Fresh hooks for annual occasions

lent07Each year, I like to look at what stories the mainstream media publish for Lent. The papers that noted Ash Wednesday, such as the Indianapolis Star, Newsday and the Orange County Register, published brief stories about the imposition of ashes.

Others went searching for a creative hook. Agence France Press, for instance, wrote about the Roman Catholic Church in Austria offering an SMS service for the faithful. During each of the 40 days of Lent, those who signed up receive quotes from Pope Benedict XVI.The Telegraph (U.K.) wrote about two Church of England bishops who are calling on parishioners to give up carbon for Lent by avoiding plastic bags, giving the dishwasher a day off, insulating the hot water tank and checking the house for drafts:

Those taking part in the Carbon Fast will be asked to remove one lightbulb from a prominent place in the home and live without it for 40 days. On the final days of the Fast they will be asked to replace it with a low-energy bulb which over its lifetime will save 60kg of carbon dioxide per year and up to £60.

But I thought the best entries were by Ann Rodgers at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and K. Connie Kang at the Los Angeles Times. Rodgers’ story is about the Pittsburgh Diocese pushing for a return to the practice of confession. She mentions that the sacrament is also available in the Eastern, Episcopal and Lutheran churches.

After the Rev. Thomas Burke says Mass at St. Paul Cathedral, he enters his reconciliation room to hear confession and offer absolution. Penitents can kneel before a stained glass partition so that Father Burke can’t see them, or join him on the other side, seated by a small table with a box of tissues.

Whether it’s called confession or penance or reconciliation, “it’s one of my favorite sacraments,” Father Burke said.

“I try to comfort them and offer hope and healing, and tell them that they shouldn’t beat themselves up. This is not the end of the world. I always give them my business card so they can stay in touch,” he said.

Kang’s story was a nice overview of how Ash Wednesday is being celebrated in the Los Angeles area. But I loved her hook. Many times people justify not covering liturgical seasons on the grounds that it’s not newsworthy. The same feasts, holy days and seasons happen year after year. Well, Kang looked at what was different about Ash Wednesday this year and came up with something that people in my church were discussing. It’s early this year:

Easter, the holiest day of the Christian calendar, is observed by much of the Western church on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the equinox.

At Masses and services today, priests and ministers will apply ashes in the sign of a cross — indicating inner repentance — to the foreheads of Christians.

Easter often occurs in April and the word Lent comes from Anglo-Saxon lencten, meaning spring. But this year, because of cycles of the moon, Easter, or Resurrection Day as many prefer, will be observed March 23. The last time it occurred on that date Woodrow Wilson was president. Ash Wednesday in 1913 was Feb. 5, a day earlier than today because this is a leap year, which adds an extra day in the middle of the Lenten season.

So with Christmas decorations barely put away, churches have been gearing up for 40 days of repentance, reflection and fasting.

All in all, some good efforts this year. There’s no reason reporters can’t continue to write about the penitential season of Lent so let us know if you see any other good stories.

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Godtalk update from public square

GeorgeJesusYou can’t study church-state separation issues without studying civil religion and it is very, very hard to study civil religion without taking a look at the whole issue of how presidents talk about faith and, in particular, God. I was already thinking about this issue when I wrote my Scripps Howard News Service column this week, which was a follow-up, sort of, to the whole Mike Huckabee “vertical” credo flap (with insights from Mike Gerson about the whole issue of “soaring” language in political rhetoric).

While researching that column, I read the whole sermon — call it what it is — by Barack Obama during his Jan. 20 stop in the pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where he helped that congregation celebrate the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

What can you say? This is how the text starts:

The Scripture tells us that when Joshua and the Israelites arrived at the gates of Jericho, they could not enter. The walls of the city were too steep for any one person to climb; too strong to be taken down with brute force. And so they sat for days, unable to pass on through.

But God had a plan for his people. He told them to stand together and march together around the city, and on the seventh day he told them that when they heard the sound of the ram’s horn, they should speak with one voice. And at the chosen hour, when the horn sounded and a chorus of voices cried out together, the mighty walls of Jericho came tumbling down.

There are many lessons to take from this passage, just as there are many lessons to take from this day. …

Needless to say, there was a political message in that speech as well as a religious one. That’s how civil religion works.

And what, you say, about Godtalk on the other side of the church aisle these days? Can Republicans be as blunt, in the current marketplace?

Maybe not. Someone, somewhere, really needs to write a doctoral dissertation on how the faith language of President George W. Bush has evolved while in office. You could spend a chapter parsing the quotes in the following Washington Post story by Michael Abramowitz in which the president has some rather blunt talk in Baltimore with former prisoners about the subject of substance abuse and addiction. Here’s the lede:

President Bush plopped himself into a chair between two former prisoners, Thomas Boyd and Adolphus Moseley, and asked to hear how their lives had changed. But first, he wanted them to know something about him: “I understand addiction,” he said, “and I understand how a changed heart can help you deal with addiction.”

lonestarIn other words, this was a chance for Bush to — as church people say — “offer his testimony.” And here is what went down:

“Why were you in jail, if you don’t mind me asking?” Bush asked Moseley, a gregarious 42-year-old who replied that he served time for cocaine possession. “It’s just one of those things that you need to put behind you,” he told the president.

Moseley told Bush they could use more such mentoring and counseling programs on the west side of Baltimore, and Bush replied: “There are programs like that all over the city; they are called churches.”

“They are not sincere, like Jericho,” Moseley replied, seeming to take Bush a bit aback.

“My only point to you is there are a lot of faith-based organizations that exist to help deal with very difficult problems,” Bush said. “It starts with the notion that there is a higher power that will help people change their thinking.

“It’s very important for everybody to understand that there is a commonality, that we all have to deal with the same problems in different ways,” Bush said. “First is to recognize that there is a higher power. At least that helped in my life — it helped me quit drinking.”

Moseley interjected, “That’s right, there is a higher power.”

Obviously, Bush is using the language of recovery groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous. This is “step two,” “higher power” talk.

Still, it is interesting to note how careful the president was to avoid God language. It was, well, a flashback to the cautious style of the Bush family in general. And that reminds me of my all-time favorite Bush family anecdotes, which focuses on a campaign appearance by George H.W. Bush. Enjoy.

On one campaign stop, he was asked what he thought about as he floated alone in the Pacific Ocean after his plane was shot down during World War II. His response was chilly: “Mom and Dad, about our country, about God … and about the separation of church and state.”

There you go. That’ll preach.

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When controversy speaks for itself (updated)

jesuskrishnaLos Angeles Times reporter K. Connie Kang had another interesting story on the Godbeat or, in this case, the gods beat. Yes, the Episcopalians are involved.

It seems that the Diocese of Los Angeles hosted an interfaith service with Hindus at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral there on Saturday. Kang simply reported it without any analysis, which I think is good for an initial story on what turned out to be a rather controversial event. She described how a Hindu nun blew into a conch shell to begin the Indian Rite Mass. A band from the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (aka Hare Krishna) chanted during the service.

The article is full of fascinating quotes from participants and observers:

During the service, the Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, issued a statement of apology to the Hindu religious community for centuries-old acts of religious discrimination by Christians, including attempts to convert them.

“I believe that the world cannot afford for us to repeat the errors of our past, in which we sought to dominate rather than to serve,” Bruno said in a statement read by the Rt. Rev. Chester Talton. “In this spirit, and in order to take another step in building trust between our two great religious traditions, I offer a sincere apology to the Hindu religious community.”

The bishop also said he was committed to renouncing “proselytizing” of Hindus.

The comment went over well with the Hindu leaders who were honored during the service. I’m not sure how it went over with the Christians in Orissa and other Indian states. Kang also did a good job with play-by-play coverage during another part of the service:

All were invited to Holy Communion, after the Episcopal celebrant elevated a tray of consecrated Indian bread, and deacons raised wine-filled chalices.

In respect to Hindu tradition, a tray of flowers was also presented. Christians and Hindus lined up for communion, but since Orthodox Hindus shun alcohol, they consumed only the bread.

The sermon emphasized commonalities between Christianity and Hinduism, according to Kang.

Last week I noted that stories fail to explain why the Episcopal Church is so aggressive about property issues but not doctrinal issues. And with this story we have yet another example of why this needs to be explained by reporters.

For instance, Canon I.17.7 of the Episcopal Church (.pdf link here — see page 55) explicitly prohibits administering Holy Communion to unbaptized persons:

Sec. 7. No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church.

And yet this service, hosted by none other than the Los Angeles Diocese, clearly offered communion to unbaptized people. Now let’s go to property disputes. The Episcopal Church’s argument for why it should retain the property in the disputes with the departed parishes is on the basis of another canon (Canon I.7.4 — page 40 of the previous link):

All real and personal property held by or for the benefit of any Parish, Mission or Congregation is held in trust for this Church and the Diocese thereof in which such Parish, Mission or Congregation is located. The existence of this trust, however, shall in no way limit the power and authority of the Parish, Mission or Congregation otherwise existing over such property so long as the particular Parish, Mission or Congregation remains a part of, and subject to, this Church and its Constitution and Canons.

Wouldn’t a story examining the disparity between which canons are enforced and which canons are not enforced be interesting? Put another way, why are some bishops free to violate some canons while other bishops are threatened with punishment if they permit their dioceses to even vote about whether to realign? I’m sure the Episcopal authorities have their reasons, but we need to hear what those are. Why aren’t reporters asking them to explain how this works?

UPDATE: The Los Angeles Times made a major, major, major correction to this story. So major, in fact, that we may have to look at this in an another post:


Hindu-Episcopal service: An article in Sunday’s California section about a joint religious service involving Hindus and Episcopalians said that all those attending the service at St. John’s Cathedral in Los Angeles were invited to Holy Communion. Although attendees walked toward the Communion table, only Christians were encouraged to partake of Communion. Out of respect for Hindu beliefs, the Hindus were invited to take a flower. Also, the article described Hindus consuming bread during Communion, but some of those worshipers were Christians wearing traditional Indian dress.

I’ve personally seen communion offered to non-Christians at Episcopal services in Washington and San Francisco. Others have publicly attested to the same — in the Los Angeles diocese and other locations. And, therefore, the questions I posed at the end of this post remain.

But, oh man, is this a major error. I’d love some more context for how this correction came about and where things fell apart. Please let us know if you know anything.

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Covering Obama’s spiritual guide

JeremiahWright 01 01I was wondering what it would take to get some more mainstream media coverage of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s United Church of Christ pastor. Wright has been mentioned in quite a few opinion columns and tabloid publications recently for his race-based preaching and teaching. But mainstream media coverage has been lacking. So it was nice to see an article by the Baltimore Sun‘s Michael Hill about Wright and the attention he’s been receiving:

The connection [with Obama] has thrown a spotlight on some of Wright’s more controversial remarks in a church that advertises itself as “unashamedly Black and unapologetically Christian” – at times espousing a black liberation theology that can sound as exclusionary as Obama’s message is inclusionary. He has also equated Zionism with racism.

On Sunday morning – amid intensified crossfire between Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Obama over the use of race in the Democratic presidential campaign – Wright was preaching from the Gospel of John, using his powerful style to link the story of the loaves and fishes to a contemporary political message.

Man should not put limits on what God can do, but that’s what people always do, he told the crowd. Just as God made five loaves and two fishes feed thousands, God has provided liberators for blacks in the past – from Nat Turner to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and now Barack Obama.

I think it’s funny that the reporter says Wright’s message “can sound” exclusionary but Obama’s message “is” inclusionary. Anyway, not knowing what black liberation theology is, I can only surmise that the example given of it is representative. The article also quotes Wright saying that Bill Clinton did to blacks what he did to Monica Lewinsky. Yikes!

Just this week Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen complained that Wright’s church magazine gave Louis Farrakhan its person of the year award. They said he “truly epitomized greatness.” In the article, Obama distanced himself from his preacher, while also confirming his affection for the man. Hill’s story did a good job of explaining where that affection comes from:
barack obama audacity of hope

The candidate’s 1995 book Dreams From My Father depicts Obama’s decision to join Trinity United as a fundamental step in affirming his identity as an African-American. Obama’s mother was white, he was raised in large part by her parents and he spent much of his youth in Indonesia with his mother’s second husband. He only met his father, a Kenyan, once.

Obama took the title of his more recent book, The Audacity of Hope, from the first sermon he heard preached by Wright, whom Obama met while working in Chicago as a community organizer.

In Dreams from My Father, Obama wrote of his reaction on hearing that sermon in 1988: “In that single note – hope! – I heard something else: At the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and the Pharaoh, the Christians in the Lion’s Den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones. Those stories became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church on this bright day seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world.”

Where the story is weaker, I think, is in the relative lack of thoughtful criticism about Wright’s preaching. Hill does a good job of speaking to people who defend Wright but not those who aren’t so keen on the content of his preaching. In fact, the only critic quoted — and for only a few words — is avowed atheist Christopher Hitchens.

One paragraph that struck me was this one:

Wright, who is about to retire, took over Trinity United in 1972. It was an odd black congregation, since the United Church of Christ is a mainly white denomination, predominantly in New England, that traces its ancestry back to the Puritans. Over the years, it developed a liberal reputation based in part on the independence of its individual churches.

The United Church of Christ was formed in 1957 through the merger of the Evangelical and Reformed Church (itself a merged church, as the name implies) and the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches. It is not untrue that some of its ancestry lies with the Puritans — but its heritage is much richer than that. People always seem to point out the Puritan ties, but not the E & R. Or maybe I just remember this because my mother was baptized at an E & R church and confirmed at a UCC church. The UCC also descended from the Pilgrims who established Plymouth Colony.

Anyway, I think the article was necessary — the mainstream media silence about Wright was odd considering how many newsworthy comments he’s been making lately. What do you think is appropriate coverage for this pastor? And how do journalists cover him when he’s been reticent to work with the media?

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Dead leaders walking?

deathpenalty 03 When I was growing up, two of my favorite books were In Cold Blood and Dead Man Walking. Both exposed the desolation, inhumanity, and cruelty of capital punishment — and both were hugely popular. But did either of them make the death penalty less popular? The data is not encouraging.

So I was interested to read a story by G. Jeffrey MacDonald of Religion News Service that Christian leaders increasingly are working to ban capital punishment. Wrote MacDonald,

As bishops work statehouse hallways, parish priests are spreading the message that “pro-life” also means anti-death penalty. For more than two years, they’ve used sermons, bulletin inserts and a DVD titled “A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death” as part of a campaign to keep the issue in churchgoers’ consciousness. …

Clergy from mainline Protestant denominations, which have opposed the death penalty for decades, have recently joined hands with pragmatists who fear the death penalty can claim innocent victims or doesn’t effectively deter crime.

The National Association of Evangelicals, meanwhile, stands by its 1973 statement favoring the death penalty under certain circumstances, but “the NAE hasn’t really been active on the death penalty in recent years,” according to Heather Gonzalez, the NAE’s association director.

MacDonald informs readers that their efforts come at a propitious moment:

On Monday (Jan. 7), the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on whether death by lethal injection violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. New Jersey recently became the 14th state to ban executions. And Gallup Poll data show public support for the death penalty in murder cases has slipped from a high of 80 percent to 69 percent over the past 13 years.

Well, neither passage makes the pond any less murky. MacDonald should have explained to readers the relevance of these two developments: the mobilization of Christian leaders and waning popularity for the death penalty. Are the two related?

To be sure, MacDonald suggests that they are. An author is quoted as saying that Catholics are more likely to oppose the death penalty if their pastor speaks out against the practice. But this is not illuminating. Catholic bishops have opposed the death penalty for decades.

Also, MacDonald notes that the NAE has become politically quiescent on the issue. That’s interesting news. Even so, he should have specified when the NAE stopped its outspoken support for capital punishment. Perhaps the NAE’s relative silence on the issue has made evangelicals more opposed to the death penalty. But in the absence of data or more information, readers can’t tell.

Perhaps I am not being sufficiently clear, so let me restate my thesis. It’s one thing to say that society’s leaders, whether writers or clergy, are mobilizing against a social practice. It’s another to say that they are having much of an effect.

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Old churches converted to new condos

old abandoned churchAs likely is the case in most communities around the country, there are abandoned churches in neighborhoods that used to be vibrant and alive. I know this is true in my neighborhood (I can see the abandoned church pictured in this post from my window) and I have seen it in other cities, particularly off the coasts where there is plenty of cheap land and the geographic cores of cities have gone through a several-decades long transformation from life to death.

The abandoned church buildings are the tip of the iceberg of a huge story that encompasses religion, culture, family life and politics. Part of that story was told Saturday in The Chicago Tribune in a special by Jeffrey Steele, who describes how abandoned churches are being converted into fancy condo buildings for the new generation of downtown city dwellers:

From near-in city neighborhoods to outlying suburbs, shifting population patterns and evolving congregations are resulting in older churches becoming available for other uses.

The most successful conversions are those overseen by developers who, by retaining important elements of the former church, give new meaning to the term “faithful preservation.”

The story appears in the Tribune‘s classified section, and from a real estate perspective it is quite good. But I am not sure that the author thought of the religious aspects in the story because many religion ghosts go undiscussed.

One subject that was mentioned briefly in an off-handed manner is the sacred nature of these church buildings. Certainly zoning regulations played a factor in these developers’ plans to transform places of worship into fancy living spaces, but the primary consideration towards the spiritual seemed focused on the aesthetic:

A very different kind of church-to-residence conversion was finished this summer in LaGrange, where developer Hazel Teichen transformed the former Grace and Truth Life Church at the corner of Ogden and Kensington Avenues into a single-family home.

According to Susan Breen, real estate broker with the Hinsdale office of Coldwell Banker, the house of worship had been a Swedish Covenant church when built in the 1880s. It is noted in the National Register of Historic Places.

Built of Chicago common red brick and featuring 15 gothic arched windows, the structure boasts a ceiling comprised of scissored joists beneath a vaulted roof, Breen said.

The flooring in the foyer area is of reclaimed Jerusalem Bible stone, and the original sanctuary area has a Douglas fir floor, she added.

Teichen purchased the church in July of 2005, when its congregation numbered just eight people.

“I wanted to retain the spiritual integrity of the building,” she said. “I didn’t want people to come in and say, ‘What did it used to be?’ If it looked just like any other building down the block, what would be the point?

“I like to think of it still as a sacred place, with 100 years of sacred practice. You don’t disregard that.”

Another angle that could be explored and is probably more fitting for a separate story is the history of these church buildings. The article discusses an old Ukrainian Village Catholic church, Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Church, a Bohemian Catholic church building Our Lady of Good Counsel, a Swedish Covenant church on the National Register of Historic Places, Grace and Truth Life Church and a 100-plus year-old an African-American Baptist church.

What are the stories behind these church buildings? Why are there no longer congregations worshiping once a week in that building? What happened to the community life that supported these structures? What a fascinating way to explore and explain the changing communities in American cities.

Photo taken by the author of this post Tuesday morning in a near northeast side Indianapolis neighborhood.

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Church-state sin? Who cares?

obama Reporter Molly Ball of the Las Vegas Review Journal scooped the national press on a major political story Sunday. While covering the presidential campaign of Democratic candidate Barack Obama, Ball reported that a pastor endorsed Obama from the pulpit (Hat tip to Spiritual Politics):

Before he arrived, the pastor of the Pentecostal Temple Church of God in Christ, speaking from the pulpit, advocated for Obama, possibly breaking the law. Pastor Leon Smith told the congregation that “the more he (Obama) speaks, the more he wins my confidence, and … if the polls were open today, I would cast my vote for this senator.”

He urged them to do the same, saying, “If you can’t support your own, you’re never going to get anywhere. … I want to see this man in office.”

Some reporters might have let the matter end there. To her credit, Ball gave readers the appropriate context of the endorsement: it was likely illegal.

Under federal tax law, nonprofits such as churches are prohibited from endorsing or opposing political candidates. The Internal Revenue Service has ruled that the forbidden partisan activity includes speech from the pulpit that indicates the church favors a particular candidate.

The campaign said the pastor simply had made supportive statements about Obama’s record. The church could not be reached late Sunday.

My only complaint with Ball’s story was that the Review Journal downplayed it. Her scoop did not appear in the story until the sixteenth paragraph and is not mentioned at all in the headline or sub-headline. I don’t get it. A Christian pastor endorsed a leading presidential candidate from the pulpit, and the local paper doesn’t give the story top billing?

Of course, this criticism is relative. None of the major newspapers reported that the pastor likely violated federal law. Either Adam Nagourney or Jeff Zeleny of The New York Times attended the same church service as Ball, though it’s unclear if Nagourney or Zeleny was in attendance when the pastor made his remarks. The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, the The Los Angeles Times, and The Boston Globe each failed to mention that Obama attended the service Sunday.

The national press’ silence on the likely church-state violation raises numerous questions. How did the reporters miss it? Were fewer reporters working the beat because it was a Sunday? Were the reporters uncertain or ignorant of IRS laws? Are conservatives correct when they claim that it’s OK when Democrats violate church-state regulations, but not when Republicans do?

As things stand, Molly Ball has written a major politics and religion story in 2008, and one that her own paper underplayed.

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When the standard narrative fails

fieldguideIf you are interested in Huckabee’s efforts to woo evangelicals, you could do worse than read the latest from the Washington Post‘s Perry Bacon and Juliet Eilperin. In a straightforward account, they explain how Huckabee isn’t just an economic populist, but a religious one, too:

Last month in Iowa, Huckabee noted the criticism against him for supporting tax increases while governor of Arkansas, and he said the “Washington establishment” was opposed to his candidacy in a party where social conservatives often do not wield the same power as do small-government conservatives.

“Many of us who have been Republicans out of conviction . . . the social conservatives,” he told reporters, “were welcomed in the party as long as we sort of kept our place, but Lord help us if we ever stood forward and said we would actually like to lead the party.”

John A. Schmalzbauer, the Strong Chair in Protestant Studies at Missouri State University, said Huckabee is practicing “a kind of politics with identity” that will resonate with evangelicals.

“It’s saying, ‘You’ve been shut out. You’ve voted for people in the past who’ve said they represent you. Why not get somebody that’s one of you?’ ” Schmalzbauer said. “It’s a kind of religious populism that goes along with economic populism.”

The article is surprisingly deft, reinforcing the religious populism theme throughout. Whether or not it’s wise to run for a party’s nomination by encouraging resentment among one key part of a coalition against other key parts of a coalition is a question only the voters can ultimately answer. But the article explains quite well how that campaign tactic is being deployed.

It also says that many evangelical Christians are no longer following old school Christian activists such as Pat Robertson. That was the entire theme of David Kirkpatrick’s most recent piece in the New York Times:

Much of the national leadership of the Christian conservative movement has turned a cold shoulder to the Republican presidential campaign of Mike Huckabee, wary of his populist approach to economic issues and his criticism of the Bush administration’s foreign policy. But that has only fired up Brett and Alex Harris. . . .

The brothers fell for Mr. Huckabee last August when they saw him draw applause on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” for explaining that he believed in a Christian obligation to care for prenatal “life” and also education, health care, jobs and other aspects of “life.” “It is a new kind of evangelical conservative position,” Brett Harris said. Alex Harris added, “And we are not going to have to be embarrassed about him.”

Mr. Huckabee, who was a Southern Baptist minister before serving as governor of Arkansas, is the only candidate in the presidential race who identifies himself as an evangelical. But instead of uniting conservative Christians, his candidacy is threatening to drive a wedge into the movement, potentially dividing its best-known national leaders from part of their base and upending assumptions that have held the right wing together for the last 30 years.

Kirkpatrick’s article is also fantastic and suggests that Huckabee’s rise indicates the complete realignment of the “old” Christian right. It also briefly touches on Huckabee’s outreach to Catholics.
The one thing that neither article gets into — and I wouldn’t expect them to for stories recording incremental political changes — is the “why” of it all. Why are some religious conservatives embracing economic and religious populism?

Back before the previous presidential election, I had a conversation with one of my favorite authors — D.G. Hart — about just this topic. He had mentioned in an off-handed way that American Protestants on the right were getting ready to realign politically. “Never!” I cried out. And I really thought that he was wrong. The mainstream media started writing (a bit eagerly, I might add) about the demise of the values voters political realignment of Republican evangelicals only in the past year. Hart’s prescience was helped, I’m sure, by his research of American Protestant political activism.

The standard narrative of American Protestantism used by journalists is that you have two vehemently opposed sides. On the one side are liberal mainliners who seek to enact social justice programs and on the other side are Bible-thumping evangelicals who want to enforce strict morality on the masses. In addition to his belief that this leaves out a significant swath of Protestants (we confessional Protestants), Hart argues that the standard media narrative is lacking. He says both of the aforementioned groups belong to the same tradition: American Pietism. Such Pietism, fueled by revivalism, emphasizes the concept of changing the world and preaches a God whose public and private work touches on the secular (other Christian traditions emphasize the sacred and sacramental).

In the forward to Hart’s Lost Soul of American Protestantism Cornell History Professor Laurence Moore writes:

American Pietists have never agreed on a platform that spells out exactly what God should do, hence the seeming divide between liberals and conservatives. But what the purported two parties of Pietism share is more important than their differences. They both believe in a public-minded deity who was yoked into partisan political service by [both sides] long before the 1980s.

That members of the conservative coalition would support a populist has shocked many on the Right. But the fact is that Protestant voters have repeatedly realigned all over the political spectrum. The religious right wasn’t born in our lifetime. It’s pretty old. And, as tmatt said recently, the “new” religious left is even older. Perhaps it’s time to drop the standard narrative and search for a better one.

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