Now, this is why CNN has a religion blog!

Don’t you just love it when Congress holds hearings on a complex topic — think the state of family farming — and the powers that be call a famous actress as a witness because, in a movie, she played a woman whose farm is in trouble?

The flip side of that is when journalists turn away from the real experts on the scene when dealing with a complex topic (or calling on people with direct, practical experience) and focus on the opinions of celebrities or the views of academics at famous institutions three time zones away from the event (think Branch Davidians in Waco) who have no real links to the topic, but their faces are famous on TV?

What we have here is a CNN weblog item that is gently poking a bit of fun — as I read it — at, well, CNN for a classic example of this syndrome. Note that this, however, is on a popular culture weblog operated by this cable kingdom.

Read it and laugh, to keep from crying:

After thousands of birds mysteriously fell out of the sky in Arkansas on New Year’s Eve, it was only natural that Anderson Cooper turned to an expert for an explanation. Enter Kirk Cameron.

The former “Growing Pains” star — a born-again Christian who has appeared in movies based on the end-of-days-themed “Left Behind” books — appeared on “Anderson Cooper 360″ to discuss whether he thought the dead birds were a sign of the apocalypse.

“Well, I first think that they ought to call a veterinarian, not me. You know, I’m not the religious-conspiracy-theorist go-to guy, particularly,” Cameron said. “But I think it’s really kind of silly to try to equate birds falling out of the sky with some kind of an end-times theory.”

Chalk it up to the public’s fascination with doomsday predictions.

“People love to find codes and signs of future events and see if they can decipher them before anybody else,” the 40-year-old actor told Cooper. “But birds falling from the sky? That has to do more with pagan mythology; the direction that the birds flew told some of the followers of some of those legends that the gods were either pleased or displeased with them.”

Actually, Cameron seems to be in on the joke, as well. So are we talking about a PUBLIC fascination with apocalyptic gossip or is this actually an insight into the minds of producers who work for Anderson Cooper, in terms of what they think of the interests of the public?

Either way, I find this a bit depressing.

Still, I immediately — as a joke — sent an email about this pop-culture item to a friend of mine at CNN with the subject line: “Now, this is why CNN has a religion blog!” Ha ha, and all that.

Then he fired back: “Good catch.”

Thus, you can now click here and gaze in wonderment.

I wrote back: “Dude! I was joking!”

This is the world that we live in, people.

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The end of the world

Already, 2011 is shaping up to be a busy year for the Ross family. In mid-May, my son Brady will graduate from high school. Just a few days later, the end of the world will start.

Graduation Day. Then Judgment Day. Unfortunately, doesn’t look like there’ll be a long Memorial Day weekend this year. At least not for the saved.

The Associated Press has the scoop:

RALEIGH, N.C. — If there had been time, Marie Exley would have liked to start a family. Instead, the 32-year-old Army veteran has less than six months left, which she’ll spend spreading a stark warning: Judgment Day is almost here.

Exley is part of a movement of Christians loosely organized by radio broadcasts and websites, independent of churches and convinced by their reading of the Bible that the end of the world will begin on May 21, 2011.

To get the word out, they’re using billboards and bus stop benches, traveling caravans of RVs and volunteers passing out pamphlets on street corners. Cities from Bridgeport, Conn., to Little Rock, Ark., now have billboards with the ominous message, and mission groups are traveling in countries from Latin America to Africa to spread the news outside the U.S.

“A lot of people might think, ‘The end’s coming, let’s go party,’” said Exley, a veteran of two deployments in Iraq. “But we’re commanded by God to warn people. I wish I could just be like everybody else, but it’s so much better to know that when the end comes, you’ll be safe.”

AP’s report is written by Tom Breen, whose excellent work on the Godbeat has drawn praise from your GetReligionistas.

In this case, I found much to like — as always — about Breen’s story. For example, the writer provides good background on why most Christians will probably go ahead and make summer vacation plans:

The belief that Christ will return to earth and bring an end to history has been a basic element of Christian belief since the first century. The Book of Revelation, which comes last in the New Testament, describes this conclusion in vivid language that has inspired Christians for centuries.

But few churches are willing to set a date for the end of the world, heeding Jesus’ words in the gospels of Mark and Matthew that no one can know the day or hour it will happen. Predictions like Camping’s, though, aren’t new. One of the most famous in history was by the Baptist leader William Miller, who predicted the end for Oct. 22, 1844, which came to be known as the Great Disappointment among his followers, some of who subsequently founded the Seventh Day Adventist church.

Regrettably, though, there’s also a major hole in this report.

Yes, readers find out the source of this latest end-of-the-world pronouncement:

In August, Exley left her home in Colorado Springs, Colo., to work with Oakland, Calif.-based Family Radio Worldwide, the independent Christian ministry whose leader, Harold Camping, has calculated the May 21 date based on his reading of the Bible.

But here’s the hole: No mention is made of the fact that Camping himself has made similar predictions before. And, as you probably guessed, been wrong. That’s relevant background, right?

From a New Jersey newspaper report last month:

Camping had speculated that the world would end in 1994. He has written several books, including one that encourages Christians to eschew church in favor of studying the Bible at home, and another that states that gays expressing pride are a sign from God that the world is coming to an end.

In reading the AP story, I also found myself with many unanswered questions about the “loose Christian movement” involved in getting out the word about the world ending. The second paragraph mentions that the movement is “independent of churches,” but never really explains why that is or what it means. Christianity Today reported in 2002 that Camping had roiled churches “by saying that Christians are in the Great Tribulation and should depart from their congregations.” Does that mean that the people involved in this end-of-world movement do not attend church or claim allegiances to any particular denomination?

Anyway, I apologize if this post missed any key points or questions. I typed it in a hurry, while there was still time.

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Faith-free Sun report on modern families

It is very hard to write about the history of Catholicism in the United States without writing about the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland. Baltimore is, of course, the senior see in the United States and was established as a diocese on April 6, 1789.

Thus, it’s hard to write about the big-button moral and cultural issues of civic life in this city without some kind of reference to or request for input from someone in the Church of Rome. However, it must be said that, even though this task is a hard one, The Baltimore Sun consistently gives it that good old college try.

Consider, for example, the following report on a subject of the utmost urgency in the Charm City and many other urban areas in the American Northeast (and elsewhere, such as the Midwest) that are struggling with basic demographic issues. Are many schools closing their doors? Even Catholic schools? Do school teachers report that many of their students have little support at home since they are being raised in one-parent families?

The headline on this giant Sun story was simple:

Census: Fewer than 10 percent of city households are nuclear families

The anecdotal lede was just as direct and to the point:

Before moving with her boyfriend of three years to a Hampden home this September, Brandy Washington lived with two other women, both young professionals in their 20s, just like her.

Delaying marriage is a lifestyle that has suited the 27-year-old. She and her boyfriend wanted to “try things out” and live together before becoming more serious — a far cry from her high-school-sweetheart parents, who married right out of college.

Almost all of her peers, Washington said, are living the same way, either with friends or a long-term partner. They have few serious personal commitments, and are free of social stigmas pressuring them to get married and have children on a specific timeline.

“Living in Baltimore, it’s definitely more liberal than other parts of the country,” said Washington, who works in marketing. “It’s nice to have camaraderie and people who are going through some of the same situations as you are. It’s a great way to prolong your youth as well.”

New U.S. Census Bureau data indicate that her choice is becoming more common here. Baltimore and Washington are among a handful of U.S. localities where fewer than 10 percent of households are made up of married couples and their children. In the city, 8.6 percent of households are such nuclear families, compared to 23 percent statewide and nationwide.

Now, I am well aware that this is not a story about religion, per se.

No, it’s a story about sex, cohabitation, marriage, fertility, children, divorce, abortion, single-parent homes, absent fathers and the shifting tides in what once was called “public morality.” This has nothing to do with religion, of course, even in a symbolic city such as Baltimore. One might even be tempted to suggest that this obvious and major trend is important to the future of Catholicism in the urban Northeast, but I digress.

The bottom line: Marriage is old fashioned and has little or nothing to do with sexual morality. That is a big chunk of the new reality — it’s hard to argue otherwise. This, however, has nothing to do with religion. Keep repeating that mantra.

Then again, this does make we wonder why there are so many new marriages of young adults in my Eastern Orthodox parish in an old, old, old neighborhood just out of the Baltimore city line. The number of new children is shockingly high, too. I wonder what churches encourage marriages and children and which do not? Does this have any impact on urban demographics? On life in the public square? On the future of Catholicism?

Surely not. Otherwise there might be a hint of that in this Sun report. Then again, our local newspaper does not even take these kinds of issues into account when writing about, oh, issues such as the decline of Catholic schools or the declining numbers of priests in the region.

For some reason, this also reminds me of that recent Weekly Standard piece about the declining size of traditional two-parent families in this fair land of ours. Do you remember my post on that? As a refresher, here is the money quote:

The best indicator of actual fertility is “aspirational fertility” — the number of children men and women say they would like to have. Gallup has been asking Americans about their “ideal family size” since 1936. When they first asked the question, 64 percent of Americans said that three or more children were ideal; 34 percent said that zero, one, or two children were ideal. Today only 34 percent of Americans think that a family with three-or-more children is ideal.

But on this question there are two Americas today: a secular population that wants small families (or no family at all) and a religious population that wants larger families. Religious affiliation is part of the story, but the real difference comes with church attendance. Among people who seldom or never go to church, 66 percent say that zero, one, or two children is the ideal family size, and only 25 percent view three-or-more children as ideal. Among those who go to church monthly, the three-or-more number edges up to 29 percent. But among those who attend church every week, 41 percent say three or more children is ideal, while only 47 percent think that a smaller family is preferable. When you meet couples with more than three children today, chances are they’re making a cultural and theological statement.

However, this theological statement has nothing to do with Baltimore and it has nothing to do with Catholic Baltimore. Religion does not even play a small role in this important story. Nope. No way.

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DADT and last rites; chaplaincy questions (again)

In the wake of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a few mainstream journalists are still trying to get a handle on what happens next with issues of religious liberty in the U.S. military.

For example, I had a conversation with a national-level religion reporter or two the other day and the conversations started with the following kind of statement: “You know, we can’t find religious leaders who are going to pull their chaplains if ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is repealed. There really isn’t a story there.”

Of course not. That was never the issue.

The issue has always been what, if anything, happens to culturally conservative chaplains — most Orthodox Jews, Catholics, Southern Baptists, Muslims, evangelical and high-church Anglicans, Pentecostals, Eastern Orthodox, etc., etc. — after repeal. I have not seen a single statement saying that mere repeal would cause an exodus. Note carefully what two prominent leaders actually said, in letters to military leaders about this issue (as quoted in my Scripps Howard column on this topic):

If “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is repealed, “no restrictions or limitations on the teaching of Catholic morality can be accepted,” noted Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for Military Services. While Catholic chaplains must always show compassion, they “can never condone — even silently — homosexual behavior.”

A letter from Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America to the chaplains board was even more blunt: “If our chaplains were in any way … prohibited from denouncing such behavior as sinful and self-destructive, it would create an impediment to their service in the military. If such an attitude were regarded as ‘prejudice’ or the denunciation of homosexuality as ‘hate language,’ or the like, we would be forced to pull out our chaplains from military service.”

Obviously, the flip side of this coin applies for the left, with many Lutherans, Presbyterians, mainstream Episcopalians, United Church of Christ clergy, American Baptists, Reform Jews and others having every right to express the pro-gay rights views that have been adopted by their church establishments (if not all of their congregations).

So while most of the mainstream press coverage (sample Washington Post report here) moves on to the next round of DADT politics (look for hearings on many implementation issues, including treatment of chaplains, in the new House of Representatives) it helps for religion-beat reporters to realize that the chaplaincy issue has not been settled.

As I stated not that long ago, it’s crucial to realize that the debates about the rights and responsibilities of military chaplains are decades old and certainly did not start with DADT. For years, most of the controversy came from secularists who — with good cause — feared the creation of a state-mandated, even if lowest-common-denominator religion funded with tax dollars.

For example: How many Wiccans are in the military? Quite a few. Where do they serve? Now, how many Wiccan chaplains are there? Maybe one? Where do they serve? One location, if any. How has that worked out? Not very well.

How many Wiccans feel comfortable with a Pentecostal pastor, a Muslim imam, a Catholic priest, an Orthodox rabbi, an evangelical Lutheran or anyone from another faith leading their rites (if they are allowed to do so under their own vows)? Now, many forms of pagan faith do not have formal ordination procedures (while some do). Who approves the appointment of a layperson as a chaplain? How do a small circle of pagan chaplains serve believers on bases spread out around the world?

This is an extreme example, in terms of the numbers, but the principles are what matter. Some chaplains simply cannot serve as substitutes for others. Some can. Some cannot. A liberal Episcopalian might make a grand substitute for a liberal United Methodist. She would make a poor substitute for a Roman Catholic priest, an Orthodox rabbi, an Eastern Orthodox priest or an imam, a Southern Baptist pastor, etc., etc.

Yet that is the policy and church-state experts on the left and the right are going to have their own reasons for feeling tense. Here are the facts, as stated in that excellent CNN.com report that I recently praised:

“Some feared repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell might limit their individual freedom of expression and free exercise of religion, or require them to change their personal beliefs about the morality of homosexuality,” the report says. “The views expressed to us in these terms cannot be downplayed or dismissed.” But, it said, “Service members will not be required to change their personal views and religious beliefs; they must, however, continue to respect and serve with others who hold different views and beliefs.”

The same holds true for the military’s chaplain service, the report says. “Chaplains, in the context of their religious ministry, are not required to take actions inconsistent with their religious beliefs, but must still care for all Service members,” it says.

As I said before, the key is how military leaders and lawyers for activist groups choose to define the word “care.”

Care could mean someone saying, “Under my ordination vows, I honestly have a conflict of interest in offering the help that you are requesting or affirming key details of your beliefs. However, I will do everything I can to get you in contact with a clergy person representing your faith or a chaplain who is acceptable to you.” That is painful and awkward, obviously, but people of good will could make it work. Then again, improper “care” could mean an openly gay Catholic turning in his or her priest who advocates the teachings of the church in a sermon, a chat over coffee or even, heaven forbid, during confession.

Let me stress that the codes guiding the chaplains have long stated that they are allowed freedom of conscience AND they are expected to care for all. The tensions have been there for some time, on the doctrinal left and the right. It is hard to have the state govern the acts and consciences of women and men — on the left and on the right — who have taken vows to a higher power. The conflicts have been real — before DADT.

So what does this look like in practice? Over at USA Today, veteran religion Cathy Lynn Grossman offered these scenarios at the Faith & Reason weblog:

If your loved one in uniform were wounded or dying, would you be all right with a chaplain at his or her side who withheld comforting prayers because your loved one is gay?

What if the chaplain’s view was that the most loving thing he could do would be to offer the evangelical vision of Christian truth that the chaplain believes is the only path to heaven?

That’s a perfect statement of half of the equation.

First, I cannot imagine any chaplain withholding prayers of comfort to a soldier in that circumstance. Notice that Grossman assumed that the gay soldier is not an evangelical of some kind. It is also assumed that the gay soldier is sexually active, as opposed to a celibate gay who affirms centuries of traditional Christian doctrines on faith and marriage. There are all kinds of variations here.

But let’s assume that this is a gay soldier who is secular or from a progressive flock that fully affirms homosexuality in all expressions. Then let’s assume that her chaplain is an outspoken Southern Baptist. The potential is there for the chaplain to voice offensive doctrines, right? And another chaplain may be miles away. Or the chaplain may be an Orthodox or Catholic priest who can offer words of comfort, but perhaps not the precise words of comfort sought by the soldier and his or her companion or companions (in the sense of friends who are with them at that moment).

Was proper “care” given? Is “care,” in this case, defined by the military or the body that ordained the chaplain? Or is “care” defined by the family of the fallen?

Now, the dying soldier is Hindu or a member of another polytheistic faith and the chaplain is Muslim.

Now, the dying soldier is a traditional Roman Catholic and the chaplain is Southern Baptist, a female Episcopal priest, a Reform rabbi, a Unitarian, a Pentecostal pastor (who rejects Catholicism), etc. etc. Who says the last rites and offers a final blessing or the Eucharist?

Now, the dying soldier is a Southern Baptist and the chaplain is a Mormon.

Now, the dying soldier is a Muslim and the chaplain is Jewish, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Pentecostal, Wiccan, etc. etc.

Grossman’s scenario is perfectly valid and raises questions that should trouble all people of good will. But the variations on this scenario go on and on, don’t they?

That’s the story. The concerns on left and right are valid.

What are the options? They are three:

(1) Find some way to end the chaplaincy program (under the assumption that if equal access is not possible, then closing down the chaplaincy program is the only legal option that is fair to all).

(2) Allow clergy to serve without violating their ordination vows (with the knowledge that, even when working with people of good will, this imperfect system will cause tensions and accusations of “hate speech”).

(3) The establishment of state-mandated and government-funded religious rites and rules of conduct of chaplains, mandating that expressions of the beliefs of many clergy are acceptable and that expressions of opposing beliefs are not acceptable. Some chaplains would argue that option (3) is already in place, but it is inconsistently enforced.

So what is the next wrinkle in the story? Congressional debates about freedom of conscience and the meaning of the word “care.” Stay tuned.

TOP PHOTO: Image from the U.S. Air Force website.

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Is it Time’s job to get religion?

This is the cover of the new issue of Time magazine dedicated to “What Really Happened, 2000-2010.”

If you are interested in religion news, there is very, very, very little need to purchase and read this issue. Apparently, the decade in question did not contain many events or issues that were influenced by religion to any significant degree.

Honest.

That whole Sept. 11 thing? Not really.

How about the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and the looming struggles with Iran? Well, there is this passage in the feature entitled “Iraq: Missed Steps.” There is no way to link to the essay by bureau chief Bobby Gosh, since Time did not see fit to do that online (other than this Web extra video). But here is the key passage, which, in it’s own way, is an excellent summary of the whole magazine.

The setting is the just-captured Tigris palace of Saddam Hussein.

Inside Saddam’s gilt- and chintz-filled office, I found a Marine taking down one of the Iraqi flags that hung next to the dictator’s desk and asking his Kurdish interpreter to translate the green Arabic lettering that ran through the middle. I’ll never know why the Kurd lied, replying, “It says, ‘Saddam Hussein.’ ” (It actually read, Allahu akbar, or “God is great.”) Delighted, the Marine took the flag out to the main portico and brandished it at the crowd of Iraqis. Then he fired up a Zippo lighter and, with a triumphant look, announced, “This is what we’ll do to Saddam!”

The Iraqis were aghast.

Nope, no religion ghosts in that scene. None at all.

The decade in question, of course, is the one in which — for nearly seven years — your GetReligionistas have been doing what we do, which is arguing that it is impossible for mainstream journalists to understand what is going on in many of the most important events and trends in the real world without understanding the role played by religious faith in the past and the present. Do you really have doubts about a major role for religion in the future?

But don’t look for that in this highly symbolic issue of Time. If, however, you are interested in the iconic power of Shrek, there is a rather interesting essay on page 80.

So, GetReligion readers, does anyone want to click “comment” and nominate a few religious issues or events that were of great importance in this decade? Did issues linked to faith, morality and culture play a significant role in any of our national elections? How about world affairs in general? How about debates about marriage, health care, abortion, religious liberty, education, science (think stem cells, for example), free speech, etc., etc.?

Oh, and if I missed strong religion content in this issue of Time, please let me know. I looked pretty hard.

So what think ye?

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Chaplain questions older than DADT

Allow me to start with some personal confessions before I take a look at the following CNN.com news feature about the debates about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the state of chaplains in the U.S. military.

First of all, for the past week or so I have not been wading in the mainstream media as much as usual — due to the rapid decline and death of my mother in Texas. It may take me a few days to get back up to speed.

Second, the author of the following report — Eric Marrapodi — is someone I have known for a year or so, because I cooperated in some of the early blogging discussions that led to the creation of the CNN Belief Blog. I did not, however, have any conversations with him about this story.

Third, this post is built on my long-term interests in the church-state debates that have raged around the wider issue of chaplains (approved by religious organizations and answering to them) working for the state and the military in the first place. This is an astonishingly complex subject and has been for a long time. Controversies about the behavior and rights of chaplains are not new.

Finally, I am well aware that there are people who insist that there is no conflict between religious liberty and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and that, as a result, they believe that the MSM does not need to cover the views of those who believe a conflict exists. However, there are two sides of the debate and, once again, the goal of the mainstream press is to accurately report the views on both sides. There are major religious institutions, including leaders in America’s two largest religious flocks, who are worried about potential — stress, potential — results of repeal. Click here for my Scripps Howard News Service column about all of that.

This brings us to Marrapodi’s CNN.com report. It focuses on the fact that the status of military chaplains was addressed in the Pentagon report on DADT and the fact that, once again, people are arguing about the results. Here’s the opening of the story:

The Pentagon’s long-awaited study on its policy against gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military found that repeal of the controversial policy would face resistance from some service members on religious grounds, but that repeal would not require anyone to change their personal views or religious beliefs.

“Some feared repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell might limit their individual freedom of expression and free exercise of religion, or require them to change their personal beliefs about the morality of homosexuality,” the report says. “The views expressed to us in these terms cannot be downplayed or dismissed.”

Once again, the story says that, in the view of the authors of the pro-repeal report, soldiers will not have to change their religious beliefs. However, what about expressions of those beliefs? No limits? That’s where the debates continue behind the scenes.

The main thing that I want to note in this CNN.com report is a block of material near the end that gets right to the heart of the matter. This section is must reading for journalists and others interested in understanding why this debate is — in terms of public coverage — just getting started. No matter what happens in the lame-duck Congress, reporters can expect hearings in the new House of Representatives on the potential — again, potential — effects of DADT repeal on religious liberty, both for soldiers (liberal and conservative) and chaplains (liberal and conservative).

Read the following very carefully:

A religious group or denomination that is recognized by the military must endorse a clergy member to serve as a chaplain. The report says they reached out to “approximately 200 ecclesiastical endorsing agencies that endorse military chaplains, to gauge the likelihood of continued endorsement in the event of repeal.” If a religious group or denomination pulls its endorsement for a chaplain that individual can no longer serve in the U.S. military.

The report says they received written responses from 77 of the groups they contacted, but those 77 groups represented over 70 percent of the chaplains in the armed forces. They found that “most expressed opposition to a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, based primarily on theological objections to homosexuality. However, none stated that it would withdraw its endorsements for military chaplains if the law were repealed.”

It would be good to know (a) which religious groups were contacted and which ones were not and (b) which groups were contacted and elected not to respond.

Also, it’s crucial that few if any religious leaders have, in the past year or two, suggested that mere repeal would lead to an exodus by chaplains. That isn’t the issue. Thus, read on:

Despite the fact they would not pull their endorsements for chaplains, “A significant portion of the respondents did suggest that a change in policies resulting in chaplains’ free exercise of religion or free speech rights being curtailed would lead them to withdraw their endorsement,” the report said.

In other words, the issue is what happens when traditional religious beliefs on sexuality are expressed in public or in one-on-one ministry.

Truth is, this is where the DADT conflict assumes the form of previous debates about the rights of soldiers to sympathetic chaplains and the rights of chaplains to be true to their ordination vows, in terms of the rites they perform and the doctrines that they publicly advocate or reject.

Thus, read on and prepare to come back to this point and read the following paragraph again:

“Existing regulations state that chaplains ‘will not be required to perform a religious role … in worship services, command ceremonies, or other events, if doing so would be in variance with the tenets or practices of their faith.’ At the same time, regulations state that ‘Chaplains care for all Service members, including those who claim no religious faith, facilitate the religious requirements of personnel of all faiths, provide faith-specific ministries, and advise the command.’ “

You can see the shape of the debates.

Chaplains are not required to do things that violate their ordination vows. However, some have insisted that their careers are negatively affected if they constantly decline, for example, to pray in public events that would (to avoid offending soldiers of other faiths) require them to drop references to the Christian Trinity or to Jesus Christ.

Chaplains are required to care for all soldiers. But what about the doctrinal content of this care?

Does this mean caring for soldiers in ways that please all of the soldiers? What if the chaplain declines to provide certain rites or reassurances that are requested by a serviceperson? What if a traditional Catholic priest hears the confession of a Catholic soldier — gay or straight — who is in a sexual relationship that violates the Church’s teachings and tells this believer that he or she must repent? Does the soldier have the right to protest, saying that the chaplain has declined to show proper care and respect? Has the chaplain violated the soldier’s rights? Will this conflict help the priest when it is time for a promotion?

Now, go back to that passage on the rights and responsibilities of chaplains. Read it again.

Stay tuned. This is not a new story and it isn’t just about sexuality. It’s about doctrine and the rights of soldiers, the rights of chaplains and what happens when the two clash.

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Organist jobs die in worship wars

Of all the subjects that I write about for the Scripps Howard News Service, columns about trends in worship consistently generate some of the most intense responses from readers.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to say when a few anecdotes about changes in a few major churches constitute an actual news trend. If the Catholic Church revises the missal, that’s news. Change the Book of Common Prayer and that’s news. But how does one cover the diverse, sprawling world of megachurch Protestantism? How many high-def video screens and rock-show lighting systems does one need to create a national news story?

But CNN.com recently served up a legitimate story about a major worship trend, a story linked to the “worship wars” debates that have been growing for several decades.

There are all kinds of issues to debate about this story — which only shows that the subject is quite complex. But let’s not miss the fact that the story needed to be written in the first place. Here’s the top of the report:

No one has touched the organ at First United Methodist Church in Oakland, Neb., since last January. That’s when 80-year-old Pat Anderson played her last note as the small-town church’s volunteer organist, a post she held for 18 years.

“It was time for me to retire,” she said. When she did, there was nobody to step in. Two young women have taken over the musical duties for the 190-member congregation, but they play a digital piano — not the organ.

“There are some people who wish we had the organ still, but they face the reality that it just isn’t going to happen,” said the Rev. Richard Karohl.

First United’s struggle is indicative of a nationwide plight: There aren’t enough organists to fill all of the open church positions. Many of the stay-at-home moms who once volunteered as organists are working now, and fewer young people are studying the organ. Those who are training to be professionals aren’t interested in playing for small churches where the music program is limited to Sunday services and the pay is minimal — if there’s pay at all.

Once you’ve read the story, note that this issue is framed as a problem within the nation’s more liberal mainline Protestant churches. This is a story with roots. About two decades ago, there were stories about how many urban churches were losing their skilled organists and musicians because of the AIDS crisis.

Now, other factors are at play — including money. Many small mainline churches are getting even smaller, for a number of reasons. The people in the pews are also aging, which means that the audience for traditional church music is declining with the membership decline. The World War II era faithful are passing from the scene.

There are skilled musicians out there. But who can afford them?

“There’s a great supply [of organists] for the right kind of jobs,” said James Thomashower, executive director of the 18,000-member American Guild of Organists. Compared to 30 years ago, there are fewer trained organists — but they’re chasing fewer attractive positions. It’s a buyers’ market for churches with ambitious music programs.

“There are many, many highly qualified organists who would like to have a fine job on a fine instrument that pays a good wage,” Thomashower said.

That wage, according to the Guild, should be between $63,000 and $83,000 a year, including benefits, for a full-time organist with a bachelor’s degree in organ performance or sacred music.

This, in an era in which many mainline churches are struggling to even pay a decent salary-and-benefits package for a pastor. Is it easier and cheaper to use a piano, a volunteer “praise and worship” band or some other compromise? But pop/folk service music in aging mainline churches? That’s a recipe for, yes, worship wars.

So this story represents a good start in covering a major story. What’s next? For starters, CNN needs to fill the gaping hole caused by the lack of information about finances and membership issues in mainline churches. In other words, where did the jobs go?

Meanwhile, note that this report does not address what is happening in the new American mainline, which is the world of independent evangelical and Pentecostal churches. That’s where the numbers are, today. And, trust me, there are worship wars stories in those flocks, as well. Go for it.

Photo: From GovernmentAuctions.org

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Holy Heisman, the Newton saga

If you’re a college football fan, you’re familiar with Cam Newton: He’s the star Auburn quarterback who — for now– leads most Heisman polls. This afternoon, his unbeaten, second-ranked Tigers face the No. 11 Alabama Crimson Tide in an Iron Bowl with national title ramifications.

You also know, though, that Newton has been making headlines for more than his on-field prowess. And not in a positive way. As ESPN.com’s excellent college football columnist Ivan Maisel noted:

Newton may be the best player in the country, but in the last month Newton and his father have had their reputations sullied by accusations that Cecil Newton shopped his son’s talent for money. That’s the kind of snack on which opposing fans feast.

Now you may be wondering — especially if you haven’t followed the news concerning the NCAA investigation — what in the world this has to do with religion. Oh, we need a GetReligion angle? Even on the day after Thanksgiving? Tough crowd.

But since you asked: The quarterback’s father is the pastor of a small Pentecostal church. Over the past few weeks, the church has figured into news reports on allegations that Cecil Newton sought $180,000 for his son to play football with Mississippi State. Those allegations raise the issue of whether the father received any financial incentive for his son to sign with Auburn, which would be a major violation of NCAA rules.

ESPN.com reported earlier this month:

Cecil Newton said the family received a letter from the NCAA “about a month ago” asking for financial statements. He said he submitted bank statements and records for the church where he is pastor, Holy Zion Center of Deliverance in Newnan, Ga., along with other records.

The church has been in the news in Coweta County, Ga., often in the past year. According to stories in The Times-Herald newspaper, Cecil Newton’s church was in danger of being demolished by order of the Newnan City Council in 2009 for failing to meet the city’s building code. One story said Cecil Newton told the council last September the building would be brought to code “inside of six months.” After numerous delays, extensions and compromises from the council, renovation work began last spring and The Times-Herald reported last week that the church is in compliance with Newnan’s building requirements.

“If you’ve ever seen our church, you’d know we don’t have any money,” said Cam Newton’s mother, Jackie. “We have nothing.”

Questions about the church prompted an NBC Sports blogger — perhaps in need of GetReligion remedial training — to remark a few days later:

Aside from the fact that the church name sounds like a cult, there would seem to be nothing spectacular about Cecil’s establishment.

The blogger’s comment gave me the distinct impression that he’s never read that headline-grabbing Pew Forum study from a few years ago on the rising tide of Pentecostalism. (That was an attempt at humor, by the way.) Seriously, though, the remark sent me on a Google search for any mainstream media coverage of the church. I was curious about the church and wanted to know more about its role in this. At the time — a couple of weeks ago — I couldn’t find anything beyond bare-bones mentions.

So I was pleased this week when the Old Gray Lady herself ran a piece with this headline:

Church Has Role In Newton Inquiry

From The New York Times’ story:

Newton, 50, is the bishop overseeing five small Pentecostal churches in Georgia, including the church here, where he is also pastor, and another in Savannah, which is led by his sister-in-law, Gail Norwood.

“He’s a very caring, very loving bishop,” Norwood said Sunday after a weekly service at her church, Holy Zion Holiness, attended by a dozen adults and a handful of children. “Bishop Newton and my sister, Jackie, have all our support.”

Newton took over as bishop of the churches about 10 years ago, after the death of Talmadge Wilder, who was the founder of their small denomination and Newton’s father-in-law. On Sunday, Norwood asked the congregation to pray for Cecil Newton and his family. After the service, she said the controversy had not disrupted the congregation. “We are at peace,” she said.

For relevant details, that’s a start. Unfortunately, that’s as deep as the story goes concerning Newton’s church and denomination (does it have a name?). The reference to an interview after a weekly service makes it appear that the reporter was present, but no observations or scenes from the service are included. Overall, this is just an extremely vague report that provides no real insight into what Newton or the churches he oversees believe.

Mainly, the story runs down what is known so far about the NCAA investigation, with bits and pieces concerning the church’s dealings with the city and the cost of its repairs sprinkled in. That information is important, but it’s not enough.

Want to know what the church itself is like? Readers must settle for this kind of detail:

Blandburg called the congregation close-knit. “To me, it feels like more of a family than any church that I’ve ever been to,” she said.

Oh, there’s also this:

Cecil Newton Sr. has proved to be a good role model for his children and others in the congregation, Blandburg said. “The kids that come from here are doing well.”

A very loving bishop. A close-knit church family. A good role model.

I give the Times credit for recognizing a key angle — the church — in the Newton saga. I just wish the paper had dug a whole lot deeper. This story produced a few positive yards, but it fell short of the end zone. Way short.

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