What did the university print and …

gay flag… when did it print it? That’s the question.

Here’s a quick note to the reporters covering the case of Jason Johnson, the student who has been expelled at the University of the Cumberlands after outing himself in his MySpace.com profile. I should, just to be clear, note that Cumberland is a Baptist university, but not part of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the global network in which I teach.

This is one case where reporters are going to need documentation on dead-tree pulp. We need to know precisely what the school said in its student-life policies and when it said it.

Why does this matter? In a Louisville Courier-Journal article by Mark Pitsch we learn that at the time the theater major was recruited the school’s code of conduct barred only “lewd and indecent conduct.” Is that true? It would appear so, since we also learn that a new policy says:

“Any student who engages in or promotes sexual behavior not consistent with Christian principles (including sex outside marriage and homosexuality) may be suspended or asked to withdraw from the University of the Cumberlands.”

Obviously, the word “promotes” is crucial. But that is not the big question for reporters at the moment. The big question is this: What did the student life handbook say the year that Johnson actually enrolled as a freshman? Were the policies in the handbook actually referenced in a printed document of some kind that he signed of his own free will when he agreed to become a student at this Baptist-affiliated school?

Here is why I ask. Over at the Lexington Herald-Leader, reporter Jamie Gumbrecht has some additional information, but not the smoking gun.

… (A) copy of the student handbook provided by the university confirmed the policy was not spelled out in 2003-04, when Johnson chose to attend. The school did not provide a copy of the policy for the 2004-05 school year. The 2005-06 student handbook says: “Any student who engages in or promotes sexual behavior not consistent with Christian principles (including sex outside marriage and homosexuality) may be suspended or asked to withdraw.”

School officials said that although the 2003-04 policy did not explicitly mention homosexuality, it did say that students must “conduct themselves, on and off the campus, in a manner which is consistent with the objectives of the College and with its standards of conduct.”

Yes, it would appear the key is that missing 2004-05 student handbook and any documents the freshman signed that fall. However, there is a chance that Johnson — as a sophomore at the start of the fall of 2005 semester — may have signed an updated student-code pledge of some kind. It matters if he, at some point, signed a document that said he was bound to honor future changes in the university’s student-life code.

Reporters need to ask these questions for a simple reason. Private colleges — on the left and the right — have the ability to make the rules for their own voluntary associations. “Freedom of association” is the key phrase here, and this applies to Baptist colleges as well as to voluntary associations of gays, lesbians and lots of other people. On that theme, Pitsch provided some helpful background in that Courier-Journal story:

Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel for the American Council on Education, said yesterday that private colleges are entitled to enact rules and require students to abide by them.

“The relationship between a student and a private institution is purely contractual in nature. A student is presumed to be aware of the terms and conditions of that contract. Case closed,” Steinbach said.

Pitsch also notes:

In a written statement last week, President Jim Taylor said: “At University of the Cumberlands, we hold students to a higher standard. Students know the rules before they come to this institution. We’ve followed our policies and procedures in keeping with our traditional denominational beliefs. … We are different by design and are non-apologetic about our Christian beliefs.”

If students “know the rules before they come to this institution,” that means they are written down somewhere and that students had a chance to affirm or reject them as they enrolled. It appears to me — as a reporter and a veteran professor on Christian campuses — that the journalists covering this story need to find out what the university printed and when it printed it.

The school has every right to make its own rules and to attempt to enforce them consistently. Reporters — find that signed piece of paper and you have the story.

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The myth of A=M

voterguideIf access equals power and power equals money (A=P=M), then Monday’s Washington Post article on the near demise of the Christian Coalition left an unanswered question that probes deep into the true influence of evangelicals on the Bush Administration. Or perhaps it’s the connection of access and influence?

But first let me take issue with the story’s lead:

In an era when conservative Christians enjoy access and influence throughout the federal government, the organization that fueled their rise has fallen on hard times.

I know most liberals view the evangelical influence on the current White House as driven by the often idiotic comments of Pat Robertson, but please, how was the Christian Coalition the organization behind the rise of evangelicals in politics and the supposed grip the group has on national politics? How about not?

Try the Southern Baptist Convention, Focus on the Family and Chuck Colson and Prison Fellowship for starters.

Founded 17 years ago by former presidential candidate Pat Robertson, the organization is mired in debt and internal conflict. Part of the article’s hypothesis is that the coalition is on hard times due to its success. As an opposition group, the coalition thrived on raising money against President Clinton and a Democrat-dominated Washington. But since the Republicans ascended to power in at least two of the three branches of federal power (who controls the Supreme Court is difficult to determine conclusively), what is the coalition supposed to rally against? So the theory goes.

All that said, Robertson and the group he founded are made out to be a force that remains to be reckoned with, despite poor finances:

The Christian Coalition is still routinely included in meetings with White House officials and conservative leaders, and is still a household name. But financial problems and a long battle over its tax status have sapped its strength, allowing it to be eclipsed by other Christian groups, such as the Family Research Council and the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Although some of those groups have begun moving into the coalition’s specialty — grass-roots voter education and get-out-the-vote drives — none is poised to distribute 70 million voter guides through churches, as the Christian Coalition did in 2000.

The coalition’s decline is a story that can perhaps best be told along biblical lines: It is the narrative of a group that wandered after the departure of its early leaders, lost faith in some of its guiding principles and struggled to keep its identity after entering the Promised Land — in this case, the land of political influence.

From its inception, the coalition was built around two individuals, Robertson and Ralph Reed. Both were big personalities with big followings.

CCLogoSo a group that is routinely included in White House meetings can’t stay afloat financially? Most groups will do anything for that kind of access, and I have trouble believing that the coalition’s big asset at this point — its 70 million church-distributed voter guides — is all that precious, valuable or much of a bargaining chip when it comes to influencing key Bush administration officials. What real influence does the Christian Coalition — or Pat Robertson for that matter — have on George W. Bush and the people around him?

The closest thing I can come up with is two Supreme Court nominations that seem to have somewhat placated the 4 million evangelical voters that, yes, allegedly put Bush back in the White House. A key factor that many miss is that both nominations came after the last election Bush will ever face.

The Christian Coalition’s financial hard times have little to do with a decline in power and influence in Washington, because I don’t believe the coalition was ever that influential. I think a more likely culprit is a bit of good old American competition from similar groups. These groups have crowded out the financial support for the coalition, which has a founder many believe is frighteningly unfit as a spokesman for evangelical Christians.

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Straddling the fence

mccain speakingWe know presidential wannabe Rudy Giuliani is trying to get religion. Is Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)?

Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press, McCain was grilled by Tim Russert, who tried to establish a McCain embrace of the “religious right.” McCain did his best to say his past tiffs with right-of-center religious leaders were simply politics and he does not hold a grudge. Apparently the religious leaders don’t either. But McCain also refused to associate with the politics of those leaders, particularly Jerry Falwell’s:

MR. RUSSERT: But Senator, when you were on here in 2000, I asked you about Jerry Falwell, and this is what you said.

(Videotape, March 5, 2000):

SEN. McCAIN: Governor Bush swung far to the right and sought out the base support of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. That’s — those aren’t the ideas that I think are good for the Republican Party.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Do you think that Jerry Falwell’s ideas are now good for the Republican Party?

fence straddlingSEN. McCAIN: I believe that the Christ — quote, “Christian right,” has a major role to play in the Republican Party. One reason is, is because they’re so active, and their, and their followers are. And I believe they have a right to be a part of our party. I don’t have to agree with everything they stand for, nor do I have to agree with everything that’s on the liberal side of the Republican Party. If we have to agree on every issue, we’re not a Republican Party. I believe in open and honest debate. Was I unhappy in, in, in the year 2000 that I lost the primary and there were some attacks on me that I thought was unfair? Of course. Do I — should I get over it? Should I serve — can I serve the people of Arizona best by looking back in anger or moving forward?

MR. RUSSERT: Do you believe that Jerry Falwell is still an agent of intolerance?

SEN. McCAIN: No, I don’t. I think that Jerry Falwell can explain to you his views on this program when you have him on.

Seconds later, McCain excused his address at Falwell’s Liberty University graduation ceremony as no different than speaking at “the New College or Ohio State University” and said addressing a student body doesn’t mean that he agrees with their politics.

McCain is making a careful distinction, which reporters should note (the AP handled the story quite well here). He is not aligning himself with Falwell’s policies, but he is strongly courting Falwell’s support. And apparently courting the support is enough for Falwell, at least at this point. Russert’s insistence on getting McCain to admit support for outlawing gay marriage and abortion kept him from missing the big picture: that Falwell finds McCain’s politics acceptable.

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GetReligion is “emerging”?

solo candleWho knew?

The creators of the National Council of Churches’ 2006 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches have decided that the two hot trends at the beginning of the 21st century are blogging and the “Emerging Church” and that one of the places that postmodern, hip, emerging church leaders do that dialogue thing they do is at GetReligion (honest).

I don’t think we need to define what a “blog” is for those who visit this site, but it is interesting to see how editors at Church Executive define that vague (yet very news-media-friendly) term “Emerging Church”:

The Emergent Church is defined by Yearbook Editor, the Rev. Dr. Eileen W. Lindner, as a “conversation” (some would say movement) birthed in 20th century Protestantism and “characterized by a robust, energetic and growing online and hardcopy literature” that attempts to shape responses to contemporary culture.

Common attributes of the EC, Lindner believes, are an emulation of the person and ministry of Jesus, a fondness for anecdotes and stories as means of discovering truth, a focus on mission, and a stress on the centrality of worship, even in experimental forms. … Emergent Church has become so popular among evangelicals that an EC track appears on the agenda of the National Pastors Conference sponsored by Zondervan and InterVarsity.

If you want to compare that with the Wikipedia materials on this movement (or anti-movement), then click here.

The NCC yearbook listed 25 blogs and websites as being crucial to the Emerging Church era and its emphasis on communicating ideas — old and new — and probing the roots of Christian worship (on the way to creating highly individualistic new forms that are ultimately very modern and “free church”). Here’s that link again to see the emerging blog list — check it out.

I have been writing about some of these trends for a long time, back to the days when people referred to “post-contemporary worship.” Here is a chunk of an interview I did in 1999 with one thoughtful observer of these trends, the Rev. Daniel Harrell at Park Street Church in Boston:

If the Baby Boomers shunned churches that they thought were pompous and boring, then their pierced, tattooed and media-numbed children appear ready to shun churches that feel fake and frivolous. The key, according to Harrell, is that worship services must feel real. Services are judged to be authentic when they feel authentic. …

“(People) are borrowing things from all of these traditions, often without realizing that some of these symbols and rites may even clash with each other,” he said. “It’s easy to be cynical about this, but they really are searching for something. They are borrowing other people’s images and rites and experiences, as part of their own search for something that feels authentic. They are trying to step into the experiences of others.”

So who is the closet emerging-church mole at GetReligion?

It goes without saying that Eastern Orthodoxy is about as premodern as one can get. The Divine Ms. M is a very traditional Lutheran and young master Daniel Pulliam is an old-fashioned Presbyterian. Ah, but does his church sanctuary have giant video screens that can show icons as well as Matrix clips?

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Weighty story about clergy stress

ChickenPlate JPGEvery now and then you see a news feature story that makes you slap yourself on the forehead and say, “Shoot, that story is so obvious, but I have never seen that story before. Why didn’t I think of digging into that one?”

That’s what I thought when a saw the “Special to the Washington Post” feature by Alison Buckholtz entitled “For Priests, a Weighty Matter — Hectic Schedules and Solo Living Make Weight Gain a Job Hazard for Christian Clergy.”

I would have mentioned this earlier in the week, but I’ve been having major email and connection problems during a three-day-plus conference in one totally over-the-top resort outside of Dallas. Go figure. Anyway, this is a story worth flashing back to.

The headline is very misleading. The story is broader than one study of “priests,” which would imply some hook to Catholicism, Orthodoxy or Anglicanism. Then you see “Christian Clergy” and, well, I thought to myself, “So rabbis don’t have weight problems?”

But the story covers most of the bases. It makes sense: Emotional burdens, long hours, stress and lots of people offering hospitality equal weight problems. Coffee or tea is not enough when you are trying to impress you know who. And, logically enough, there’s a supporting role for lawyers and insurance people.

There is no reason members of the clergy should face fewer weight-related problems than the nation as a whole. But several factors appear to make them more vulnerable.

“We laugh about all the potlucks … , but it’s a joke, not a reality,” says the Rev. Janet Maykus, a Disciples of Christ minister and principal of the College of Pastoral Leaders, an organization based in Texas. The group, with a grant from the Lilly Endowment, has launched a clergy health project involving ministers from several Christian denominations.

Clergy’s weight issues “have more to do with their sense of isolation because there has been a loss of status for clerical professions,” she said. “They are in a job without a great deal of respect, the pay is low, and there is a lot of depression among clergy. This is reflected in their bodies.”

There are more numbers and stats and the logical details about long days and, for the Catholic priests, nights alone.

And if you want holy writ and a small dose of spirituality, this story even offered all of that, too. That body and soul connection is

… (made) explicit throughout Christian literature, in which there is a long and significant link between spiritual piety and good physical health. St. Paul proclaimed, “Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?”

The 11th century Christian mystic Mechtild of Magdeburg advised, “Do not disdain your body. For the Soul is just as safe in its body as in the Kingdom of Heaven.”

And, of course, there are the well-known biblical exhortations against gluttony. Solomon admonished to “put a knife to your throat if you are a man of great appetite” (Proverbs 23:2).

Like I said, there’s a lot of meat (and mashed potatoes) in this one. Has anyone else seen a major MSM story on this? Something solid in a clergy journal?

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World goes after Ralph Reed

ReedCoverYou know you’re in trouble when you’re a conservative Christian and an unabashedly conservative Christian magazine goes after you for being linked to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. You know you’re in even deeper muck when the Washington Post points this out in an article headlined “From a Conservative, a Lack Of Compassion for Ralph Reed.”

The lame play on words in the headline withstanding, it’s a solid article that gives World magazine greater credibility, showing it is somewhat independent from the Christian, and mostly conservative, politicians it often covers:

Ralph Reed, candidate for Georgia lieutenant governor and former executive director of the Christian Coalition, has a standard line when opponents link him to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. “The Democrats, radical left, and dominant media have made numerous unfair personal attacks against Ralph,” his Web site declares.

Lately, however, it’s becoming harder for Reed to dismiss his critics as ideologically motivated. One of the toughest is Marvin Olasky, a close associate of President Bush who helped developed the administration’s faith-based initiative and the concept of “compassionate conservatism.”

Olasky, a journalism professor at the University of Texas, is editor in chief of World magazine, the mission of which “is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Since Nov. 19, World has run 10 articles and essays describing the $4 million in gambling money Abramoff paid to Reed to lobby against casinos competing with Abramoff’s clients. The articles have highlighted incriminating e-mails and other disclosures that have raised doubts about Reed’s explanations of his activities.

Reed clearly has not come to grips with what he has done, and it was very important for World to pursue the Reed story (articles here, here and here).

That Olasky had to explain to his readers why World is “delving into the Ralph Reed scandal” is a bit disheartening, but not surprising. Olasky, an adviser to George W. Bush before the 2000 election, has the difficult job of guiding a news magazine that covers a White House now implementing some of his ideas about compassionate conservatism.

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In God’s name

immigration marchThe current immigration debate in Washington, D.C., is chock full of religion issues that are floating just under the above-the-fold stories on the legislative processes and debates. The religious angle in immigration cuts across political boundaries and shoots directly at the center of the teaching of Jesus Christ.

I have yet to see — and maybe I’m not looking hard enough — a solid story examining the theology behind the “love your neighbor” doctrine and how it relates to the immigration debate, but some religious leaders already know where they stand and they are looking to be heard as this debate rages.

A commenter on a previous tmatt post, coincidentally named Daniel, said the pro-immigration marches across the country are an interesting example of the religious left. Daniel appropriately notes that there has been a lack of coverage of religious leaders in Washington who staged mock arrests earlier this week to demonstrate what could happen if they help illegal aliens.

This Scripps-McClatchy wire story provides a solid summary of the religious issue in the current immigration debate:

DENVER — A wide range of religious groups have been serving a critical role in recent efforts to push Congress to pass what they call humane immigration reforms.

More than 200 religious organizations, including those associated with Catholics, evangelicals, Mennonites, Muslims and Jews, have conducted letter-writing campaigns to President Bush and Congress and encouraged congregation members to attend huge pro-immigrant rallies in cities across the country.

One of the most visible organizations in the debate, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, has been training clergy, parishioners and church employees on the religious principles of helping refugees and immigrants. Locally, members of the Denver Archdiocese have been conducting educational presentations on immigration reform about twice a week.

immigration logoAs the story demonstrates, the current immigration debate crosses into religious territory in many ways, including the fact that most immigrants (legal or illegal) come from Catholic backgrounds, the command to love your neighbor and the parable of the Good Samaritan, to name a few.

The political/religious bombshell of the week was Sen. Hilary Clinton’s invocation of biblical themes in her opposition to a bill passed by the House in December that would criminalize undocumented immigrants:

Surrounded by a multicultural coalition of New York immigration advocates, Clinton blasted the House bill as “mean-spirited” and said it flew in the face of Republicans’ stated support for faith and values.

“It is certainly not in keeping with my understanding of the Scriptures,” Clinton said, “because this bill would literally criminalize the Good Samaritan and probably even Jesus himself.”

Clinton did not specifically endorse any competing legislation, including a bill co-authored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and another by Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), saying she hoped the Senate Judiciary Committee would produce a compromise incorporating the best elements of all the bills and would remove the harsh penalties contained in the House measure.

Immigration2One can disagree with Clinton’s reading of Scripture and question her religious sincerity, but one cannot deny that the junior New York Senator gets the importance of religion when it comes to the country’s cultural/political mindset. And the press is eating it up. While Republicans won’t likely win many votes in 2008 by raising theological issues with Clinton, journalists should do so — because it matters.

I don’t have the expertise or the time to thoroughly parse Clinton’s statement (I’m sure you all will help me). But just as good journalists would never let a public official get away with making this bold a statement regarding policy or history, the same journalists should examine the theology behind Clinton’s statements, as they did when George W. Bush said in his 2000 presidential campaign that Jesus Christ was his favorite philosopher.

Clinton’s Methodist background is hard to miss these days, and she’s certainly not shy about letting it shine. But how will that play with evangelicals, many of whom believe that denomination represents everything that is wrong with mainline American Christianity?

On a related note, did you hear that Christians in this country feel persecuted? To read the predictably snarky view of Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, click here. Check back with us later for more on this.

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More than “holy hotties”

jcsgirls2 737850At first glance, it seemed like the story of ex-stripper Heather Veitch and her friends in the JC’s Girls Girls Girls ministry to women in the sex industry was destined for exclusive coverage on Geraldo at Large and other television shows that need punchy one-liners and lively images.

To my shock, the Los Angeles Times took this story pretty seriously and ended up with a feature — by reporter Stephen Clark — that offers some insights into the sex trade as well as into one born-again woman’s journey out of it. This is more than a novelty story for winking headline writers.

Yes, there are references to the fact that Veitch still likes to strip — for her husband. You also knew that if she showed up on The 700 Club, someone was going to call her a “holy hottie.” So be it. But, as a rule Clark just tells the story. Here is the basic description of the ministry:

Every month, JC’s Girls (JC is for Jesus Christ) and a few female volunteer church members visit strip clubs, where they pay for lap dances. While alone with a stripper in a booth, they forgo the dance and share the Gospel. In January, JC’s Girls went to Las Vegas for the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo, regarded as the nation’s largest trade show in the porn business, and handed out more than 200 Bibles wrapped in “Holy Hottie” T-shirts. Veitch, 31, who was a stripper for four years, founded the outreach ministry last March.

A crucial element of the story is that this unconventional ministry is, in fact, part of a mainstream church — the 1,700-member Sandals (Southern Baptist) Church in Riverside, Calif., and is in the annual budget. The Rev. Matt Brown offered this rather understated quote: “Some people in our church were concerned that some of their offerings and tithes were paying for lap dances.”

Clark raises some serious questions linked to the role of beauty and sex appeal in a ministry of this kind. Meanwhile, Veitch understands — because of the life she has lived — that many of the women trapped in the sex industry have endured rape and abuse. They feel trapped by the big bucks and the rapt attention of men.

So, how can conservative church people reach out to people who are living lives on the wrong side such a gigantic cultural divide? As California Southern Baptist spokesman Terry Barone bluntly states:

“These women are doing what Jesus did,” he said. “He ministered to prostitutes and tax collectors. He had a penchant for going to the people who needed his message — not the religious people.”

Clearly, this kind of ministry makes many church people terribly uncomfortable. At the same time, the theological issues that Veitch and her friends are raising are serious. Many of the women who try to flee from the nightclubs into the church get caught halfway in between. They feel trapped on several levels.

Thus, this surprisingly sobering story ends this way, with questions that must be taken seriously by churches of all kinds. I am glad that the Los Angeles Times played this story straight, low-key and factual:

Veitch … continues doing interview after interview. She recently held her ground on “Hannity & Colmes” on Fox News. “Can you be a stripper and a believer at the same time?” Alan Colmes asked.

“The question,” she answered, “is can you be a glutton and a believer at the same time? Can you be a liar and a believer at the same time? Yes.”

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