Rick Warren’s tipping point

RickWarrenI’m not sure these days whether to be thankful for The New Yorker‘s frequent interest in the Godbeat or to be frustrated that it posts so few religion stories to its website. Fair enough, the web content for the September 12 issue focuses heavily on Hurricane Katrina’s devastating effect on New Orleans. When your archives include a 28,000-word essay by John McPhee on efforts to control Mississippi River flooding, you’re wise to raid the archives.

Still, think of what The New Yorker left out from this week’s issue: Eight pages. On Rick Warren. By Malcolm Gladwell.

I’ve gushed about The New Yorker‘s Peter Boyer before in this space, and his byline always means thoughtful coverage, but there’s a great chemistry between Warren (one of the most significant influences on contemporary evangelicalism) and Gladwell (who can write more than 5,000 words on, geez, personality testing and make every word count).

Gladwell’s article includes some tasty details:

• Warren predicted before he wrote The Purpose-Driven Life that it would sell 100 million copies (it’s nearly a quarter of the way there).

• Warren’s hero is the 19th-century London preacher Charles Spurgeon.

• Warren is a friend of Peter Drucker’s, who says, “Warren is not building a tent revival ministry, like the old-style evangelists. He’s building an army, like the Jesuits.”

• Scott Bolinder of Zondervan Publishing uses the phrase “the tipping point” while speaking to the author who introduced that phrase into widespread usage: “That became the tipping point — being able to launch that book with eleven hundred churches, right from the get-go. They became the evangelists for the book.”

• “Twenty-five thousand churches have now participated in the congregation-wide ’40 Days of Purpose’ campaign, as have hundreds of small groups within companies and organizations, from the N.B.A. to the United States Postal Service.” (We can expect the complaints about church-state separation any day now.)

One disappointment is Gladwell’s political reading of the Lord’s Prayer, which comes in the middle of an otherwise level-headed explanation of how evangelicals can speak of America as a Christian nation without intending to establish a theocracy:

The New Tesatment’s most left-liberal text, the Lord’s Prayer — which, it should be pointed out, begins with a call for utopian social restructuring (“They will be done, On Earth as it is in Heaven”), then welfare relief (“Give us this day our daily bread”), and then income redistribution (“Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors”).

There are plenty of texts to choose from such as (Matt. 25:31-46) to establish Jesus’ radical concern for the poor, and his warnings for those who add to, or do nothing to relieve, their oppression.

Warren indulges in some name-dropping:

“I had dinner with Jack Welch last Sunday night,” he said. “He came to church, and we had dinner. I’ve been kind of mentoring him on his spiritual journey. And he said to me, ‘Rick, you are the biggest thinker I have ever met in my life. The only other person I know who thinks globally like you is Rupert Murdoch.’ And I said, ‘That’s interesting. I’m Rupert’s pastor! Rupert published my book!’”

Now try to picture Murdoch clapping and swaying to “What a Mighty God We Serve.”

For a time it looks as though Gladwell will neglect the crucial role of The Purpose-Driven Life in Ashley Smith’s encounter with escaped prisoner Brian Nichols, or his efforts to turn Rwanda into nothing less than a Purpose-Driven Nation. But Gladwell delivers on both angles, and with the subtle balance his admirers expect from him regularly.

Gladwell writes of how Warren saw, in Psalm 72, how King David asked for greater wealth and influence so he could help the poor:

Out of that psalm, God said to me that the purpose of influence is to speak up for those who have no influence. That changed my life. I had to repent. I said, I’m sorry, widows and orphans have not been on my radar. I live in Orange County. I life in the Saddleback Valley, which is all gated communities. There aren’t any homeless people around. They are thirteen miles away, in Santa Ana, not here.” He gestured toward the rolling green hills outside. “I started reading through Scripture. I said, How did I miss the two thousand verses on the poor in the Bible? So I said, I will use whatever affluence and influence that you give me to help those who are marginalized.”

He and his wife, Kay, decided to reverse tithe, giving away ninety per cent of the tens of millions of dollars they earned from “The Purpose-Driven Life.” They sat down with gay community leaders to talk about fighting AIDS. Warren has made repeated trips to Africa. He has sent out volunteers to forty-seven countries around the world, test-piloting experiments in microfinance and H.I.V. prevent and medical education. He decided to take the same networks he had built to train pastors and spread the purpose-driven life and put them to work on social problems.

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After Katrina: Open arms in Utah?

MoroniAnd speaking of ongoing questions about doctrines of the Latter-day Saints and their impact on Utah life, check this out. Let me assure you that I have read my share of materials on the Mormon decision to open the priesthood to African-Americans. But this Reuters story by Adam Tanner is evidence of how long it takes for perceptions and realities to change.

Asked whether he would relocate permanently to Utah after being brought here as a refugee from Hurricane Katrina, Larry Andrew rattled off a series of questions on Friday on the delicate issue of race.

“How do the adults really feel about us moving in?” he asked at Camp Williams, a military base 21 miles south of Salt Lake City housing about 400 refugees from last week’s disaster. “What if I find a Caucasian girl and decide to date her? “Will I have to deal with whispering behind me and eyeballing me?” asked the 36-year-old black man.

For the mostly poor, black refugees evacuated from New Orleans, few places are as geographically remote and culturally alien as this corner of Utah, where 0.2 percent of the population in the nearest town is black.

Local leaders say the door is open. The state is growing. Change takes time.

This was a better hook for a story than I thought it would be. Check it out.

By the way (and before anyone asks), I wonder if there is any family connection, somewhere along the line, between Adam Tanner and some other well-known Utah writers with the same last name. Tanner is a famous name in Mormon country.

About the photo: “Moroni on grey,” posted on Flickr by webmink (Creative Commons Deed).

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The exaltation of Mitt Romney

Mormon CHoirStephen A., I think you’re missing a critical distinction. The Mormons are not Trinitarian, to put it mildly; their 19th century Scientology-like theology is in contradiction to every other Christian group, and certainly to doctrinally focused traditions such as fundamentalism. The fundamentalists think that the Catholics are wrong, to be sure, but the scope of error is entirely different. Listen to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” sometime and notice how they’ve changed the words. Indeed, that is part of the discomfort about the Mormons. Externally, they are relentlessly normal; their theological innards are, well, weird. . . .

Posted by C. Wingate at 9:30 am on September 8, 2005

I’d like to jump back to an earlier thread for a moment, for the simple reason that I think this is going to turn into a major news story sooner rather than later.

If you don’t believe me, just Google “Mitt Romney” and “Mormon” and look at the common themes. Click here for a recent Boston Globe look at this issue. More and more journalists are starting to smell the smoke from this fire. It also helps that the existing pool of GOP White House wannabes is seriously challenged in the sizzle category.

So, from a journalism point of view, what is the story here?

If I may, let me flash back to the Rocky Mountain News in the mid-1980s, when I had a chance to interview two of the 12 members of the top rank of Latter-day Saints apostles. I brought lots of marked-up reading materials with me to Salt Lake City and asked some very specific questions with the audiotape running.

On the record, they confirmed that — if taken to its logical conclusions (as man is, God once was) — Mormon theology would, in essence, be polytheistic. Yes, there are many worlds with their own gods (and the gods have wives) who are humans who have evolved to divinity. In LDS. doctrine, this is called “exaltation.” (Click here for a Protestant take on this doctrine.)

I went back to Denver to transcribe my interview tapes. Overnight, the Mormon press office rushed a transcript that included everything in the interview, except for the smoking-gun quote about polytheism. I wrote them back and let them know that my tape included that quotation and that I would be using it. Was there a problem with that? There was no word back from Utah. They knew that I knew that they knew what I knew.

So, yes, this is the ticking time bomb of a subject facing a Mormon political leader who wants to run in a GOP primary, especially below the Bible Belt. The irony, of course, is that many of these same conservative folks are very anxious, right now, to nail Democrats (and journalists) for using a “traditional Catholic” religious test to undercut conservative nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court. What goes around comes around.

Anyway, I promise you that press-relations folks inside the GOP big tent are working on the Romney question right now.

P.S. I have searched and searched for the words to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s take on “Holy, Holy, Holy.” It would, in fact, be very interesting to look them over. Is anyone out there better than me with a search engine or two?

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Speak no evil

I’ve sensed anger from some who are upset over the negative tone the mass media have taken toward the federal government in the Hurricane Katrina aftermath. Some are asking why we couldn’t all come together the way we did after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Why has this become a left/right political issue that is dividing the country?

My personal belief is that it is because there has been poor leadership from our government at all levels — federal, state and local. The media, for the most part, report what they see and hear and then provide historical context and analysis. There are exceptions, of course, that go both ways.

Columbia Journalism Review has published one of those exceptions by photojournalist Bill Putnam, who does not merely report what he sees and hears:

Army journalism is really public relations. We tell the Army’s story from its perspective. We learned very early during the twelve-week course at the Defense Information School that objectivity, while sought by individual journalists, isn’t encouraged in military journalism. On the first day of class at the all-services school, the instructors told us we weren’t “First Amendment” journalists. In other words, we had to make whatever branch we represented look not good but golden.

Is that the type of journalism these critics of the media would prefer? I would hope not. I believe the harsh criticism currently coming from mainstream media outlets is a form of tough love. It’s the same criticism various media outlets have heaped upon themselves when they goof, with some exceptions, of course. Some folks in the media are probably thrilled that the Bush administration now has egg on its face because it bungled the disaster recovery efforts, but those types do not represent the majority.

In the meantime, I highly recommend this piece by Putnam, who has served admirably as a photographer in the National Guard and will return to Iraq as a freelance journalist.

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Is Mississippi on Newsweek’s map?

image holder6Let me offer a follow-up remark or two about the Newsweek “Pray For Us” cover story on Hurricane Katrina. I’ll put this in a separate post, so that readers don’t confuse my take on this with Doug’s piece. It’s not that I disagree with Doug. But something nagged me as I read the lead article through twice.

So here goes. Did I miss it or is the following, literally, the only direct reference in the main Newsweek article to Katrina victims outside of New Orleans?

The storm steered just to the east of New Orleans and blew away much of Biloxi, Miss. One Biloxi survivor, a Navy vet named Kevin Miller, described clinging to a tree as people floated by, “some dead.” Miller told Newsweek of grabbing a desperate woman by the hair — and losing her. “I just lost my grip,” he said, choking up. The suffering all along the Gulf Coast, where homes and whole islands vanished, has been terrible, with people’s whole lives falling into ruin.

I think that was it — between four or five sentences, depending on how one does the counting. By the way, I realize that there was a sidebar story on the impact of the storm on the oil industry up and down the coat and that it featured an astonishing feature photograph from Biloxi, Miss.

Does that seem a bit thin to anyone else, in terms of coverage of the area that was actually hit the hardest? One half of one paragraph? Did I miss anything else? Why focus so exclusively on New Orleans?

I do realize that New Orleans is turning into a much bigger disaster. I realize that it is the larger city and that, as far as we know, the relief efforts there have been a much bigger fiasco. I realize that the Big Easy is the cultural center that matters more to the national audience.

In effect, I am asking this: Is covering New Orleans such a singular priority because that story has political implications at a crucial time for the White House? In other words, I suspect that this offers more proof that in journalism politics trumps everything. It’s the highest value. Period.

I must stress that the main Newsweek article does a tremendous job of covering the personal and even political chaos in and around New Orleans. I know that’s the main story, for the national audience. But I still think that the magazine’s priorities are on clear display.

Come on. One half of one paragraph? There are towns elsewhere that are, literally, missing. They are gone. People need prayers there, too.

To take a long, sobering look at the stories that Newsweek blew past, check out Eugene Robinson’s poignant column in The Washington Post titled “Hard Path to Salvation.” It’s all about the tensions in the Gulf Coast between the Bibles and the gambling barges. I especially liked this passage about Biloxi, near the start of the article:

This is a town where people go to church on Sunday and mean it, but for material sustenance, Biloxi leads others unto temptation. Casino gambling has transformed this coastline, lifting thousands out of poverty. Now much of the industry is in ruins. . . .

Katrina’s strongest winds hit the Mississippi coast, and Biloxi is appallingly damaged. The Hard Rock Cafe’s iconic giant guitar still stands defiant, but the building behind it was smashed. Just about everything along the beach will have to be rebuilt, after the search dogs and the bulldozers and the huge military hovercraft complete their rescue-and-recovery mission. Even well inland, there are streets where most houses are missing a roof, or were bisected by a falling tree or simply have been reduced to rubble.

And then at the end, the local clergy are having to think hard about life after the storm and the casino boats.

“If people left, would they ever come back? And come back to what? The business of temptation was ruined in Biloxi. What was the right path to salvation?”

People are asking questions like that all up and down the Gulf Coast, not just in the great lost city of New Orleans.

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The big decay

NewOrleansPaintingMaybe it’s because I’ve written more for magazines than for newspapers since the late 1980s, but I often find newsweeklies more helpful than other media for making sense of broad-sweep stories, such as Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans.

Both Newsweek and Time deliver the goods this week — dramatic photos from the miseries along New Orleans’ streets; long-form reporting rich with human-interest details; and aerial photos that show the flooding within the context of New Orleans’ neighborhoods and landmarks.

The strongest feature in Time is a one-page essay by Sonja Steptoe demonstrating that there was plenty of suffering — and plenty of blame to go around — long before Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast:

While I understand the temptation to wax nostalgic about the architecture of the Ninth Ward homes, the beauty of the Garden District, the charm of the French Quarter and so on, such musings perpetuate a romantic notion of the place that doesn’t track with reality. Sure, there are isolated spots dotting the tourist maps that are well stocked with pristine prettiness and antebellum hospitality, but like A Streetcar Named Desire‘s Blanche DuBois, the real New Orleans hasn’t possessed much beauty or charm for nearly 30 years. The deep wealth and class divisions, the decayed infrastructure, the lax civil-engineering management, the depleted city coffers, the lawless depravity, the history of political corruption by a long line of city and state officials, and the incompetent governance that television viewers are discovering are, to use the local vernacular, the roux of a long-simmering pot of gumbo that finally boiled over when Hurricane Katrina turned up the heat last week. Now the city is drowning in it.

. . . Those cheery tourists need only have peered out of their French Quarter hotel-room windows to see the ugly and abject poverty on full display at the squalid Iberville housing projects (average annual income of its 833 households: $7,279), sitting just next door to the Vieux Carré off Canal Street. If the visitors had taken a few steps beyond Tulane University and the nearby Garden District mansions, they would have found themselves smack-dab in the middle of a ghetto choked with rudimentary shotgun houses, dilapidated housing projects and living conditions that seem only slightly better than those in Port-au-Prince, Bangladesh or Baghdad.

About the photo: “We know the suffering . . . VIII,” posted on Flickr by carf (Creative Commons Deed).

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An evangelical problem?

mitt romneyWhile the 2008 Presidential elections seem a long way off — and we are still appropriately focused on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — I found a bit of presidential politics surprisingly refreshing. Here is an article in this month’s Washington Monthly on “Mitt Romney’s Evangelical Problem.”

In a country with only one non-Protestant president, the idea of a Mormon president would likely take awhile to get used to, and Amy Sullivan takes the difficult subject of religious doctrine head on. “To evangelicals, Mormonism isn’t just another religion. It’s a cult,” writes Sullivan.

Doug noted last month that The Atlantic touched upon the issue in a Romney profile for its September issue, but not enough attention has been paid to the elephant in the room when it comes to a Romney presidency.

Here’s how Sullivan frames it, as an issue of religious tolerance:

Americans have indeed become more religiously tolerant, but the first Mormon to run for president will clearly have to change some minds. In the late 1960s, the percentage of Americans who said they would not vote for a Jewish or Catholic presidential candidate was in the double digits; by 1999, those numbers had fallen to 6 and 4 percent, respectively (roughly the same as the percentage of voters who say they wouldn’t vote for a Baptist). Compare that to the 17 percent of Americans who currently say they would have qualms electing a Mormon to the White House. That number hasn’t changed one whit since 1967, the year that Romney’s father considered a presidential run (he abandoned the effort after making a gaffe about how the military “brainwashed” him into supporting the Vietnam War).

Some of this anti-Mormonism is a fairly fuzzy sort of bias, based mostly on rumors and unfamiliarity and the vague feeling that Mormons are kind of weird. It’s a wobbly opposition that can be overcome by good public relations that defuses concerns about the religion and shifts focus to the personality of the candidate. This is how someone like Romney gets elected in a blue state like Massachusetts, where even Republicans are generally tolerant.

Sullivan’s perspective is influenced by her childhood. Raised in a Baptist church, she was taught early that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were members of a cult, “a stronghold of Satan.”

More from Sullivan:

Evangelical Christians consider Mormonism a threat in a way that Catholicism and even Judaism are not. The LDS Church, they charge, has perverted Christian teachings to create a false religion. As John L. Smith, a Southern Baptist who runs Utah Mission — an organization that tries to convert Mormons — told Christianity Today: “Mormonism is either totally true or totally false. If it’s true, every other religion in America is false.” To be tolerant of Mormonism is to put evangelical Christianity at risk. And to put a Mormon in the White House would be to place a stamp of approval on that faith.

Southern Baptists have been particularly vocal about labeling the LDS Church a “cult.” In 1997, the denomination published a handbook and video, both with the title The Mormon Puzzle: Understanding and Witnessing to Latter-day Saints. More than 45,000 of these kits were distributed in the first year; the following year — in a throwing down of the proselytizing gauntlet — the Southern Baptist Convention held its annual meeting in Salt Lake City. Around the same time, a speaker at the denomination’s summit on Mormonism declared that Utah was “a stronghold of Satan.” When Richard Mouw, president of the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary, tried to repair relations with the LDS community by apologizing on behalf of evangelicals during a speech in the Mormon Tabernacle last year, his conservative brethren lashed out. Mouw had no right, they declared in an open letter, to speak for them or apologize for denouncing Mormon “false prophecies and false teachings.”

And if/when the primary race gets nasty, as Sullivan adequately points out, religion will be an issue:

It’s likely that Romney’s primary opponents and prominent religious leaders will publicly take the high road, remaining mum on the issue of his Mormonism. But, says Marshall Wittman, former political director of the Christian Coalition and later an aide to McCain, “so much in the primaries takes place under the radar. It’s never publicly said, but it takes place in emails and word of mouth.” The push-poll script writes itself: “Would you be more or less likely to vote for Mitt Romney if you knew he was a Mormon, and that Mormons believe in polygamy?”

Part of my thinking leads me to believe that a Romney campaign would do some good in raising a discussion on who Mormons are and what they believe. The other part of me thinks the political arena is the wrong place for that; it would just get too nasty. One thing is for sure: journalists love the idea of a Romney campaign because of how different it would be, and with the supposed rise in power of the voting bloc known as the evangelical right, the story is all the juicer.

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Another source for Katrina news & views

hdr rightIf you are interested in news and commentary about the theological issues linked to Katrina, the Anglican Web Elves up north — wise guys in multiple meanings of that phrase — have started a blog that includes all kinds of useful links. This is the CaNN site, which stands either for Classical Anglican Net News or Clergy Against Nabobs of Negativism. I can never remember which is right. Wait, that last one would be Clergy Against Nattering Nabobs of Negativism, which would be CaNNN.

Today’s offerings can be found here. If you want to jump back to digests of previous editions — they are updating the contents every few hours — then you need to start at the home page and scroll way down. It does not appear that they have created an actual Katrina index page for all of the materials that they are collecting.

In terms of truth in theological advertising, be forewarned that this is a niche news site for a pack of quite traditional Anglicans. But right now, they are rounding up all kinds of viewpoints on this hot topic. For example, here is the official post listing the Katrina relief efforts that are recommended for atheists and skeptics. Once again, note the crucial role played by the “P” word:

A Call to Action from American Atheists

“All we have is each other . . .”

AMERICAN ATHEISTS urges all fellow nonbelievers to contribute to the rescue and other humanitarian efforts in the devastating wake of Hurricane Katrina. A number of secular, non-religious aid organizations are active in this relief campaign. They do not incorporate a religious message in their operations, discriminate on the basis of religion, nor do they proselytize to those vulnerable people currently in need.

AMERICAN NATIONAL RED CROSS (Founded by Deist-Unitarian Clara Barton) http://www.redcross.org

UNITED WAY OF AMERICA http://www.unitedway.org/

NETWORK FOR GOOD (has numerous listings for helping groups, both religious and secular) http://www.networkforgood.org

HUMANE SOCEITY OF THE UNITED STATES! (Our winged and four-legged friends need help, too!) http://www.hsus.org

* OTHER CHARITIES will be listed as we learn about their legitimate participation in the relief effort. Everyone [contributing] should be aware of scams; unfortunately, not all “charities” are legitimate and have a proven track record. Also, there are “religious” outreaches which do not proselytize as part of their efforts to help others. If you have a suggestion for an established, reputable secular humanitarian group that is worth of our support and would like to see it listed here, contact webmaster@atheists.org and we may be able to include it in this list. The list will be found at http://www.atheists.org.

I am sure there are denominational relief agencies that are anxious to be included in the non-proselytizing list. I’d like to see that list myself.

On the other side of the aisle, I am waiting — tell me if I have missed one — for a major newspaper to note the excellent job that some very, very conservative believers are doing in dissecting the theological arguments of the “God poured out His wrath” on New Orleans crowd. “Theodicy” is a very tricky business and, as C.S. Lewis liked to say, there really are people who should avoid trying to read and explain adult books.

Meanwhile, let me note that journalists may want to bookmark some of these sites in their browsers. When it comes to tropical storms, we are already up to the letter “O” and North America is still weeks away from the peak of the hurricane season. Sorry to bring that up, but it’s true. And Pat Robertson hasn’t even gotten busy — yet.

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