The Economist discovers Calvinists

I recently attended John Piper’s Desiring God gathering in Minneapolis, and yes, the Reformed crowd there was pretty alive and well, and the crowd seemed particularly young for a conference.

The Economist recently highlighted “The new Calvins,” describing a growing trend of Calvinists in the Southern Baptist denomination. Let’s first consider the deck, which acts as a subtitle: “Tensions inside one of America’s most successful churches.” I’m not sure who’s defining “successful” or when the Southern Baptists became a church instead of a denomination or a convention.

It would be interesting to know what provoked this article since the growth isn’t really new. Christianity Today has covered this development for the past few years (especially Collin Hansen, who wrote a book on the topic).

The Calvinist growth doesn’t necessarily seem limited to Southern Baptists; rather, it seems to be a generational development. But the growth within the Southern Baptist denomination is interesting considering the possible theological tensions. The Economist regularly tries hard to explain the history and context, but this paragraph shifts from laudable to laughable.

Calvinism emphasizes that Jesus died only for the elect; Baptists believe Jesus died for everyone. Baptists, by definition, believe that baptism must be an informed choice by the individual, therefore limited to adults; Calvinists believe infants may be baptized. Calvinists think that God selects certain people for damnation; Baptists are more easy-going.

One of the best responses to this paragraph comes from Thabiti Anyabwile, a Baptist pastor in the Grand Cayman Islands.

I don’t know any Baptists (I’m one) who would describe what it means to be a Baptists in these terms. And judging by the statistics from the SBC, where baptism ages are dropping like boulders off cliffs, adult baptism is no longer the norm in most SBC churches. And at least among Reformed Baptists, there would not be support for infant baptism. To associate the “new Calvinists” with declining baptism ages in Baptist churches is just journalistic foolishness. To equate the denomination with “the church” is to misunderstand even that local spirit and autonomy that Baptists love so fiercely.

By the way, when did Southern Baptists become known for being “more easy-going”? More easy going than who? We’re the “don’t dance, don’t smoke, don’t chew, don’t hang out with those who do” crowd.

The magazine uses some vague descriptions that create sweeping generalizations. “Mark Driscoll, a flamboyant, controversial pastor who leads Seattle’s largest congregation, the non-denominational Mars Hill church.” Journalists regularly use the expression “show, don’t tell,” but there’s nothing in this sentence that helps the readers understand how Driscoll is “flamboyant” or “controversial.”

It also seems odd that The Economist would label Al Mohler “the denomination’s best-known Calvinist” without quoting him on the trend.

One of our readers asked for more explanation for the theological implications.

Possibly the biggest thing missing in the summary is the division on the definition of the sovereignty of God?

My only issue is with the closing remarks, which characterize neo-Calvinism as a “trend.” While it certainly has characteristics like a trend, such as increasing popularity and generation differences, I feel this term is too light. The difference between Reformed and non-Reformed beliefs has a dramatic influence on how believers see God, others and the world.

I appreciate (and subscribe to) The Economist because of its emphasis on historical, cultural, political, and economical context. Perhaps this time around, they could have employed more theological context.

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Yet another big pew gap

Dear GetReligion readers:

You may have heard that we are convinced that many folks in the mainstream press just don’t “get religion.” Right?

At times, we have been tempted to believe that some media folks are actively trying to avoid religion, even when it jumps up and punches them right smack between the eyes.

Case in point? Please read the following essay from The Politico (which is a site that I frequent on a daily basis, I must confess, since I work inside the Beltway). The headline: “United? Yes. But ever more divided.” Here’s the top of the essay by Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder website:

Elections don’t solve differences in America because our differences aren’t about politics. We are separating by the way we live, and these differences are increasing.

This November’s elections are likely to be as inconclusive as all the others of the past generation because politics is only a small part of how this country is sharply dividing. …

Beginning a generation ago, the United States became less a nation than a collection of loosely connected islands — all busy creating their own economies, cultures and politics. If it seems the country can’t find a mutual purpose these days, one reason is that, each year, Americans have less in common with fellow citizens who may live only a few dozen miles down the road.

How to illustrate this? Well there are issues of life expectancy. There are some educational differences (although Bishop handles those in a rather shallow manner). Educational differences lead to economic differences.

Then there are those red and blue differences.

Since the mid-1970s, the U.S. political system has also polarized geographically, as most counties became increasingly Republican or Democratic in presidential elections. The 2008 election, billed as the end of the red and blue division, found the nation more politically segregated than in 2000 or 2004.

Pick something to measure, and you’ll find Americans living in increasingly different realities. Suicide rates in rural and urban counties have been diverging since the ’70s. Rural counties continue to send a disproportionate number of their young into the armed forces. …

Differences within the country pile up and then overlap. The way we create families — the age when the average woman has her first child, for example, or the percentage of couples who cohabitate before marriage — varies from place to place. And these family habits increasingly correlate with how people vote in presidential elections.

Finally, he runs in the wall that cannot be avoided:

Meanwhile, as federal and state governments stall in tedious partisanship, cities, with their more homogeneous electorates, become the new laboratories of democratic experimentation. Similarly, national church denominations lose authority as religion becomes less of a unifying institution and more an expression of local and individual ways of life within increasingly homogeneous congregations.

There is now a mismatch between our problems and our politics.

So, a major divide a generation ago? Anyone want to nominate a few major events that could have created that kind of division in our culture, in our education, in our media? Yes, try to focus on the journalistic implications of this. Think media coverage issues, folks.

As I read this Politico essay, I could not help but think about another essay that I read on the train yesterday — the Weekly Standard cover story that ran with the headline, “America’s One-Child Policy.” This is a piece in an advocacy publication, of course, and there are many passages that can certainly be debated.

However, this religion-related passage hit me as especially fact-driven and, thus, relevant to GetReligion readers. The issue? Why people do and do not have children in postmodern America:

Where people’s offspring had for centuries seen to the financial needs of their parents, retired people with no offspring now had access to a set of comparable benefits. And in a world where childbearing has no practical benefit, people have babies because they want to, either for self-fulfillment or as a moral imperative. “Moral imperative,” of course, is a euphemism for “religious compulsion.” There are stark differences in fertility between secular and religious people.

The best indicator of actual fertility is “aspirational fertility” — the number of children men and women say they would like to have. Gallup has been asking Americans about their “ideal family size” since 1936. When they first asked the question, 64 percent of Americans said that three or more children were ideal; 34 percent said that zero, one, or two children were ideal. Today only 34 percent of Americans think that a family with three-or-more children is ideal.

But on this question there are two Americas today: a secular population that wants small families (or no family at all) and a religious population that wants larger families. Religious affiliation is part of the story, but the real difference comes with church attendance. Among people who seldom or never go to church, 66 percent say that zero, one, or two children is the ideal family size, and only 25 percent view three-or-more children as ideal. Among those who go to church monthly, the three-or-more number edges up to 29 percent. But among those who attend church every week, 41 percent say three or more children is ideal, while only 47 percent think that a smaller family is preferable. When you meet couples with more than three children today, chances are they’re making a cultural and theological statement.

Fascinating. Timely. There seems to be another pew gap out there. How does this affect the news? If you were the publisher of a major newspaper, how would these realities affect you?

Just asking.

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Got news? Bible studies (plural) in mine?

I don’t know about you, but I had assumed that the spiritual leaders of the trapped miners in Chile would be Catholics. That was true of some, but not all.

I guess I was — in an earlier post — guilty of tunnel vision.

In other words, I didn’t take into account the religious changes sweeping through Latin America. Then again, it is more than possible that lots of other folks in the mainstream press missed an interesting angle on this story, too.

Anyway, I had not heard of the Rev. Marcelo Leiva, a Baptist pastor, and miner Jose Henriquez Gonzalez until today. A Google News search indicates that I am not along, at least on this side of the Atlantic.

However, I do read the Baptist wire services pretty carefully, which is how I ran into this story today. Here’s a key chunk of it:

… (The) traumatic ordeal has forged many new friendships — perhaps none more important than the ones between the miners and those ministering to them and their families.

Marcelo Leiva, a Baptist pastor, and Jose Henriquez, one of the miners, had never met before the mine collapse. Instead, they have communicated in handwritten letters and in a single, brief phone conversation. A half-mile of rock has separated them. But despite the physical distance, the two Chilean evangelicals developed a special friendship.

Henriquez has been an encouragement to his co-workers as they struggled to stay positive during their confinement. An evangelical Christian, he held daily Bible studies for the miners as rescue efforts developed on the surface.

When Henriquez requested an evangelical pastor to aid the miners and their families at the site, Leiva, of Vallenar Baptist Church in Vallenar, Chile, was contacted. The pastor arrived at Camp Esperanza (Hope) about two weeks ago.

As you would expect, Baptists will be Baptists. Thus, there is an evangelistic angle to this story, as well. That received it’s own story a few days ago.

I’ll cut to the chase.

When the mine collapsed, three of the miners — including Henriquez — were Christians. Since then, two more of them have made professions of faith.

“It was Jose who made the request that an evangelical pastor come to minister to the miners and their families,” said Bryan Wolf, an International Mission Board (IMB) missionary serving in Vallenar, Chile.

Now, did anyone else raise their eyebrows while reading that?

You see, while these stories are part of a feel-good media festival, these Baptist Press stories raise an interesting question — one I had not thought of before.

There were only three Christians buried down in that mine? Or were there only three evangelical and/or Baptist believers down there? This is Chile, after all. It’s hard to believe that there were that few men in the mine who were active in their Catholic parishes, men who were in a sacramental relationship with the Catholic faith.

I know that, in this case, we are reading stories from a denominational wire service. This is not the Associated Press.

Still, I wonder if there were faith-centered tensions down there, under all of that rock. Previous stories mentioned a “spiritual leader” among the miners named, 62-year-old Mario Gomez, the group’s oldest member. The Vatican sent 33 “mini Bibles,” and 33 rosaries down the small hole that served as a literal and spiritual lifeline to Gomez and the other miners.

So I’ll ask: How many Bible studies were being held down there? Were there tensions between the believers? Was there spiritual unity among the diversity? Maybe there was both?

Sounds like a story to me, maybe even a complex story, at that.

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Christianity vs. yoga?

I’m always surprised at how many people don’t know the relationship of yoga to Hinduism. The Washington Post/Newsweek “On Faith” had a piece on the topic a few months ago. In “The Theft of Yoga,” Aseem Shukla, an associate professor in urologic surgery at the University of Minnesota medical school and co-founder and board member of Hindu American Foundation, wrote:

Yogis say that the dedicated practice of yoga will subdue the restless mind, lessen one’s cravings for the mundane material world and put one on the path of self-realization-that each individual is a spark of the Divine. Expect conflicts if you are sold on the exclusivist claims of Abrahamic faiths — that their God awaits the arrival of only His chosen few at heaven’s gate-since yoga shows its own path to spiritual enlightenment to all seekers regardless of affiliation. Hindus must take back yoga and reclaim the intellectual property of their spiritual heritage.

I subscribe to the Hindu American Foundation news and this is a common theme. They really want non-Hindus to understand that yoga is a Hindu practice. They send out quotes, announcements about temple openings — complete with an explanation of and workshops for yoga and its philosophy — and snippets of stories where Hindus are defending the practice of yoga.

OK, so Southern Baptist Seminary President Albert Mohler reviewed “The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America” last week. While he gave the book a favorable review, he agreed with the view of the Hindu American Foundation and others who say that the exclusivist claims of Christianity are at odds with yoga. You can imagine which side Mohler stands on.

And then all hell broke loose.

I first heard about the essay over at Peter Smith’s blog. He’s the religion reporter at the Louisville Courier-Journal. He simply quoted a brief excerpt from the column and got more comments than he normally gets. And even though Mohler is a prolific writer, the Associated Press even noticed this particular essay and wrote about the controversy:

Other Christian leaders have said practicing yoga is incompatible with the teachings of Jesus. Pat Robertson has called the chanting and other spiritual components that go along with yoga “really spooky.” California megachurch pastor John MacArthur called yoga a “false religion.” Muslim clerics have banned Muslims from practicing yoga in Egypt, Malaysia and Indonesia, citing similar concerns.

Yoga proponents say the wide-ranging discipline, which originated in India, offers physical and mental healing through stretching poses and concentration.

“Lots of people come to yoga because they are often in chronic pain. Others come because they think it’s a nice workout,” said Allison Terracio, who runs the Infinite Bliss studio in Louisville.

And some yoga studios have made the techniques more palatable for Christians by removing the chanting and associations to eastern religions, namely Hinduism and its multiple deities.

The article is about the controversy, not the underlying issue. As someone who has done a bit of yoga, I think the topic of whether the exercises can be secularized and adopted by non-Hindus is tremendously important and fascinating. But I was still shocked that no Hindus were quoted in the piece. Many would say that removing the religious aspect from the exercise makes it something completely different — something like rigorous stretching exercises.

Mohler, in a follow-up, notes that he’s been deluged with mail, but that none of it dealt substantively with his criticisms of syncretizing yoga and Christianity. Part of that could be because — apart from the Washington Post “On Faith” discussion I mentioned earlier — it’s rare to see a good debate on the religious dimensions of yoga and what it means, in a religious sense, to practice yoga. A story about the controversy Mohler caused is a good start but perhaps a few Hindu voices would have been preferable to the Pat Robertson and “spooky” quotes above.

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Sigh … More silence than grace

The name of the book is “The Grace of Silence.”

The author of the book is Michele Norris of NPR, a unique voice in American print and electronic media.

The recent feature about the book, and its author, ran in the Washington Post and GetReligion readers will not be surprised to hear that the powers that be in the Style section did an excellent job of handling the “silence” part of the title, but not the “grace” part.

This is sad, especially since it’s clear early on that faith is a large part of the story and its setting — a family drama set in the heart of the Civil Rights Movement and the African-American church experience in Birmingham, Ala.

The silence? Growing up, her parents did not tell her the full truth about many of the events that helped shape their lives, even bitter moments of racism. They did not want their children to live lives defined or even framed by the acid of racism. On some issues they were silent.

… (Her) parents did not deny racism. They made sure Michele knew the names of the four girls killed in the church bombing the way white kids could recite the names of four pop stars from Britain.

It was the personal indignities that were the hardest to talk about.

“I understand the silence,” Norris says. “And I understand there was a generation of men and women … who had every reason to be angry at the world and to be angry at their lot in life, and instead of feeding their children a steady diet of anger and frustration, they armed them with their hopes and their ambitions. And that is an incredible act of grace.”

And yet she cannot fully reconcile a paradox: The silence shaped her, helped make her who she is — journalist, professional talker, breaker of silences.

And the grace? Even the current-day event that shapes this story, a speaking engagement about the book, is shaped to some degree by religion.

Sundown in Birmingham. … A couple of hundred people find seats in the red-carpeted sanctuary of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

Norris’s radio voice fails her for a moment, as if the tragic majesty of the space were pressing her vocal cords. Already her Web site is filling up with racial reflections submitted by readers, and now she invites the predominantly white audience in the church to join the conversation.

James Wright Jr., 82, describes how his father used to be a blackface minstrel performer, and his Irish mother told young James never to refer to black females as “ladies.” They were “women.” Only God can cure such attitudes, and God has a lot of work left to do, Wright declares with great pessimism.

“I appreciate your candor, you speak a hard truth,” Norris says to Wright. She cranes to locate him several pews back. “I want to see you when I say this. … My father was a victim of the attitudes of which you speak, that’s the cudgel he grew up under. He didn’t necessarily escape it, but he didn’t let it define him. … It would have been so easy to give in to that, to let everybody know how angry he was, maybe to pick it up and hurl it at somebody. But he didn’t do it. It left me with a profound sense of possibility. That’s what I choose to hold on to.”

OK, that’s it. That thought, this ghost, lingers in the air.

Simply stated, is there an element of Grace in this story or simply grace? The story — literally — contains no thread of content that helps readers make any sense of several isolated references to religion, the role of the church, etc. The story is haunted. Period.

Does this particular silence, this ungraceful silence, come from Norris or from the editors in the Style section? Who knows.


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ESPN’s Dusty Baker faith no-no

July 28, 2010 - Milwaukee, WI, USA - 28 July 2010: Reds manager Dusty Baker relaxing in the dugout during the MLB game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park in Milwaukee, WI. The Reds defeated the Brewers 10-2.

The ghosts are touching him.

In keeping with the baseball theme I started Wednesday, I wanted to take a look at a compelling, 2,700-word profile of Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker.

As the reader who shared the story with GetReligion noted, the piece — obviously written before the Phillies’ Roy Halladay no-hit the Reds in the opening game of the National League Division Series — opens with a powerful scene inside a cathedral:

CINCINNATI – “Light a candle,” Dusty Baker says, his lone voice softly skimming the looming silence of the empty church. “I’m sure there’s someone out there you want to pray for.”

He lights a candle, points the flickering matchstick downward in his large hands, the athlete’s hands, dousing it into the cool sand. It is here in the solitude of St. Peter in Chains Cathedral — funded by Ohio Catholics who donated 12 cents per month toward its construction in 1841 — where Johnnie B. Baker, born Baptist in California, raised in the traditions of the southern black church, kneels alone among the long pews and nourishes his spirituality.

After several moments of prayer, he rises and walks gingerly toward the altar, marveling at the Greek architecture, the Corinthian columns and stained glass mosaics, comforted, despite its bruises, by the sanctuary and the ritual of the church.

“I come in here before homestands, sometimes a couple of times a week during the season,” said Baker. “I pray for my family, for my team, and for Barack Obama, because I’ve never seen people try to take a president down like this, never seen such anger. I mean, what did he do to anybody?”

History surrounds Baker this morning, as it does every morning. He is humbled by its density, energized by its lineage and his place in it. The ghosts are touching him.

The ghosts are touching him.

Certainly not religion ghosts, right? With that kind of utterly impressive start, surely this piece — filled with so many nuanced layers of emotion, history and vivid images — won’t require GetReligion repudiation, right?

Wrong, unfortunately.

No, readers never find out how a black Baptist ends up praying in a Catholic cathedral. No, readers never discover the role of faith in Baker dealing with cancer and the death of his father. No, readers never learn how Baker balances his religious faith — whatever form that takes outside of lighting a candle and praying — with the bars and women referenced later in the story.

Near the end, the highly talented writer alludes to a new outlook in Baker’s life post-cancer and again sprinkles religious imagery into the text:

The prodigy is long gone and the adult is left. One of his larger paintings is of a healing center in Kauai, Hawaii, from his cancer recovery. The photograph resembles a Mayan temple with beams of rainbows darting through the windows of the shelter.

“That one,” he says, “told me everything was going to be all right.”

“It changes your outlook. And I want to win the World Series. I hate the question of ‘how much longer do I want to do this?’ Why would I sell myself short? Joe Torre managed much longer than I. So has Bobby Cox. This is a heck of a life. I’ve never stopped aspiring, never stopped learning to do this job better. I take pride in being prepared. I take pride in having faith, in myself and in my players. I’m happy.

“Since cancer and my dad, all that other stuff, I try to leave it. This is a life much more fulfilling,” Dusty Baker says. “The stars are brighter. And the birds sing louder. I hear them more now than ever.”

But once again, the piece — regrettably — stops short of actual details and facts about Baker’s faith and religion. It’s a long fly to the outfield wall that just misses going out of the park.

The ghosts are touching him.

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God and the Tea Party

Whatever else might be said of the current political climate, there’s no doubt that it’s interesting. No one quite knows what might happen in the coming election but we do know that we’ve seen a pretty dramatic shift from 2008, when Democrats seemed unstoppable. Most of the excitement right now is happening in the Tea Party.

But what is the Tea Party? I remember when I was at the first 9/12 rally in Washington, D.C., tmatt asked for a report on what the media missed in terms of religion coverage. The fact was that I saw almost no religious signage, even if the attendees included a fair number of churchgoers. The T-shirt worn by the girl in this picture was one of the few exceptions.

But then there was Glenn Beck’s March to Restore Honor on August 28. That had heavy religion messages, although it was more civil religion than Mormonism. We looked at some of the coverage of the religious overtones of that event at the time. Barbara Bradley Hagerty has a piece for NPR that accurately reflects the tension within the Tea Party movement along religious lines.

She visits a local Tea Party event where concerned citizens are given updates on what’s happening nationwide:

On the one end of the spectrum, Stacey Hagga says that religion and socially conservative issues are simply not a factor in the Tea Party movement.

“I personally don’t know the last time I was at church,” she says, shifting her toddler from one hip to the other. “I think people are just generally concerned about the economy and the direction of our country. I have my 2-year-old here and I’m just concerned about his future.”

Nearby, Sandy Smith, a registered nurse, sees some religious undercurrents to the Tea Party movement.

“It’s a movement about the Founding Fathers and what their faith was to this country, and how they brought faith over to this country,” she says.

Smith is describing a “civil religion” that seems to appeal to many Tea Partiers: the idea that America was a divine experiment, that the Founding Fathers were Christian men who created a nation on biblical principles. She says America in 2010 has lost that.

One reader who submitted the story noted one problematic aspect to the story. Immediately after a discussion of evangelicals and the Tea Party movement, a quote from Glenn Beck is slipped in. His actual religious affiliation, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, isn’t mentioned in the story.

Anyway, Hagerty doesn’t just use anecdotes or quotes from one Tea Party meeting in Northern Virginia. She also looks at the data, which shows that Tea Partiers are more likely to be weekly churchgoers and conservative Christians than the population as a whole. She looks at how some conservative Christian groups are trying to pressure prominent Tea Party folks into elevating social conservative issues — something that isn’t happening.

And yet, there’s still tension between these two groups. For example, [Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association] recently interviewed Amy Kremer, chairman of the Tea Party Express, on his nationwide radio program. Fischer told her that evangelicals want some signal that the Tea Party movement supports their views on abortion and marriage.

“Can we hear that message from the Tea Party leadership?” he asked.

“You’re not going to hear it from me,” she responded. “I’m sorry, I’m going to disappoint you.”

The piece goes on to explain that the Tea Party includes atheists, libertarians and others who are primarily motivated not by social conservatism or religion but on concerns about the size and scope of government.

I was hanging out last night with some other journalists who live on my block and we were talking about how some reporters try to force a particular angle, tone or narrative into a story. As journalists, we know that it’s pretty rare that a story can be told simply or that a source will give the perfect quote.

What I like about this story is that it explores the tension and includes a variety of viewpoints without forcing a particular answer. Is the Tea Party movement religious? Yes. Also no. Kudos to NPR for giving Hagerty the space needed to explore the issue accurately rather than forcing a simple answer on listeners.

I should also note how surprised I was to read in the New York Times that the United Church of Christ and the National Baptist Convention were co-sponsors of this weekend’s One Nation Working Together rally on the mall. Even if there were 300-plus groups sponsoring, the religious influences of the rally were largely unexplored. There even was an interesting angle (unnoticed by the mainstream media) of the United Methodist Church backing out of its sponsorship at the last minute, citing concerns over the tone of the rally and of co-sponsors. They didn’t state which co-sponsors were problematic but the march included the Communist Party USA and other radical groups. Once again, though, the religious left is largely invisible to the media.

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In Big Easy, a slow revival

In my 20-year reporting career, I’ve covered wildfires, floods and tornadoes. In 1995, I heard the explosion at the bombed federal building in Oklahoma City and raced that direction. Never, though, had I seen the kind of devastation that followed Hurricane Katrina five years ago.

I first viewed the disaster scene from the air as I joined a church relief group assessing damages days after Katrina struck. I didn’t make it into New Orleans city limits until a few months later, and even then, I was overwhelmed by what I saw.

In one column, I described the scene this way:

The view on the ground revealed miles and miles of debris — miniature mountains of tree limbs, mattresses, broken chairs, smashed toy robots and mildewed stuffed animals piled high outside thousands of homes.

Equally striking were the bright red X’s painted on each front door, showing the date inspected by search teams and the number of bodies, if any, found inside.

Since 2005, I have returned to New Orleans a handful of times, most recently to work on a five-year anniversary package for The Christian Chronicle. Each time I go back, I am struck by the progress — remarkable progress, in many ways — the Crescent City has made. Still, and you already know this if you caught any of the media coverage this weekend, the Big Easy has not made it all the way back.

Given my personal connection to New Orleans (and really, you can’t experience the spirit of the people there without feeling a personal connection), I was interested in reading the coverage of the “faith angle” as that city reached another milestone anniversary of Aug. 29, 2005. In advance of President Barack Obama’s visit to mark the anniversary Sunday, a bit of controversy emerged over an abortion-rights president speaking at a Catholic university (see reports by Fox and Time), but nothing rising to the level of a full-scale Notre Dame furor.

More interesting to me are the stories of how the city’s faithful have weathered the storm. Unfortunately, the main Associated Press story on Sunday’s anniversary gave short shrift to religion, except for this small section:

Members of First Grace United Methodist Church in mid-city New Orleans celebrated the city’s renewal. Church membership, once down to 50 people, now stands at 180, Pastor Shawn Moses Anglim said.

“After every flood, there is going to be a rainbow,” he said.

Church member Martha Ward, a 69-year-old anthropologist at the University of New Orleans, told the congregation that Katrina and the ensuing evacuation are the reason she married her longtime boyfriend.

“This church is a miracle. It’s the face of New Orleans,” she said, referring to the multicultural congregation that attends the church.

There’s one big number missing from that first paragraph. Where did church membership start? Were there 500 members before Katrina? 300? That’s important information. Moreover, the description of the church as “a miracle” certainly seems to lend itself to more elaborate exploration.

Later in the story, there’s this:

Since Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005, the Lower 9th Ward has seen thousands of volunteers help gut homes, clean up yards and rebuild homes and businesses. It also has become the focal point in an effort since Katrina to make the city more eco-friendly. Groups like Global Green USA, the Sierra Club and movie star Brad Pitt have helped make the Lower 9th Ward into a greener neighborhood. A new eco-friendly village is sprouting near the Industrial Canal floodwall that broke and there are several groups making the Lower 9th Ward the focus of environmental plans. Recently, a plan was announced to build a community center, using U.S. Department of Energy funds, in the neighborhood where people can also learn about climate change.

OK, we’ve got thousands of volunteers gutting homes, cleaning up yards and rebuilding homes and businesses. But why? Could their faith have anything to do with it? I know from my own reporting that people of faith played a tremendous role in New Orleans’ recovery (which is not to imply that every volunteer was motivated by a belief in God). But unlike Global Green USA and the Sierra Club, churches and faith-based organizations merit no specific mention in the AP roundup. That’s a shame.

I did come across a couple of Katrina-related stories that I would encourage GetReligion readers to check out. I’ll save the best for last.

First, The Times Picayune, New Orleans’ Pulitzer Prize-winning hometown newspaper, featured a compelling piece on some of the city’s cultural touchstones swept away by Katrina:

Whatever the reason, New Orleanians seem to have an almost sacred attachment to clubs, bars, po-boy shops, churches, schools and playgrounds.

“Tradition is a cultural heirloom that people in this community will pass from one generation to the next,” said Xavier University sociologist Silas Lee. “And they can be very aggressive about protecting some aspects of tradition.”

I chuckled at the sacred attachment to churches (who woulda thunk it?), but the piece contains a revealing look at what happened to some of New Orleans’ historic Catholic churches as a result of the storm:

Some New Orleans institutions survived Katrina just fine, only to become collateral damage in the aftershocks that followed.

Take St. Henry’s Catholic Church, padlocked by the Archdiocese of New Orleans in 2008 as part of a vast reorganization after Katrina. Defiant parishioners, already coping with the painful loss of homes and family members, drew a line in the sand.

“It was sad because so many people had such deep roots there,” said Alden Hagardorn, a leader of the resistance movement, which staged a lengthy sit-in to keep the 153-year-old church open. “So many of our older parishioners who had been baptized at St. Henry wanted to be buried there.

“A lot of us felt offended and some drifted away from their faith. After the shock and anger wore off, there were feelings of embarrassment that the church hierarchy had turned its back on them.”

Finally, The New York Times paints a marvelous portrait of the long, slow return of New Orleans’ black churches. It’s a 1,000-word feature that seems to use every word to disclose important, insightful detail:

NEW ORLEANS — Five minutes past 9:30 a.m. on a Sunday this month, which is to say five minutes past the time the worship service was supposed to start, Shantell Henley pushed open the front door of her pastor’s house in the Lower Ninth Ward. She entered the living room to find a gospel song playing on the stereo, two ceiling fans stirring the sticky air and 25 folding chairs for the congregants waiting empty.

“Am I late?” she asked the pastor, the Rev. Charles W. Duplessis.

“No,” he replied, smiling. “We’re Baptists.”

His joke, though, could not dispel the truth. The problem at Mount Nebo Bible Baptist Church had nothing to do with any Baptist indifference to punctuality and everything to do with Hurricane Katrina, even as its fifth anniversary on Aug. 29 approached.

This was my favorite paragraph:

As every level of government has failed to restore more than a fraction of former residents to habitable homes, the black churches have tried desperately to return through a combination of sacrifice, insurance and charity. And anyone with an even cursory understanding of African-American life knows that without vibrant churches, the Lower Ninth can never truly rise again.

Ordinarily, I’d ask for a source to back up such a sweeping claim. In this case, I think I’ll just shake my head and agree.

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