5Q+1 visits with new Tennessean

SmietanapicThat would be GetReligion reader Bob Smietana, of course, along with the rest of his family.

You see, Smietana has just made a very interesting and rare leap from the world of the denominational press back into a mainstream newsroom. He has joined the Tennessean as the new religion reporter in the very symbolic city of Nashville — which is known as guitar town, the Baptist Vatican and lots of other names. (I interviewed for that same job a long, long, long time ago and the statistics on religion in that zip code are amazing.)

Smietana has been a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a correspondent for Religion News Service, and for eight years he served as features editor for the Covenant Companion, a Chicago-based publication of the Evangelical Covenant Church. He received more than a dozen national awards from the Associated Church Press for his work there.

A native of Attleboro, Mass., Smietana has a degree in religion from North Park University in Chicago, and he earned a master’s degree in communication from National-Louis University in Chicago. In 2001, he completed a summer program in reporting on religion news at Northwestern University’s the Medill School of Journalism. His freelance credits are extensive and he will soon begin blogging at GoodIntentionsBook.com, in support of what he calls a “Freakonomics-style” book on poverty, immigration, global warming and other related issues.

So here are his answers to the usual 5Q+1 questions from your GetReligionistas:

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

These days I’ve been missing Ted Olsen’s mighty, mighty weblog at Christianitytoday.com, which seems to have been phased out these days. It was a great spot to get a ton of coverage, all in one place, and it’s sorely missed.

RNS remains a great source — Kevin Eckstrom and Adelle Banks do great work. And the denominational press — Baptist Press, Presbyterian News Service, United Methodist News Service, etc. — give an insider’s view of what’s happening in those groups I just did a story on the effect of the weak dollar on missionaries and international relief groups, and got the inspiration from something the Baptist Press ran.

The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, Business Week, all do great coverage when they take religion. And usually there’s something in those publications that will spark a God-beat story. Religion is one of the world’s largest industries, and the trends, like the weak dollar, that effect big for-profit companies also effect churches.

Probably the most important sources are religious folks themselves, especially the clergy and lay leader who know what’s going on below the surface.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

Here’s one story that I, as newly minted member of the mainstream media didn’t get — the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. This year, Southern Baptist hope to raise $165 million, or more than half their annual budget, in that one offering, taken in December. In effect, every year they wager the future of their world-wide missionary enterprise, which is 5,300 missionaries strong, on this one offering. This past decade, they’ve raised more a billion dollars through the Lottie Moon offering. If the money doesn’t come in every year, they are sunk. It’s a fascinating story, one that reveals the priority that Southern Baptist place on missions. They have about 15 million members and 5,300 missionaries. The Methodists, with 8 million members, have about 400 missionaries. And Lottie Moon, who was a China missionary in the 1800, is an icon for Southern Baptists, who are the largest Protestant group in America. I’ve covered religion professionally since 1999 and had never heard of her before coming to Nashville.

I’m not sure the major mainstream media — the New York Times, CNN, ABC, etc. — get evangelicals or the faith of believers in general. They don’t get the personal and grassroots nature of religion, and spent too much time looking at religious celebrities and not enough time looking at the day to day the lives of believers.

My younger brother died last year, suddenly and unexpectedly, while in the Philippines to finalize the adoption of his daughter. During that time, our church family, kept the faith for us. They carried us through that time of almost unbearable grief, with acts of kindness great and small. That close knit, grassroots community was our lifeline. (I wrote about it afterwards), and I can’t imagine trying to go through that experience without faith and without the company of ordinary believers.

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

At least three stories come to mind.

One of these days, and it will probably be soon the Southern Baptist are going to stop growing and begin shrinking. That’ll be a huge story for them.

The growth of multi-site megachurches. They are becoming the Wal-Marts of the church world, and it’s putting a tremendous amount of pressure on small congregations, some of whom are giving up and reinventing themselves as franchises of the brand-name megachurches.

Gay bishops get all the press when it comes to Mainline churches, and but I’m more curious about demographics and finances of those institutions. The denominational feuds are fueled as much or more by money and fannies in the pews as they are by sex.

Rockygloves(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

Journalists are supposed to ask who, what, where, when and why. You can’t get to why without asking about religion.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

It’s got to be the Rocky boxing glove, which was sent out to pastors in order to promote Rocky Balboa as a faith-based film and attract some of the Passion of the Christ crowd. There was even a website, rockyresources.com/, with preaching tips, banners and even a video message from Sylvester Stallone for church leaders. Stallone was pitched as a true believer, with quotes like, “If you don’t have a great relationship with God, you can go off the deep end.” He must have been thinking about the new Rambo film.

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

In coming to the Tennessean, I moved from the magazine world, and mostly religious publications, to a daily newsroom. I’ve been amazed by the skill of my colleagues, who day after day produce quality news under unrelenting deadlines. As a magazine editor and writer, I had the luxury of time to dig deep into stories. I don’t have that luxury anymore, and it’s given me a greater respect for longtime daily journalists.

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LeBlanc-ian thoughts on Obama option

barack obama tshirtThis isn’t religion news, really, but there’s a post floating around right now about religion, politics and Barack Obama that is getting some unique attention. It touches on topics that are affecting the political decisions of serious Christian believers, left and right. And journalists, too.

This post is written by one Doug LeBlanc. Since we do not get to feature his work these days, as he enters a book-writing stage of his life, I will be keeping my eyes open for LeBlanc-ian missives to share with readers back here at GetReligion. The full text of the post is up at Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher’s Crunchy Con site over at Beliefnet. Doug is identified as a “conservative pro-life Evangelical” and a Republican.

That information is crucial, in this case. Doug is struggling with the strong desire he feels to support Obama. Click here for the post containing the full text, which was inspired by an invitation that Doug received to join an “Evangelicals for Obama” Facebook group. Here’s the end of the post:

I cannot escape the reality that personality, tone and even voice qualities are shaping my preferences. I recognize that Obama is to Hillary’s left on some important points, and I find myself not caring. The thought of living with Hillary’s schoolmarm demeanor, her cackle and all the baggage of Clintonism greatly agitates me. I feel no such dread about an Obama presidency. I wish I could be less driven by emotion and intuition on this, but so far sweet reason has not been able to override them.

I’m guessing I should just back away from following the primaries so closely. I think Super Tuesday will resolve both parties’ nomination questions, for the most part, and Virginia doesn’t vote until after then. I sure obsess about this, though. I yearn deeply for an Obama vs. Huck or Obama vs. McCain race. I would be driven to near despair by a Clinton vs. Romney ticket. With a Clinton vs. Giuliani ticket, I probably would hold my nose, vote for Rudy and throw myself on God’s mercy. Can anyone else relate to my struggles?

To which Andrew Sullivan responds:

He cannot get past his feelings about Clinton. He longs for an Obama-McCain race, which right now is my dream as well. Read the whole thing. He asks: Can anyone else relate to my struggles?

Relate? I’m living them.

Now, before you click “comment,” try to focus on this question: How does all of this relate to (a) the decisions that religious leaders will make about Obama (especially in a showdown with the Clintons) and (b) press coverage of Obama, in both the mainstream and religious media?

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Shameless self promotion (Rockies division)

xdenver skyline2bWe are glad that people are reading GetReligion — especially working journalists. Obviously.

It is also good that religious leaders click into the site from time to time, since we think that can help them understand some of the challenges that reporters and editors face. We also try to highlight the good as well as note some of the mistakes that take place on the Godbeat (or godsbeat). I had a priest tell me, back when we started, that it helps if church leaders know who the good reporters are when looking through all of those urgent telephone messages on a busy day.

One of the most media-savvy bishops I have ever covered is Archbishop Charles Chaput of the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver.

Actually, I met him when he was the Franciscan campus minister at the downtown branch of the University of Colorado (and several other schools), before he was raised to the episcopate in his late ’30s. He has always been interested in mass media — news and entertainment — with a logical interest in youth culture. Chaput drew some attention when he discussed the film The Matrix, with its meditations on the confusion and unreality of modern life, in the context of the Columbine High School massacre.

Anyway, the archbishop’s interest in journalism is frequently evident in in his newspaper columns and speeches. He is considered a pro-Rome conservative, but rare are the traditionalists who pay this much attention to trends in media and modern life. Many Catholic liberals detest him (think abortion politics), but he also makes a few conservatives nervous from time to time (think death penalty and economic issues). Catholic theology tends to shred labels.

All of this is to note that, in a new column in the Denver Catholic Register, the archbishop has praised GetReligion — for reasons that both needle and praise mainstream journalists. Here is a sample:

Getreligion.org is one of my favorite Web sites, not because it’s Catholic or pious — it’s neither — but because it asks the right questions. … The results aren’t comforting. The evidence gathered by getreligion.org shows again and again that the press doesn’t “get” religion as a story. Denver is unusual in having two major newspapers, both with capable religion coverage. But overall, major news organizations tend to cover religion poorly, predictably and too often with a negative undercurrent.

As we enter yet another election year, Catholics should remember that what we read in the newspapers, hear on the radio and see on television is often useful, but it’s always a selective taste of reality. Deciding about a candidate based on the latest headlines, or about an issue based on the latest reported poll, is a recipe for trouble.

431342470  oJournalists, of course, would want to debate with the archbishop about that phrase “predictably and too often” being used to describe negative coverage of religion news. That’s a debate he would welcome and it would be a lively one.

When it comes to GetReligion, Chaput specifically wanted to praise Mark Stricherz for challenging mainstream journalists to dig into religious issues and debates among Democrats as well as Republicans. Click here and then here for the posts in question. As the archbishop notes, “obviously, plenty of very good people, including many religious believers, inhabit both political parties.” Why not cover both stories?

Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards have all spoken quite publicly about their religious faith in recent months. Yet as Stricherz notes, the recent Iowa caucus poll supported by all four major TV networks, CNN and AP was framed in a way that presumed religion is a major factor for Republicans and not for Democrats. Maybe that’s true; maybe it’s not — but we won’t ever know from the poll results, because the right questions weren’t asked.

Amen. So check out the archbishop’s column. And we thank him for being a reader and recommending GetReligion to others. Perhaps he should bring this subject up the next time he meets with local editors and television producers?

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Politics wins again (surprise)

This is the time of year, of course, when news organizations post their Top 10 lists for the year. On the religion beat, the list that gets the most attention is the one produced by a poll of the members of the Religion Newswriters Association. Click here to see it’s announcement of the results.

I no longer get to vote in this poll, since my work for the Scripps Howard News Service is not my full-time job. However, I still write about the poll year after year.

Actually, it’s pretty easy to predict the results — since the biggest stories in the world often have a religion angle (thus, GetReligion exists). However, it is also clear that, when in doubt, you can count on politics or the pope placing very high. This year’s results are a perfect example of this reality. So here is how I started my column on this topic last week:

It was a simple commercial, with Mike Huckabee posed in front of a set of scandalously empty white bookshelves that, when framed just right beside a Christmas tree, formed a glowing cross behind the candidate.

And, lo, the former Southern Baptist pastor told the voters: “Are you about worn out by all the television commercials you’ve been seeing, mostly about politics? I don’t blame you. At this time of year, sometimes it’s nice to pull aside from all of that and just remember that what really matters is a celebration of the birth of Christ and being with our family and our friends. I hope that you and your family will have a magnificent Christmas season. And on behalf of all of us, God bless and merry Christmas.”

This caused a firestorm among the political elites that symbolized the year’s biggest trend in religion news — the revenge of the infamous “values voters” who, apparently, remain alive and well in church pews across the heartland.

But will the Republican Party win this “pew gap” contest again? That was the question that dominated the Religion Newswriters Association poll to determine the top 10 religion news stories in 2007. There were plenty of new signs that the so-called religious right exists, but that it isn’t a monolith after all.

The key, as GetReligion regulars know, is that this story has two sides. Thus, it was striking to note how the RNA leaders worded the items that were selected as the No. 1 and 2 items in the poll.

The top item: “Evangelical voters ponder whether they will be able to support the eventual Republican candidate, as they did in 2004, because of questions about the leaders’ faith and-or platform. Many say they would be reluctant to vote for Mormon Mitt Romney.”

The runner up: “Leading Democratic presidential candidates make conscious efforts to woo faith-based voters after admitting failure to do so in 2004.”

The key to the whole Huckabee story, in my opinion, is that it offers more evidence that mainstream evangelical and conservative Catholic voters are not, repeat are not, meshing well with the GOP establishment. Huckabee is, after all, essentially a pre-Roe Bible Belt Democrat. Somebody really ought to write a book about this whole topic. Wait! Someone named Mark Stricherz has done that already.

You can read the rest of the RNA poll for yourself, either at the group’s site or in my column. This is also a year when you should check out the radically different poll results over at Christianity Today and at Time magazine.

The top item at CT focused on an issue of great concern to evangelicals, but it was also a global level human rights story:

1. Taliban takes Korean short-term mission team hostage, killing two Afghanistan’s resurgent Taliban used the team of 23 short-term workers from Saemmul Presbyterian Church as a bargaining chip, pressuring the South Korean government into a reported ransom payment and a promise to withdraw its 200 troops in the country. Bae Hyeong-gyu and Shim Seongmin were killed before the negotiation was completed.

Time, surprise, led with, well, the Time magazine cover about the spiritual struggles of Mother Teresa.

So, please consider this an open thread for commentary on these three Top 10 religion-news lists or any others that you have seen in mainstream or religious media.

Fire away. Contrast. Compare.

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Knowing when to hold my peace

WikiBookshelfThe winter issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review features an essay by blogger RJ Eskow (a regular at The Huffington Post) about the challenge of balancing blog-inspired activism with Buddhist disciplines. Both the promise and the limits of Eskow’s vision appear in his lede:

There is no way out of a spiritual battle
There is no way you can avoid taking sides

In the years since Diane di Prima wrote those words in a poem called “Rant,” the United States has become a rantocracy of screaming politicians, pundits, and talk radio hosts. They shout, even when they whisper. Some of us try to make ourselves heard above the shouting, and that raises Buddhist questions: Can a person maintain equanimity and stay in the political debate? And what about the precept of right speech? It forbids lying, of course. But it also means no harsh words, rumor-mongering, or frivolous talk.

In today’s political dialogue, what’s left?

Eskow acknowledges his pugnacious style — such as referring to “Cheney’s Chappaquiddick” or threatening to “respond physically” to a Joe Klein column (“I was joking, but the feeling was real”) — but suggests that pundits Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity are worse ranters still.

Eskow achieves two breakthroughs: he refrains from responding when one of his readers criticizes him for writing about JonBenet Ramsey rather than Darfur, and he chooses not to exploit aggressive email from a New York Times reporter that would have diminished the reporter’s image. These feel like rather small steps in the rantocracy that Eskow sees in American politics, but it’s something. Eskow has a clear grasp of the long-term goal:

“First, do no harm.” The physician’s precept should also be mine. In an ideal world, everything I write would come with a disclaimer that says: “No animals or humans were harmed in the production of these words.” No one. Not Tucker Carlson, or Sean Hannity, or Joe Klein. Not even Dick Cheney. I’m not there yet, but I’m trying.

I mention Eskow’s essay by way of confession. Blogging is not my default setting as a writer, and I’m not sure I’ve ever found a relaxed, unguarded voice in this medium. Blogging has sometimes made it too easy to lapse from noting irony to indulging unkind sarcasm.

Eskow makes his peace with sarcasm by consulting Dharmavidya David Brazier:

I was certainly finding it difficult to maintain an aggressive, ironic tone, so I asked Dharmavidya about irony and satire. “The Buddha was attracted to irony,” he said. “He was a prophet with a sense of humor. Once when he was debating the idea that bathing in the holy river is purifying, he said, ‘There must be a lot of holy fish.’ And when he talked about Jain asceticism, he pointed out that it was designed to end suffering by inflicting even more suffering — on its followers.”

So irony, or even its evil twin, sarcasm, isn’t necessarily un-Buddhist? “Not necessarily,” said Dharmavidya. “The Buddha judged these things based on the likely outcome and how wholesome the speaker’s intent is.”

I’m more inclined to agree with my friend Frederica Mathewes-Green, who has long argued that sarcasm is of the spirit of murder.

As Eskow confronts the Buddhist notion of right speech, I struggle with Scripture’s teachings that an abundance words can lead to foolishness (Ecclesiastes 5:3), or that the tongue is a most destructive force (James 3).

GetReligion has welcomed me during two tenures, and I’m grateful for that, but it is now time to devote myself to other callings. One year from now, I owe an editor friend a book about tithing. That book will be the primary focus of my writing in 2008.

I will continue writing a column for Episcopal Life and contributing to a blog called Covenant, which strives for irenic reflection on the Anglican Communion’s conflicts.

I think Eskow asks, in so many words: How do I blog without losing something important in my soul? For now, this is my answer: I must blog less, and do more long-view writing that generates joy — both in my life and, I hope, in the lives of my readers.

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Let Dallas be Dallas?

Dallas Skyline dayThat post from the other day about the Dallas Morning News Solstice coverage continues to draw interesting comments.

As I said in the comments pages, it’s clear that the solstice celebration was a valid news story. But it’s also clear that many Christmas-related events that were much, much, much larger were deemed to be old hat and not worthy of fresh coverage.

That may or may not be true. We don’t know if there were valid news hooks linked to any of those other mainstream events in Dallas. If the tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it make a sound?

Anyway, here is the archetypal comment from one of our faithful readers on the journalistic left, which means, in this case, that the purpose of news is to educate the mainstream readers who need to have their world views broadened until they resemble those of journalists:

Michael says:

The goal of a local newspaper is to cover events that are newsworthy and interesting. The goal is to get readers to consider things they’ve never considered before, open a door to something they don’t know much about, to tell the untold stories. It is not to always just hold up a mirror for the reader so that they can gaze at themselves, although clearly there is a role for that.

The question is how you achieve that balance. On the Solstice, writing about the Solstice is a reasonable news decision. Just as on Christmas, there will be the inevitable story from Midnight Mass because that is a reasonable news decision.

But if I had to choose between a story about a Solstice celebration in the buckle of the Bible belt or a story about Bible Belt Megachurch doing their 17th annual Living Nativity, it’s a reasonable news decision to cover the news because it is going to be “new” and “news” to many readers. There’s a reason we don’t call it “olds.”

Winter solstice LW2 01Meanwhile, I received a private email from a Dallas reader who wanted to comment on the reality that is facing readers and former readers of the most powerful newspaper in Texas. It appears that this reader still reads the dead-tree-pulp edition.

As a Dallas Morning News reader who is grateful for the extra coverage the newspaper has given to religion over the years (and who mourns the loss of the Religion section), I appreciate your attention to our hometown paper’s continuing reporting on religion here. I don’t know if you get to see the print edition of the News, but this past weekend’s Religion page was a good example of what I consider to be the paper’s blind spot about its own audience.

There were two stories on the page. One was a story from wire services about Christians who don’t celebrate Christmas. The other was about Latino Christians and a Christmas procession. Both were interesting, but I couldn’t help wondering if this was the best the newspaper in this overwhelmingly Christian community can do on the weekend before Christmas. If you look on the page opposite the Religion page, it’s a full page of ads for Dallas area churches listing the times of their Christmas services. All of them are in English.

Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I couldn’t help thinking that the News is selling ads to English-speaking people (mostly Protestant) who observe Christmas, but their news pages have nothing really for those people. I mean no disrespect to my Latino brothers and sisters in Christ, but how many of them are buying the Dallas Morning News? Maybe I’m too sensitive about this, but I get the feeling that my local newspaper is bored by ordinary northern European Christians who live in the suburbs, even though as far as I can tell from reading business trends stories, it’s people like us who are the few remaining subscribers to newspapers.

If you think I’m overreacting, please tell me. I know that I’m not the only one who feels this way, because my Christian friends, a lot of whom have stopped subscribing to the News because they (we) think the paper is either hostile to people like us, or doesn’t care, talk about it. I’m also curious to know if the readers of your blog who live elsewhere in the country notice something similar about their own local newspaper’s religion coverage. Please don’t misunderstand: I don’t want a newspaper that only pays attention to people like me! I’m just lots of times left scratching my head about the news judgment of editors. Is this just a Dallas thing, or do you see this trend nationwide? Or am I completely out to lunch.

Yours sincerely,
A North Texas Reader

More comments?

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GetReligion wants your local religion news

I want youAs a detour from our usual fare here at GetReligion, I wanted to drop this personal note and give you all an update on life in the Midwest and my life as a law student. Needless to say, the first semester of law school was quite a challenge. The most peculiar aspect of the experience was the Darwinian grading system we all knew we were up against. It mattered less how well you learned the material and more whether you knew how to apply that knowledge better than the person next to you.

As for the religion and journalism aspect of the experience, the two subjects were frequent topics of class discussion. Journalists were given surprisingly deferential treatment (part of this has to do with their First Amendment protections) and respect for religious freedom went unquestioned. Perhaps this doesn’t come as a surprise to many readers, but the fact that countries such as France are banning headscarves and other religious apparel has many American legal scholars considering whether that type of restriction could pass constitutional scrutiny.

As for the Midwest, being outside of Washington, D.C., has been a breath of fresh air in many ways. Journalism is taken just as seriously and the stories tend to hit closer to home. Religious issues remain of critical interest, but are not the flashpoint they tend to be in politically charged D.C. News coverage of religious issues focuses less on politics and more on what is actually happening in communities.

As many of you know, I am trying to carve out a “Heartland” beat of sorts. Some have raised compelling objections to the use of the term “Heartland” and would prefer that the term be eliminated in favor of a simple geographic terms like “the Midwest.” For a bit of perspective, here is what Wikipedia has to say about the term:

Heartland is used in geography to refer to the central areas of a country. This occurs in many nations and areas, such as Eurasia and the United States.

In Eurasia, the Heartland is remote and inaccessible from the periphery. The term Heartland has a particular importance in the works of Sir Halford Mackinder. He believed that the Heartland was the strategic region of the foremost importance in the world. See Heartland (geopolitics). In Canada, the “Heart land” area stretches from the City of Québec in the south-west to Windsor on the south-western peak of the Ontario Peninsula. That is one reason the area is sometimes called “Québec-Windsor-Axis”.

The term Heartland is also frequently used to describe the Midwestern region of the United States. It is also used for other areas of the US which are culturally similar to the Heartland; for example, the Stater Bros. supermarket chain, which is concentrated in the Inland Empire counties of southern and central California, ran TV commercials for many years using the slogan “in the Heartland” to refer to inland counties such as San Bernardino County, Kern County and Riverside County being culturally more similar to the central United States than to coastal California. In the state of Florida is a region called the Florida Heartland, a six county region that is rural and in the south central part of the state.

With that definition in mind, I want to encourage story submissions from “the Heartland.” In the couple of months that I have been working with this concept, I have found that the best stories come from small, local newspapers, often unknown to me. Since I am limited in the number of these I can cover daily, I need you to send me the best from your local newspaper.

In addition to individual news stories and newspapers that excel when it comes to covering religion, please suggest religion reporters who do an outstanding (or not so outstanding) job on their beat. If your local newspaper is failing to cover an important religion story, give us a heads up on that as well.

One of the things I greatly appreciate about Indianapolis in particular, and I am sure it is true throughout the country, is the strong local blogging community that has sprouted since I last lived here. If there are exceptional local bloggers that cover religion and/or journalism, submit those as well.

With that, I hope you all have a joyous holiday season, and thanks for reading GetReligion.

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Shameless double-shot of promotion!

sd02Last time I checked, our amazingly calm and constructive thread about that Los Angeles Times feature on basic Mormon doctrines was at 100-plus comments and still growing. Go for it.

However, let me step in here with a rare double-shot blast of shameless promotion for two online items linked to this topic. One is my Scripps Howard News Service column for this week, which focuses on (cue: drumroll) the controversial subject of the doctrine of “exaltation” in contemporary Mormon theology.

The other is a column by Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher, which ran in The Dallas Morning News. Dreher set out to say some blunt things in a kind way. He opened with some journalistic fireworks, underneath the headline “Mormons aren’t Christians … and other thoughts on religion and politics sure to get your blood boiling.”

Herewith, my views on religion and the politics of the present moment, with something to offend just about everyone:

1. Mormons aren’t Christians. I don’t mean that as a criticism, only as a descriptive phrase. When Mormons claim Jesus Christ as their savior, there’s no reason to doubt their sincerity and good will, or even to deny that they are in some way followers of Christ. Yet Mormonism rejects foundational doctrines of traditional Christian orthodoxy, such that it is impossible to reconcile with normative Christianity.

2. Anyway, the Latter-day Saints church teaches that all other Christian churches are apostate. A heretic is someone who rejects one or more doctrines of religion, but an apostate is someone who has rejected the religion entirely. How is it, exactly, that you can get mad when people you regard as apostates consider you to be … apostate? How does that work?

Meanwhile, my new Scripps Howard piece is based on some materials from my own files, but seen through the lens of an interview with Dr. Robert Millet of Brigham Young University, a major figure in dialogues between Mormons and evangelical Protestants. He was very kind and generous with his time, especially during finals week on his campus.

Here is how that column begins:

Few religious leaders on earth have as much power and authority as the “prophet, seer and revelator” who leads the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But this life, on this world, is just the beginning. Consider this glimpse into eternity, drawn from a funeral eulogy for President Spencer W. Kimball in 1985.

“In the Colorado Rockies, I asked President Kimball a searching question,” recalled Barbara B. Smith, the 10th general president of the church’s Relief Society. “‘When you create a world of your own, what will you have in it?’ He looked around at those mountains for a few minutes before he answered and then he said, ‘I’ll have everything just like this world because I love this world and everything in it.’”

After all, added Smith: “What is our greatest potential? Is it not to achieve godhood ourselves?”

This is the question that will not die when Mormons face the leaders of traditional Christian groups to discuss that blunt question: “Are Mormons Christians?”

A fussy feud over doctrinal details? Ask Mitt Romney about that.

This concept of devout Mormons achieving godhood and creating worlds “is not an idea that would be foreign to Mormons today, but it is also not a concept we hear a lot about,” said religion professor Robert Millet of Brigham Young University, a veteran of many interfaith dialogues.

Still, it’s clear that this belief — called “exaltation” — is something that remains “conceivable to Mormons, while it is absolutely inconceivable to traditional Christians.” But for modern Mormons, he stressed, there is little or no difference between talking about “exaltation” and talking about salvation and “eternal life.”

LDS Jesus 01The column also includes a quote from one of the top leaders in the Mormon faith, focusing on whether it is accurate to use the word “polytheism” when describing the church’s view of the God of this world and the gods of other worlds that will be created by dedicated Mormons who achieve divine status.

I once made a reference, here at GetReligion, to this interview during my days at the Rocky Mountain News. However, this time I dug way back into the files and found my transcript. So here is the key quote from that discussion:

“I think ‘polytheism’ is used … to describe the multiple gods of, say, the Greeks and the Romans,” Boyd K. Packer, now acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, told me in a 1986 interview. “We are talking about something entirely different, and that word conjures up ideas that are not accurate.

“I suppose that technically, it means ‘many gods.’ Technically, the word is all right. … It carries a lot of baggage.”

In other words, the word is technically accurate, to describe a version of eternity that contains many gods, yet not a word that Mormons would like to use. Millet said that, if asked about the accuracy of the word “polytheism,” he would have answered in precisely this manner.

The key, Millet explained to me, is that Mormon doctrines on this matter have not changed or been abandoned. However, they are being clarified and the trend in recent decades has been toward a more “Christocentric” approach to faith that is more rooted in the Old and New Testaments, as well as in the unique Mormon scriptures. Interesting, to say the least.

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