McCain’s faith: Say what?

say whatNow this has to be the strange lede of the day.

The story focuses on all of the faith talk that is going around at the moment, much of it stirred up by Barack Obama’s “bitter” remarks and Hillary Clinton’s related attempts to spin herself as a pew-sittin’, gun-lovin’ friend of the everypeople who live in that state located between Philly and Pittsburgh.

That’s the context for this story by Andrea Billups of the Washington Times, which serves as a kind of flashback and update on the faith journey of Sen. John McCain from the Episcopal pews of his youth to the Southern Baptist megachurch that he favors today.

All well and good.

But what in the world is this lede about? This is one of those cases where I wonder if this is what the reporter wrote, or did this wording result from a train wreck at an overworked copy desk. Here we go:

Don’t expect any public testimonies of faith from presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, who is not demonstrative about his religion but who embraces a Baptist faith that is based on salvation.

The religious intentions of Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama were dissected after he publicly explained his decadeslong relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., but the senator from Arizona likely will talk little about the details of his own spiritual path other than to acknowledge that he is on one.

“The most important thing is I’m a Christian,” Mr. McCain told reporters in September on the campaign trail when asked about his religious affiliation.

Say what? He has adopted “a Baptist faith that is based on salvation”? As opposed to what, an Anglican faith that is not based on salvation? A Catholic faith that is not based on salvation? What kind of mainstream Christian body is not, to one degree or another, “based on salvation”?

I have literally no idea what dropped out of this sentence. Was it supposed to be a lede about a born-again concept of salvation? Is it code for the fact that his church preaches that some people are saved and others are not? In other words, is the controversy that he now attends a non-Universalist church (thus opening the door to a controversy about item No. 2 in the infamous tmatt trio)?

I am very, very confused. I await enlightenment, especially from you Godbeat veterans out there. What was this lede trying to say? Is the key that he once was not an evangelical, but now he is — maybe?

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Meet the new caricature

GrayjacketI can’t remember when, exactly, the mainstream media decided that it would stop with the unilateral caricature of evangelicals as the Christian Right, but I’m not sure the new caricature is much improved.

Newsweek religion reporter Lisa Miller worked overtime to give the impression that the latest political switch among the formerly Christian Right is in support of legalized abortion. Note this, for instance:

Adam Hamilton does not call himself “pro-choice.” He prefers “pro-life with a heavy heart.” What that means, as he explains in his new book “Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White,” is that he believes abortion should be available and legal, that there are instances in which it might be necessary and that those instances should be very rare. Further, he says, the abortion debate has been too hot for too long, and that, as a Christian minister, his job is to try “to support people no matter what decision they make.” As an evangelical megachurch pastor in Kansas, a man educated at Oral Roberts University, Hamilton speaks carefully, aware that he’s staking out a controversial position.

Lisa Miller would have you believe that conservative Christians are even giving up on their opposition to abortion. Except that what Lisa Miller worked very hard to keep out of her story is that Adam Hamilton is a mainline Protestant. United Methodist Church, in fact. He received his M.Div. from Southern Methodist University. I mean the United Methodist Church supports legalized abortion. And has for a long time. To portray this as some kind of change in evangelical thought is ridiculous. Methodists have, by their own admission, fine-tuned a statement in support of legalized abortion for almost 40 years. The book’s forward, incidentally, was written by Jim Wallis.

Here, Miller shows how much reporting went into her piece:

In the past, an evangelical who might condone abortion in the case of his ailing wife or 14-year-old daughter would never say so in public. Now, the abortion rhetoric has faded somewhat as evangelicals turn their attention to other things: AIDS, the environment, Darfur. In 2004, megapastor Rick Warren announced that abortion was a “nonnegotiable” for evangelical voters. This year, he’s been silent. What’s new, then, is not that a pastor like Hamilton would take a softer approach to abortion, but that he would feel comfortable enough to say so from the pulpit and in print.

What a disaster of a paragraph. Horrible. First off, the ridiculous “ailing wife” and underage daughter example matched with a hypothetical “evangelical.” Who is this person? Hypotheticals in the abortion debate have always been unhelpful but what is Miller saying? That a man who would have carted his child off for an abortion but would never say so “in the past” might now proudly announce his support of abortion for his daughter? Really? And what is this straw-man “ailing wife” reference? Because evangelicals used to claim they wanted women to die in pregnancy? But now they don’t?

And notice how she says “in the past” an evangelical would have hidden his support for abortion. But now . . . well, now what? Now they just don’t talk about it much? And for our evidence we have Rick Warren? Rick Warren? And, again, it’s not exactly news that a United Methodist pastor clearly articulates the views his church has held for decades. In the small town I grew up in, our local Methodist pastor was saying precisely the things that Hamilton is preaching and writing in his book.

But even though the story is only four paragraphs long, it has yet another clunker of a paragraph:

As for his heavy heart, Hamilton comes by it honestly. Seven years ago he received a letter from a parishioner describing her own teenage pregnancy in the years before Roe, the pressure from her parents to abort and her refusal to do so–in spite of the cost. That letter was from his mother.

And then the story ends. Evangelical support for abortion is worth covering. And if conservative evangelical attitudes are changing with regard to abortion, that is definitely newsworthy. Unfortunately, this story fails to give adequate weight or depth to either of those angles.

The headline of this story, by the way? How Would Jesus Choose? Ugh.

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Covering classic mainline blues

the bluesThe Dallas Morning News had a compelling story last week that dealt with the closing of a 118-year-old neighborhood church that draws on local, regional and national religion trends. Locally, dwindling membership and declining revenues have challenged the church. In addition, the church has struggled as a “predominantly Anglo church in a largely Hispanic area.”

Nationally, as a reader pointed out to us, if reporters look at the demographics of the Presbyterian Church USA denomination, they will realize that this story will become quite common in the coming years. To sum it up, the church struggled as an aging congregation in an area becoming less and less “predominantly Anglo.” Efforts to reach out to Hispanics with multi-lingual services and advertising the congregation’s gay-friendly status did little to slow the decline.

The reader also noted that the story’s end could be theologically related and yearns for a follow-up of some sort:

Trinity will have a worship service Sunday morning, followed by an official closing service at 3 p.m. Preaching then will be Steve Jester, who grew up attending Trinity and now is pastor at St. Philip Presbyterian Church in Hurst.

“The direction I’m heading is to give thanks for all of the ways that the church has witnessed to Christ in the community over the decades,” he said. “And, as I would at a funeral, I want to focus on the promise of new life. We trust that God will continue to work with the people in ways we can’t see.”

As with any institution lasting for more than a century, there are many ways to look at this story. This is true particularly of churches because they can define the way in which a group of people views their community. See this paragraph on the church’s belief that the institution had a purpose in its neighborhood:

Though Trinity has reached out to Hispanics — hosting a small Spanish-language congregation called Iglesia Presbiteriana Emmanuel, as well as English language classes — efforts at dual-language worship flopped.

In the last few years, Trinity tried various strategies, including advertising that it is openly welcoming to gay people. But nothing reversed the decline.

“We’re dying off,” Mrs. Mitchell said. “You’ve got to have the young people to carry on the church.”

Trinity might have followed the lead of many urban churches and moved to the suburbs. But that, according to members, would have violated its sense of mission.

“We chose to stay and serve the neighborhood,” Mr. Manton said. “That’s probably why we’re having to close.”

Reporters covering church closings in other communities could look to this story as a model for what kind of questions to ask and what sort of trends for which to look. Abandoned downtown churches have affected most cities, and most mainline denominations have dealt with the closings of timeless congregations. At some point the national story on this needs to be updated with a frank look at the demographic numbers and the changing face of American cities.

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Anglican wars rage on in Virginia

AnglicanBomb1 01 01Here’s a quick follow-up post on the conflict free Baltimore Sun piece on the election of the amazingly controversy free bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. You just knew that the local, regional, national and global Anglican wars couldn’t stay out of the Washington-Baltimore headlines for long.

Both Washington newspapers have newsy reports up about the latest round of the battle of Northern Virginia, which is a regional fight with national implications for a laws in a wide variety of mainline and liturgical churches. Both the Washington Post and the Washington Times jumped right on the heart of this story, which is that the Anglican wars here in the DC area are raising constitutional issues that, obviously, have national implications in all kinds of pews.

The central irony in all of this is, on this day, in the shadows: The leaders of mainline churches today are radically divided on what the ancient creeds mean, so they are left to seek unity in the tortured language of laws about property, pensions and endowments. This has, for several decades, been the larger story — the forest — among the trees of the local conflicts.

Here’s the lede
from Michelle Boorstein and Jacqueline L. Salmon at the Post:

A Fairfax County judge has given an initial victory to conservatives from 11 Virginia churches in their battle to keep tens of millions of dollars in buildings and land after breaking away from the Episcopal Church.

The decision is a first step in a multi-trial case and does not settle who gets the properties. But it is a boost to the breakaway churches and to a national movement that is battling the Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion, over what it believes to be an un-biblical liberal slant in the national church.

And for those keeping score on the “how many churches are leaving” games, the Post took the safe route and quoted the people who actually have good reason to be charting this statistic. Then, later in the story, another disputed statistic turns up in the actual court records:

About 200 congregations out of more than 7,000 in the Episcopal Church have broken away in the dispute, according to the Anglican Communion Network, a national umbrella group of conservative Episcopalians. Lawsuits also have been filed in California and Ohio over who gets to keep the properties there. …

The ongoing battle has taken its toll on the Virginia diocese. Although only 7 percent of its congregations have left the diocese, those churches account for 18 percent of its average Sunday attendance, according to court documents.

Over at the Washington Times, veteran religion writer Julia Duin got the constitutional issue right in the lede (which, frankly, is a bit of a challenge in light of how complicated all of this language is).

The Episcopal Church yesterday denounced as an unconstitutional violation of religious freedom a Fairfax judge’s decision favoring a group of 11 breakaway conservative churches based on a Civil War-era Virginia law on church divisions.

Circuit Judge Randy Bellows declared that a “division” had occurred in the Diocese of Virginia, the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion in the long-running dispute over biblical authority and sexuality. The judge ruled that Virginia’s 1867 “division statute” therefore could, pending rulings on other issues, let the parishes leave with their property.

“We are obviously disappointed in yesterday’s ruling,” said a statement from Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori about the 83-page decision released late Thursday night. The decision “plainly deprives the Episcopal Church and the Diocese, as well as all hierarchical churches, of their historic constitutional rights to structure their polity free from governmental interference,” she said, “and thus violates the First Amendment and cannot be enforced.”

schori 01 01And here is the section of the story that will be read, with concern, in the headquarters of several mainline and liturgical churches. In particular, the United Methodists and oldline Presbyterians are now on high alert.

Doug Smith, executive director for the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy in Richmond, called the judge’s decision “chilling,” adding leaders of other mainline denominations represented by his center are “gravely concerned.”

“It seems that government is attempting to take over governance of the Episcopal Church,” he said. “This preliminary ruling puts every hierarchical denomination on notice that a group of persons who no longer wish to be part of the particular denomination can now split off, form a new group, self-declare they are a branch of the original group and assert rights under law regardless of the denomination’s own rules.”

The next step is a legal battle over the constitutionality of the Civil War-era law. Lawyers for the Anglican District of Virginia — an umbrella group for the 11 churches — the diocese and the Episcopal Church will argue the case May 28 at the Fairfax County courthouse.

So there is your update. Let me sign off with one additional comment about language.

Note the language that the Post used to describe the actual cause of all of this conflict. For the Post, this is all a matter of opinion on the Anglican right, which means that there is a national — note, not global — movement of churches upset about what “it believes to be an un-biblical liberal slant in the national church.” This is merely a matter of opinion on the right, you see.

Over at the Times, the emphasis is different. The Anglican wars are rooted in a “long-running dispute over biblical authority and sexuality.” In other words, this is not a problem being caused by an opinion, a mere matter of interpretation, on one side. There are facts here — a doctrinal dispute that exists. There are facts that can be quoted, there is non-judgmental language that can be used.

It’s a subtle thing, with the Post using language that suggests that the wars are being caused by a matter of opinion on the right. The Times, meanwhile, says that the conflict exists. Period.

Personally, I think it’s a good thing when newspapers stick to facts and, whenever possible, avoid using opinion language. I mean, who can deny that there is a conflict here over matters of doctrine linked to biblical authority and sexuality? Would anyone on the left deny that? The dispute is over who is right and who is wrong. But this split is being caused by a real conflict over doctrine. That’s a fact.

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Maryland elects totally safe bishop

mitre lg 02Pardon me while I take a quick trip into my GetReligion guilt folder. This is an Anglican warfare story from last weekend that I have been trying to find the time to write about all week.

Except, this really isn’t an Anglican warfare story at all. That’s kind of the point.

The big news is that the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland has a new bishop, a man who previously served as a canon at the National Cathedral, which is not that far away down south inside the DC Beltwary. There are several newsworthy phrases attached to the bishop elect and they show up in the first two paragraphs of the Baltimore Sun story about his election.

Maryland Episcopalians elected the Rev. Canon Eugene Taylor Sutton, canon pastor of the National Cathedral in Washington and an advocate of environmental causes, as the diocese’s 14th bishop yesterday on a single ballot.

Sutton, 54, the first African-American elected to lead the diocese in its 227-year history, also works as director of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage.

Truth be told, this was a very non-controversial election — which is almost news in itself in the Episcopal Church these days. Even the most cynical of news-hounds would be hard pressed to find any signs of tension in the essays and profile materials provided by the various nominees in this race.

The story includes some interesting material about the bishop elect’s views on the environment and background notes on his work as a seminary professor and as a popular leader of spiritual retreats. All of this is appropriate.

But — you knew there was going to be a “but” — try to imagine how a mainstream newspaper would cover an election in a conservative Episcopal diocese in which there was complete and utter unity about the various hot-button issues facing the Anglican Communion these days. It appears that the nominees were completely united on all issues linked to gender, doctrine and sexuality issues, for example. Was someone silenced? Were there voices excluded?

Well, let me state this another way. Either the nominees shared the same views or everyone in the process remained completely silent. So the whole process was one-sided, there was an amazing lack of diversity or the controversial questions were asked behind closed doors.

sutton smEither way, the Sun story contains absolutely nothing — zip, nada — about the issues that have inspired so many headlines about the Episcopal Church in the past quarter century or so. These issues simply do not exist. Where does the bishop stand? It’s easy to guess, but this story offers nothing on the record.

On this day, all was peace and light.

Episcopal dioceses have a unique democratic process in choosing bishops, involving both clerical and lay delegates. Members say the process reflects the church’s philosophy.

“It truly reflects who we are as a denomination,” Tillman said. “We are open, and we are welcoming. We respect various viewpoints and work to bring various viewpoints to the table. And that’s reflected in this process.”

Many Episcopalians would agree. Many others would disagree.

This is why the church currently faces millions of dollars in lawsuits as the wars rage on. I am not saying that the Sun report needed to dig into all of that. I am saying that it is strange that a hard news story offered no information whatsoever on where this bishop elect stands on the issues that are tearing at the fabric of Anglicanism in North America and around the world. The silence is strange. Bizarre, even.

Photo: The mitre has nothing to do with the Episcopalians in Maryland. It’s amazing how little art there is online linked to this diocese or its cathedral. Good luck hunting!

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From St. Adalbert to St. Zachary

flippinchurchThere is a church in my neighborhood that has some bizarre combination of names like Mt. Calvary Holy Trinity Apostolic Church for Believers. My friends and I like to imagine what strange set of events led a church to have that name. Was that its original name? Was it a merger of multiple churches?

So I was inclined to like Art Golab’s piece in Monday’s Chicago Sun-Times. He surveyed the names of churches from eight denominations in a six county area and presented his findings. St. Paul is the most popular name for churches named after saints. And “First” is the most popular overall.

The findings are somewhat unsurprising. Lots of Catholic churches named for Mary. Many names include the town or neighborhood where the church is located. Concept names (“Holy Trinity”) were particularly popular among Lutherans, and:

Catholic, Episcopalian and Lutheran churches were the most likely to be named after saints.

However, Lutherans favored far fewer individual saints than Catholics. Of 105 Lutheran churches named for saints, only 11 had one-of-a-kind saint names.

Of 273 Catholic churches named for saints, 198 were one-of-a-kind for the six-county area, ranging from St. Adalbert to St. Zachary.

The big problem with the story was . . . so what? I love that Golab did the survey but the analysis was somewhat predictable (Catholics like the Blessed Mother, Lutherans like St. Paul). How hard would it be to spice up the story by including some real people at real congregations?

If I were going to do a story for the Washington area, I’d definitely include some color from my neighborhood church of many names, St. Athanasius Lutheran, and Ascension and Saint Agnes. Actually, maybe enterprising reporters should just repeat Golab’s story for their evergreen file — but make sure to include some more interesting angles.

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Wright stuff: Soap suds and salvation

carwash signAs I mentioned the other day, I haven’t been seeing a lot of mainstream coverage of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr., that spends much ink on the religion side of this story. Politics continue to rule the day (surprise, surprise).

However, Newsweek recently published a feature that did attempt to shine a bit of light on a younger generation of African-American pastors whose approach to faith and ministry is different than that offered by Barack Obama’s famous spiritual guide. The radical message of this little piece by Allison Samuels — offered as a sidebar to other Obama coverage — is that some black pastors are actually mixing in some ministry with their political activism. Gosh, you think?

Here is the opening:

A few blocks away from the Ebenezer Baptist Church in downtown Atlanta, the congregation that Martin Luther King Jr. once led, sits the neighborhood carwash. It’s a rough place where junkies and drug dealers hang out. To an African-American minister who came of age in the civil-rights movement, the blighted scene might have made for a powerful sermon on race and inequality in America, culminating in a call to protest and demand change from an uncaring government. But 38-year-old Raphael Warnock, who is now Ebenezer’s senior pastor, saw those young black men destroying their lives at the carwash and had a different idea. Railing at the problem from the pulpit, he says, wasn’t enough. So last year he asked his flock to join him in holding a weekly Bible study at the carwash.

“In many ways, I see my mission the same way I think Dr. King did, helping the poor and helpless find their way and not be forgotten by the powers that be,” says Warnock. “I just think our ways of attacking many of those same issues have changed. Protests and marches have their place, but there is also a certain amount of action we have to take today to see a change.”

Warnock is part of a new generation of up-and-coming black ministers who are reaching out to young African-Americans, many of whom view the church as an anachronism, and have fallen away from it. Once vital community centers, black churches are often filled with older women on Sunday mornings, not families or young singles. Younger African-Americans, men in particular, say the church, rooted in the struggles and rhetoric of the past, does not speak their language, or speak to their needs. “The black male has all but disappeared from the church, and that wasn’t the case during previous generations,” says Warnock.

Warnock and his peers are out to change that.

The message of this story is that this younger generation is staying true to the Civil Rights Era agenda, but is not limited to it in terms of style. They respect their elders (and those quoted think Wright is getting a raw deal in the press), but they are moving on. They quote hip hop lyrics, instead of black liberation theologians?

But there are huge ghosts in this story, starting with the fact that the demographics of the black churches — at least those covered in this story — resemble the aging and feminine stats of the world of white oldline Protestantism. The status of black men in the church — in the pews, as opposed to the pulpits — is a major news story and closely linked to the breakdown of the black family (think Daniel Patrick Moynihan research), which may be the biggest story in modern urban life.

But I still have a question, after reading this: Where are the black Pentecostals? Where are the black Southern Baptists and the conservatives in the Church of God in Christ? Where are the leaders of black super churches (other than Trinity United Church of Christ, the rare mainline megachurch) and the multiracial megachurches? In other words, where is the other half of the theological spectrum in the modern black church?

When will we hear from these voices?

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Shameless plug for a teammate

radio towerThere is a really, really interesting story developing out there in the world of the Protestant mainline, over on the right side of Lutheran Land.

Here is the top of the feature story on this that ran today in the ongoing Wall Street Journal feature called “Houses of Worship.”

Usually radio hosts have to offend sacred moral sensibilities to be thrown off the air. Opie and Anthony were fired after they encouraged a couple to have sex in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Don Imus lost his job after using racist and sexist epithets against the Rutgers University women’s basketball team.

But when the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod canceled its popular, nationally syndicated radio program “Issues, Etc.,” listeners were baffled. Billed as “talk radio for the thinking Christian,” the show was known for its lively discussions analyzing cultural influences on the American church. It seemed like precisely the thing that the Missouri Synod, a 2.4-million-member denomination whose system of belief is firmly grounded in Scripture and an intellectually rigorous theology, would enthusiastically support.

Broadcast from the nation’s oldest continuously run religious radio station, KFUO-AM in St. Louis, and syndicated throughout the country, “Issues, Etc.” had an even larger audience world-wide, thanks to its podcast’s devoted following. With 14 hours of fresh programming each week, the show was on the leading edge of what’s happening in culture, politics and broader church life. The Rev. Todd Wilken interviewed the brightest lights from across the theological spectrum on news of the day. Guests included Oxford University’s Dr. Alister McGrath, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Albert Mohler and more postmodern types, like Tony Jones, national coordinator for a church network called Emergent Village.

On its last show, on March 17, listeners learned about the life and faith of St. Patrick; scientific and philosophical arguments in defense of the human embryo; the excommunication of two Roman Catholic women who claimed ordination; and the controversy surrounding the sermons of Barack Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

Despite the show’s popularity, low cost and loyal donor base, Mr. Wilken and Jeff Schwarz, the producer of “Issues, Etc.,” were dismissed without explanation on Tuesday of Holy Week.

In the age of the WWW, you can imagine what happened next — especially when all signs that the show ever existed, including the online archives — completely vanished. There was an intense digital firestorm out there among the listeners and other supporters in the pews.

This is especially interesting to me, since this was one of the only radio shows that I used to agree to appear on (for free) to talk about trends in religion news. It offered intelligent hosts and very fine listeners with good questions. It was worth the time and effort to hook up with them. It was not a shouting show.

FSLO 1179611990 111990What in the heck happened? The story continues:

The program was in all likelihood a pawn in a larger battle for the soul of the Missouri Synod. The church is divided between, on the one hand, traditional Lutherans known for their emphasis on sacraments, liturgical worship and the church’s historic confessions and, on the other, those who have embraced pop-culture Christianity and a market-driven approach to church growth. The divide is well known to all confessional Christian denominations struggling to retain their traditional identity.

The Rev. Gerald Kieschnick, the synod’s current president, has pushed church marketing over the Lutherans’ historic confession of faith by repeatedly telling the laity, “This is not your grandfather’s church.”

Welcome to the worship wars and the post-denominational age. This is the kind of conflict that is quietly developing on the right, while the left draws more headlines battling over the creeds, salvation and, of course, sex.

Now, normally you would expect this kind of article to draw the attention of the Divine Mrs. MZ Hemingway, our resident GetReligionista expert on all things Lutheran. However, it would be awkward for MZ to blog about this article, since she wrote it.

Check it out. Something is happening over there on the right side of the Lutheran aisle.

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