A Third Awakening?

camp meetingDid President Bush lose the evangelical vote? Is he trying to get it back? Was there ever an evangelical vote for the Texan to corral? The history of the Bush administration’s relationship with Christians is nowhere near being closed, but Bush said something rather significant Tuesday that is going to receive quite a bit of attention — first from reactionaries claiming that he is trying to bring a theocracy to America, and later from historians.

But first, check out this Weekly Standard piece by Marc Ambinder. In it, Ambinder reflects on what Bush’s political strategists (think Karl Rove) are just now beginning to realize:

For that matter, these organizations are not all that influential inside the Beltway. Nationally, the Christian Coalition is near death; in its place, the Family Research Council and other small groups try to keep the embers burning. They claim hundreds of thousands of members. They have access to top White House officials, and they hold events to keep their membership satisfied; but Republican strategists with access to polling know they move the votes of very few Christians.

The current crop of well-regarded evangelical leaders, like David Barton of WallBuilders, a group seeking to rekindle appreciation of the country’s religious heritage, and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, are better pastors and behind-the-scenes operators than they are political strategists. They are good at gauging the mood of voters in the states; they don’t try to build national movements.

Ambinder cites a rather significant development of muscle-flexing by smaller, community-based Christian political organizations in local races. His conclusion is that evangelicals are driven by national security and not so much by the culture wars. This is why GOP movers and shakers are looking so fondly at former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, Ambinder writes.

But does that mean Karl Rove has given up on courting evangelicals or at casting the current political climate as some grand global spiritual battle between the forces of evil and good? Check out this blog post at National Review‘s The Corner, which The Washington Post‘s Peter Baker jumped on in a page A5 story:

President Bush said yesterday that he senses a “Third Awakening” of religious devotion in the United States that has coincided with the nation’s struggle with international terrorists, a war that he depicted as “a confrontation between good and evil.”

Bush told a group of conservative journalists that he notices more open expressions of faith among people he meets during his travels, and he suggested that might signal a broader revival similar to other religious movements in history. Bush noted that some of Abraham Lincoln’s strongest supporters were religious people “who saw life in terms of good and evil” and who believed that slavery was evil. Many of his own supporters, he said, see the current conflict in similar terms.

“A lot of people in America see this as a confrontation between good and evil, including me,” Bush said during a 1½-hour Oval Office conversation on cultural changes and a battle with terrorists that he sees lasting decades. “There was a stark change between the culture of the ’50s and the ’60s — boom — and I think there’s change happening here,” he added. “It seems to me that there’s a Third Awakening.”

great awakeningSeeing that Baker could not have started writing this article until after 4:45 p.m. Tuesday, he did not have a lot of time to gather facts or cite history. And seeing that he was not included in this meeting of conservative journalists, he did not have the chance to question Bush on what he meant by a “Third Awakening.”

Baker, who should be credited for catching on to a great news story first cited by another media outlet, did a great job quickly tracking down some historical facts on what Bush meant by Great Awakening. There are no doubt going to be many ways to look at it, but I was impressed by his reporting and his insightful note that Karl Rove, among other Bush aides, has read The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism by Robert William Fogel.

Now an obvious contradiction lies in this comparison. The book talks about a Fourth Great Awakening. Scholars have legitimate debates over whether we have had two, three or more Great Awakenings.

But forget for a moment the historical details and debates over numbering, which in this case is pretty insignificant. Bush is citing a historical movement that is near and dear to the hearts of many evangelicals. This is something prayed for in church, at bedsides and around the dinner table.

How radical is it for Bush to say he believes we are in a Great Awakening? What do historians say? In 40 to 50 years will there be a case to be made that the Bush II years were something of a religious revival? After Bush won reelection two years ago, some were saying that already.

Is Bush just echoing the beliefs of his evangelical supporters? He did say that he feels their prayers.

There is the whole issue of how this plays into the war on terrorism that happens to be primarily against Muslims. Baker addresses that in a brief paragraph that says Bush is now careful not to describe the battle in religious terms (such as “crusade”) and an explanatory statement from an aide (who might that be?).

It will be very interesting to see how this statement plays in overseas media, which will have little appreciation for the historical value of the statement. You can forget about Muslim media. Imagine what type of historical misunderstandings would be communicated if the leader of a major Middle Eastern country made a remark akin to Bush’s. Hey, wait a minute

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Don’t mess with Texas evangelicals

03 00008 popLike I said, it’s hard to do a GetReligion commentary about a photo essay.

But here goes. Start by clicking here. Now click here. Finally, click here and look over this new photo essay — taken from the book The Amazing Faith of Texas, by Roy Spence — in the award-winning religion section of The Dallas Morning News. Does anyone else see any connections?

So what is the theological message of this photo essay?

The project conveys the rich diversity of faith in Texas — and shows that “when it comes to religion, what unites us is more important and deeper than what divides us,” said Mr. Spence, the head of GSD&M, the Austin ad agency best known for its “Don’t Mess with Texas” campaign.

“When you ask Texans what they believe in, what they think about spiritually, they don’t talk about politics, gay marriage or anything like that,” he said. “They say, ‘I believe in God. I believe in the Golden Rule. And I’m pretty dadgum tolerant of other people’s beliefs.’”

Wow. I had no idea that Texas was such a National Council of Churches kinda place. But it must be true. Look at these pictures from a company in Austin. There are conservative Protestants in here, I guess. But their only institutional homes are old and empty (First Baptist Church, Dallas, at night) or tiny and funky (think tiny towns in West Texas).

Once again, where are the folks featured in this here article? It’s from Christianity Today and it calls Dallas “The New Capital of Evangelicalism.”

Well, I have known lots of Texans in my day (I am one, like it or not), and lots of them believe in the Golden Rule and still have lots of strong opinions and beliefs about all of that nasty stuff linked to divisive moral, religious and social issues. In other words, there are Texas Unitarians — but I don’t think they’re the folks who have made Texas the megachurch capital of the universe.

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America, in God (or gods) we trust

bart n godBefore I dash into classes today, I wanted to make a brief comment on the “Losing my religion?” survey that came out yesterday from Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion.

And here is what I want to say. Yes, I am going to hit you with the tmatt trio again.

All together now — if you want to know where people who say that they are Christian believers fall on a left-to-right theological spectrum, just ask these questions:

(1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?

This Baylor survey is all over the place today in the mainstream media, but if you want the biggest splash of the actual data, head to veteran Godbeat reporter Cathy Lynn Grossman’s package on page one of USA Today. She nails the key issue right right up front:

The United States calls itself one nation under God, but Americans don’t all have the same image of the Almighty in mind. A new survey of religion in the USA finds four very different images of God — from a wrathful deity thundering at sinful humanity to a distant power uninvolved in mankind’s affairs.

Forget denominational brands or doctrines or even once-salient terms like “Religious Right.” Even the oft-used “Evangelical” appears to be losing ground. Believers just don’t see themselves the way the media and politicians — or even their pastors — do, according to the national survey of 1,721 Americans, by far the most comprehensive national religion survey to date.

What everyone will be talking about today is this survey’s attempt to clump Americans into one of four different camps when it comes to definitions of God. This is very strange stuff, in part because the four definitions overlap so much.

Most of all, the survey’s authors are trying to capture the dynamic that, in an age in which organized religion is spinning off into do-it-yourself movements and independent congregations, people are trying to find a way to enjoy spirituality and faith without tying themselves to doctrine and discipline.

Yes, this does remind me of sociologist James Davison Hunter and his Culture Wars thesis that the major division in religion today is between the “camp of the orthodox,” who believe in the power of eternal, unchanging, absolute, revealed truths, and the “camp of the progressives,” who believe truth is evolving and personal. I still think this issue is the fault line.

Meanwhile, here are clips from Grossman’s coverage of these four American views of God:

• The Authoritarian God (31.4% of Americans overall, 43.3% in the South) is angry at humanity’s sins and engaged in every creature’s life and world affairs. He is ready to throw the thunderbolt of judgment down on “the unfaithful or ungodly.” . . .

• The Benevolent God (23% overall, 28.7% in the Midwest) still sets absolute standards for mankind in the Bible. More than half (54.8%) want the government to advocate Christian values. But this group, which draws more from mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews, sees primarily a forgiving God, more like the father who embraces his repentant prodigal son in the Bible. …

• The Critical God (16% overall, 21.3% in the East) has his judgmental eye on the world, but he’s not going to intervene, either to punish or to comfort. … Those who picture a critical God are significantly less likely to draw absolute moral lines on hot-button issues such as abortion, gay marriage or embryonic stem cell research. …

• The Distant God (24.4% overall, 30.3% in the West) is “no bearded old man in the sky raining down his opinions on us.” … Followers of this God see a cosmic force that launched the world, then left it spinning on its own. This has strongest appeal for Catholics, mainline Protestants and Jews. It’s also strong among “moral relativists,” those least likely to say any moral choice is always wrong, and among those who don’t attend church. …

bushgodConfused? Me too.

It still seems to me that you end up having to ask basic questions about moral issues and doctrines and that you will end up with that pattern that we see so often — about 20 percent strongly conservative, about 20 percent strongly liberal and the muddled “Oprah America” in the middle.

Note what happens, for example, when Grossman offers a sidebar on a crucial question: Who is going to heaven? Yes, that is a variation on one of the tmatt trio questions, about the role of Jesus in salvation.

And the answer? Welcome to the post-denominational heaven, and America is — surprise, surprise — split just about down the middle on the crucial question.

Americans clearly believe in heaven and salvation — they just don’t agree on who’s eligible. The Baylor Religion Survey finds that most Americans (58.3%) agree with the statement “many religions lead to salvation.”

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Did 9/11 touch many souls?

911DevilAs you would expect, reporter Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times includes a passing reference to the impact of 9/11 on the spiritual climate in America. I am looking around online to see if other mainstream newsrooms do the same.

Please consider this an open thread on the spiritual elements of the Sept. 11 anniversary coverage today. Please let us know what you see — the bad and, especially, the good.

Here is the passing spiritual reference from Simon’s story. I thought it was especially fitting to include this right after the reference to the high percentage of Americans who now believe, or are willing to ponder the possibility, that their own government played a role in planning the attacks. If the devil didn’t make the terrorists act, then who did?

Tens of thousands of people have viewed an online film that asserts the government plotted to bring down the twin towers and blow up the Pentagon — and then pin the blame on Arab hijackers as a pretext to invade the Middle East. In the weeks after the attacks, when American flags seemed to fly from nearly every home, when nearly every marquee proclaimed “God Bless America,” it would have been impossible to imagine such a dark conspiracy theory gaining such traction.

In those days, many pundits predicted Americans would turn to God in their moment of stress, and, for a time, church attendance shot up. Polls showed Americans grappling with big questions about God and salvation.

The revival lasted three months.

By January, church attendance was back to normal. The Barna Group, a polling firm for religious groups, found no movement in standard measures of faith, such as Bible reading. “Spiritually speaking, it’s as if nothing significant ever happened,” says David Kinnaman, a Barna vice president.

As you would expect, I waded into this church-attendance myth back in 2001. It was a story that had to be checked out, after editors sent waves of reporters to church on the Sunday after the attacks. But, from the beginning, it sounded like a wave of anecdotes, to me.

Cross 911poemFirst you went to church. Then editors wanted the “Where Was God?” story covered. Then there were the stories and polls declaring that one form of absolute truth claim was just as evil as another.

Still, I have to admit I was surprised that the attacks had little or no impact at all. I would not have been surprised if they had had a negative impact on organized religion. But no impact? Here is the column I wrote at the time:

Sometimes the number is 38 percent and sometimes it’s something like 41.

For decades, Gallup Poll researchers have asked people if they attended worship services in the previous week. On rare occasions the percentage may soar to 48. It has been known to dip to 35. But that’s about it. There are seasonal ripples in the pews, but few big waves.

Then came the events of Sept. 11.

“Everybody started hearing all kinds of things from people all over the country,” said Mike Vlach of Church Initiative, based in Wake Forest, N.C. This evangelical support network … has about 5,000 churches on its mailing list.

“It seemed like we were talking about sizable changes in the spiritual landscape of the country. … We immediately started calling churches and asking, ‘What are you seeing out there? What are people asking? What are you doing in response?’”

Media reports joined the chorus, citing this return to faith as a ray of light in the darkness. Then the late September Gallup Poll … came out and the number was 47 percent, up from 41 in May. That was a rise, but not shockingly higher than the normal post-summer lift.

Vlach kept placing his calls and the news was good. Pastors said they were seeing larger crowds, including many inquisitive visitors. The atmosphere of uncertainty was lingering. “People have a heightened sense of alertness,” said a pastor in Indianapolis. A Chicago-area contact reported: “We have noticed a heightened desire in people to put their spiritual lives in order.”

The anecdotes were wonderful, but Vlach said he could not find strong evidence of lasting impact. Most church leaders were comforting their anxious flocks and welcoming any visitors who happened to walk in on their own. But few churches had tried to reach out to the un-churched.

Pastors preached one or two sermons linked to Sept. 11 and, perhaps, organized a memorial service. But that was about it, said Vlach. Few churches made sustained attempts to talk about life and death, heaven and hell, sin and repentance.

“I’m not sure that many churches even saw this as an opportunity to deal with these kinds of issues,” he said. “I’m not sure many church leaders are trained to think like that.”

By mid-November, the Gallup number was back to 42 percent.

Yes, 74 percent of Americans said they were praying more than usual, 70 percent said they had wept and 77 percent said they were being affectionate with loved ones. As the Gallup team said, Americans were seeking “spiritual solace.” But the data suggested that they were flying solo.

The evangelical market analysts at the Barna Research Group (www.barna.org) did a wave of national polling starting in late October, looking for statistical signs of revival. They found that worship statistics were following familiar patterns. Participation in prayer circles and Bible study groups “remained static.” Even among born-again Christians, they found a slight decrease in the number of believers who were sharing their faith with non-believers.

“After the attack,” said George Barna, “millions of nominally churched or generally irreligious Americans were desperately seeking something that would restore stability and a sense of meaning to life. Fortunately, many of them turned to the church. Unfortunately, few of them experienced anything that was sufficiently life-changing to capture their attention.”

These seekers found comfort, but were not motivated to change their beliefs and lifestyles. The most stunning statistic was that the percentage of Americans saying they believe in “moral truths or principles that are absolute,” meaning truths that don’t change with the circumstances, actually declined — from 38 to 22 percent. In fact, only 32 percent of born-again Christians said they still believe in the existence of absolute moral truth.

“Our assessment,” said Barna, “is that churches succeeded at putting on a friendly face but failed at motivating the vast majority of spiritual explorers to connect with Christ in a more intimate or intense manner.” The Sept. 11th tragedy offered congregations a unique chance to “be the healing and transforming presence of God in people’s lives, but that … has now come and gone, with little to show for it.”

It seems that the larger story is the growth of radical individualism, with a secondary trend in which very traditional forms of religious faith survive and even grow among those who are counter-cultural. Of course, few things are harder for journalists to cover than trends that roll along at the level of individual choices that are not linked to movements and institutions. How do you cover an anti-movement movement?

Please help us watch the coverage today. Please use the comments pages to pass along headlines and URLs. Thank you.

Update 1: If you want the straight existentialist angle, which is a kind of spiritual viewpoint, check out this feature in today’s Style section (of course) in the Washington Post. Most haunting detail? The mourning mother’s desire to buy a Leatherman utility knife, just to know what it feels like in her hand. For a strange suburban form of existentialism, click here. How did the Post find the totally faith-free street?

Update 2: Back to the Los Angeles Times for a really cynical spin. Why face the reality of 9/11? Why change, when you can change the channel? That’s entertainment.

Update 3: As you would expect, the New York Times has produced another massive update on its stunning package of mini-portraits of those who have died. I have been reading through some of them at random and, I must say, they are amazingly faith free. Have I just had bad luck? Anyone else want to help me search?

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Getting rid of parishioners . . . on purpose

Rickwarren 01Rick Warren, who pastors the Saddleback megachurch in California and has sold a gazillion copies of Purpose Driven books, is frequently named a top evangelical by a variety of publications. He advocates using business practices to drive church growth and his teachings are widely followed by fellow Southern Baptists and folks from all denominations who want to increase their church rolls. He encourages pastors to preach about day-to-day problems rather than the historic Christian themes of sin, redemption and atonement. Warren could not be more popular.

Wall Street Journal religion reporter Suzanne Sataline came up with an interesting angle for her story on the Warren empire. She spoke with evangelicals who disagree with Warren’s business-minded approach:

But the purpose-driven movement is dividing the country’s more than 50 million evangelicals. Some evangelicals . . . say it’s inappropriate for churches to use growth tactics akin to modern management tools, including concepts such as researching the church “market” and writing mission statements. Others say it encourages simplistic Bible teaching. Anger over the adoption of Mr. Warren’s methods has driven off older Christians from their longtime churches. Congregations nationwide have split or expelled members who fought the changes, roiling working-class Baptist congregations and affluent nondenominational churches.

Last summer, the evangelical church of onetime Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers split after adopting Mr. Warren’s techniques. That church, Valley View Christian Church in Dallas, wanted to increase membership and had built a huge sanctuary several years ago to accommodate hundreds of people. Church leaders adopted a strategic plan built around Mr. Warren’s five “fundamental purposes”: worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry and evangelism. One goal was to make sure more than 19% of the church’s members were adults in their 20s and 30s, says the pastor, the Rev. Barry McCarty.

The Rev. Ron Key, then the senior minister, says he objected to the church’s “Madison Avenue” marketing. “I believe Jesus died for everybody,” Mr. Key says, not just people in a “target audience.” He says the leaders wanted church that was more “edgy,” with a worship service using modern music. Mr. Key was demoted, then fired for being divisive and insubordinate.

purpose driven booksWhen President Bush made his curious Supreme Court selection a year ago, it seemed like the story of Ms. Miers’ church split would be interesting. I wouldn’t have suspected it had to do with Rick Warren.

Anywhoo, Sataline looks at several churches whose experiences with Warren’s methods have had varying degrees of success. I liked how she explained the core beliefs and rituals of this modern American Protestant approach:

Mr. Warren preaches in sandals and a Hawaiian shirt, and he encourages ministers to banish church traditions such as hymns, choirs and pews. He and his followers use “praise team” singers, backed by rock bands playing contemporary Christian songs. His sermons rarely linger on self-denial and fighting sin, instead focusing on healing modern American angst, such as troubled marriages and stress.

The most interesting part of the story, though, was how conflict is considered part of change management. Difficult customers are expected, and you may be surprised how they are dealt with:

Some pastors learn how to make their churches purpose-driven through training workshops. Speakers at Church Transitions Inc., a Waxhaw, N.C., nonprofit that works closely with Mr. Warren’s church, stress that the transition will be rough. At a seminar outside of Austin, Texas, in April, the Revs. Roddy Clyde and Glen Sartain advised 80 audience members to trust very few people with their plans. “All the forces of hell are going to come at you when you wake up that church,” said Mr. Sartain, who has taught the material at Mr. Warren’s Saddleback Church.

During a session titled “Dealing with Opposition,” Mr. Clyde recommended that the pastor speak to critical members, then help them leave if they don’t stop objecting. Then when those congregants join a new church, Mr. Clyde instructed, pastors should call their new minister and suggest that the congregants be barred from any leadership role.

“There are moments when you’ve got to play hardball,” said the Rev. Dan Southerland, Church Transitions’ president, in an interview. “You cannot transition a church … and placate every whiny Christian along the way.”

Mr. Warren acknowledges that splits occur in congregations that adopt his ideas, though he says he opposes efforts to expel church members. “There is no growth without change and there is no change without loss and there is no loss without pain,” he says.

I don’t know how Sataline got those quotes, but they confirm that she had a good story on her hands. Baptist Press had a complaint, though.

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Newsweek: Can atheists save the world?

atheismMuch praise is due to Newsweek for running an article discussing atheism in its Sept. 11 edition. It is a unique way to approach religion’s influence on the country since the terrorist attacks of five years ago. My only complaint was that it mixed a bit too much opinion with the news. But author Jerry Adler snagged some real bits of news here, and his thoughtful 2,100-word article does the tricky issue adequate justice.

The article provides interesting and much-needed commentary on the status of atheism in America, with plenty of back and forth between the believer and genuine unbeliever. I would also like to contend that while the article is about people who promote the idea that religion is silly and should fade into history, it was accurately placed under the “religion” heading. I mean, even the most avowed atheists believe in something.

Alder tracks the responses of Sam Harris, Daniel C. Dennett and Richard Dawkins to the 9/11 attacks. All three have, in one way or another, argued that religion is outdated and that “the five-century-long competition between science and religion is sharpening.” Adler contrasts the beliefs of Harris, Dennett and Dawkins with those of the vast majority of Americans.

This was the most illuminating exchange in Adler’s extremely well-written article:

But Dawkins attempts to show how the highest of human impulses, such as empathy, charity and pity, could have evolved by the same mechanism of natural selection that created the thumb. Biologists understand that the driving force in evolution is the survival and propagation of our genes. They may impel us to instinctive acts of goodness, Dawkins writes, even when it seems counterproductive to our own interests — say, by risking our life to save someone else. Evolutionary psychology can explain how selfless behavior might have evolved. The recipient may be a blood relation who carries some of our own genes. Or our acts may earn us future gratitude, or a reputation for bravery that makes us more desirable as mates. Of course, the essence of the moral law is that it applies even to strangers. Missionaries who devote themselves to saving the lives of Third World peasants have no reasonable expectation of being repaid in this world. But, Dawkins goes on, the impulse for generosity must have evolved while humans lived in small bands in which almost everyone was related, so that goodness became the default human aspiration. This is a rebuke not merely to believers who insist that God must be the source of all goodness — but equally to the 19th-century atheism of Nietzsche, who assumed that the death of God meant the end of conventional morality.

But Dawkins, brilliant as he is, overlooks something any storefront Baptist preacher might have told him. “If there is no God, why be good?” he asks rhetorically, and responds: “Do you really mean the only reason you try to be good is to gain God’s approval and reward? That’s not morality, that’s just sucking up.” That’s clever. But millions of Christians and Muslims believe that it was precisely God who turned them away from a life of immorality. Dawkins, of course, thinks they are deluding themselves. He is correct that the social utility of religion doesn’t prove anything about the existence of God. But for all his erudition, he seems not to have spent much time among ordinary Christians, who could have told him what God has meant to them.

atheismI didn’t mind Adler’s editorializing as much as I would have on a subject with more practical implications, such as abortion or marriage policies. The debate over atheism is fairly basic. One either believes that God does exists or he does not. Also, in long-form journalism some liberties will be taken. Saying that one side’s position is clever is stating opinion, but it helps the reader walk through a tricky subject.

News coverage on atheism is difficult to find these days, largely because there is so little happening in that area. Also, the development of ideas, while very newsy in my mind, does not lend itself very aptly to the breaking news story the same way a development in science or medicine does.

The argument that atheism is out of vogue in America and does not deserve much coverage or commentary is not adequate because, as Adler clear points out, there are intelligent people proposing arguments for which Christian scholars still don’t have good answers (Alder highlights the “theodicy” problem). Some journalists have the privilege of covering the development of ideas, regardless of how popular those ideas are.

p.s. For more to chew on in the atheism debate, check out this cartoon.

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Observations of a supposed GOP church

hypothesisMichael Crowley’s New Republic cover story on how powerful Republican conservatives have taken over the Washington suburb of McLean, Va., is a fun read. From a journalistic perspective, it makes no pretense of political balance. Liberal elitism has merit and rich yuppie conservatives are bad. But if you can put that aside, you can treat yourself to an interesting look at how conservative, sometimes evangelical, Republican politics has changed a sleepy suburban community.

As a profile of a community, the article naturally touches on religion, right along with a discussion of the schools and architecture. Here is the section that deals with McLean’s churches:

Even churchgoing has a political cast in McLean. Worshippers at Trinity United Methodist Church, just off McLean’s main drag, listen to sermons from pastor Kathleene Card, wife of former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card. (The church’s signage recently advertised a somewhat belated sermon on Christianity & World Religions: Understanding Islam.) For evangelicals, there is McLean Bible Church, a $90 million complex that seats 2,400 parishioners. (“The Wal-Mart of churches,” one former church employee told the Post in 2004.) McLean Bible is led by the crusading Reverend Lon Solomon, who preaches a particularly doctrinaire and conservative gospel with the aid of elaborate mood lighting, 92 speakers, and the occasional fog machine. Solomon has attracted such prominent Republicans as Kenneth Starr, Dan Coats, Don Nickles, Don Evans, Senator John Thune, Senator Elizabeth Dole, and a clique of young Bush White House staffers. “It’s really because of Lon Solomon that I go,” the conservative Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe, who sometimes takes notes during Solomon’s sermons, told the Post. “He does things that many others don’t do. He’s not afraid to say things and talk about political issues. He’s very pro-life and strong on opposing homosexual [marriage].” In one sermon during the Clinton impeachment, Solomon reportedly issued a thinly veiled Clinton-bashing spiel about how lying to the American people is wrong. That would be little surprise, given that Solomon is close to Ken Starr, to whom he sent encouraging personal notes during the Clinton inquisition. Perhaps because of Solomon’s fearless mixing of religion and politics, McLean Bible is a networking hub for young Washington conservatives, and many a GOP power couple has formed there. One McLean lobbyist, a former aide to Senator Phil Gramm named Jay Velasquez, told Roll Call that he met his future wife in the church’s lobby when she complimented his cowboy boots.

McLean Bible Church, described earlier in the piece as “a holy destination for GOP senators and Bush aides,” contains a whole host of fascinating religion story ideas worth exploring from the political perspective.

First, I’d like to take issue with this idea that a church would be used as a hub for networking. I mean, that’s suggesting sacrilege! Who would find their life mate at a church?! But seriously, reporters should note that this idea that a church could be seen by the young and ambitious as an opportunity to meet people and even rub shoulders with the rich and powerful is nothing special. Is it unfortunate? Sure, but it is really not that surprising.

The New Republic piece sets the stage for some potentially fascinating articles over the next two years. There is a very real chance that the balance of power could shift substantially this fall to the Democrats. And who knows what could happen in 2008? If the church is indeed a destination for the GOP powerful and subsequently those hoping to be in the good graces of the powerful, a change in power would create an interesting social dynamic within the church.

If Crowley’s thinly researched but plausible hypothesis — that conservative Christians attend these churches to be near the powerful — is correct, should we expect to see a decline in attendance at McClean Bible in the event of Democratic takeover? A change in the political power in Washington is always interesting from a cultural standpoint, but it’s also going to be interesting from a religious perspective. Crowley and others will have a chance to measure the validity of the concept that certain churches attract crowds because of their high-powered political members.

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Like, wow, Rolling Stone discovers CCM

sp709 Christian Rock HardSometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying.

That’s a cliche, I know, but that’s how I felt when reader Josh Carlton sent me a link for a Rolling Stone photo essay titled “Young and Pious: A Rock & Roll Story.” Then it offered a read-out that told you what you needed to know: “Photojournalist Stephanie Keith goes inside the Christian rock subculture and finds sexy girls, hardcore bands and the strange marriage of rock and rapture.”

It’s hard to blog about a photo essay. Still, Carlton and some other readers thought that it was worth paying attention to this rather stereotypical piece, if only for the hathos of the caption that goes with the last of the 12 photos online. I cannot show the photo (the image with this post is from you know where), so dash over there and take a look. But here’s the caption, with the key direct quote from “SK” the photographer:

A fan at Virginia’s Acquire the Fire event, January 30th, 2003.

SK: “Jesus is their personal savior. He’s almost alive to them.”

Of course, traditional Christians of a wide variety of brand names and musical tastes would flinch at the “He’s almost alive” reference. Nice touch.

But what struck me the most was that Rolling Stone seemed to think that this mixing of born-again, even “charismatic” Christianity and youth culture was a new thing, a strange, pseudo-hip development. Where in the world have they been? There are rock & roll churches with pastors in their 70s, by now. Five years ago, Christianity Today‘s witty weblog greeted a Newsweek cover story on this old topic with the wonderfully droll headline: “Newsweek Discovers Christian Music About Six Years Late.”

Yet here is the introduction to this edgy new photo essay, explaining its origins:

Photojournalist Stephanie Keith’s first Christian rock show was in 2002, when she walked into a Kansas City coffeehouse and saw a punk band playing staunchly Christian tunes. “It seemed like such a contradiction in terms,” she says, remembering the incongruity between the band’s brash sound and its intensely Christian message. Over four years, Keith attended dozens of major Christian rock festivals — including the New Hampshire’s Soul Festival, Pennsylvania’s Creation Festival, New Jersey’s Autumn Blaze event and Virginia’s Acquire the Fire fest — many of which showcase the abundance of Christian punk, emo and hardcore bands. The twelve photographs that follow capture what she witnessed within the tight-knit world of Christian youth culture — from the prayer tent to the merch table, to the front row.

Like, wow, man. What a flashback to the magazine cover stories in the 1970s about the Jesus Movement, the mini-earthquake in evangelicalism that gave birth to the ghetto called Contemporary Christian Music.

You can, I am sure, sense that I am not a big fan of CCM, although I admire some artists who have released some material within that industry. I have, through the years, written quite a bit about the cultural issues raised by this “photocopy the culture” trend in which Christians market their own watered-down versions of whatever fad was hot at the cultural mall a year or two earlier. There’s a whole chapter in my book, Pop Goes Religion: Faith in Popular Culture, that talks about issues in popular music.

If there are journalists who want to tap into someone who knows what is happening right now on this subject, as opposed to what was happening a decade or more ago, they should look up Mark Joseph (editor of my book, I must note) of the MJM Entertainment Group in Los Angeles. For a sample of what he has to say about newsworthy angles of this marketplace topic, check out “How To Fix CCM” at ChristianityToday.com or take a trip back to 1995 and the classic article he wrote with music historian Patrick Kavanaugh and rock legend Kerry “Kansas” Livgren titled “Does CCM exist? Should It?”

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