the population, according to the CIA World Factbook? And what do we know about the fertility rates of these folks?

Let’s look at another story about fertility, this one written by Eric Kauffman for The Prospect. The whole piece is great, arguing that demography favors the fertile. And the fertile are religious. Here’s a bit about the ghost:

[I]t is difficult to predict what proportion of Europe’s population will be of non-European descent in the future because few European countries collect census data on ethnicity and religion. The occasionally cited figure of 30 per cent ethnic minorities in western Europe by 2050 is little more than an educated guess. One of the few countries to collect ethnoreligious census information is Austria, where a recent projection — based on a conservative estimate of 20,000 immigrants a year and various assumptions about religious abandonment and fertility — predicted that Muslims would make up between 14 and 26 per cent of the population in 2050, up from 4 per cent today.

The word Muslim doesn’t appear in Moore’s article. But let’s even get back to her contention that general religiosity has nothing to do with French fertility. Kauffman’s analysis of the data suggests otherwise. He says that half of Europeans are expressing a high degree of religiosity even if they don’t regularly attend church — including France — and that

These people, described by Grace Davie as “believing without belonging,” are seen by some as carriers of a flimsy faith which will soon disappear, and which doesn’t affect behaviour or attitudes. But if this is the case, how do we explain the fact that the fertility of these non-attending believers is much closer to church attenders than to non-believers? The non-attending religious are also significantly more likely than non-believers to identify themselves as ideologically conservative, even when controlling for education, wealth, age and generation.

Even though Moore hid one ghost and casually dismissed another, they may be hard to keep out of the story.

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New York Times needed more liberal clergy

clerical attireLegislators must go crazy, whenever they enter the arena of church-state law, trying to write laws that protect the innocent without creating legal sanctuaries in which the demons of fraud and corruption have even more room to dance.

After all, the First Amendment makes it clear that the government is supposed to give religious expression and practice every benefit of almost every doubt.

What do I mean? Let’s say that you have, as Exhibit A, Father Frank of the Roman Catholic Church and your goal is to protect his rights as a clergyman. Don’t focus on issues of taxes and property at the moment. Let’s just say, to consider an issue that has played a major role in church-state law, that you want to protect his right to hear the confessions of undocumented workers without having to worry about government officials bugging him about what he’s hearing.

Now, try to write a law that protects all the rights of Father Frank, yet somehow allows government officials to crack down on the shady activities of our Exhibit B. This is Father Not-So-Frank, who, via a mail-order-bishop, has become a priest in a tiny splinter church that insists it is just as valid as the Vatican. Let’s call it the Eastern Old Catholic Liberal Orthodox Communion of the Utrecht Empire or something like that.

Trust me, these churches are out there.

Our Father Not-So-Frank is a full-time mail man and, next month, he’ll compete his advanced online training and become a bishop. Then he’ll start cashing checks and ordaining priests of his own, at his split-level cathedral and parsonage in suburban Oklahoma City.

Now, how does the U.S. Congress pass a law against what this man is doing without hurting the “real” — sorry for the scare quotes — priest? By the way, while I am at it, do counselors in the Church of Scientology have the same rights? What if they refuse to discuss the dollars and cents of their work?

You probably know where I am going with this. I’m working my way around to Part II of reporter Diana B. Henriques‘ massive In God’s Name investigative series in the New York Times. This is the installment titled “Where Faith Abides, Employees Have Few Rights.”

Here is the big news in this story, the good news and the bad news. The good news is that religious groups are free to pick their own leaders and they have the legal right to ordain, hire and fire people based on whether they believe the doctrines of the particular religious group doing the ordaining, hiring and firing. What’s the bad news? It’s pretty much the same as the good news, because this opens the door for Father Not-So-Frank as well as allowing Father Frank and his superiors to do their thing with as little government interference as possible.

The bottom line: There is no way to force religious groups to be democracies.

The pope does not have to be an equal opportunity employer. Neither do all those independent Baptist churches that dot the street corners in Everytown, Texas. Neither does the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Harvard University. It is OK if your local Orthodox synagogue refuses to hire a Assemblies of God pastor or, for that matter, a Reform rabbi. The same thing goes for the people who teach in these religious bodies’ schools, answer their telephones and do all kinds of other tasks in these voluntary religious associations.

I am pretty sure that Henriques knows this. It is not as clear that she realizes that it is hard to protect this constitutional right for the angels without making life easier for the people that some of us consider demons. She does know about the laws that are on the books:

The most sweeping of these judicial protections … is called the ministerial exception. Judges have been applying this exception, sometimes called the church autonomy doctrine, to religious employment disputes for more than 100 years. As a rule, state and federal judges will handle any lawsuit that is filed in the right place in an appropriate, timely manner. But judges will almost never agree to hear a controversy that would require them to delve into the doctrines, governance, discipline or hiring preferences of any religious faith. Citing the protections of the First Amendment, they have ruled with great consistency that congregations cannot fully express their faith and exercise their religious freedom unless they are free to select their own spiritual leaders without any interference from government agencies or second-guessing by the courts.

To do otherwise would be an intolerable government intrusion into employment relationships that courts have called “the lifeblood” of religious life and the bedrock of religious liberty, explained Edward R. McNicholas, co-chairman of the national religious institutions practice in the Washington, D.C., office of Sidley Austin, a law firm with some of the country’s largest religious organizations among its clients.

Yes, judges and legislators are not supposed to get entangled in doctrine, which makes it pretty easy for some religious leaders to wave the doctrine flag and do all kinds of mean and even sinful things.

color rainbow12So what can the state do? Long ago, when I was doing my graduate work in church-state studies, I remember something one of my professors said. When push comes to shove and it comes time for the government to try to decide what is good religion and what is fake religion, just about the only things the cops can probe are profit, fraud and threat to life and safety. Other than that, religious groups are pretty much free to do their things.

I could go on and on, but let me make two final points.

Here is another crucial statement in this part of the Times package:

Religious employers have long been shielded from all complaints of religious discrimination by an exemption that was built into the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and expanded in 1972. That historic exemption allows them to give preference in hiring to candidates who share their faith. In recent years, some judges have also refused to interfere when religious groups have dismissed lesbians, unwed mothers and adulterous couples, even if they profess the same faith, because they have violated their employers’ religious codes.

Right. But Henriques really needed to add a few more words to that last sentence. It really should end by saying, “because they have violated the doctrinal and moral covenants that they signed of their own free will on the day they took their jobs.”

In other words, a Wiccan mega-coven — should one ever exist — has a right to dismiss its lesbian priestess if she decides to get married and become a Southern Baptist. A mosque can dismiss the leader of its preschool if he converts to Judaism and starts telling all the children about the glories of Israel. Focus on the Family can dismiss someone who has an affair. Or they can choose not to do so, if the leaders of the ministry believe the man or woman has repented.

That’s called “freedom of association.” It’s a pretty important concept. Someone at the Times needs to look that up.

However, it is clear that Henriques is aware that the same laws that protect conservative groups protect liberal religious groups. She even knows that some of our most important recent laws protecting religious liberty were passed with the help of the Clinton White House and super-broad coalitions of religious leaders that ranged from the Eagle Forum to the ACLU, from the National Council of Churches to the National Association of Evangelicals, from the Southern Baptists to the Episcopalians. On these issues, Pat Robertson was dancing with Bill Clinton (although it isn’t nice to dwell on that image).

So let me end there. What do I think Henriques should have done to improve and balance this story? She needed to talk to more clergy and experts on the religious left.

And almost all the church-state lawyers said: Amen.

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Imagine this church-state scenario

542401b Woman Praying W Rosary Beads PostersOK, here’s the plan.

Clearly, there is ugly anti-Catholic prejudice left in American life, especially in terms of bias against the most devout and traditional forms of the faith. So what would happen if public educators floated a plan to have all students learn more about this important world religion by practicing this faith during their school days?

The teacher could stand at the front of the classroom and, all together, as part of a taxpayer-funded class activity, with the teacher grading students on their participation, everyone present would learn how to say the following:

Hail Mary, Full of Grace, The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of death.

All of the students — Protestants, Muslims, Mormons, Jews, Hindus, you name it — could learn about fasting, memorizing Bible passages, making the sign of the Cross and saying confession (maybe they could do that on a field trip). Wouldn’t this be great for promoting interfaith understanding in this tense age? I’m sure there wouldn’t be protests about this from strict church-state separationists, secularists, fundamentalist Protestants and others. Right? It would be an educational exercise. That’s the ticket.

Well, maybe a few people would be upset. But it seems that this kind of interfaith education is kosher these days. After all, click here and read this story from the San Francisco Chronicle about a U.S. Supreme Court non-decision:

The court, without comment, left intact a ruling by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco last November in favor of the Byron Union School District in eastern Contra Costa. The suit challenged the content of a seventh-grade history course at Excelsior Middle School in Byron in the fall of 2001. The teacher, using an instructional guide, told students they would adopt roles as Muslims for three weeks to help them learn what Muslims believe.

She encouraged them to use Muslim names, recited prayers in class, had them memorize and recite a passage from the Quran and made them give up something for a day, such as television or candy, to simulate fasting during the month of Ramadan.

What’s my point? We really don’t need to debate the ruling itself or the wisdom of the program.

What I found interesting is that the newspaper editors didn’t seem to realize what would have happened, say in Northern California, if anyone had attempted to mandate a similar program for Orthodox Judaism, Evangelical Protestantism, Catholicism, etc.

Would the newspaper have considered that a threatening violation of the DMZ between church and state? Or what if a charismatic, Pentecostal Christian educator worked up some taxpayer-funded class activities based on learning how to speak in tongues, evangelism, the laying on of hands for healing, watching Pat Robertson videos, handling snakes …

What would the ACLU think of that? What would the editors think of that? Just asking.

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Smells like teen spirit

teens for jesusThe New York Times‘ Laurie Goodstein continues her in-depth coverage of evangelicals. She picks up on an evangelical campaign warning that teenagers are abandoning Christianity.

The campaign is based, as Goodstein notes, on a fairly laughable statistic that only 4 percent of teenagers will be “Bible-believing Christians” by the time they reach adulthood. I’m not sure how the statistic-inventer defines Bible-believing Christians, but that compares to 35 percent of Baby Boomers and 65 percent of the World War II generation. Some 6,000 pastors are attending meetings across the country to address the problem:

While some critics say the statistics are greatly exaggerated (one evangelical magazine for youth ministers dubbed it “the 4 percent panic attack”), there is widespread consensus among evangelical leaders that they risk losing their teenagers.

“I’m looking at the data,” said Ron Luce, who organized the meetings and founded Teen Mania, a 20-year-old youth ministry, “and we’ve become post-Christian America, like post-Christian Europe. We’ve been working as hard as we know how to work — everyone in youth ministry is working hard — but we’re losing.”

The board of the National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella group representing 60 denominations and dozens of ministries, passed a resolution this year deploring “the epidemic of young people leaving the evangelical church.”

Among the leaders speaking at the meetings are Ted Haggard, president of the evangelical association; the Rev. Jerry Falwell; and nationally known preachers like Jack Hayford and Tommy Barnett.

Ted Haggard, eh? Would that be the same Ted Haggard who told Frank Lockwood of the Lexington Herald-Leader — also known as the Bible Belt Blogger — that the 4 percent claim was a scam? Here’s what Lockwood reported on Sept. 11:

A full-page advertisement in this month’s Christianity Today warns that America’s evangelicals may soon be on the endangered species list — as rare as snail darters, spotted owls and Chinook salmon.

But the ad, which is endorsed by the National Association of Evangelicals, is a false alarm — or at least an exaggeration — according to the group’s president — Pastor Ted Haggard.

“We’re church people. We always use fear and guilt to motivate people,” Haggard told Bible Belt Blogger, punctuating the quip with hearty laughter.

Ha ha ha! Anyway, it’s not that Goodstein fell for the ruse. She goes to great lengths to document just how ridiculous the 4 percent claim is. But she tries to get at the heart of the story by interviewing teens and others who seem to earnestly believe that Bible-believing Christians are threatened. She gets specifics from Christian teens trying to avoid immoral behavior in a world that countenances much of it. She interviews Notre Dame’s Christian Smith for perspective. She also interviews an author who tells of kids who felt peer pressure to become Christian:

The phenomenon may not be that young evangelicals are abandoning their faith, but that they are abandoning the institutional church, said Lauren Sandler, author of “Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement” (Viking, 2006). Ms. Sandler, who calls herself a secular liberal, said she found the movement frighteningly robust.

“This generation is not about church,” said Ms. Sandler, an editor at Salon.com. “They always say, ‘We take our faith outside the four walls.’ For a lot of young evangelicals, church is a rock festival, or a skate park or hanging out in someone’s basement.”

Wouldn’t that be interesting if that were the case? After years of reinforcing the idea that church is a rock festival, skate park or small group — growing teenagers had no institutional church to go back to? It’s definitely something worth looking into. Better data on what, if anything, is happening with evangelical teenagers would help stories tracking the group. The Barna Research Group, which specializes in surveying Christians, has put out books on teenagers in recent years. What other hard data are out there? What do recent surveys, such as the ones showing teens are less likely to have sex, have to do with this?

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Underneath the bonnets and straw hats

Amish straw hats JPGIt’s very hard to write a column about one subject when your mind is locked on another.

So I did something I rarely do yesterday. I switched column topics, even though that meant trying to do extra reading, research and telephone work during a day when I had classes to teach in the morning and the afternoon. I write at night and ship the column to the bureau at dawn on Wednesdays. It’s that “lead time” thing, you know.

The goal, of course, was to write about the Amish tragedy. It was clear that new details would keep coming out all week, but I still thought there was ground to cover from the very first day or two of the story. I knew that the media would, of course, leap into stories linked to “theodicy,” and that’s valid. That is part of the “why” question, after all.

But I was haunted by the question of justice. I know enough about the Amish and the Mennonites to know that this was the other half of the discussion that would be looming in the background, coupled with forgiveness. But who to talk to on such short notice? You can talk to academic experts on the Amish and what they believe, but this rarely gets you inside the minds under those straw hats and bonnets, let alone inside their hearts and souls.

So I decided to try to reach Johann Christoph Arnold of the Bruderhof Communities. This is a Christian group that is very similar to the Amish and the Mennonites in many ways, in terms of European roots, traditions and beliefs. However, they are not opposed to modern technology, especially not the Internet (thus the website link above). I have talked with Arnold in the past and, thus, I hoped he would take my call in such a stressful time. Sure enough, the Bruderhof communities had already sent volunteers down to Lancaster County, Pa., to help counsel and help the Amish handle the media storm. The Bruderhof were also highly involved in helping survivors of the Columbine High School massacre. Like the Amish, the Bruderhof folks do not fit easily into media stereotypes.

Arnold was able to give me some time between my classes. That led to a column that began like this:

The helicopters kept making circles in the air so that the cameramen could keep showing the dairy farms and country roads, the bonnets and wide-brimmed straw hats, the horse-drawn buggies and the one-room schoolhouse framed in yellow police tape.

Soon the facts started going in circles as police recited a litany about 600 rounds of ammunition, a shotgun, a semiautomatic pistol, a stun gun, explosives and, later, the killer’s sick collection of chains, clamps, hardware and sexual aids. Witnesses said Charles Carl Roberts IV was angry with God, angry with himself, haunted by guilt, fed up with life and driven by a hellish grudge.

Then journalists began asking questions that went in circles, the questions that nag clergy as well as state troopers. Why? Why the Amish? How could God let this happen? How can justice be done now that the killer is dead?

“Like everyone else, I could not believe what I was seeing on my television,” said Johann Christoph Arnold, senior elder of the Bruderhof communes. While sharing many beliefs with the Amish and Mennonites, the Bruderhof (“place of the brothers”) embrace some modern technology. Still, these movements share European roots in pacifism, simple living and an emphasis on the sanctity of human life.

“The Amish are our cousins so I know some of what they must be feeling,” said Arnold, in his thick German accent. “I know these parents are hurting, I know they are asking questions, but I know that they know the answer is forgiveness. … Tragedy and pain can soften our hearts until they break. But if we trust God this will help us to feel compassion.”

And here is the end:

In this case, the gunman left suicide notes that showed that he was driven by guilt and a grudge that he would not surrender. It appears that Roberts could not forgive God and could not forgive himself.

In the end, this killed him and through him this grudge killed others.

“If you hold a grudge, it will live on in your heart until it leads to violence of some kind,” said Arnold. “If you do not forgive, then you cannot be healed. Forgiveness can heal the forgiver as well as the one who is forgiven. This is what the Amish believe. It will take time, but this is what they now must strive to live out for all the world to see.”

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