‘Conservative Prots’ vs. LDS baptisms?

Guess what?

Mitt Romney remains a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Meanwhile, he also remains the odds-on favorite to be the GOP candidate to run against President Barack Obama.

Thus, news consumers should brace themselves for waves of stories focusing on Romney and the millions of traditional, Trinitarian Christians who disagree with him on the nature of the Godhead and a host of other theological subjects. Some of these people will decide not to vote for him, for reasons both religious and political.

At the same time, it is highly unlikely that we will see waves of coverage of the millions of voters — religious, non-religious, whatever — who disagree with Romney on a host of subjects linked to marriage, family and related issues in moral theology. Many, if not most, of these voters will decide not to vote for Romney, for reasons both religious and political.

Here’s my journalistic question: Why is a big story when people reject Romney because of his religious views on the Trinity, but not a major story when people reject his religious views on, let’s say, the sanctity of unborn human life?

Just asking. In other words, are there religious/political tests on both sides of our elections?

This raises more questions for journalists trying to plan campaign coverage: How many GOP voters will reject this Mormon man because of religious issues? How many Democratic voters will reject him because of issues that are linked to his faith? Of these two camps, which will be larger than the other. Just asking.

I do know one thing for sure. Lots of journalists are laboring under the false impression that the whole “are Mormons really Christians” debate is limited to evangelical and fundamentalist Protestant sanctuaries.

Consider this passage at the top of a recent Associated Press sidebar on this issue, as seen in The Washington Post:

Like traditional Christians, Mormons consider the Bible sacred and view Jesus as savior.

However, Mormons do not share the concept of a unified Trinity that is part of historical Christianity. They believe that God has called new apostles and prophets and that revelation continues as it did in ancient times, which does not conform to mainstream Christianity. The LDS church also teaches that God has a physical body and that human beings can eventually become like God.

But for conservative Protestants, the Bible alone is the authoritative word of God and the innovations of Mormon teaching are heresy. They do not recognize baptisms by the Mormon church and decry the secrecy surrounding some of its sacraments. Only church members in good standing can enter Mormon temples, where families are sealed, or united, so their relationships can continue in the afterlife.

Stop that wagon right there.

As is the case with any report on Mormon theology, there are all kinds of fine points to debate in these lines. Take, for example, the statement that Mormons believe that “human beings can eventually become like God.” Based on statements in LDS scriptures, many Trinitarian Christians would insist that Mormons have — at least in the past — taught that believers can literally “become gods.” That’s the kind of fine point that causes endless debates. For Mormon critics, “exaltation” is a key word.

That debate will continue, whether journalists want it to or not. However, as I described earlier, that theological debate may affect a surprisingly small number of Romney votes (compared with, say, gay rights).

No, the clear error in that Associated Press passage is found in the statement that for “conservative Protestants” the “innovations of Mormon teaching are heresy,” leading them, for example, not to “recognize baptisms by the Mormon church.”

You know, there they go again, all of these pesky evangelical/fundamentalists folks.

Truth is, the Vatican also rejects non-Trinitarian baptisms and, thus, Mormon baptisms — Mormon baptisms of both the living and (by proxy) the dead. The oh-so-blunt document is right here.

Question: Whether the baptism conferred by the community The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, called Mormons in the vernacular, is valid.

Response: Negative.

The Supreme Pontiff John Paul II, in the Audience granted to the undersigned Cardinal Prefect, approved the present Response, decided in the Sessione Ordinaria of this Congregation, and ordered it published.

From the Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 5 June 2001.

+ Joseph Cardinal RATZINGER

Prefect

Catholics and conservative Protestants are not alone in making this judgment. In a recent poll (click here), a surprising 48 percent of clergy in the more liberal mainline Protestant denominations shared this view.

This does not make this point of view right or wrong. It does mean that journalists must realize that it’s wrong to imply that only “conservative Protestants” have problems with core doctrines in the Mormon faith — to the point that they believe people baptized as Mormons must be baptized again in order to become traditional, Trinitarian Christians.

Editor’s note: Yes, yes. I am aware that many Episcopal clergy do not require Mormons to be re-baptized. Let’s not veer off into discussions of this fact in the comments pages, OK?

IMAGE: Baptism font in a Mormon temple.

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Ron Paul, culture warrior?

At my church‘s Oktoberfest yesterday, I was speaking with some members — he’s a fighter pilot, she’s a writer — about our shared libertarianism. My congregation — located just outside of Washington, D.C. — has all political persuasions (including the wrong ones!) but we have more than a few members who are libertarian.

Anyway, I thought of that while reading this Washington Post item about Ron Paul. Headlined “Ron Paul the religious.” It begins by noting that Paul, who is an obstetrician, is adamantly pro-life and is running ads to that effect in Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina. So why is that newsworthy?:

It’s not the kind of message normally associated with Paul, who is best known for challenging his fellow Republicans on foreign interventions and government bailouts. But the libertarian-minded lawmaker is actually very religious.

OK, while the ad actually does include some phrase alluding to Paul’s religiosity, one doesn’t need to be religious in order to believe that it’s wrong to kill unborn children. And prior to the word “religious” above, nothing religious is mentioned. I know many pro-life libertarians who are religious but plenty of pro-life libertarians who aren’t. So while the ad’s mention of religion makes this a valid angle to address in an article, it was handled a bit clumsily here.

Then this:

He’s not a member, but officials at First Baptist Church of Lake Jackson, Texas say Paul attends services whenever he’s in town. He left the Episcopalian church in which he was raised in part over its stance on abortion rights.

Correct in part but incorrect in part. At this point, the best thing I can do is point you to Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s excellent Q&A with Paul from that recent Values Voters Summit over at Christianity Today. I sort of want to excerpt the whole thing but here is the relevant portion:

Can you talk about your faith background? For instance, did you have a conversion experience?

Not as some others describe it. I think the most important religious experience I had was when I was raised in a Lutheran church where confirmation was very important. Church was obviously very important. We all went to church every week as a family affair. But confirmation was when we got to be teenagers and make a decision to go through the lessons and study and learn and make a commitment. At home, birthdays were something, but no parties. Of course it was during World War II and the Great Depression, so there weren’t a lot of parties, but there was an acknowledgement. But confirmation was a very important event. Everybody in the family came and it was acknowledged. Yes, I remember that very clearly, because we were old enough to make a commitment and that was when the commitment was made.

He goes on to say that he attends a Baptist church but raised his kids in the Episcopal Church, leaving over that church’s stance on abortion and spending of mission funds on political causes.

OK, back to the Post:

Do Paul’s religious positions put him at odds with his libertarian fans? It would seem so.

Pew describes libertarians as ”much less religious than other GOP-oriented groups.” Only 26 percent of Libertarians attend church weekly, although 53 percent say that religion is a large part of their lives.

At this point, I just got confused. Are we talking about libertarians (people who espouse a political philosophy that upholds individual liberty) or Libertarians (members of a particular political party). I’m the former but not the latter. Never have been and likely never will be. Ron Paul has been both but for the most part has been a libertarian in the Republican Party. The distinction is key. How did Pew define libertarians? I might also point out that if a majority of “Libertarians” (much more “libertarians,” I assume) say religion is a large part of their lives, how do Paul’s “religious positions” put him at odd with his fans? And are these really most accurately characterized as “religious positions”? I don’t think so.

The article then goes back and forth and back and forth between small “l” libertarians and the Libertarian Party, much to my confusion (particularly when combined with some rather grievous copy editing problems).

Having said all that, though, I don’t want to criticize too much. I’m really glad that someone is at least writing about libertarianism, even if the confusion between the Libertarian Party and the libertarian movement is rampant. And it’s nice that a big paper is noticing that libertarians can be religious or irreligious and pro-life or pro-choice. The article actually explained that the dividing line for that libertarian debate is mostly about whether you believe that human life should be protected when it begins. The article probably could have done a better job explaining the pro-choice position.

One final point. I came to this article from a Washington Post tweet that said something like “can a libertarian be a culture warrior?” I can’t help but wonder why we only use that term for one side of the abortion debate and not the other. Or why we describe the folks who are responding to some progressive attempt to change the culture as warriors and not the ones advancing the change. Or maybe we should just drop the “warrior” language entirely, recognizing that everyone — whether they’re Occupying Wall Street, advocating for a smaller government, or anything between — is hoping to shape the culture in the way they prefer.

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Reporters, Baptists, Romney & ‘cults’

Let’s see, how long is it until the GOP primary in South Carolina?

Oh well, whatever, never mind. Apparently, it’s time for another round of the Mitt Romney theology wars. This whole drama is packed with all kinds of religious lingo and complicated arguments, all of which tend to get mashed into meaningless mumbo-jumbo by the time they make it into newsprint (especially headlines).

Before we move into a New York Times report that demonstrates how messy this can get, let’s review some basic guidelines for reporters.

(1) The vast majority of Trinitarian Christians do not believe that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day saints is an orthodox “Christian” body of believers. This is not a belief rooted in fundamentalist Protestantism or some sort of raving bigotry (unless you want to pin that label on the Vatican, as well). It’s a statement of fact about doctrinal debates between sincere believers on both sides.

(2) People who insist on saying that “Mormonism is a cult” are not automatically saying the same thing as people who say “Mormons are not Christians.” The complicated truth is that different groups of people use the term “cult” in different ways. Some are using it in a narrow, doctrinal sense, while others are painting with a broad sociological brush. Here’s how I tried to explain that in a Scripps Howard column during an earlier battle over this topic.

… The Southern Baptist Convention’s web site on “Cults, Sects and New Religious Movements” includes page after page of materials dissecting LDS beliefs and practices. It uses this definition: “A cult … is a group of people polarized around someone’s interpretation of the Bible and is characterized by major deviations from orthodox Christianity relative to the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith, particularly the fact that God became man in Jesus Christ.”

Hardly anyone still calls the Latter-day Saints a “cult” in terms of a “psychological or sociological definition” of that term, stressed the Rev. Tal Davis, of the SBC’s North American Mission Board. But traditional Christians must insist that they can use a “theological definition” of the word “cult.”

“This may not be the best word and we admit that,” said Davis. “We’re using it in a technical way, trying to make it clear that we’re describing a faith that is — according to its own teachings — far outside the borders of traditional Christianity. … We’re not trying to be mean-spirited. We want to be very precise. We take doctrine very seriously and we know that the Mormons do, too.”

In other words, Jewish historians would have solid grounds for referring to Trinitarian Christians as members of a “cult,” one that has radically changed the Jewish faith.

(3) Mormons believe that they have the true faith and that the Trinitarians are wrong and people of good will on both sides of that divide have not found a way around this clash. Instead of worshiping one God — known as Father, Son and Holy Spirit — the Latter-day Saints teach that God and Jesus are separate beings, each with a literal body and parts. Jesus was sired by God, with a divine Mother in Heaven.

When faced with people claiming that “Mormonism is a cult” or that “Mormons are not Christians,” reporters simply cannot assume that they know what these people mean when they speak these phrases, even when this takes place in a political context.

If Romney is the GOP nominee in 2012, millions of traditional Christians are going to vote for him despite the fact that they believe his church is a doctrinal cult and, thus, that he is “not a Christian” in the ancient sense of that word. In other words, they will vote for him even though they believe many of his religious/doctrinal views are wrong.

Meanwhile, millions of Democrats are going to vote against Romney, in large part because they believe that his religious/political views are wrong, primarily on matters of sexuality and legal protections for the unborn.

It’s complicated. So what does this argument look like in print, in the New York Times?

WASHINGTON – A Texas pastor introduced Rick Perry at a major conference of Christian conservatives … as “a genuine follower of Jesus Christ” and then walked outside and attacked Mitt Romney’s religion, calling the Mormon Church a cult and stating that Mr. Romney “is not a Christian.”

The comments by the pastor, Robert Jeffress of Dallas, injected a potentially explosive issue into the presidential campaign: the belief held by many evangelicals that Mormons are not Christians. And it raised immediate suspicions that the attack might have been a way for surrogates or supporters of Mr. Perry, the Texas governor, who has stumbled in recent weeks, to gain ground by raising religious concerns about Mr. Romney. …

Mr. Perry did not bring up religion on Friday night as he addressed a Republican dinner in Iowa. Asked by a reporter whether he believed the Mormon faith was a cult, Mr. Perry said, “No.” Asked whether he repudiated the remarks of the pastor, he said, “I’ve already answered your question.”

Later on, the Times piece does offer the following information that helps clarify what is going on in this drama:

Mr. Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in downtown Dallas, an influential congregation within the Southern Baptist Convention, also expressed surprise at the stir his comments created, saying that his view of the Mormon Church is widely held by evangelicals. “This isn’t news,” he said. “This idea that Mormonism is a theological cult is not news either. That has been the historical position of Christianity for a long time.”

That statement by Jeffress is accurate — depending on how one defines the word “cult.” Note that he said it is a “theological” cult, not a cultural or sociological cult. The problem is that the latter, more damning definition is precisely the one that will be assumed by most readers. Is this the definition that is assumed by most mainstream political journalists?

At the end of the story, readers learn that Jeffress says he will have no problem endorsing Romney or voting for him. In other words, his differences with the candidate are theological, not political. In the end, millions of people with similar beliefs will pull levers in voting booths, knowing that they are voting for a president, not a pastor, bishop or Bible teacher.

Journalists are going to have to get up to speed and learn how to tell the difference between bigoted believers who reject Mormons, period, and those who reject their theology, but are willing to work with them in the political arena. Otherwise, there is no way to make sense of these events.

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Shuttlesworth the preacher (imagine that)

So let’s say that you are reading a lengthy story about a famous Baptist preacher from the deep South, from a location in the heart of the Bible Belt.

Then, during the story, you are told that when he was young, this remarkable man’s life centered around (a) an illegal activity that (b) centered on alcohol and (c) eventually led to his arrest.

The next thing you know, this man is in a pulpit and people are following him.

Now, wouldn’t you assume that something rather dramatic and almost certainly deeply spiritual happened in his life between the jail cell and the pulpit? Wouldn’t you want to know something about it, if your goal was to understand this great man’s life and to explain it to readers? I mean, this was not your ordinary vocational shift.

That’s the question that hit me about half-way through the magisterial and otherwise excellent Washington Post obituary for one of the giants of the Civil Rights era, the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, who was best known for his preaching in Birmingham, Ala.

This is must reading if you are at all interested in the history of the modern South and race relations in our land. This man was a giant, but he has never received much national attention. Why? Well, I guess part of the equation is that he remained in the pulpit for his entire life.

This long slice of his Post obituary will provide a taste of what his life was like:

… Shuttlesworth faced down violence from police and racist mobs soon after he began preaching in Birmingham in 1953. In December 1956, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation of buses in Montgomery, Ala., was illegal, he announced that he would challenge other discriminatory laws in court.

On Christmas Day that year, 15 sticks of dynamite exploded beneath his bedroom window. The floor was blown out from under him, but he received only a bump on the head.

“I believe I was almost at death’s door at least 20 times,” he told the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education in 2001. “But when the first bomb went off, it took all fear from my mind. I knew God was with me like he was with Daniel in the lions’ den. The black people of Birmingham knew that God had saved me to lead the fight.”

In 1957, when Rev. Shuttlesworth tried to enroll his children in a white school, he was beaten unconscious with chains, baseball bats and brass knuckles by a Ku Klux Klan mob. His wife was stabbed in the hip. …

Shuttlesworth’s biographer, Andrew Manis, told the Birmingham News in 1999: “There was not a person in the civil rights movement who put himself in the position of being killed more often than Fred Shuttlesworth.”

Rev. Shuttlesworth was arrested more than 30 times and, Manis said, was involved in “more cases in which he was either a defendant or a plaintiff that reached the Supreme Court than any other person in American history.”

Harassment of Rev. Shuttlesworth knew no limits. The Alabama Supreme Court refused to consider one of his legal appeals because it was submitted on paper of the wrong size. In 1960, nine police officers boarded a bus and arrested his three teenage children for refusing to sit in the back.

This was the man who faced Bull Connor over and over and over and over in standoffs that were primarily covered in local newspapers, not on the national evening news.

So where did this man come from? Here’s the moment in the story that stumped me.

He was born Freddie Lee Robinson in Mount Meigs, Ala., on March 18, 1922, and grew up in Birmingham. He took the name of his stepfather, William N. Shuttlesworth. Rev. Shuttlesworth drove a truck and was a cement worker in his youth and was arrested in the early 1940s for operating an illegal moonshine still.

He studied for the ministry at Selma University and received a bachelor’s degree in English from Alabama State University in 1951. He preached at rural Baptist churches near Selma before becoming pastor of Birmingham’s Bethel Baptist Church in 1953.

So he just transitioned from being a moonshiner to being a Baptist preacher, a “firebrand whose preaching style derived from the unvarnished churches of the rural South,” according to this report.

Moonshiner. Baptist preacher.

Does anyone else out there suspect that some interesting changes, something that might even be called a born-again experience, a conversion or at the very least a great awakening, took place in between those two paragraphs? And what about this man’s voice? Might there have been — in all of those decades of leading people through his pulpit gifts — at least one or two passages from sermons that captured THIS MAN’S GIFT?

I know that, in the black church, pastors play a role that moves beyond the pulpit and out into the public square. I know the history of that. I’ve interviewed scores of scholars who have studied the Rev. Martin Luther King — senior and junior — and the other great leaders of that era. Here is the question that I heard them ask over and over. It’s the question I have heard African-American pastors ask over, as well.

The question: “Why do journalists assume that all of these preachers are really nothing more than politicians? Why doesn’t anyone ever listen to what they are actually saying about the Gospel?”

In other words, where is Shuttlesworth, the preacher, in this obituary? We only needed a few paragraphs, in addition to the vital, necessary details of his courageous career in the public square.

Just asking.

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Hollywood rediscovers religion! Again!

Anyone who knows anything about the religion beat knows that there are stories that the pros end up writing time and time again. Holiday stories are the most obvious, but there are others — such as all of those theodicy studies that your GetReligionistas keep pointing out year after year.

Well, I’ve been thinking about this one for some time now and I think I am ready to make the call.

Every three to five years, mainstream journalists — or those at The Los Angeles Times, at the very least — will discover the amazing, shocking, unknown fact that dedicated religious believers who attend worship services approximately once a week like to go see movies just like everybody else.

In fact (gasp!) they can even be thought of as a kind of “niche” audience that deserves special attention and the occasional quality film that takes them and their concerns seriously. I realize that it’s strange to pin the “niche” label on about 20 to 40 percent of the U.S. population, but there seem to be groups that Hollywood has trouble detecting in its focus groups.

Do you remember the stunned newspaper articles that created “The Passion of the Christ”? And then there was the wave of coverage that came soon after that, about the time of “The Blind Side.” I was interviewed for the Los Angeles Times piece on that one and the reporter who talked to me was slightly apologetic about the fact that the newspaper’s editors still thought that this old story (can you say “Chariots of Fire”?) was brand new and fresh as a daisy.

So here we go again. This time, we’re watching a true mini-wave of low- to mid-budget Indie films with a “spiritual” bent, aimed at (gasp!) several different “spiritual” audiences. When you put that into a Los Angeles Times trend story, it sounds like this:

In many quarters, Hollywood has long been regarded as an essentially godless place. But judging by the offerings at the movies this season, and more in the works, Tinseltown is rediscovering religion.

My advice: Someone needs to copyright that phrase, “Tinseltown is rediscovering religion.” You can make some money off it in three to five years.

But back to the story.

In the span of just a few weeks starting in late August, audiences looking for God at their local multiplex have had their choice of titles, including “Higher Ground,” a chronicle of one woman’s struggle with her faith; “Seven Days in Utopia,” an inspirational golf drama; and “Machine Gun Preacher,” about an evangelist who takes up arms in Africa. And the onslaught isn’t slowing down. “Courageous,” about policemen wrestling with their faith after a tragedy, opened this weekend. Emilio Estevez’s “The Way,” about a father on a religious pilgrimage, is set for Friday.

These films follow the success this spring of “Soul Surfer,” about a Christian teen surfer’s comeback after losing an arm to a shark. Released by Sony’s TriStar division, the film brought in nearly $44 million at the U.S. box office.

In many cases, these movies are not filled with unknown actors; they star top performers such as Robert Duvall, Melissa Leo, Helen Hunt, Helen Mirren and Louis Gossett Jr. (all Oscar winners), plus Vera Farmiga, Martin Sheen and Gerard Butler.

So why is Hollywood looking to a higher authority?

Because this is America and large parts of American are filled with ordinary Americans? Because millions of regular worshipers also like to overpay for popcorn from time to time?

Actually, this story is one of the better “hot trend” pieces that I have read on this topic. It talks about the days in the mid-20th century when religious films were normal. It discusses the low-budget trend symbolized by the “Facing the Giants” Southern Baptists down in Georgia who recently released “Courageous.”

However, this story should win some kind of prize for daring to mention the following shocking facts.

Ready? Are you sitting down?

Rich Peluso, vice president of Affirm Films, the Sony Pictures division that acquires faith-based and inspirational films, said some in Hollywood still believe that the audience for religious-themed movies is limited to the Midwest and South.

“The reality is that the Christian population in Los Angeles, based on pure population size, is one of the largest populations of Christians in the country,” he said. “In Seattle and Portland, we do extremely well with the faith-based populations there. And Chicago and New York. Faith-based films tend to do well where Christians are, and they tend to be everywhere.”

All together now: Who are those guys?

So here is my request for GetReligion readers. Have you paid attention to these stories through the years? Please send us URLs for some of the best and worst of the “Tinseltown gets religion” coverage. Let’s have ‘em. And which movies should have been mentioned in this latest Times piece, but were not?

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Big day at Supreme Court for religious freedom

An extremely important religious liberty case is being argued in front of the Supreme Court today. I have been meaning to cover the case for months, but it kept falling into the deeper recesses of my guilt file. The case involves the firing of a Lutheran school teacher from a Lutheran school. The particulars of the case are unique and the story of the teacher who was fired is compelling. But because of the way the lower courts have ruled and because of the possible outcomes of a SCOTUS decision, today is just huge.

I’m going to excerpt this Baptist Press story for the details of the two sides in the case:

Cheryl Perich was a teacher at the Lutheran Church-run school Hosanna-Tabor, based in eastern Michigan, when doctors diagnosed her with narcolepsy and she missed work for several months. The school, its small staff stretched, hired a replacement teacher for the spring semester. Perich wanted to return to her job during the spring, but the school noted that it had hired a replacement for the semester; the school also wasn’t convinced she was physically ready to return to work. She threatened to sue if she wasn’t reinstated.

The school fired her, saying she had violated church teachings by immediately turning to legal action instead of going through the church’s own process for dealing with such disputes. Perich filed a lawsuit with the EEOC, alleging that the firing was retaliatory for her narcolepsy. That question of retaliatory firing could muddy the broader issue of whether religious schools have autonomy in personnel decisions. The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Perich, saying she should not fall under the “ministerial exception,” as a church employee, so she could sue. The court drew out two columns titled “secular” and “religious” and tallied how many minutes of the day Perich spent on each. The court added the totals and concluded that she spent more minutes on secular education than religious, and so she did not fall under the “ministerial exception” for church employees.

The lawyers for the school blasted the circuit court’s “mechanistic” approach to Christian education.

So how well are the media covering it? I think it’s fair to say the lead-up to the case could have received more coverage — particularly on news pages as opposed to op-ed pages where most of the ink was spilled — but this is not a case of media silence.

For example, religion reporter Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier-Journal had a helpful piece on the matter. And it was written in such an engaging matter that it got picked up widely, including by USA Today. He begins by saying that the case is uniting an impressive interfaith group:

Leaders of Roman Catholics, Mormons, Presbyterians, United Methodists, Seventh-day Adventists, Hindus, United Sikhs, Muslims, Episcopalians, Reform Jews and Orthodox Jews are united.

So are the conservative National Association of Evangelicals and its liberal counterpart, the National Council of Churches.

So are devotees of Santeria, Yoruba and other religions you may not know.

Even the various Baptist denominations are all on the same side.

They all support the right of religious groups to hire and fire teachers who could be construed as “ministers” on grounds that would be otherwise discriminatory, whether due to race, gender and disability or other reasons. The case could affect hundreds of thousands of teachers and other employees in faith-based schools and organizations.

He explains that dozens of denominations have filed amicus briefs with the court in support of the freedom and that only one group, the Unitarian Universalist Association — has taken a contrary view.

He explains the Who, What, Where, When and Why and moves immediately into the “so what?” of the case, which he says revolves around the issue of the ministerial exception:

“The basic rationale underlying the doctrine seems straightforward,” wrote Howard Friedman, a professor emeritus of law at the University of Toledo, in the magazine Liberty.

“For a religious institution to thrive, it must be free from government constraint in selecting who will ‘preach its values, teach its message, and interpret its doctrines both to its own membership and to the world at large,’” Friedman wrote, quoting federal case law.

“Laws against religious discrimination in employment should not permit the government to tell a Presbyterian church, for example, that it must hire a rabbi,” he wrote.

But the question has gotten murkier in recent court cases in which religious groups claim that other workers besides the most obvious — clergy — are ministers and don’t have the right to challenge their dismissals.

That includes teachers, in the case of the Lutheran school.

Lutheran school teachers routinely teach the doctrines of the faith, no matter their subject area. But Smith shows how the ministerial exception is also used by various religious bodies to cover other folks, such as administrative assistants and professors at seminaries.

Some of the arguments for and against the school are laid out, although the arguments are certainly not exhaustive (nor could they be in a brief news article).

Smith did a good job of showcasing how broad the coalition of religious groups united in support of religious freedom over anti-discrimination laws, including Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye and Templo Yoruba Omo Orisha. I do wish the story had gotten a bit more into the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment, though.

For those interested in the arguments in the case and what it could portend for federal involvement in church decisions, you should check out this op-ed from historian Thomas S. Kidd in USA Today which highlights how the Obama administration did not side with religious groups in the amicus brief it filed:

But in a jarring departure from precedent, the Department of Justice argued in an August brief that the ministerial exemption, if it even exists, is exceedingly narrow, applying only to clergy whose duties are “exclusively religious” (forgetting that even ministers have many earthly duties). …

When framing the Bill of Rights, James Madison and the other Founders wanted the government to have no power to mandate church policies. They wanted no national denomination, either. So they prohibited Congress from making laws respecting an establishment of religion, and guaranteed churches and other religious organizations the “free exercise of religion.”

One cannot imagine a more obvious feature of an establishment of religion, or a clearer violation of free exercise, than the government dictating to a church that it must rehire a religious teacher, especially a person who has violated church teachings or behavioral codes. The Justice Department’s position, if vindicated, raises the possibility that courts and bureaucrats may, in the name of contemporary norms of fairness, begin requiring religious organizations to hire any number of candidates who do not accept that faith’s tenets. One could easily imagine future decisions forcing churches, synagogues, or mosques to hire employees who do not adhere to the tradition’s norms of sexual behavior, for example.

When Justice filed that opposition brief, it dramatically raised the stakes in the case. That’s because Justice opposes the existence of the ministerial exception altogether and argues that if the Court recognizes an exemption, it be narrowly construed as applying to people who perform “exclusively religious functions.” I have no idea whether the court would find this argument in any way compelling but if they did, it would dramatically change the landscape and open up churches to a wide array of discrimination litigation.

Just a huge, huge case. So let us know if you see any particularly good or bad stories coming out of the day’s arguments.

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Pod people: Baptists and Bachmann-district bullies

On this week’s Crossroads, host Todd Wilken and I talked about media coverage of a possible name change by the Southern Baptist Convention.

That coverage was the topic of a post I wrote earlier this week:

I woke up this morning ready to question why no one in the secular media picked up on this mildly important religion story.

But it turns out that there’s no reason for me to weep or gnash teeth today. Darn it!

In fact, the story made the front page (above the fold, no less) of The Tennessean. … The Houston Chronicle’s Kate Shellnut blogged about the proposed name change. And at Fox News, Todd Starnes (a former Baptist Press editor) developed the story for a national audience.

Wilken and I discussed why the initial coverage surprised (and pleased) me and why this is a story with plenty of time to develop (a name change would require approval at two straight Southern Baptist annual meetings).

In Googling to find any coverage not discussed in the previous post, I came across a nice piece by Godbeat pro Peter Smith of the Louisville, Ky., Courier-Journal:

At least eight times since the 1960s, Southern Baptists have considered changing their name, and the idea went nowhere.

But the current president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Bryant Wright, has appointed a task force to study the idea again.

The “convention’s name is so regional,” Wright said of a denomination that has continent-wide evangelistic ambitions.

It’s “challenging in many parts of the country to lead churches to want to be part of a convention with such a regional name,” he said.

“Southern Baptist” has certain connotations that don’t play well outside the heartland. Leave alone the fried chicken, sweaty-browed revivalists, dark suits and opposition to Disney — trappings that the young, goateed church planters are trying to shed north and west of Dixie, and even within it.

There’s also the reason there’s a “Southern” convention in the first place — a split with northern Baptists in an attempt in 1845 to marry slaveholding with Christianity.

Also on the podcast, Wilken and I revisited my recent post on a New York Times story on bullying of gay students in a school district that is a part of presidential candidate Michele Bachmann’s Congressional district.

The gist of that post:

The larger issue here is journalistic: Have Times editors essentially decided that one-sided, advocacy, European-styled journalism coverage is justified? If so, what is the issue being debated? Is there evidence that anyone is actually pro-bullying? Or is this a clash between truth claims based on gay rights and truth claims based on religious liberty?

In the post — and on the podcast — I advocated a more well-rounded story including a fuller array of voices. A journalistic approach, in other words.

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A Southern Baptist by any other name …

From time to time here at GetReligion, we post “Got news?” items and wonder why the mainstream media haven’t tackled a particular issue or topic that we deem newsworthy.

Yesterday, denominational press links circulated among your friendly neighborhood GetReligionistas concerning a possible name change by the Southern Baptist Convention. (See one report from Baptist Press and another from the Associated Baptist Press.)

I woke up this morning ready to question why no one in the secular media picked up on this mildly important religion story.

But it turns out that there’s no reason for me to weep or gnash teeth today. Darn it!

In fact, the story made the front page (above the fold, no less) of The Tennessean. Perhaps we should all take a moment and pay homage to the writer, Bob Smietana, the Cornell Religion Reporter of the Year. (Smietana is a Red Sox fan, so he needs all the encouragement he can get these days. Go Rangers!)

Seriously, the top of Smietana’s report:

The nation’s largest Protestant denomination may be getting a new name.

The Southern Baptist Convention isn’t just for the South anymore, its president contends, and rebranding could open up other parts of the country to new churches. It’s a strategy other denominations are trying, and at least one is claiming success.

SBC President Bryant Wright announced Monday at an executive committee meeting in Nashville that he’s set up a study group to research changing the 166-year-old denomination’s name.

“There are not a lot of folks in New York City interested in going to a Southern Baptist church,” he said. “Or in Cheyenne, Wyoming, or Boise, Idaho.”

(I know Smietana was on deadline for a daily story, but it would have been interesting to contact a Southern Baptist pastor in Cheyenne or Boise and find out his thoughts on a possible name change.)

But Smietana was not alone in smelling mainstream news: The Houston Chronicle’s Kate Shellnut blogged about the proposed name change. And at Fox News, Todd Starnes (a former Baptist Press editor) developed the story for a national audience.

As the news reports indicate, this is not the first time Southern Baptists have contemplated a possible name change. In a 2004 interview for The Associated Press, I remember discussing the subject with the Rev. Jack Graham, then the convention’s president:

Q: And I understand that you have proposed studying whether even to change the name of the Southern Baptist Convention.

A: I have made that proposal and there will be a motion at this convention from the floor that a study be done and that we consider the possibility of a new name that would reflect this national and international presence of Southern Baptists.

Q: Any names that come to your mind?

A: No, that will be the challenge of this committee will be to find a name that would somehow better represent us. There are many Baptist groups and there are many names and we don’t want to confuse people as to who we are or our identity. There is a certain value of our current identity.

Concerning the latest discussion, it’ll be interesting to see if the story gains legs outside Southern Baptist strongholds (such as Houston and Nashville) and outside the conservative press (talking about you, Fox News).

Some thought-provoking angles, IMHO:

Possible names: How about American Baptist Association? National Baptist Convention? United Baptists? World Baptist Fellowship? Oops, all of those are taken. International Baptist Convention has been proposed — and rejected — in the past, according to the Associated Baptist Press article.

North vs. South: How far has the Southern Baptist Convention really come from its slave-era roots? How diverse is the convention? What do black Southern Baptists say about the proposed name change and the need for it?

From The Tennessean story:

The Rev. Michael Allen of Uptown Baptist Church in Chicago, a member of the name change study group, thinks the time is right for rebranding. He said the Southern Baptist Convention traces its roots to the Civil War — Baptists in the South wanted to appoint slaveholders as missionaries, and Baptists in the North disagreed.

Baptist or not?: In a post-denominational age, do the Southern Baptists want to drop just “Southern,” or will they consider chopping the “Baptist” too?

By the numbers: The Southern Baptist spin is that a name change may be needed because the denomination has a national and international reach. But what number of Southern Baptists really reside outside the South? It would be interesting to see a specific chart of membership by state and country. (GetReligion readers may remember the media confusion created last year by Southern Baptists from Idaho who got in trouble for trying to take orphans out of earthquake-ravaged Haiti.)

Marketing: What are the pros and cons of a name change? The costs? The legal ramifications?

Got news? It would appear so.

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