Ken Woodward colors our world

One of the reasons so many big stories in our mainstream press are “haunted” by religion ghosts is that many reporters are confused about what is and what is not “religious.”

Is religion a matter of doctrine? Yes.

Is religion a matter of culture? Yes.

Is religion a matter of rites, sacraments (even if they are not always identified as such) and practices? Yes.

Is religion a matter of personal choices and convictions? Yes, again.

I could go on and on.

So when believers commit terrible acts while singing hymns or chanting sacred slogans, their actions may in fact be rooted in their rejection of changes in their cultures that have affected them in terms of economics and the nuts and bolts of their religious lives. But that doesn’t mean that their motives are not essentially religious. It’s more than culture.

And the decline in the number of priests and nuns in the modern Catholic church? These changes may, in part, be rooted in the 1960s, birth-control pills and wider career options for women. But all of those cultural realities raise moral and religious questions, don’t they? So why are young women and men these days less likely to hear a divine call to give their lives in service to God and man? To give their lives to His Church? That’s a religious question and a cultural question.

Why am I writing this? In part because these issues come up all the time in this blog’s comments pages. And I am also writing this in response to a new essay by the veteran religion-beat scribe Kenneth Woodward, an articulate Catholic who is best known for his decades of work at Newsweek. It is a meditation drawn from an upcoming book. Here is the start of what he describes as the most personal part of the book, as published by First Things:

On the wall of my Newsweek office, I kept a large map, in a mosaic of colors, of the United States. When you are a writer working in New York City, you need something to remind you of what the rest of the country is like: This was mine. There are no place names on the map, only the boundaries of the states, and within them the spidery outlines of each county. It’s a relief map of sorts: Any county in which 25 percent or more of the citizens identify with a single religious denomination is shaded in a color representing that tradition. Counties where more than half the people are of one persuasion — more than half the map — are colored more deeply.

At a glance, the map yields a rough religious geography of America. Across the South, where it sometimes seems there are more Baptists than there are people, the counties are awash in deep red. Utah and Idaho are solidly grey: the Mormon Zion. There are swaths of Lutheran green in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Belt high from Delaware to central Kansas, especially in rural areas, the map shows streaks and potholes of blue where the Methodists and their nineteenth-century circuit riders planted churches. Catholic purple blankets the Northeast, the Great Lakes region, the Gulf Coast, and nearly all of California.

When colleagues stopped by my office they’d often stare over my head at the map. “Where are my people?” was the usual question. Some Episcopalians, thinking of all their co-religionists elected to Congress and the White House, assumed the nation’s capitol to be theirs. But the District of Columbia is heavily African-American and so it is dyed a deep Baptist red. According to the map, Episcopalians do dominate a half-dozen counties—all of them tribal reservations in North Dakota where the church made converts of the Native American inhabitants. Most Jewish colleagues thought New York City and its environs (home to half the nation’s Jews) was surely theirs to claim, but the whole metropolitan area is deep Catholic purple. Jews do own a plurality in one Florida county, Dade, which encompasses Miami.

For me, the map was a visual reminder that religion in America has never been just a matter of personal choice. It has also been about community and connection — to places, to people, and to what religiously convicted Americans have made of the places where they chose to live. Which is to say that religion, as a way of belonging as well as of believing and behaving, is always embedded — in institutions, yes, but also in the landscape. Habitations foster habits.

Now what jumps into your mind as you read that?

For me? Well, I think of news stories, many of them important, but very hard to cover.

IMAGE: To get closer to the map and others like it, click here.

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This Westboro voice sounds strangely familiar

The Westboro Baptist Church saga has always intrigued and appalled me, in large part because of my background in church-state studies and First Amendment rights. I am also intrigued with people who are so radical that they defy easy description. As the old saying goes, sometimes people go so far to the right that they end up on the left (and vice versa).

Thus, I have always wondered what would happen if mainstream reporters actually listened to the Westboro Baptist folks and tried to describe, for example, why they think that Southern Baptists and ordinary evangelicals are raving liberals. Dig deep into this search file and you can see traces of that, as well as in this Scripps Howard News Service column from last fall. Note, in particular, the links to a 2003 Baptist Press piece about the radical theological beliefs of the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., and his flock.

Anyway, last week something unusual happened during the spring ’11 College Media Convention in New York City. One of the legal minds in the Phelps family — which is full of lawyers — sat down and took questions from a room packed with young journalists, no holds barred. Before the Q&A session, attorney Margie Phelps was interviewed by a top-flight journalist and researcher, Gene Policinski, the executive director of the First Amendment Center operated by the Freedom Forum. Both of them took the encounter very seriously (click here for a rough, but helpful, video).

I learned all kinds of things from taking notes while biting my lip and listening carefully to this event. But here is the key. For the Westboro Baptist believers, the “you” in all of those “God Hates You” signs they carry is not primarily the family of the dead soldier whose funeral is the location of their media-friendly picketing. No, they insist that the “you” is America, especially America as symbolized by what Phelps & Co. call the pro-America “pep rally” that surrounds them wherever they go.

As Margie Phelps told the young journalists: “We’re not picketing the funeral. We’re picketing the pep rally.”

So why am I sharing this with GetReligion readers? Here’s why.

For almost 23 years, I have kept my Scripps column rooted in a kind of news analysis style, as opposed to a full-on, first-person opinion style. However, it is a column and my point of view is in there and I know that. Still, I rarely take big leaps of logic and ask readers to jump with me.

Maybe I should have done that this week. As I worked with pages of Margie Phelps quotations, I kept hearing another specific voice inside my head. To tune in that voice, please read the end of the column:

To understand Westboro and its beliefs, stressed Margie Phelps, it helps to know that the church’s tactics have evolved during the past two decades and the 45,000 protests it claims to have staged at a variety of public events, including about 800 funerals. For a decade, the central message was that America needed to repent and turn away from sin. But as the death toll kept rising in Iraq, she said Westboro’s leaders concluded that, “It’s too late now. … This nation is doomed.” Above all, they were infuriated when many of the funerals for the fallen turned into patriotic rallies.

“We watched as the politicians, the media, the military, the citizenry and the veterans used the occasion of these soldiers’ deaths to publish a viewpoint,” said Phelps, describing the First Amendment arguments she used before the Supreme Court. “And we said, ‘We don’t agree with your viewpoint. God is not blessing America. It is a curse that that young soldier, the fruit of your nation, is lying in there in that coffin.’ …

“That is not a blessing of God. … The soldiers are dying for your sins.”

The bottom line, concluded Margie Phelps, is that Westboro Baptist simply “joined that public debate” on public sidewalks, while following all existing laws that govern public protests. Now, national outrage about the court decision has strengthened the convictions of the Phelps family.

“These are desperate times, calling for desperate measures and we are going to get these words into your ears,” she said. By focusing on military funerals, the leaders of Westboro Baptist “know that we are hitting three of your biggest idols — the flag, the uniform and the dead bodies. … We are going to finish this work. The Lord God Jehovah has our back.”

Do you hear another voice? Yes, it could be one of these guys — because the theological approach is similar. The formula goes something like this: America takes a certain set of actions, refuses to repent and, thus, calls down the wrath of God.

However, I also heard the voice of someone else who made big headlines three or so years ago by using the same basic theological point, only with a different sin as his theological starting point and framing device. Can you say, “God damn America!”

So, here is my question: How big a leap would it have been to have included the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in this column? After all, this would have meant explaining what he said and why he said it, as well as what I mean when I say that he is using essentially the same theological approach as the Phelps crew. This would have required a big leap by the readers, to follow the thread of that analysis.

Yes, I know that. But does anyone else hear that voice?

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To toast or not to toast during Lent?

There’s an old joke that Jews don’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah, Protestants don’t recognize the pope as the leader of the Christian faith and Baptists don’t recognize each other at the liquor store.

I thought of that tidbit of religious humor as I read a Religion News Service feature on some United Methodists giving up alcohol for Lent.

The top of the story:

(RNS) The Rev. James Howell knew he had a problem on his hands when several teenagers arrived at a church dance drunk and had to be taken from the church by ambulance for treatment for alcohol poisoning.

Starting in 2009, he urged his flock at Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C., to give up drinking for Lent and donate the money they would have spent on booze to a “spirit fund.”

It’s a timely, interesting story filled with excellent history and background on Methodists and their positions and beliefs on drinking and temperance.

However, the 800-word piece falls short when it comes to explaining how other faith groups treat the alcohol issue:

From teetotaling Baptists to Episcopalians who uncork champagne in the parish hall, what to do with the bottle can be a tricky question for religious groups to answer — especially during holy periods or holidays.

Catholics are not supposed to drink on Fridays in Lent, while Muslims are called to abstain from alcohol during the holy month of Ramadan. But to celebrate Purim, Jews are encouraged to actually get silly drunk, and what Christmas Eve would be complete without spiked eggnog?

Unlike prohibition-minded Mormons or Catholics who belly up to the bar at a Friday fish fry, Methodists — the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination — have a more ambiguous stance. Now, the denomination’s General Board of Church and Society is following Howell’s lead and is pushing a churchwide Alcohol Free Lent campaign.

Overgeneralizations seem to plague that section of the story.

I wish the report had included more details from named sources (actual Baptists, Episcopalians, Catholics, etc.) on what the various faith groups teach — and practice — concerning drinking.

I am a lifelong Church of Christ member and don’t drink. Our fellowship is pretty united on the belief that the Bible forbids drunkenness. We are less unanimous on whether social drinking that does not lead to drunkenness is a sin. In fact, in my travels to different parts of the nation, I have found myself at social gatherings with Church of Christ ministers and elders who drink wine with meals. In other cases, Church of Christ members take the Baptist approach. (See joke above.)

Given the nuances in my own faith group, I can’t help but suspect that there’s more diversity in other religious circles on this issue than the RNS story indicates.

Among my questions:

– Are most Baptists really teetotalers, or do they face the same issue as the Methodists in that the church officially frowns on drinking but many congregants do it anyway? (See joke above.)

– Unless I’m wrong (wouldn’t be the first time), aren’t Muslims called to abstain from alcohol all the time, not just during Ramadan?

– Is “silly drunk” the actual term a rabbi would use in relation to the Purim celebration? (If so, then I think that would make a terrific direct quote!)

– And why are Catholics bellying up to the bar at a Friday fish fry if they can’t drink on Fridays during Lent? (Must be a non-Lent fish fry …)

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Former Speaker, now Catholic

“On the Stump, Gingrich Puts Focus on Faith,” read the headline for this A1 New York Times piece. But a focus on faith was not what the piece delivered.

Early on we’re given an interesting political story about how Newt Gingrich is attempting to reintroduce himself to Republicans, addressing questions about his two divorces and lack of emphasis on social issues. Gingrich says that his conversion to Catholicism two years ago is “part of an evolution that has given him a deeper appreciation for the role of faith in public life.” But we don’t learn much about that conversion, instead getting vague paragraphs such as this:

It remains an open question how a new inspection of Mr. Gingrich’s record would hold up to scrutiny by voters, including his own spending votes and the 1995 government shutdown, but his advisers believe that it could be well received, given the sentiment of Tea Party supporters. And in the early going, Mr. Gingrich appears to be getting another look from religious conservatives, especially Catholics, a traditional swing constituency.

“Especially Catholics,” eh? I don’t know what that means, or how we’re measuring these things. I mean, I bet there are a lot of Catholics who are wanting a few more details about that conversion, too.

I wasn’t certain if the lack of actual discussion of religion was because of Gingrich being tight-lipped about it or something else. But later in the week, the Los Angeles Times delivered much more on that front, using a wider variety of sources. Focusing in on Iowa, the reporters paint an interesting picture about Gingrich’s last two years, wherein he meets with conservative religious leaders, expresses his contrition for his divorces and provides financial and strategic help for their social causes:

Gingrich’s moves are meant to allay concerns among influential religious conservatives that his personal history is at odds with their views. In 2007, he admitted during a radio interview with Focus on the Family founder James Dobson that he had been having an extramarital affair with his present wife as he was excoriating President Clinton for lying to a grand jury about his dalliance with a White House intern. As Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, put it, Gingrich has “one ex-spouse too many for most evangelicals.”

But as the former speaker moves closer to a potential White House bid, with more details expected Thursday, his wooing of the evangelical community appears to be paying off.

“I think he’s just excellent,” said Pastor Brad Sherman, who leads Solid Rock Christian Church in Coralville, Iowa. “Everybody brings up his past, but he’s very open about that, and God is forgiving,” said Sherman, who had lunch with Gingrich last fall.

Sometimes the positive quotes come from people who are working with and paid by Gingrich — which is specifically pointed out. There is a lot of discussion about religion in the public square. And we get a lot of background about the candidate, too. Check out this exchange:

Although Gingrich has been forthcoming about his personal conduct in private conversations, he can become testy when pressed on the issue publicly. At the University of Pennsylvania last month, a Democratic student activist asked him to square his marital record with his goal of putting the nation on a higher moral plane.

“I hope you feel better about yourself,” Gingrich responded. “I will be totally candid: I’ve had a life which, on occasion, has had problems. I believe in a forgiving God. … If the primary concern of the American people is my past, my candidacy would be irrelevant.”

I appreciate that we’re not just told he got testy but given his words as well. I don’t know where this story appeared in the paper, but it had much more news than the A1 feature in the New York Times above.

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Phelps: ‘We’re thanking our god’

By definition, Supreme Court decisions are national stories. However, the Westboro Baptist Church case remains a local story here in Maryland because this is where this particular case started — with the tiny independent church’s hateful media fest near the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in Westminster.

Thus, it is no surprise that the Baltimore Sun devoted more ink to the story than other newspapers. All news is local.

The story is quite conventional in its coverage of the court’s decision.

The ruling, issued a day before the anniversary of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder’s death, was a bitter disappointment for the Marine’s father, Albert Snyder, who sued the Topeka, Kan., church for picketing his son’s funeral in 2006, alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress. But the ruling was expected by free-speech advocates, who found themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to align with a group that protests against gays, Roman Catholics, Jews and others.

“It’s an opinion that supports very fundamental First Amendment principles,” said Timothy Zick, a professor at William & Mary Law School in Williamsburg, Va. … “A lot of people react to the church itself and its message … not focusing on larger issues of public speech and free speech,” Zick said.

In a telephone interview, Margie Phelps, a lawyer and the daughter of Westboro’s founder, called the opinion “a victory by God” that was “10 times better than I ever imagined.”

That’s the tough message of this First Amendment case. However, what hit me in this report was some strangeness of a religious nature later in the story.

Yes, I realize that the Westboro take on religion is strange in the first place. After all, these are people who literally believe that there are sins that God refuses to forgive, even after repentance (check it out). For these folks, the Southern Baptist Convention is on the religious left.

Now, in that earlier chunk of the story, notice that in the “victory by God” quote from Margie Phelps, the reference to the deity begins with an uppercase “G.” That’s normal under the Associated Press Stylebook.

However, something strange is going on in another quote from Ms. Phelps, hear the end of this lengthy report. Check this out.

Even Margie Phelps, who argued the case on Westboro’s behalf before the Supreme Court, acknowledged that the opinion wasn’t likely to be popular.

“The whole country’s going to rise up in rage against this,” Phelps said, “But we’re thanking our god. We’re going to have a special thanksgiving prayer service this very evening, and our pastor is recording a video news release as we speak. It will get tweeted and blogged all over the universe. … This case put a megaphone, an international megaphone to the mouth of this little church.”

What’s up with the lowercase “g” in the “we’re thanking our god” quote?

The stylebook instructs reporters and editors: “Capitalize God in references to the deity of all monotheistic religions.” However, it also notes that journalists should “Lowercase god, gods and goddesses in references to false gods: He made money his god.”

Trust me: I would be the first to wonder, as an Orthodox Christian, whether the Phelps family creed doesn’t focus more on court fees and hate that it does on the Holy Trinity. However, can there really be any doubt about whether this “thanking our god” reference isn’t to the God of the Bible? That’s painful, but that is clearly what Margie Phelps meant in this case.

I just checked and this Sun reference has not been corrected. Like it or not, it should be.

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Case of the radical Baptist church

Bizarre.

That’s my first reaction to a 1,900-word investigative report by The Oklahoman concerning the church attended by two Oklahoma City Council candidates.

Downright bizarre. That’s my second reaction.

To be honest, I’m not exactly sure whether I’m reacting to the nature of the allegations or the Page 1 Sunday report itself.

Cue the theme music from “Jaws,” and let’s dive right in. The top of the story:

Two Oklahoma City Council candidates attend a church observers have criticized for flying the Confederate flag, making political commentary from the pulpit and training children to use automatic weapons at a church camp.

Windsor Hills Baptist Church’s activities have been described as radical by critics who fear it could influence city council decisions if its members are elected Tuesday.

OK, immediately, one thing jumps out at me (besides the freaky image of kids shooting guns at church camp, I mean): the vagueness of the sourcing.

A church observers have criticized?

Activities … described as radical by critics?

Seriously, this is a Page 1 Sunday story, and that’s all you’ve got in the way of sourcing?

Keep reading, and the main sources turn out to be an official with the local chapter of Americans for Separation of Church and State, two former church members (one quoted anonymously) and a black pastor critical of the Confederate flag. In a letter posted on the church website, one writer accuses the publication of basing the story on the “evidence” of a “notorious liar” and “his buddy.”

The story describes the church this way:

Windsor Hills Baptist Church is an independent, fundamental Baptist church. The church runs Windsor Hills Baptist School and Oklahoma Baptist College, all at 5517 NW 23 in Oklahoma City.

My first thought was that perhaps the reporters meant to write fundamentalist church. But fundamental is how the church describes itself on its website.

As for the allegations themselves, this appears to be the full extent of the claim concerning the flying of the Confederate flag:

Oklahoma Baptist College, which trains preachers, holds the North South School of the Prophets at the end of the school year.

Students divide up sides and are judged on sermons they give. Photographs of the event posted on the college’s website show one group of students holding American flags and the other group of students holding Confederate flags.

Now, again, the word “bizarre” comes to mind. But do those circumstances impress you as the same thing as the church actually flying the Confederate flag outside its building? Unless I’m missing something, that hasn’t been alleged, despite the claim in the lede.

As for the children learning to shoot guns, the story goes out of its way to insinuate that the church is involved in “militia-type training.” Yet a state official shoots down that allegation:

Ed Cunnius, the coordinator of the state Wildlife Conservation Department’s shotgun training program, said the camp has some of the best supervision that he sees when presenting the department’s program. The department has taken its basic Shotgun Training Education Program to the camp for three years.

Cunnius said before the first time he went to the camp he heard something about it being a militia-style camp, checked into it and found the accusation false.

“If it was something that was out of the way or something that wasn’t kosher, I would be the first one not to be there,” he said. “I wouldn’t expose the department to any kind of controversy, or I wouldn’t expose my program to anything that would be questionable.”

As for the church possibly violating its tax-exempt status by engaging in political activities, this seems to be the strongest of the allegations. Of course, that’s not so sensational — from a headline-making perspective — as Confederate flags and kids shooting guns.

Among those questioning the attacks on the council candidates’ religion is Patrick B. McGuigan, a former editorial page editor for The Oklahoman. In a letter on the church’s website, McGuigan writes:

I believe all 13 people who ran for City Council should be honored for their willingness to serve, not denigrated for their religious beliefs. In terms of politics, robust debate clarifying contrasting policy views is important to assure citizens are well informed, yet some of the things said and done these last few weeks fall more into the category of slander than of robust debate. To whatever extent these words of mine are heard and read, I encourage civility by all parties, and generosity about the motivations of those with contrasting points of view.

Bizarre.

Downright bizarre.

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First Timothy and the first baseman

As I may have mentioned once or twice here, I’m the world’s biggest St. Louis Cardinals fan. A high percentage of my free time in the last week has been spent thinking about the contract negotiations between the Cardinals and one of my very favorite players throughout history — Albert Pujols.

If you’ve never been blessed with the opportunity to see Pujols in action, you should try to remedy that in the next few years. He combines power hitting with clutch performances to the delight of Cardinals fans around the country. He’s also, by all accounts, a seriously nice guy with excellent leadership skills. And that’s before we even get to the non-baseball stuff, like how he adopted his wife’s daughter who has Down Syndrome. His Pujols Family Foundation is dedicated to “the love, care and development of people with Down syndrome and their families” and aiding the poor in the Dominican Republic. He’s played his entire career with the Cardinals.

The thing is that his contract will be expiring and it’s a bit of a touchy situation. The Cardinals already have one of the most dedicated fan bases in the country. Whether they keep Pujols or not will have very little effect on their money-making. But with a player as good as Pujols, many teams would spend a lot of money to get him. Before he turned 30, he already ranked as one of the very best players in baseball history including in on-base and slugging percentage. Only one other person has ever hit more home runs in the first five years of their career. He was one of the youngest to hit 350 homers. He holds the Cardinals record for most grand slams, breaking Stan Musial’s record of nine. He’s also set the Cards’ record for most assists by a first baseman in a single game (yes, seven) and the National League record for most assists by a first baseman in a given season with 182.

Pujols is an outspoken evangelical and frequently talks about the role that faith plays in his work:

In spite of his accomplishments, Pujols has said he does not play solely for the numbers. “I don’t play for numbers. I play first of all to glorify God and to accomplish in this game what everybody wants to accomplish, which is getting to the World Series and coming up with a win at the end. Those are the things that I really try to focus on and try to make sure that I do every day for the rest of my career.”

These contract negotiations have been grueling for the organization and its fans. I thought about how interesting it would be to discuss the role of Pujols’ faith in all of this but didn’t even dare to hope that such a report would be forthcoming. Well, religion reporter Tim Townsend at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch did just that. And it’s great. You have to read the whole article since excerpting any of it runs the risk of giving the wrong impression. But I’ll just show you a couple of the ways he handles the big dilemmas for how Christians handle their role in the market:

But a particular group of Cardinals fans — made up of those who share Pujols’ faith — was asking a different kind of question. What does holding out for the largest contract in the history of baseball say about Albert’s Christian testimony? …

So as Pujols began looking to many like a typical mega-wealthy superstar athlete angling for a record payday, some have asked how Pujols’ public, God-fearing image squares with a private quest for wealth.

The Rev. Darrin Patrick, pastor of The Journey, a church in St. Louis that counts a number of professional athletes as members, said Jesus warned against greed.

“Nobody really confesses to that sin,” Patrick said. “Lust, anxiety — sure. But very few people say, ‘I’m greedy,’ and I absolutely think that (Pujols) should be on guard for that.”

The article then goes into a nice discussion of what 1 Timothy has to say about the “uncomfortable intersection of the New Testament and capitalism.” One Baptist pastor, the Rev. Scott Lamb, has written a book about Pujols’ faith. He talks about how the consumption mentality is very American but not very Biblical. Then we get a nice discussion about proportional giving and how it plays into the matter since the Pujols have been tithing since they were poor. Some groups stand to do very well if Pujols lands a major contract. See? A nice well-rounded report. Here’s a bit from the ending:

“I’ve never met anyone with more passion for serving, and serving poor than Albert,” [said Tony Biaggne, director of creative communications at The Crossing]. ..

“I reject any idea that a person’s Christianity should cause them to step away from what the market would demand for them,” said Lamb. “Albert will go down in history as one of the great ones — someone who grabbed the money, and gave it away at the same time.”

I always get nervous when reporters write about sports and religion. Some suffer from being too deferential. Others only know how to mock. This is a great example of asking some tough questions without presuming to know the answers. I also like how this story — ostensibly about a baseball hero — has a lot to say about how each of us might approach salary negotiations and what to do with our compensation.

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On seminaries: Time ignores the obvious

A decade or two ago, in a previous ecclesiastical lifetime, I was asked to speak at a national gathering of Episcopalians who had been ordained as permanent deacons. In other words, most of them assisted priests in churches, or played other roles in parish life, after going to seminary. Seminary is the key.

I was stunned at how many of the people had gray hair. Most were in their 40s and 50s. Many were over 60. Most of the new deacons were second- or third-career folks or had jumped into this ministry after retirement. For many, the call to be a deacon or deaconess followed some kind of life-changing event that made them reassess ultimate things — such as a heart attack or, in many cases, a divorce.

Thus, to make an obvious point, the hot trend covered in a recent issue of Time magazine has actually been around quite some time, if one has been studying the baby boomers and others who came of age, to one degree or another, in the ’60s.

The long, long headline on the story is crucial, in this case, since the magazine still has not posted the full text online: “Holy Enrollers. Baby boomers are the fastest-growing demographic at theological schools in the U.S. and Canada.”

You can get a sense of where the story is going from the snippet that online readers can see before hitting the paying-readers-only gate:

In July, 64-year-old Patrice Fike sold her home in Coral Gables, Fla., and her Mercedes, stored most of her furniture and moved into a one-room studio where many of her meals are provided. If she sounds like a retiree relocating to an assisted-living facility, guess again. Fike is living in dormitory housing for the Episcopal Church’s General Theological Seminary in New York City, where she will spend three years and $100,000 of her savings and retirement income to prepare for her new career as a priest.

She’s not alone. When Fike attended orientation last spring, she was pleasantly surprised to find …

Now, the key is that this is not a story about a trend in the Episcopal Church or even the world of oldline Protestantism. The heart of the story is a set of new statistics out from Association of Theological Schools, which, as Time tells us, includes more than 250 graduate schools in North America. The whole point is that gray-haired baby boomers are now the fastest growing niche in theological education. As I said, this is really not hot boomer news.

Still, the story notes:

The under-30 crowd may still be the largest cohort of students — accounting for a third of the total — but the 50-or-older group has grown from 12% of students in 1995 to 20% in 2009, the most recent year for which data is available. …

Perhaps the trend is yet another reflection of a restless generation that isn’t content with simply making money or taking it easy in their golden years.

Let me stress that this is a good hook for a news story, even if this trend — especially in pastoral counseling departments — has been affecting seminary life for a decade or two. No, what I find curious is that the story focuses totally on schools that are linked to the Protestant left. Where are the quotes and information from the nation’s larger seminaries? After all, the oldline schools are very small in comparison with their evangelical counterparts.

Meanwhile, I would predict that the percentage of older, late-in-life ordinands is higher the further one heads left on the doctrinal spectrum — in keeping with church membership statistics in general.

The bottom line: Can we to know that this seminary trend in Time is evenly distributed across the academic board?

Also, it would help to know the overall numbers and demographics at General Theological Seminary — a school which reported 202 students (134 full-time equivalents) in the same time frame as the Time report. Meanwhile, there were 108 students (62 FTE) up at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass.

As a point of comparison, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth had 3,042 students (2,068 FTE) that year and, on the various campuses of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, there were 2,134 students (1,492 FTE)

I realize that, for a reporter in New York City, General Theological Seminary is just down the block. However, when writing a national story it helps to grab a mouse, or even pick up a telephone, and consider the rest of the national scene. There could be stories hidden in the larger numbers, especially when the story in question is based on a tiny seminary and the reporter has not — it seems — even considered that the numbers and the trends may be different on other campuses, especially the larger institutions.

So, how many gray-haired future clergy are there in Fort Worth, Orlando, Louisville and elsewhere? Are evangelical students younger, as a rule? The same as their oldline counterparts? What is the actual composition of the student bodies at schools on the doctrinal left, as opposed to those in the middle on the right? In other words, where’s the rest of the national story?

Photo: General Theological Seminary in New York City

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