Mollie has left the building

lf071461Even as we speak, the journalist previously known as Mollie Ziegler — soon to be professionally known as M.Z. Hemingway — is preparing to walk down a church aisle and tie the knot. Pass the tissues, folks.

It goes without saying that her colleagues here at GetReligion wish her well and plan to throw a shindig for her (Lutheran rules will apply) as soon as she returns to Washington, D.C., after escaping for a week or two with the esteemed Mr. Hemingway (not the one pictured). If she has digital pictures to share, we will ask her to share them somehow.

It also goes without saying that, even if their undisclosed honeymoon hiding place (Are there Germany tours covering Lutheran history?) has WiFi, we are not planning to hear from from Mollie for quite a while. I think Sept. 25 or thereabouts is the proposed date for her return to cyberspace.

So please be patient with me and with young master Pulliam (who also has a wedding date looming out there somewhere) as we carry on without her. Perhaps public appeals to the Rt. Rev. Doug LeBlanc will coax him out of semi-retirement for a week or more. We can hope so.

By the way, I do not know the current condition of those infamous red streaks in Mollie’s hair (click here for a photo). I saw her the other day on a D.C. sidewalk and I think they were gone (what a conservative lady), but, hey, it was raining and cloudy and I’m not sure.

If you wish to send the happy Hemingway couple greetings, please do so by leaving nice comments on this thread. Gifts? We’re open to suggestions on how to handle that. Amazon, perhaps?

As the Orthodox would say: God grant you many years!

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The religion of baby boomers

hippiesAs the child of baby boomers, I found Newsweek‘s Sept. 18 piece on how baby boomers’ unprecedented religious journey changed the country revealing. Everything from Transcendental Meditation to Kabbalists to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon to Jehovah’s Witnesses to Scientology gets a mention and a bit of history. The author skillfully weaves these different religions together to form a single theme: baby boomers like their options and independence, and this includes Christian groups like Promise Keepers and the megachurch movement.

The article by Jerry Adler and Julie Scelfo readily acknowledges that not all boomers traveled down unusual religious paths, but that those who did reflected the overall drive for independence and choices, as seen in the megachurches. What is most interesting is the description of the strange paths so many boomers took and how their attempts to be different from their parents defined a generation.

The article is pleasantly descriptive and well-researched. Check out this section:

Phillip Schanker, 52, discovered that himself in 1972, on the quintessential boomer voyage of self-discovery, hitchhiking across the country with friends the summer before college. “We would go camping, we would get high, and I was always questioning, Why are we all so selfish?” he recalls. “I was not looking for religion, but I was looking for answers.” He found them in the Unification Church, an organization best known by the name of its founder, Moon, who preaches that God’s plan for the world involves uniting the races in Christianity through interracial marriage. Schanker did his part, taking his vows at a mass wedding in Madison Square Garden of 2,000 couples chosen by church leaders. “It looked weird, being told whom to marry,” he admits, “but we’ve been happily married for 24 years.”

It did look weird to most Americans, especially in view of the values of individualism and personal freedom that Schanker’s generation had so riotously proclaimed a decade earlier. The Unification Church has now largely outgrown its image as a cult, but back in the 1970s joining it was a radical act — as it must have seemed to Schanker’s parents, who raised him according to the liberal, rational precepts of Unitarianism. They always respected his choices, he says, even when they didn’t agree with them — but it’s easy to imagine that other parents weren’t so understanding.

Roof makes the point that for some boomers religion became another venue, along with politics and sex, in which to play out their (self-indulgent or courageous, take your pick) drama of revolution. Even their Christianity had a tinge of rebellion about it: they didn’t join their parents’ church, they became Jesus Freaks, trying to live out a version of the life of the early Christians. Jesus was, in fact, the perfect icon for the hippie era, says Larry Eskridge of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelism at Wheaton College in Illinois. “He’s kind of a countercultural figure: the long hair, the sandals, hanging out in the wilderness and oppressed by the establishment.”

boomersAn aspect that deserved more focus than the article provided was the niche conservative groups in which many boomers found themselves. Not all boomers were independent types searching out some new experience different from those of their parents. Many boomers wanted to preserve traditions and to pass them on to their offspring (e.g., the homeschooling movement).

The concepts introduced in the last two graphs needed more development, particularly the bit about the generation seeking “autonomy and freedom,” but this is likely due to space restrictions.

As part of a generation after the baby boomers (b. 1981), I learned from Newsweek about a part of America’s religion history. For example, I am embarrassed to say that I scored a 54 percent on a test of religion knowledge that accompanies the article. Feel free (particularly if you’re a baby boomer) to tell us about your quiz results. I’m curious to see how we all measure up (tmatt says his score was perfect, by the way).

The theme of the article could make for a fascinating book at some point — maybe there’s already one out there? I just hope scholars will remember to have a chapter or two on those conservative boomers out there and explain how their longings fit in with the hippies and the Hare Krishna movement.

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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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The God of nice things

Time coverTime‘s David Van Biema and Jeff Chu have a cover story about the Prosperity Gospel this week. I can’t wait to read the whole thing, but the full article requires a subscription. So I’m writing based on CNN’s summary. The story appears to take a rather hard look at advocates of the strain of teaching that God wants people to make it rich:

In three of the Gospels, Jesus warns that each of his disciples may have to “deny himself” and even “take up his Cross.”

In support of this prediction, he contrasts the fleeting pleasures of today with the promise of eternity: “For what profit is it to a man,” he asks, “if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?”

Generations of churchgoers have understood that being Christian means being ready to sacrifice. But for a growing number of Christians, the question is better restated, “Why not gain the whole world plus my soul?”

Zing! The story says the movement has been percolating among Pentecostal Christians and goes by the name Word of Faith, Health and Wealth, Name It and Claim It and Prosperity Theology:

[I]ts emphasis is on God’s promised generosity in this life. In a nutshell, it suggests that a God who loves you does not want you to be broke.

The story says that “Prosperity” first blazed to public attention in the 1980s with televangelism. But what about Rev. Ike? He’s featured in the photo essay accompanying the 9,000-word article (1 picture=1,000 words, right?) on the website. He was broadcast all over the dial in the 1970s. And Oral Roberts (shown first in the photo essay) has been a popular preacher for many decades. In fact, many people trace the current incarnation of prosperity theology in America to New England preacher E.W. Kenyon, famous for coining the phrase “What I confess, I posess.” Kenyon was around well before the turn of the 20th century, and numerous other contemporary and early 20th century preachers followed him.

Perhaps the full article has more historical perspective. But the cover is subtitled “The debate over the new gospel of welath.” Too often it seems that journalists write as if the American evangelical and Pentecostal traditions sprung forth 25 years ago when a heretofore unseen group of people came out of the woodwork and elected Reagan.

Also of note is how three of the four biggest megachurces in the country — including Joel Osteen’s — preach prosperity. I’m a bit curious why the editors thought it would make a good cover story. I’m also curious why, with colorful personalities like Osteen and Joyce Meyer, the cover art is so inanimate:

“Who would want to get in on something where you’re miserable, poor, broke and ugly and you just have to muddle through until you get to heaven?” asks Joyce Meyer, a popular television preacher and author often lumped in the Prosperity Lite camp. “I believe God wants to give us nice things.”

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When visions clash with reporting

BC 0743299426My latest column for the ethics and diversity team at Poynter.org is online, if GetReligion readers want to check it out. You may, however, hear a bit of an echo since this piece called “Articles of Faith” grew out of a July post on this blog titled “Visions of another Magdalene bestseller.”

That earlier blog item focused on a USA Today feature story about journalist-turned-novelist Kathleen McGowan and her post-Da Vinci Code novel called The Expected One. I was somewhat amazed that the newspaper didn’t ask more probing questions about the spiritual visions that led to McGowan’s claims that she is part of the bloodline of Jesus of Nazareth and St. Mary Magdalene.

For my friends at Poynter, this raised a larger question: How are journalists supposed to gather “facts” when they write about these kinds of highly personal faith experiences? I decided to start the column on a personal note:

Growing up as a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid, I didn’t think about visions and patron saints very much.

So it felt strange when I converted to Eastern Orthodoxy and my morning prayers began including an appeal to my patron — St. Brendan of Ireland — to pray with me. I asked my spiritual father about this. He laughed and said, “Just say your prayers. But if your patron saint ever talks back, that’s when you need to go ask a priest for help!”

Yes, I have a journalistic reason for bringing this up.

If priests are supposed to ask questions that challenge a person’s claim to have had visions, then certainly journalists are allowed to do that.

When in doubt, ask questions. Like I keep saying, that is what journalists are supposed to do. However, this clash between “facts” and “faith” is an important issue for many people in newsrooms, including many who simple do not get religion.

So here is how I ended the Poynter piece.

I have, through the years, heard many journalists say that one of the main reasons they struggle with religion news is that journalists are supposed to write about facts, while many religious issues are rooted in personal beliefs. In other words, it’s hard to do journalism about all that mushy spiritual stuff.

Nevertheless, it’s a fact that millions of people have religious beliefs that, in some way, shape their lives in the real world. That’s a fact. We can ask these believers lots of detailed questions. We can ask them to describe their spiritual experiences and to explain how these experiences affect their lives. Then we quote the answers.

I thought it was strange that the USA Today story never really did that, and that bothered me. When it comes to people making claims about visions and revelations, I think it’s OK for a journalist to be at least as skeptical as a good priest.

Hey, if Oliver Stone can handle this stuff with some degree of respect, journalists ought to be able to do it.

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Covering America’s day of remembrance

WTC CrossThe stories in today’s papers on 9/11 memorial services provide a broad sense of the nation’s religiosity. Some are better than others in capturing this sense, but overall they are generally good at capturing a sense of the individual experiences Americans are feeling five years later. Of course, whether Americans were feeling religious Monday is another, separate matter worth examining.

The main news articles followed the events’ measured tone and highlighted a handful of individual stories that attempt to speak for the thousands affected on that tragic day. Take, for instance, this New York Times article that is packed with religious imagery and words such as hope, healing and love:

At the pit in Lower Manhattan where the World Trade Center stood, they commemorated the day with familiar rituals: moments of silence to mark the times when the planes struck and the towers collapsed, wreath-layings, prayers, the music and poetry of loss and remembrance. All were freighted with emotions that still cut deeply but were showing signs of healing.

“How much do I love you?” Susan Sliwak, a mother of three, intoned at a microphone on a platform above the grieving crowd, quoting from an Irving Berlin lyric in tribute to her husband, Robert Sliwak, a Cantor Fitzgerald employee and one of the 2,749 killed at the trade center. “How deep is the ocean? How high is the sky?”

As a bass viol, a flute and other instruments softly rendered the Pachelbel Canon, Albinoni’s Adagio and other solemn strains, about 200 spouses, partners and other loved ones took turns reading the names of the dead. Many spoke directly to their lost partners, often in firm, proud voices. Others told tearfully of the births of grandchildren or of having reaffirmed their marriage vows. Many simply expressed their love and that of their children, a promise never to forget.

Yesterday’s coverage was an opportunity for journalists to write their own stories on what the fifth year after the nation’s worst terrorist attack meant. Today, they were forced to follow those doing the remembering and mourning.

Take, for instance, this excellent Akron Beacon Journal article on George W. Sleigh’s amazing escape from the World Trade Center’s North Tower. Sleigh’s religiosity, particularly at the end, dominates his thinking and thus the story. There’s nothing particularly special about Sleigh’s faith, it’s just part of who he is and it is reflected in the story.

Similarly, The Washington Post‘s article on the day’s ceremonies picks up on subtle religious imagery that would have been easy to miss. It makes for a striking picture of sadness and, amazingly, hope:

Families and firefighters and cops in New York filed slowly down ramps into the three-story-deep pit that is Ground Zero, gray slurry walls rising around them. Bells sounded at 8:46 a.m. and 9:03 a.m. — the moments when the hijacked planes slammed into the twin towers. On the podium, Carmen Suarez glanced skyward as she finished reading 10 names of those who died.

Her husband, police officer Ramon Suarez, died in those towers.

“If I could build a staircase to heaven I would,” Suarez said, “just so I could quickly run up there to have you back in my arms.”

On the other hand, I found the Los Angeles Times article on the day of remembrance strikingly devoid of any religious imagery. Was that a reflection of the day’s events, or did the reporters miss something?

bin ladenA fascinating piece of journalism on the NYT‘s opinion pages reveals the way that jihadi websites treated the anniversary. Not surprisingly, they saw the day through the eyes of their religion, although Muslim teaching prohibits celebrating anniversaries:

In the name of God the merciful and the compassionate, Monday morning is the fifth anniversary of the glorious attacks on New York and Washington accomplished by the 19 heroes of the Muslim community — may God have mercy on them and raise them to the highest rank for their sacrifice. They pressed America’s nose into the ground and allowed the whole world to witness the destruction of its economic and military citadels. In so doing, they crushed the myth with which America had terrorized the world, namely that it was the greatest power on earth and no one was strong enough to confront, let alone make an enemy, of it. …

That day changed the world, even by the admission of our enemies, and created … a world divided into two camps, as our sheik and leader Osama bin Laden — may God protect him — has stated: “A camp of belief and another camp of hypocrisy and disbelief.” Choose for yourself, o Muslim, which camp to belong to: that of belief, Islam and jihad under the banner of the holy warriors or that of hypocrisy and unbelief under the banner of America, the crusading West and those hypocrites who have banded with them. Our congratulations to all and we beseech God to show us in America another black day like that blessed Tuesday.

The religious contrast between the two sides could not be greater.

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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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