What kind of ‘evangelist’ is Kennedy?

kennedyI am tempted to think that the word “evangelical” and several words connected to it have become too vague to be of any use to mainstream reporters. I know that’s impossible. There are simply too many people who use “evangelical” as a noun or an adjective these days.

I also have to admit that some of these words have multiple meanings. What’s a reporter to do?

Take the word “evangelist.” For years, people have been applying that word to everyone from Jerry Falwell (a pastor/religious broadcaster/educator) to Pat Robertson (a religious broadcaster/political leader/educator) and a host of other folks. The term “televangelist” was created since there was a real sense in which people were using cameras and cable television the same way that evangelists, for generations, have used pulpits and rally tents.

Then again, the classic, centuries-old definition of “evangelism” and “evangelist” was linked to the work of people who shared their faith and converted other people through face-to-face contact. Saying that someone was “a great evangelist” did not mean they preached evangelistic messages before hundreds or thousands of people.

So what does “evangelist” mean to the average person who hears or reads it? I would think that the average person thinks of Billy Graham. But what about the college student sitting in a coffee shop with a friend, sharing her faith during a discussion of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis? Is that person an “evangelist” who is practicing “evangelism”?

With all that in mind, take a look at The Miami Herald‘s coverage of the health-related retirement of the Rev. D. James Kennedy. The early draft was such a mess — technical issues, mainly — that you can no longer get to it. What do I mean? A sample:

Ronald Siegenthaler, December 28 had cardiac arrest, called the executive quite a few ministers. The announcement Jennifer Kennedy Cassidy, daughter. It came from the family, really disabled has no been able to attend chuch services and speak in public. Process of finding athe officers will be in ht analyziang the need s aof the searcha qualifications, skills and gifts, Selecta pulpit search committe from a cross section of memebership.

You get the idea. It’s hard to blame that on reporter Robbyn Mitchell. However, there was some copy above the train wreck that one could read. Note the use of the word “evangelist” in this, starting with the headline: “Evangelist Kennedy retires from Coral Ridge.”

The Rev. D. James Kennedy, an international evangelist who has been absent from the pulpit at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church since December, when he suffered a heart attack, has officially retired.

His daughter, Jennifer Kennedy Cassidy, made the announcement to the congregation Sunday on behalf of her father, said Ronald Sigenthaler, the church’s executive minister. Kennedy led the 10,000-member church in Fort Lauderdale for 48 years, although only 1,700 parishioners were there Sunday to hear his daughter’s announcement.

With Kennedy stepping down, Sigenthaler estimates it may take two years to find a replacement pastor. … Kennedy founded both Coral Ridge Ministries and Evangelism Explosion International.

So he was an evangelist who, as a pastor, led a large church while also starting a parachurch group called Evangelism Explosion (which, by the way, specialized in a face-to-face and small-groups approach to church-based evangelism and growth, not large rallies). Can you see the source of the confusion?

Anyway, the Herald bounced back with a more complete story that avoided the “evangelist” confusion. This story turned Kennedy, for the most part, into a politico selling an “America is a Christian nation” message.

Yes, that was part of his work, too. However, I have always thought that the key to his work was his educated, 1950s, old-Mainline approach to doing church. Thus, we read:

The Rev. D. James Kennedy, who presided over a multimillion-dollar, international evangelical empire but was sidelined from his pulpit at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church when he suffered a heart attack in December, is retiring at age 76, church leaders announced Sunday.

Parishioners said it was hard to imagine the Fort Lauderdale megachurch without its towering leader and founder, whose slate-gray hair, dark robe and commanding voice made a deep impression on churchgoers.

”He had a great voice, a great big deep voice,” said Barbara Collier, one of the original church members, who taught Sunday school and vacation Bible school. “He was such a gracious man, and in his robe he stood so straight and talked so clearly, right to you. And we all loved him.”

But as one of the most influential leaders in the Christian right, Kennedy was also a divisive figure who condemned homosexuality and abortion.

Of course, traditional forms of Christianity have also condemned abortion and sex outside of marriage for 2,000 years, but it certainly is accurate to say that these beliefs are now controversial and divisive.

arielHowever, what is missing from the Herald coverage is any sense of what made this man different from the other members of the Religious Right and why he thrived in a unique environment like South Florida.

We are talking about The Miami Herald, after all. This is home turf.

There really isn’t a hint of why his church grew so much. There is no mention of the intellect — whether you liked him or not, it was there — symbolized by those Presbyterian robes. Also, there is no mention of Evangelism Explosion.

Ironically, you can head over to an anti-Kennedy page at Americans United and learn much more about him, including the fact that he has a doctorate from New York University, which is not your normal fundamentalist hangout spot.

Of course, a reader who knows that region would also know to head over to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for a story by veteran religion writer James D. Davis. He throws his net very wide in the fact paragraphs and tells us all kinds of things:

Months of rumors ended with a Sunday morning revelation at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church: The ailing Rev. D. James Kennedy is not returning to the helm of the congregation he founded 48 years ago.

The pastor, religious broadcaster, conservative activist and evangelical leader has been in and out of hospitals since Dec. 28, when he suffered a brief cardiac arrest. On Sunday, his family and church leaders made it official. …

The announcement, at a joint gathering of all three morning services, ends Kennedy’s multilayered efforts to further his vision of Christianity and social values: education, prayer in schools, opposition to gay rights, and other conservative causes. His influence was felt far beyond church walls, to the halls of power in Washington, D.C., and numerous nations where ordinary people heard his broadcast messages and applied his evangelistic methods. …

Besides the church, Kennedy founded: Knox Seminary; Westminster Academy; Coral Ridge Ministries, a broadcast organization heard in about 200 nations; a chaplaincy to federal workers on Capitol Hill; and Evangelism Explosion, a program to train lay people to spread the gospel. He launched a series of rallies, called Reclaiming America for Christ, that helped train volunteers across the nation to work for conservative aims in their hometowns. He also has written more than 65 books.

That is a lot of material to put into one story. But it is a big story, if you know religion in South Florida. I hope there are follow-up reports about what happens next at this very old-fashioned mainline-esque church.

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Churches for sale, churches for sale

831 little country church of hollywood los angels us state town views california los angels 65654The age of the megachurch has not been kind to small congregations. The aging of the declining “seven sisters” of mainline Protestantism has not been kind to small congregations, either.

So there are quite a few beautiful (and not so beautiful) sanctuaries out there that are for sale. It seems that there are going to be more art galleries, restuarants and bed & breakfast options around in a decade or two than there are now. I have been saying for a decade that the future of Eastern Orthodoxy in North America will unfold in abandoned United Methodist churches.

At the same time, some of these sanctuaries are, to one degree or another, historic buildings.

Thus, the Los Angeles Times is following the story of the Little Country Church of Hollywood, which some people want to turn into a restuarant, complete with bar. The obvious headline: “A spirits-filled church? A developer envisions turning Little Country Church of Hollywood into a restaurant, bar and church. Not everyone finds his vision praiseworthy.” Reporter Bob Pool could not resist the obvious lede:

Praise the Lord and pour the apple martini.

That refrain could be echoing down Argyle Avenue if a developer manages to convert the landmark Little Country Church of Hollywood into a combination bar, restaurant and church. Vytas Juskys sees the historic New England-style clapboard sanctuary as an ideal addition to Hollywood’s burgeoning night-life scene, offering live entertainment and two outdoor free-standing bars, plus space for regular religious services.

Now it is that last concept that really threw me.

You see, it seems that this church has evangelical roots. Either that, or it dates back to the days when there really were radio preachers and evangelists who worked within the churches that we now consider liberal and-or progressive. The story doesn’t answer that question. We are told:

The church was built in 1934 by the Rev. W. B. Hogg. At the time, he was a popular radio evangelist who went by the name Josiah Hopkins. The church was designed to resemble a New England-style country church by Paul Kingsley, a popular Austrian-born architect who designed many Los Angeles-area schools, department stores and civic buildings such as Arcadia City Hall.

After the church was built, it became home to Hogg’s radio ministry, described as the first of its kind in the United States. It was also a popular setting for weddings involving Hollywood starlets and stars. The 3,400-square-foot sanctuary ended its religious service in 1997 after its dwindling congregation could no longer pay its operating expenses.

Interesting, huh? So was the church totally independent? There is no denomination involved in this story at all? And if the church truly was nondenominational — all the way back when it was formed — then was it still nondenominational at the time that it faded into statistical oblivion?

All of this leads me to the (slightly funny) question that interests me the most. If this historic building is really going to be turned into a bar with food, who is going to offer the “regular religious services”? What will the sign say out near the curb?

Insert your best one-liner here.

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Mammon’s global reach

Al Bait TowersMichael Linton of First Things‘ blog, Public Square, has highlighted an emerging story that touches on a favorite theme of GetReligion’s editors: The intersection of faith and commerce. In “The Malling of Mecca,” Linton describes the construction of Abraj al Bait, which will offer space for 600 retail outlets, hotel rooms and posh apartments, all towering over the holiest site in Islam.

Hassan M. Fattah of The New York Times covered this story very well back in March:

Five times a day across the globe devout Muslims face this city in prayer, focused on a site where they believe Abraham built a temple to God. The spot is also the place Muslims are expected to visit at least once in their lives.

Now as they make the pilgrimage clothed in simple white cotton wraps, they will see something other than the stark black cube known as the Kaaba, which is literally the center of the Muslim world. They will also see Starbucks. And Cartier and Tiffany. And H&M and Topshop.

The Abraj al Bait Mall — one of the largest in Saudi Arabia, outfitted with flat-panel monitors with advertisements and announcements, neon lights, an amusement park ride, fast-food restaurants and a lingerie shop — has been built directly across from Islam’s holiest site.

While acknowledging that many Muslims oppose the Abraj al Bait project, Linton argues that such a profane invasion of sacred space would not be as tolerated by Christians:

Of course, there are those trinket shops next to almost every Christian sacred site, but I think that a lot of Christians view them as embarrassments. Even in Rome, I don’t think there’s a Christian-themed shopping center (although there might be one here in Tennessee, if the Bible Park U.S.A. gets built). My guess is that the memory of the story of the Lord whipping the temple money changers makes us edgy about linking religion too closely with commerce.

This feels like wishful thinking. How many historic churches, including the Washington National Cathedral, make space for a nearby (or even an attached) gift shop? Consider Willow Creek Community Church in greater Chicagoland, which offers a mall-style food court. A number of churches have welcomed Starbucks into their lobbies. ATMs are appearing in church buildings as a convenient way of making one’s donations (and, perhaps most important, obtaining an IRS-friendly receipt). If you have any doubts about the church’s ability to make peace with commerce, read Jeremy “Veteran of this Blog” Lott’s “Jesus Sells.”

While there’s still no One Vatican Place or First Baptist Mall, the sad truth applies across doctrinal divisions: If you build it, they will come.

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Day of mourning for secular fundies

1101010914 400 01The email is starting to come in asking when GetReligion is going to have something to say about that New York Times Magazine cover story from this past weekend, the massive piece called “The Politics of God” by Mark Lilla. The sad thing about it is that I am three time zones away from my office and involved in some long, long meetings in which a circle of journalists and academics are, during the break times, talking about this piece.

I wish I had the time to devote to it that it deserves. Let me stress that it is not a piece of journalism, yet it is certainly about a subject that looms behind much of the journalism of this era. It is very much a piece about whether our culture’s elites “get religion.”

Here is the opening, which the Times underlined by publishing on the magazine cover:

The twilight of the idols has been postponed. For more than two centuries, from the American and French Revolutions to the collapse of Soviet Communism, world politics revolved around eminently political problems. War and revolution, class and social justice, race and national identity– these were the questions that divided us. Today, we have progressed to the point where our problems again resemble those of the 16th century, as we find ourselves entangled in conflicts over competing revelations, dogmatic purity and divine duty. We in the West are disturbed and confused. Though we have our own fundamentalists, we find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still stir up messianic passions, leaving societies in ruin. We had assumed this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. We were wrong.

This is not the kind of piece that will make the Rev. Pat Robertson dance for joy, or anything like that. Trust me. It also must be said that some of its major themes are similar to points that historian Martin Marty has been making for ages. So this is not really a liberal vs. conservative matter. But secular vs. religious?

Consider this quote from a column I wrote about a Marty presentation in the wake of Sept. 11:

Truth is, most Western leaders have long believed that religion would inevitably fade, he said. Thus, the West has been dominated by two big ideas.

“One idea was that every time you looked out your window, there was going to be less religion around than there was before,” said Marty. … “The other idea was that whatever leftover religion you find, it was going to be tolerant, concessive, mushy and so on. Instead, there has been an increase in religion and the prospering religions are all extremely intense. The versions of Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism that are prospering tend to be among people who care very much about what their faith is about.”

There is much to write and, for once, I simply want to point you in the direction of a post elsewhere — by Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher over at his Crunchy Cons blog. Rod has gone to the trouble of writing a lengthy summary of the Times piece and then offering his comments. He also rounded up another reaction or two.

To read that summary, click here. Here is a short sample of what he has to say:

I’ll say quickly, and for now, that I am glad to see this essay appear in such a prominent mainstream media outlet. I have been deeply frustrated for a long time over the inability of so many Americans, especially in the media, to understand that the American way of seeing God is not universal. Muslims are not Episcopalians in hijabs. For better and for worse, they follow their own powerful creed, and their creed is deeply incompatible with Western secularism, and with modernity. And we’ve got to deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it were.

And that is the key for journalists. Do we want to try to offer informed, accurate, balanced coverage of these debates? Is that possible?

At the very least, this thunderclap in the holy Times is a sign that it is getting safer and safer to admit that religion is news, period, and that it is impossible to make sense of the news that is going on around us without admitting that journalists will have to “get religion.” Amen.

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Is Karl Rove haunted or hollow?

mt1113516596For some perverse reason, I think the following information from Google News is rather interesting:

Your search — “Karl Rove,” Episcopalian — did not match any documents.

Suggestions: Make sure all words are spelled correctly. Try different keywords. Try more general keywords. Try fewer keywords. Try Google Blog Search.

You did hear that Karl Rove left the White House?

Yes, the great white whale that Netroots Democrats have loved to hate is headed back to Texas, where he will surely pull strings to do more damage to the hopes and dreams of liberals everywhere. This has been the hot topic here in Beltway land and, as you would imagine, it has caused a headline or two.

Now when you think of President George W. Bush and his two narrow White House wins, the first thing that leaps to mind is the whole values-voters and “pew gap” thing. The assumption is that, without the evangelical vote, the man is toast. The other assumption is that, without Rove, the man is toast.

So I have found it interesting that there has been almost nothing in the mainstream coverage this week about Rove and the strings he used to control — we must assume — conservative Christian voters. How did the maestro connect with them? Or did he, as many quiet religious critics say in private, merely peel off religious voters in order to build support for country-club Republican economic policies?

Well, The Atlantic has a way-amazingly well-timed cover story out right now by Joshua Green titled “Lessons of a Failed Presidency: Why Karl Rove Couldn’t Deliver.” I found two passages in this piece really interesting. Let’s start with the train coming off the rails post-2004:

But within a year the administration was crumbling. Social Security had gone nowhere. Hurricane Katrina, the worsening war in Iraq, and the disastrous nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court shattered the illusion of stern competence that had helped reelect Bush. What surprised everybody was how suddenly it happened; for a while, many devotees of the Cult of Rove seemed not to accept that it had. As recently as last fall, serious journalists were churning out soaring encomiums to Rove and his methods with titles like One Party Country and The Way to Win. In retrospect, everyone should have been focusing less on how those methods were used to win elections and more on why they couldn’t deliver once the elections were over.

Now, the Miers case is interesting because the White House thought all evangelicals would rally to her cause, backing her vague, quiet, strange sort of born-again credentials. But they didn’t, at least not in waves. Truth is, Rove’s great disasters rarely had much to do with religion, unless one thinks that Rove and Cheney really are into all that Left Behind mischief in the Middle East.

So what was this Episcopalian named Karl Rove up to? Where is the religion hook in this story?

… Rove’s idea was to use the levers of government to create an effect that ordinarily occurs only in the most tumultuous periods in American history. He believed he could force a realignment himself through a series of far-reaching policies. Rove’s plan had five major components: establish education standards, pass a “faith-based initiative” directing government funds to religious organizations, partially privatize Social Security, offer private health-savings accounts as an alternative to Medicare, and reform immigration laws to appeal to the growing Hispanic population. Each of these, if enacted, would weaken the Democratic Party by drawing some of its core supporters into the Republican column.

Now study that agenda carefully. It’s clear that the whole faith-based thing was all but DOA, and many have said it was a symbolic flop that never was taken seriously. So what is left? If you read the rest of the Green piece, you’ll find that there is next to nothing in it about religion.

Now read the New York Times piece on Rove’s departure — here it is. See much faith in there?

Now read the Washington Post piece on the same day — http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/08/13/AR2007081301168_pf.html">here it is. Find much Godtalk in there? Was Rove a really faith-based kind of guy?

Now, finally, read the Los Angeles Times piece on Rove’s exit — here it is. This one does include one ambitious attempt to turn Rove’s tactics into a system and that leads into Culture Wars territory.

This is a bit long, but it’s essential. Let me toss a question or two into this.

Rove’s system had three major components. Using powerful computer systems, modern marketing tools, micro-targeting of supporters and sophisticated get-out-the-vote techniques, he revolutionized the nuts and bolts of campaigning. Republican strategists … that would be a lasting piece of Rove’s legacy.

His methods enabled GOP operatives to scour even the most heavily Democratic precincts for potential Republican votes, identifying individuals whose lifestyle habits, consumer preferences and other characteristics made them potential supporters.

karl rove mugWell, what kind of “lifestyle habits” and “other characteristics” are we talking about? Does this have anything to do with his controversial attempt to obtain church mailing lists?

Another big part of Rovism was making sure federal officials throughout the government understood GOP election priorities and helped party candidates in every way possible, such as decisions on highway contracts and environmental policy. Other politicians, including Democrats, have used government policymaking to advance their political agendas, but Rove carried the effort to new heights.

Although this strategy may have boosted GOP support in battleground states, it also contributed to controversies that fueled Democratic congressional investigations. Rove has been subpoenaed to testify about
what role he had, if any, in the firing of several U.S. attorneys.

Sounds like secular brass-knuckle stuff to me.

Finally, instead of trying to appeal to the independent middle of the electorate, Rove pushed such wedge issues as abortion, same-sex marriage and gun rights to maximize support from the GOP’s conservative base. The same tactics were used to draw into the Republican fold single-issue voters who might otherwise have voted for Democrats or have stayed home.

Now this is where things get interesting. It’s clear that Rove pushed moral issues.

But it’s also clear that he did so only when he was pushing issues on which a clear majority of Americans were on his side — other than the abortion issue, which, as always, stands alone. But there are millions of worship-service-attending Americans — including Democrats — who want to see strong legal restrictions on abortion. Once again, Rove had the numbers there on his side and he was trying to peel away conservative Democrats, African-Americans, Hispanics, daily Mass Catholics and others.

Rove did what was in his interest. What emerges in these stories is that his fatal mistakes had nothing to do with religious and moral agendas. His mistakes were linked to issues of competence, entitlement programs, cronyism, arrogance, etc. etc. And, of course, Iraq, Iraq, Iraq and Iraq.

So where is the essential religion-news hook for this story? How would you word it?

If you want to see some of the dots connected, in the most snarky manner possible, then you have to turn — naturally — to Salon, where Lou Dubose writes a piece that is almost exactly the opposite of the mainstream coverage. The question, of course, is whether this is an editorial judgment or a journalistic one. Who is closer to the real story of Rove?

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Texans love God and killing killers

TexasDeathPenaltyWell, this is certainly a pushy opening for a story on a hot-button issue, care of Reuters reporter Ed Stoddard in Dallas:

Texas will almost certainly hit the grim total of 400 executions this month, far ahead of any other state, testament to the influence of the state’s conservative evangelical Christians and its cultural mix of Old South and Wild West.

… Texas has executed 398 convicts since it resumed the practice in 1982, six years after the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a ban on capital punishment, far exceeding second-place Virginia with 98 executions since the ban was lifted. It has five executions scheduled for August.

Speaking as a prodigal Texan (and as an unrepentant opponent of the death penalty), I would have to say that a statement like that raises at least two big questions.

(1) Is this iron-clad connection between Christians in Texas and the death penalty justified?

(2) Has the reporter fairly demonstrated that it is justified?

In this case, I am going to go with “yes” on the first question and “no” on the latter.

Why? Here is a sample of the Godtalk in this piece, just to give you a flavor of what is going on here in the land of President George W. Bush and current Gov. Rick Perry:

Like his predecessor, Governor Perry is a devout Christian, highlighting one key factor in Texas’ enthusiasm for the death penalty that many outsiders find puzzling — the support it gets from conservative evangelical churches. This is in line with their emphasis on individuals taking responsibility for their own salvation, and they also find justification in scripture.

“A lot of evangelical Protestants not only believe that capital punishment is permissible but that it is demanded by God. And they see sanction for that in the Old Testament especially,” said Matthew Wilson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Texas also stands at an unusual geographical and cultural crossroads: part Old South, with its legacy of racism, and part Old West, with a cowboy sense of rough justice.

All kinds of things are going on in that crucial chunk of text, starting with the vague, vague, vague reference to “many outsiders” standing in judgment of these conservative, pro-death-penalty Christians. Might it have been possible to quote a critic or two by name?

Well, wait a second. I think Stoddard does that, only his outsider is a professor at Southern Methodist University — a progressive enclave in Bible Belt land of Texas if there ever was one. So the outsider is actually an insider on the left side of things.

This is good, since you need that voice in the article. However, it is also very bad in that this is the voice who gets to speak for the very, very complex world of Christianity in Texas. Where are the voices from Southern Baptist higher education — left and right — and from, oh, Hispanic Catholicism in the state? Trust me, there are people out there who can defend the death penalty and attack it from a wide variety of pews.

I would also agree that one would have to be blind not to see an element of racism in the Texas death-penalty statistics. However, isn’t it a bit of a cheap shot to — wink, wink — link that so directly to the reference to Bible thumping?

There was no need to turn this story into a one-sided cheap shot. The story is complex enough, and sad enough, even if you tell it straight.

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Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t punish

elcaThe Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has ordained gay clergy for years. Since it formed out of a merger of three Lutheran church bodies in 1988, it has defrocked three clergy for violating the church body’s requirement that gay clergy abstain from sexual relationships. At the group’s national assembly last week in Chicago, a vote to permit homosexual clergy to engage in sexual relationships failed on Friday but another vote requesting that the church body avoid disciplining gay clergy who violate the celibacy policy was passed on Saturday.

I’ve complained before that every time a major happening occurs in the ELCA, many reporters fail to distinguish between the church body and the other Lutheran bodies that don’t share the same doctrinal perspective. But this story was different. I read dozens of stories and they all identified the ELCA by name and some even mentioned other Lutheran bodies and their opposing views! We received more than a few notes from non-ELCA Lutheran readers who were pleased by the distinction. But we received complaints on other media coverage issues.

Rachel Zoll covered the story for the Associated Press. Here’s how she began:

A national assembly of Evangelical Lutherans urged its bishops Saturday to refrain from defrocking gay and lesbian ministers who violate a celibacy rule, but rejected measures that would have permitted ordaining gays churchwide.

Still, advocates for full inclusion of gays were encouraged, calling the resolution a powerful statement in support of clergy with same-gender partners. The conservative group Lutheran CORE, however, said bishops will now feel more secure in ignoring denomination policy.

By the middle of the story, she explains she’s talking about the mainline Protestant group the ELCA. But I’m not sure that “Evangelical Lutherans” is the best way to describe the ELCA on first reference. This error was repeated elsewhere.

Either way, the first sentence doesn’t quite make sense. Gays already are ordained throughout the ELCA — and have been for decades. And the phrase “full inclusion of gays” is just loaded and shouldn’t be used. I’m not disagreeing that it’s the phrase of choice for people who advocate ordination of gay clergy, permission of gay clergy to be sexually active, church sanctioning of gay marriage, etc. But people who oppose such doctrinal positions because they approach Scriptural teachings on the matter in a different way — in the historic and traditional way, even — would never phrase their position as one fighting “full inclusion of gays.” It’s also imprecise. And in hot-button issues such as homosexuality, it’s wise to spell things out.

I have friends in the ELCA who were both happy and unhappy about the 538-431 vote. But people on both sides kept mentioning that they would have been content if the vote could have been delayed until an eight-year study on human sexuality is released in 2009. Keep that in mind when reading this one-sided story from Denver Post reporter Monte Whaley. Far better was Susan Hogan/Albach’s story in the Chicago Sun-Times:

The nation’s largest Lutheran denomination on Saturday passed a measure calling on church leaders to “refrain from or demonstrate restraint” in disciplining gay clergy in committed relationships.

A day earlier, church members meeting at Navy Pier voted down a measure that would have ended the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s celibacy requirement for gay clergy.

Still, Saturday’s 538-431 decision was widely viewed as historic and a sign of shifting thinking on homosexuality within the 4.8-million member denomination.

“It’s a huge victory,” said Jeremy Posadas, a voting church member from Decatur, Ga. “The gospel of inclusion has won, and we’re going to keep winning.”

Some call move ‘tragic’
The Rev. Mark Chavez, leader of Lutheran CORE, a group that opposes non-celibate gays serving as pastors, called the vote “tragic.”

“This decision will be an excuse for bishops to disobey ELCA policy,” he said. “This decision does not reflect the will of the people, but of bishops and clergy who disregard God’s word.”

Bishop Paul Landahl of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod spearheaded the measure, which calls on church leaders to “refrain from or demonstrate restraint” in disciplining those who violate the celibacy policy.

Concise, balanced, straightforward and informative. Margaret Ramirez of the Chicago Tribune also covered the historic vote and provided some interesting perspective and quotes from people who opposed the move. There’s this sketchy paragraph early on:

For church advocates who support inclusion of gays in the church, the resolution was hailed as a partial victory and a step toward full inclusion of homosexuals in the church. But conservative leaders saw the move as contradictory to the church’s policy against ordination of gay ministers and predicted the resolution would open the door to chaos in the church.

lesbian gay christiansAgain, is it wise to look into the hearts of people who retain the historic interpretation of Scripture on this issue and deem that they want to exclude gays from the church? Or keep them from being involved in the church? Unless reporters have gotten better at looking into the hearts of people then they’ve been in the past, such biased language does not help illuminate the divide in this and other churches. Anyway, Ramirez mentions the two next-largest Lutheran church bodies and speaks with ELCA members who are not pleased with the change in the church’s discipline practice:

Conservative leaders in the church, like Rev. Mark Chavez, director of the conservative Word Alone Network, said the disciplinary measure contradicted church policy and provided a loophole for gay clergy to minister. He also expressed concern the measure would lead to widespread lawsuits if a bishop chose to use discipline. He said the new resolution gives bishops permission to ignore the standards and disregard the clear word of God. But Chavez stopped short of saying the measure would split the denomination.

“Any time you start ignoring God’s word on matters, you better watch out because you’re in dangerous territory,” he said.

Jaynan Clark Egland, president of Word Alone Network, said the measure created a double standard for discipline.

“I don’t know as a Christian, as a pastor and as a parent, what really would be worse — a church with no biblical standards to govern our ministry or standards we don’t intend to enforce. To refrain from discipline in the home is bad parenting, but we’re about to do so in the Christ’s church.”

Now, Chavez chose to be ordained into and remains ordained within a church body that permits gay clergy to minister, so I doubt he said that this 2007 move was a “loophole for gay clergy to minister.” But the overall view of Egland and Chavez is mentioned, which is good for perspective.

There are many other stories worth taking a look at, from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel‘s Tom Heinen piece to Daniel Blake’s story in Christianity Today. Heinen’s earlier piece on the convention was full of details.

The AP also had a story on the Atlanta pastor whose defrocking this year brought some of these issues to a head. But for the hands-down best coverage on the Rev. Bradley Schmeling and how his case has progressed, read Southern Voice. We don’t normally cover non-mainstream press, and Southern Voice is a gay weekly — but month after month the reporters there have been on the story and it shows. One of the things I loved about Zach Hudson’s latest article is how it concisely explained some of the church politics at play leading up to this decision. St. John’s is the parish Schmeling serves:

As the public face of the fight, the St. John’s team — supported by Lutherans Concerned/North America, a gay affirming ELCA ministry, and Goodsoil, a coalition of gay affirming groups seeking change within the church — mailed out a video documentary which “tells the story of St. John’s” to all 1,072 voting members of the Churchwide Assembly.

The gay rights activists on hand at the assembly have led press events and initiated conversations with voting members. LC/NA and Goodsoil published and distributed “A Place Within My Walls,” a 24-page devotional booklet which contains the names of 82 ELCA ministers who are coming out to the at-large ELCA for the first time.

“I need to tell you that we contacted more than twice as many pastors to check with them about including their names,” said LC/NA Executive Director Emily Eastwood. She credited the listed ministers with bravery in the face of uncertain consequences.

Good reporting and very interesting to boot.

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Green evangelicals on page one (surprise)

Evangelicals and Global Warming A Formal Debate largeAt some point, the whole “moderate evangelicals are starting to care about Creation” story is going to get old, but it sure does not seem that this will happen anytime soon.

Don’t get me wrong. This is an important story. However, it is also an example of an old truth: The quickest way for a conservative to get on page one of a major newspaper is by saying something critical of powerful conservative leaders or groups.

The Green evangelicals stories are also linked to coverage of the rising Christian left, and that’s another important story. And there are many, many doctrinally traditionalist Christians (Can I see some hands raised?) who are tired of seeing journalists link conservative moral stands with GOP position papers on every issue under the hot sun.

However, the best mainstream stories on these trends tend to note that these pro-Green evangelicals (What does one need to believe to be an anti-Green evangelical?) rarely forsake their conservative stands on other moral issues. They are broadening their agenda, not editing it.

However, the hook that some evangelicals are embracing a position advocated by the mainstream press is simply catnip for journalists. That story is heading to page one. Pronto.

This brings us to the latest high-profile Washington Post report on this hot story: “Warming Draws Evangelicals Into Environmentalist Fold.” It really helps that reporter Juliet Eilperin has a story hook with a church that is clearly, under anyone’s definition, an “evangelical” stronghold. We are talking about Northland Church in Longwood, Fla.

A key question, however, is this: Where did this trend come from? We are told about an activist named Denise Kirsop:

Her conversion to environmentalism is the result of a years-long international campaign by British bishops and leaders of major U.S. environmental groups to bridge a long-standing divide between global-warming activists and American evangelicals. The emerging rapprochement is regarded by some as a sign of how dramatically U.S. public sentiment has shifted on global warming in recent years. It also has begun, in modest ways, to transform how the two groups define themselves.

And this brings us to the key figure in the story:

“I did sense this is one of these issues where the church could leadership, like with civil rights,” said Northland’s senior pastor, Joel C. Hunter. “It’s a matter of who speaks for evangelicals: Is it a broad range of voices on a broad range of issues, or a narrow range of voices?”

Hunter has emerged among evangelicals as a pivotal advocate for cutting greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say are warming Earth’s climate. A self-deprecating 59-year-old minister who can quote the “Baby Jesus” speech that Will Farrell delivered in the 2006 movie “Talladega Nights” as readily as he can the Bible, Hunter regularly preaches about climate change to 7,000 congregants in five Central Florida sites and to 3,000 more worshipers via the Internet. He even has met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill to talk about environmental issues.

While he remains in a distinct minority, and a number of others on the Christian right disparage his efforts, Hunter and others like him have begun to reshape the politics around climate change.

bible worldIn other words, this man is smart and hip. He hangs out with people from Great Britain. And media people, too! As you would expect, that leads to trouble.

The “greening” of Hunter and others still elicits scorn from many evangelicals, including Focus on the Family’s James Dobson and Prison Fellowship’s Charles W. “Chuck” Colson. They question whether humankind really deserves the blame for Earth’s recent warming and argue that their battles against abortion and same-sex marriage should take precedence.

And there is the giant hole in the story.

The Post team that produced this story does not tell us how Hunter and the members of his flock who have gone Green link their beliefs on this topic with any other doctrines, including moral teachings that have been central to the Christian faith for 2000 years or so. The implication is that this flock has gone soft on the life issues and on moral theology about sex.

In this day and age, it just isn’t fair — to readers or the people quoted — to leave this hole in the story. If there is a clash there, cover it. If these people are linking their conservative beliefs with this stand on the environment, if they see this new stance as consistent with their faith, then let them say it.

It is one thing to say that Hunter wants to move beyond “below-the-belt issues” such as homosexuality and abortion. It is something else to hint that he has changed his beliefs on basic doctrines. Silence just won’t cut it, in this case.

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