Worship, Wars, Presbyterians, Hollywood

In this day and age, it is almost a relief to find a church fighting about something other than sex.

Yet, if you look at the congregational level, most Protestant churches that are experiencing internal conflict — as opposed to conflict with national structures — are fighting about issues linked to music and worship. This is a topic that comes up from time to time on this blog, the so-called worship wars.

All of the key elements of this story are on display in a new story by Associated Press reporter Gillian Flaccus, which The Washington Post featured this weekend (and posted on its website, which newspapers often do not do with wire stories, which makes wire service guys like me smile).

This battle in the worship wars is in an oldline Protestant setting — the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — which means you have familair elements — declining numbers in the pews and the financial tension that this causes. But this time, the conflict is at the famed Hollywood Presbyterian Church, which is actually known as a center for a solid, traditional approach to the Christian faith.

As Flaccus crisply notes: “The decline has been especially painful at Hollywood First, where the congregation helped launch evangelists Billy Graham and Lloyd Ogilvie, who is now the U.S. Senate chaplain. It was home to Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, and Henrietta Mears, author of the popular Sunday school curriculum Gospel Light.”

This only highlights the cultural nature of the conflict, which has led regional presbytery officials to yank the Rev. Alan Meenan out of his senior pastor role. What’s the problem?

Here is a glimpse:

Now, hundreds of new worshipers are flocking to an alternative service staged by the church at a nearby nightclub that offers live rock music and a casual atmosphere that doesn’t frown on flip-flops and nose piercings. The service, called Contemporary Urban Experience, has bolstered membership at one of the most storied Presbyterian congregations in the country. But it has also created a deep rift between old and new members that threatens to tear the conservative church apart.

Responding to numerous complaints about Meenan, regional church officials, in a rare step, took control of operations at Hollywood First last week and put Meenan and his executive pastor on paid administrative leave to restore the peace. The turmoil in the 2,700-member congregation reflects what experts call the “worship war,” an identity crisis that has beset many mainline Protestant denominations as they struggle to survive in a culture that puts less importance on the traditions of organized religion.

On one level, as the story notes, this is simply electric guitars against the pipe organ. On another, its clearly a generational battle between those who built a great church (probably G.I. Generation folks) and those who are trying to “save it” (probably Gen X and Y) and the new establishment that is caught in the middle (probably Boomers). As always, there is money involved in the conflict.

This report did leave me wondering if doctrinal conflict has soaked in here somewhere. Flaccus keeps quoting people about issues of cultural style. Like this: “I could go into any coffee shop in Los Angeles and go up to any artsy, crazy guy and feel totally comfortable inviting him to this service,” said J.C. Cornwell, 34, a church member who volunteers to produce CUE each week. “It’s just a really cool service — but it’s still the truth.”

But these style issues often come packaged with hints at change in teachings and emphasis. The so-called “emerging” evangelicals are not the same as the previous generations. This story may have another layer or two hidden in there. I will keep my eye on it.

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Bible thumping

Intended Unabomber victim David Gelernter has a sprawling cover story (here and here) in the current issue of The Weekly Standard on the knowledge of the Good Book in the United States.

The (ugh, bad pun warning) good news, says Gelernter, is that “If you ask questions that are so simple the average arthropod would find them patronizing, and cast them in multiple choice format to make things even easier . . . American high school students do okay.”

Otherwise, not so much. Gelernter writes of a study by the Bible Literacy Project:

Go beyond rudimentary and you find that “very few American students” have the level of Bible knowledge that high-school English teachers regard as “basic to a good education.” “Almost two-thirds of teens” couldn’t pick the right answer out of four choices when they were asked to identify “a quotation from the Sermon on the Mount” (“Blessed are the poor in spirit”). Two-thirds didn’t know that “the Road to Damascus is where St. Paul was blinded by a vision of Christ.” Fewer than a third “could correctly identify which statement about David was not true (David tried to kill King Saul).” And so on.

Most of this would not be a surprise to GetReligion readers. But I think Gelernter’s case for Why You Should Care is worth a read. He begins,

Scripture begins with God creating the world, but there is something these verses don’t tell you: The Bible has itself created worlds. Wherever you stand on the spectrum from devout to atheist, you must acknowledge that the Bible has been a creative force without parallel in history.

The piece is a sizeable collection of fun historical material, some spot on, some of debatable merit (the higher criticism bits are both too sweeping and not sweeping enough for my taste), so I won’t attempt a summary, but I invite readers who decide to give it a go to share your impressions in comments.

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Abramoff Agonistes

Here’s how David Klinghoffer ends his latest column in the Jewish weekly The Forward:

If [Jack] Abramoff were a secular Jew who directed streams of money to left-wing candidates, to liberal think tanks, to charitable causes like Planned Parenthood and PETA, do you think we ever would have heard his name? I don’t.

The whole piece is about as good a defense as one can mount of the super-lobbyist who now finds himself in heap of big trouble over a scandal that involves Indian gambling, paid junkets for congressmen, an anti-gambling campaign that Abramoff also had a hand in, and a host of other misadventures.

Klinghoffer admits that Abramoff probably breached Congress’ ethics rules by funding some activities out of his own pocket and seeking reimbursement from organizations that he represented (verboten) rather than having the organizations fund the junkets and such directly (allowed), but he doesn’t concede that this is anything more than a very technical violation of statute designed to have no teeth.

He also admits that Abramoff said some remarkably stupid and bigoted things in private e-mails, but he asks, “Yet who among us would not be humiliated if a decade’s worth of our email were leaked by Senate investigators to be dissected by journalists eager to carve us up like a Thanksgiving roast?”

Klinghoffer quotes a “close friend and ally” of Abramoff as saying, “Jack is not a choir boy. It’s funny, though, that there are no Ferraris, women, yachts or mansions in this story, and yet it keeps going.” He expounds on the friend’s commentary: “Why it keeps going is a question worth pondering.”

The charge that the Forward columnist levels isn’t anti-Semitism so much as anti-Republicanism and a general distaste by the usual suspects for people who take religion seriously. Frank Rich, for instance, described him as an “Orthodox Jew who in his salad days wore a yarmulke to press interviews.” A columnist identified only as a “Washington Post writer with a Jewish name” (Nexis says . . . Ruth Marcus) called Abramoff “an Orthodox Jew who seemed to flaunt his piety (the Christian right loved it) the way other lobbyists flash their Rolexes.”

One of the problems with “if the situation were slightly different, do you think people would still be going nuts” criticism is that it is often hard to predict exactly what will catch people’s fancy. The criteria for what makes a story a hot issue are not completely random, but I think I’d lose my shirt if I had to predict what the pack of American journalists will decide to obsess on next week. Still, Klinghoffer raises some important questions that are worth chewing on for a bit.

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"Fires of hell" rage on at Academy

I have let a few extra days pass on the Air Force Academy story, while I try to surf the waves of coverage.

I think it is fair to say that several basic facts have been clarified.

(1) This is, in large part, a fight between mainline Protestants on the left and evangelicals — in many traditions — on the theological right. The big issue is evangelism — by any Christian, anywhere, at any time, according to the Yale Divinity School observers involved. As such, this battle contains many common themes sounded during the ongoing doctrinal war between liturigal and mainline Protestant military chaplains and evangelical military chaplains. Several major articles have noted that the conflict is not between Christians and other groups, but between evangelical Christians and everyone else.

(2) While there continues to be evidence of abuses by individuals, the main event that everyone is yelling about involved Chaplain Maj. Warren “Chappy” Watties, an African-American evangelical, preaching in a nondenominational service for Protestants who voluntarily attended. I have — very late in the game — bumped into a very newsy story in the Colorado Springs Gazette that addresses some of this. Here is a crucial chunk of reporter Pam Zubeck’s informative report, which, of all things, does quote people on both sides of the story:

The Air Force said Watties, the service’s chaplain of the year in 2004, acted properly because Air Force regulations allow chaplains to evangelize in the performance of their duties to those unaffiliated with another religion.

“Chaplain Watties’ messages and sermons were deemed to be appropriate encouragement to his congregation to share their religious convictions, when invited and in an appropriate manner, consistent with rules governing the federal workplace,” the Air Force said in a statement in response to The Gazette‘s written questions.

The statement noted that Watties was conducting a multidenominational Protestant worship service, not an interfaith service, and “did so in a manner consistent with his ordination as a Christian minister and his training as a chaplain.” Cadets were not required to attend the service.

(3) There are disputes about the accuracy of some of the charges. The best example is the claim that Watties punched the hellfire and brimstone button during one of his sermons. Here is that language, as reported by T.R. Reid in The Washington Post.

One staff chaplain reportedly told newly arrived freshmen last summer that anyone not born again “will burn in the fires of hell.” Such slurs have been heard for decades on the campus, according to Mikey Weinstein of Albuquerque, a 1977 academy graduate who said he has repeatedly complained to the Air Force brass about the “religious pressure” on cadets. “This is not Christian versus Jew,” Weinstein said. “This is the evangelical Christians against everybody else.”

This takes us back to Zubeck’s story — which was way back at the start of this media storm, long before many other reporters wrote their stories offering only one side of the hellfire dispute. It seems that the vast majority of people present in the Protestant service do not remember the veteran chaplain saying what it is alleged that he said. There were 600 witnesses.

Academy spokesman Johnny Whitaker said … that all academy Protestant chaplains have said in recent days that they didn’t make the “fires of hell” comment or hear anyone else say it.

Watties could not be reached for comment. Whitaker said Watties told chief Chaplain Col. Michael Whittington that he invites congregants to “share the word” but didn’t use the phrase “fires of hell.”

“I can’t find anybody who said they said what was quoted in there,” Whitaker said of the Yale report.

It really doesn’t matter if Watties said “fires of hell.” There would be a controversy even if he said there was a hell and that any cadet might ever want to discuss that subject with anyone other than in a dark cave. In other words, at the heart of this controversy is the traditional Christian teaching that salvation is found through Jesus Christ alone and that believers are supposed to witness to other people about this belief.

This is, in other words, an offensive-speech case. It is highly likely that there are macho born-again types who are witnessing to other cadets and making them upset. If that gets out of hand, they need to be slapped down. But they are allowed — under faith-in-the-workplace rules — to talk about their faith. Others have an equal right to tell them to shut up.

The controversy about Watties and his sermon raises the big question that I have raised several times on this blog, especially here. Are we really talking about doctrinally defined speech codes for what chaplains can and cannot preach to their own flocks?

Will we silence Catholics from saying that Vatican is right about its claims to be the one, true, ancient faith? Will Jews and Muslims be told to chill out? Flip this viewpoint-discrimination issue over: What would happen if a government law required Episcopalians to preach evangelistic sermons? What if Unitarian chaplains were required to speak in tongues — I mean, against their will?

Meanwhile, the other hot story was the alleged firing of a female Lutheran chaplain who has been a strong critic of the evangelicals at the academy. This is yet more gasoline on the already raging controversy between the oldline Protestant chaplains and the evangelical chaplains. Patrick O’Driscoll of USA Today broke that story.

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W. David Hager gets probed

As a prolifer and a Bush appointee to an FDA advisory committee, W. David Hager has seen his share of fierce opposition. It’s likely to grow fiercer still amid disturbing allegations made by his former wife.

Conservative Christians and other prolifers are bound to experience a high rectal squirm factor today as Ayelish McGarvey’s cover story for the May 30 issue of The Nation begins to circulate. Hager stands accused of, among other things, forced sodomy and paying his wife for sex.

Linda Carruth Davis, Hager’s ex-wife and his coauthor on Stress and the Woman’s Body, tells McGarvey she decided to go public with these allegations after hearing Hager discuss their divorce during a chapel service at Asbury College. McGarvey researched the story diligently, finding several people who recall Davis as making such allegations while she was still married to Hager. (Davis says her allegations apply to the final seven years of their 32-year marriage.) McGarvey writes that Hager spoke with her for nearly 30 minutes, all off the record, other than adding, “My official comment is that I decline to comment.”

McGarvey, who has written about evangelicals and politics before in her job with The American Prospect, does not indulge in glib dismissals based on Hager’s Christian faith:

David Hager is not the fringe character and fundamentalist faith healer that some of his critics have made him out to be. In fact, he is a well-credentialed doctor. In Kentucky Hager has long been recognized as a leading Ob-Gyn at Lexington’s Central Baptist Hospital and a faculty member at the University of Kentucky’s medical school. And in the 1990s several magazines, including Modern Healthcare and Good Housekeeping, counted him among the best doctors for women in the nation.

At one point McGarvey interrupts her brisk narrative with an awkward assurance that this is not Zippergate all over again:

(Lest inappropriate analogies be drawn between the Hager accusations and the politics of personal destruction that nearly brought down the presidency of Bill Clinton, it ought to be remembered that President Clinton’s sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky was never alleged to be criminal and did not affect his ability to fulfill his obligations to the nation. This, of course, did not stop the religious right from calling for his head. “The topic of private vs. public behavior has emerged as perhaps the central moral issue raised by Bill Clinton’s ‘improper relationship,’” wrote evangelist and Hager ally Franklin Graham at the time. “But the God of the Bible says that what one does in private does matter. There needs to be no clash between personal conduct and public appearance.”)

So far no other magazine or newspaper has taken up the sexual allegations against Hager. Today’s Washington Post takes up only those aspects of McGarvey’s report that concern a memo by Hager that may have swayed an FDA ruling against Plan B, a birth-control pill that Hagee opposed for its possible effects on girls younger than 16.

McGarvey’s report brings troubling ethical allegations to light, and conservative pundits would do well not to leave all the follow-up to Atrios and other bloggers.

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Flashback: Democrats for Life, again

Two weeks ago, I raised the question of why the MSM shunned what I thought was a rather interesting press conference in which leaders of Democrats for Life attempted to trial-balloon a package of 95-10 legislation that would strive to slow the abortion rate by 95 percent over 10 years. Click here if you want to review that.

Well, it turns out that someone finally did cover that storyUSA Today.

I lost the clip in one of my three computers, but ran into it again. Even though it’s not breaking news, I wanted to give GetReligion readers a heads-up on it, since this story is not going away, by which I mean the story of the Democrats and the Republicans actually finding some kind of common ground on legislation about abortion. This is one of those cases where it takes real courage to float any kind of compromise.

Reporter Susan Page starts with a clear contrast. Three years ago, Democrats for Life was banned from the Democratic National Committee homepage. Now, the 95-10 plan was announced in a press event at DNC headquarters. That is either a change or merely a sign that the leadership frantically wants to present the appearance of some change.

Again, here is the question that the press needs to be watching, because this is a huge story: Will the Democrats merely change their language about social issues, or will they dare to actually attempt legislation that finds common ground? Meanwhile, the Republicans keep showing off their pro-abortion-rights stars — with an eye on 2008, perhaps. Will the GOP actually try to pass compromise legislation that attempts to prevent abortions, or simply continue to use the issue as a red flag to wave at religious conservatives?

But for now, the action is on the Democratic side of the aisle. Why? The party platform actually says that to oppose abortion is the same thing as being a Republican. Page notes:

In a meeting with liberal organizers after losing the presidential election in 2004, John Kerry infuriated some party stalwarts when he said the approach to abortion needed to change. He said Democrats should do more to welcome candidates and voters who say they’re pro-life and to make it clear that being “pro-choice” didn’t mean being “pro-abortion.”

A survey in February by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg concluded that the abortion issue was a significant factor in Kerry’s loss of white Catholic voters, a key group that sometimes votes for Republicans, sometimes for Democrats. President Clinton carried white Catholics by 7 percentage points in 1996; Kerry lost them by 13 points.

From the 2004 Democratic platform: “We will defend the dignity of all Americans against those who would undermine it. Because we believe in the privacy and equality of women, we stand proudly for a woman’s right to choose, consistent with Roe v. Wade, and regardless of her ability to pay. We stand firmly against Republican efforts to undermine that right.”

Again, this story is not going away. Please let us know if you see coverage of these issues worth noting.

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Mustard seeds and micro loans

Good article in The Christian Science Monitor on the role parachurch organizations are playing in putting Rwanda back together by arranging small (micro) loans to needy locals. According to the story,

nearly 1 in 5 of small-business borrowers [in Rwanda] receives loans from religiously oriented lending programs. The 1994 genocide, which took the lives of up to 800,000 Rwandans, kept many international lenders from working in Rwanda. Even after the genocide, political uncertainty and violence in neighboring Congo and Burundi have continually threatened the sustainability of business ventures.

Into this void has stepped the Christian micro-enterprise development (CMED) industry. World Relief, for example, a Christian organization based in the US, specializes in small-business lending in post-conflict regions. World Relief has helped start microfinance programs in Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, and Cambodia, among other places. Its Rwandan affiliate opened in 1996 and has grown into the largest microfinance institution in the country.

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Billy Graham and Reinhard Bonnke: Partners in thought crime?

Today brings a fascinating contrast in two news reports from a meeting of the World Council of Churches. Brian Murphy, religion writer for The Associated Press, is virtually alone in covering the story, so his byline appears in all the major dailies.

Murphy reports on the council’s realization that the Global South is crucial to the future of Christian faith:

The general secretary of the World Council of Churches — the organizers of the weeklong conference — also noted the “demographic center” of Christianity is shifting into the southern hemisphere, led by explosive growth in African and Asian congregations and rising populations in Latin America.

The Rev. Samuel Kobia [pictured] encouraged churches to seek new ideas to make Christianity meaningful to cultures unfamiliar with European traditions and to avoid “insensitive” methods that undermine local languages and customs.

“Christianity’s center of gravity . . . continues to migrate southward,” said Kobia, a Kenyan. “Our vision must undergo a corresponding conversion.”

So far so good. Then comes this:

Failure of the established Christian denominations to respond could further open the door to charismatic preachers and evangelical enterprises such as the Rev. Billy Graham’s movement or the German pastor Reinhard Bonnke, who promotes himself as one of the fastest-growing Christian missionaries in Africa. The World Council of Churches conference did not include representatives of the evangelical powerhouses.

Kobia warned that charismatic movements could “likely cause conflict in the 21st century” because of their often dismissive views on other faiths.

Here’s how Stephen Brown of Ecumenical News International summarized the same section of Kobia’s speech:

Africa is one of Christianity’s fastest growing regions and researchers have predicted that by 2100, the vast majority of Christians — almost 80 per cent — will live in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania.

Kobia noted the rapid growth throughout the world in Pentecostal and charismatic spirituality.

He asked, “Are we open to mission from directions we have not anticipated, borne by brothers and sisters who have received gifts of the Spirit that were never monopolized by European or American missionaries?”

Please do wait for the translation, Mr. Ambassador.

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