Anne Lamott, call your agent

anne_lamottThe Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights is now two-for-two in the Democratic National Committee’s Director of Religious Outreach Sweepstakes.

As a nonpartisan public service, GetReligion offers this list of possible replacements (serious and otherwise) for the Rev. Brenda Bartella Peterson, who resigned Thursday:

Anne Lamott — Isn’t it time to give a real writer a shot at this?

James Meeks — If only because he would drive the more extreme church-state separationists crazy.

Oprah — As penance for her 2000 campaign interview with George W. Bush.

Tony Campolo — He’s been a loyal foot soldier for the party. Hasn’t he earned this by now?

Rosemary Radford Ruether — One thing is sure: she would slap down any patriarchalism in sight.

Jeremiah Wright — If you think Barack Obama is a powerful speaker, catch one of Wright’s sermons in a live webcast from Trinity United Church of Christ, Chicago (Sundays at 7:30 & 11 a.m. & 6 p.m. Central).

Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon — Because she never stops spreading the love and the joy, as this photo testifies.

Arlo Guthrie — Unlike his music publisher, Guthrie found JibJab’s “This Land” parody hilarious.

Meryl Streep — She an actress and a theologian, and she does so “read the whole book.”

Jim Wallis — To prove beyond the shadow of a theological doubt that real evangelicals need never vote Republican.

Other nominations are welcome, of course, in our Comments section.

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The Greatest Divide? Don't ask moral questions in pews

martyThere is an old, old saying among God-beat professionals.

What most mainstream newspaper editors want when they assign a religion news story is “three anecdotes, a poll and a quote from Martin E. Marty.”

That quote is so old I may already have used it on But it’s relevant right now, because of a new column offered up by the nation’s most quoted church historian on the “Sightings” page at the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago.

Marty was reacting to a series by Bill Bishop in the Austin American Statesman which noted (prepare for stunning observation) that there are basically two kinds of churches in America today and that they don’t seem to have much in common with each other when it comes to morality, culture and politics. He calls one side “modernist” and the other side “traditionalist.”

Bishop doesn’t dig too deep into the theology of this, other than to say that churches on the left are more “universalist.” Bingo. Give the man a prize.

(Religious) beliefs and practices have come to align with political party, according to surveys conducted by John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron. People who follow more traditional religious practices — Protestants who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and Catholics who accept the authority of the Pope — generally supported Bush in 2000 and say they will vote for him again this year.

Those in what Green describes as “modernist” religious congregations, for example, churchgoers who were more ecumenical, or universalist, in their beliefs, tend to vote Democratic, regardless of denomination. Traditional evangelicals support Bush by 68 percentage points over Kerry in Green’s latest poll, taken in the spring. But modernist evangelicals back Kerry by 8 percentage points over Bush.

Note the term “modernist evangelical” — that deserves more attention. You’ll be hearing more about the evangelical left in the months and years ahead. Then brace yourself for the charismatic left.

Bishop’s “modernist” and “traditionalist” divide sounds very similar, of course, to Dr. James Davison Hunter’s thesis in “Culture Wars,” in which he described the worldviews of the “orthodox” (truth is transcendent, absolute and eternal) and the “progressives” (truth is personal, experiential and evolving). This sociologist at the University of Virginia Center on Religion and Democracy has been talking about the cultural and political implications of this new divide for 15 years or so. I dedicated by 10th anniversary column to his work.

Of course, anyone who covers the world of oldline Protestantism knows how this divide is shaping the wars among United Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Lutherans and everybody else on that side of the church aisle.

Ballot-box politics aside, when you look at these issues in terms of doctrine and sacraments, I have found that you can almost always sort these churches out by asking three ancient questions: (1) Did the resurrection of Jesus really happen — in real time? (2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? (3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

Get answers to those three questions and, nine out of 10 times, a journalist will know who he or she is dealing with in terms of this modernist/progressives vs traditionalist/orthodox divide. How does this affect politics? Well, what percentage of the heat in political life today is generated by discussions of issues linked to the Sexual Revolution, such as abortion and homosexuality? While we are at it, it is also interesting to ponder the impact of these questions on the growth and decline of churches and denominations.

So Bishop never should have expected to find churches in which people calmly and gracefully discuss the issues of the day. Martin Marty says so. Instead of calling his article on churches and politics “The Great Divide” between the two Americas, Bishop should have called it “The Greatest Divide.” Marty noted:

To do our own framing, let me suggest an experiment for those who attend worship (non-attenders can easily get reports from experimenters). In the polite company of fellow-believers, on church premises, whisper words such as “Bush” or “Kerry,” “Democrat” or “Republican.” Thereupon, if you are not met with spite or spit, go on to the second part of the experiment: voice support for one party or candidate and reject the other. The custodian will clean up your broken glasses or other debris left over from the smashing that will follow. …

A church building will not have a sign out front: “This is a Republican congregation” or vice versa. But when the Republicans go trolling for votes by asking for membership lists, or ask pastors for formal endorsements, they know exactly which congregations in any urban or town and country setting to approach. And Democrats, should they also go pushing the edges of I.R.S. regulations by asking tax-exempt churches to go partisan and support a candidate — as some do especially in the case of African-American congregations — they know better than to walk down the aisle of “the other kind” of church and bid.

This divide is disturbing, but real, noted Marty. Religious people have few chances to hear the arguments of other believers, or perhaps even the voice of divine judgment.

But politics will be politics and the religious voices are certainly not staying silent out there in the larger debates. If you don’t believe me, check out the New York Times coverage of the landslide victory in Missouri for an amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriages. You can click here or even here.

Print these stories out and grab a yellow highlighter pen. You should find a dozen or more passages that sound something like this ballot-box collision between two people who probably don’t go to the same church.

Mary Klostermeier, 77, said she saw the need to bar gay marriage. “I guess I’m in the old school,” Ms. Klostermeier said. “I’m just a very religious person.”

But her friend Gene Gabianelli, 72, said he had voted against a ban. “People should do what they want to do,” Mr. Gabianelli said. “This whole thing is all about politics as far as I can tell — all about mobilizing people for George Bush.”

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Taking a photo tour of Greece, or at least parts of it

GreekChurchHello out there in Godbeat land. Anybody home?

I ask this because I want to post something that will take a minute or two of your time. A few clicks of the mouse even.

We are not the most high-tech of blogs, but Doug and I have noticed that interesting things are happening in the online multi-media world. The concept of online slide shows is especially interesting to me, since I love photojournalism in all its forms.

Which meant that I have enjoyed the trailblazing work of the Washington Post in its Camera Works division and I have been clicking my way into the current New York Times efforts to capture the spirit of Greece in the weeks leading up to the Olympics. It’s a journey worth taking.

Start with this one: “Photographers’ Journal: A Journey Through Greece.” The text that went with this said simply:

The Magnum Photos cooperative set out to capture a portrait of Greece to mark the 2004 Summer Olympic Games. The work of six photographers, as well as audio interviews with the shooters, is featured in this presentation.

As you may remember, I was in Greece a few weeks ago myself. So I thought it was interesting to note certain differences in the work of these photographers.

Visit the site and look through the slide shows. Then let me ask: Am I the only person who notices any differences — statistically speaking — of these photos? Does it seem to you that the Greece visited by Mark Power, Carl De Keyzer, Alex Webb and Patrick Zachmann was a radically different place than that visited by Constantine Manos (of South Carolina, of all places) and Nikos Economopoulos?

Just asking. Look for yourself. And, by the way, the photograph attached to this blog item has nothing to do with the subject at hand.

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Mapping America's souls

red blue countiesThe red-and-blue maps of how each county voted in the 2000 presidential election have acquired an iconic power that may last for decades. You’ll see frequent references on GetReligion to red or blue states (or counties). Kedron Bardwell, who left an irenic comment on our recent Democrats & the God thing thread, makes good use of such a map on his blog, Flyover Nation.

Now comes another map, in the September issue of The Atlantic, that probably will never catch on as widely but presents important data nevertheless. (The map does not yet appear on The Alantic‘s website, but it draws from Religious Congregations & Membership, a decennial study published by the Glenmary Research Center.

The Atlantic‘s map shows the percentage of county populations claimed by 149 participating denominations, ranging from a low of 0.1-34.9 percent (teal green) to a high of 75 or more (red clay). The resulting map is a mosaic that shows how nearly every state has pockets of nominalism or, further along the spectrum, what political scientists Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio call “anti-fundamentalists.”

The Atlantic uses six markers to highlight patterns:

• The Godless Northwest: Props to Medford, Ore., as “the nation’s most godless locale.”

• Latter-day Republicans: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gained 680,000 converts in the 1990s. “This is good news for the Republican Party, since 88 percent of Mormons who voted in 2000 went for George W. Bush.”

• Catholicism’s Changing Face: The Catholic Church grew by 16 percent in the 1990s, and its heart is shifting to the South and the West.

• The Pious Dakotas: The Atlantic identifies Bismarck, N.D., as “the third most religious metropolitan area in the country, trailing only Provo, Utah, and Lafayette, Louisiana.”

• The Baptist Belt: “The South is Baptist country: the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest denomination in eight of the eleven states of the old Confederacy, and also in Kentucky and Oklahoma.” (Thank you, Atlantic, for sparing us any flip references to the buckle of the Bible belt, which is usually designated by a lonely progressive, whether in Pittsburgh, Atlanta, or Colorado Springs, who wants out.)

• Islam Rising?: Even by the estimate of 1.6 million Muslims in the United States, “Islam is on its way to outstripping the dwindling mainline Protestant denominations. New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago already have more than twice as many Muslims as Episcopalians.”

Ross Douthat provides reporting and analysis to make sense of the county-by-county map:

Although the Republicans retain a strong electoral advantage among the churchgoing, the persistence of a large and bipartisan religious center should provide comfort for Democrats worried that their party has become alienated from America’s religious mainstream. Moreover, although it’s true that a recent rise in the country’s overall religious intensity has buttressed the huge majorities that believe in God, Judgment Day, and the power of prayer, this rise has coincided with the spread of laissez-faire attitudes on matters of personal morality.

In short, the data seem to support a theory put forth a few years ago by Alan Wolfe, a sociologist at Boston College: Americans are increasingly governed by a philosophy of “moral freedom,” in which a general piety coexists with a distate for dogma and a willingness to accept a broad spectrum of viewpoints and lifestyles. In a country where moral freedom predominates, the long-term electoral advantage will probably go to the party that avoids the appearance of extremism, be it secular or religious.

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Behind the Christian comedy story — two views of culture

victoria_jacksonAs Doug just noted, this whole “Christian comedy” story is really, down at the roots, about the wider issue of Christian and conservative subcultures.

Surely it says something about our age that culturally conservative believers are plugging away at influencing real politics (as opposed to Contemporary Christian Politics?) at the precise moment that so many Americans are turned off by real politics. But in the area of entertainment and mass media — the heart of American cultural life — Christians flee to niche cultures. Movies. Comic books. Music. You name it. There is a whole world with the letters CC in front of the product.

The Washington Post recently waded into this topic, as well, in a Natalie Hopkinson feature entitled “The Ha-Ha-Hallelujah Comedy Movement.” Here is the crucial “love offering” passage in this report on the opening night at the Synergy comedy club. If you don’t know what a “love offering” is, this club isn’t for you.

Row by row, the audience marches to the stage and drops singles, fives and checks hastily made out to Synergy Ministries — $1,260 by the end of the night. He’s joking, but it’s no joke. This is the house of the Lord.

You can call them “inspirational,” “alternative,” “Christian” and even, as some of them plead, “just clean.” They are the dozens of comedians working the Washington area’s gospel comedy scene. For years, these comedians have been performing at churches, community centers, parties and weddings. But now a small circuit of Christian comedy venues has popped up, struggling to make a go.

In addition to keeping it clean, the key to these clubs is that they offer a mixture of entertainment and “ministry.” Remember that this is supposed to be evangelism, even if everyone in the crowd is a born-again consumer.

But these set-apart “Christian venues” are not the whole story — in comedy and in other forms of popular culture. The larger story is elsewhere.

All across the country, mainstream comedy clubs have spotted the large and, well, passionate audience of mainstream believers. They have started holding “Christian” or “clean” comedy nights in real comedy clubs, often featuring real comedians with mainstream credentials. The key is that these funny people happen to be Christians.

These two crowds may overlap, but are not quite the same. But we are talking about two entirely different ways of doing business and creating culture.

If you want to spot the difference, just Google the name “Victoria Jackson.” Yes, that Victoria Jackson from the Saturday Night Live crew. She’s alive and well and still funny as, well, heck. Here is a Cox News Service glimpse into her experiments in this emerging marketplace.

ATLANTA — Dressed in a sequined black French maid costume, comic Victoria Jackson was complaining about men in her squeaky high-pitched voice. “We get rewarded for big boobs in your face, but you can’t see our souls,” she said.

She paused, eyes wide, looking a little nervous: “I probably wasn’t supposed to say ‘boob’ on Christian comedy night.”

Well, she did, but nobody stomped out of the Funny Farm at the club’s first Christian comedy night with Jackson, a lifelong Christian known as the ditsy blonde from “Saturday Night Live” from 1986 to 1992. She’s still delightfully amusing at age 44.

The very phrase “Christian comedy” can be confusing.

No joke. That is why this is such an interesting story. It is a doorway into a clash between two different worlds, two different ways of living and working. One seeks to be in the world but not of it. The other is, well, of the world but not in it. There’s a difference.

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The tears of a clown

brad_stineStandup comedian Brad Stine faces the same dilemmas as many other evangelicals in the performing arts. In the Aug. 9 & 16 issue of The New Yorker, Adam Green describes Stine’s surrendering his ambitions to God:

He asked God to take over, to tell him what to do, offering to forgo wealth and fame in return for peace of mind. “It was Abraham and Isaac,” Stine told me. “I finally brought the knife down on my life and my career, and said, ‘I’m willing to sacrifice this thing. I’m willing to let go of what I love most — my comedy — in order to have God.’”

Stine received a call that same day to perform on the Inspiration Network (formerly Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s PTL Network), and he has enjoyed greater career stability ever since. So why does he seem so unsettled?

Green mines Stine’s paradoxes well. Stine counts George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce among his comic heroes, but he repeatedly uses stinkin’ as a synonym for the F-word. He tweaks Christians who blame Satan if they lose a job (“No — your incompetence made you lose your job!”) but complains that he’s excluded from The Tonight Show (and from launching his own sitcom) because “I’m a conservative, I’m a Christian, and I think the United States is the greatest country that has ever existed on the face of the earth!”

Green understands the evangelical subculture well enough to poke fun at its awkward stabs at building an alternative culture. Here’s a cringe-inducing passage:

In York, Pennsylvania, Stine performed at the Praise Center, a hangar-size nondenominational church and television-production facility in the middle of an open field. He had been hired by a local Christian broadcasting entrepreneur, talk-show host, and weight-loss-formula salesman named Jerry Jacobs, who didn’t appear to be a regular user of his own product. Jacobs was hoping to interest Stine in his plan to produce a late-night comedy show, which, he explained, would be “similar to ‘Saturday Night Live,’ only without all the ah-moral tendencies.” He said, “I can’t say, ‘Live from York — it’s Saturday night,’ because my lawyers told me that wouldn’t fly. But I can say, ‘We’re in York, and we’re live, and it’s Saturday night.’”

Stine’s shtick on his first DVD (Put a Helmet On!) does not leave an impression of an uproarious comic held back by thought police at television networks. He’s moderately funny, and his manic delivery sometimes transcends his more pedantic material — how often do you hear “And that’s the problem with these secular humanists” as a segue?

In an online-only conversation, Green offers a surprising answer when asked whether he picked up any good jokes from Stine:

He tends to not be, when he does his rants, cutting and harsh. His jokes are much gentler, in fact, and when he rails against gay marriage, the joke he does is “Guys want to marry other guys? Cowards!” To me that’s a funny joke. Then he goes off on a routine about how much easier it would be to be married to a guy: “You never pick up your clothes, you would never have to say ‘Honey, where’s my underwear?’ You’d know where it was, lying in a heap in the corner, where you left it the night before.” You know, when he does that, that’s not a conservative or a Christian point of view, that could be anything. That’s when you see that he is, in fact, just a comedian.

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Praise the Lord and pass the reptile

snakehandlersLaura Miller of Salon tries mightily, in her ingenious twin review of The Twilight of Atheism by Alister McGrath and The End of Faith by Sam Harris, to adopt the enlightened tone of one who sees past two extremes.

Miller criticizes McGrath’s book as “a masterpiece of condescension masquerading as sober consideration, lucid in a magnanimous, Olympian sort of way, and so ensconced in its authority that it positively reeks of Oxford, where, sure enough, McGrath is a professor of historical theology.”

She does not spare Harris entirely:

Harris, by contrast, is fiery, a polemicist raging against the “life destroying gibberish” he maintains is threatening humanity’s very survival. He can’t resist studding the pages of “The End of Faith” with seemingly every withering zinger that’s occurred to him in the shower or during bouts of insomnia, from deploring “religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher’s stone and unicorns” to asking us to “imagine a future in which millions of our descendants murder each other over rival interpretations of ‘Star Wars’ or Windows 98.”

Still, In writing on behalf of “the thinking agnostic,” Miller lets slip a few of her own whoppers of condescension. Miller’s most withering remarks are aimed at those “fundamentalist Christians” with whom McGrath associates himself merely by writing a book like The Twilight of Atheism.

She writes of McGrath, “Although perfectly happy to accuse Freud of misogyny and [Madalyn Murray] O’Hair of homophobia, he manages to entirely skirt the fact that, in this country, fundamentalist Christians have tried to elevate such prejudices to the status of law.” Miller doesn’t cite specific examples, of course. Apparently Salon editors consider such connections painfully self-evident to anyone other than a fundamentalist Christian.

Her strongest venom, however, is reserved for a paragraph that follows McGrath’s praise for Pentecostals:

There’s something comical about McGrath’s donnish nod to the snake handlers (what’s next, Anglican hip-hop?), but it isn’t nearly as absurd as his efforts to show that postmodernism has ridden to the rescue of religion by dismantling atheism’s insistence that there is “only one, correct, rational way of looking at the world.” Postmodernist philosophy, he writes, defies atheism’s “emphasis upon uniformity and control” and its demands for “the suppression of differences and diversity.” This assault on hierarchies makes postmodernism the natural ally of — what, the faith that brought us the Inquisition and the Moral Majority?

Amazing. Did you know that Pentecostals routinely handle snakes? Somebody really ought to inform the Assemblies of God about this, as its website offers no tips on the proper care and feeding of serpents. And since when has the Inquisition become synonymous with any threat posed by the long-ago disbanded Moral Majority Inc.? (Finally, a factual note: Anglican hip-hop already has premiered in all its goofy splendor. Miller needs to dream up some other oxymoronic joke.)

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"Kill the Nazis" and other loud opinions (Spot an albatross)

protestersWe’ve had a lively little comments thread going on the past few days inspired by the “Kill the Nazis” post about the protesters and counter-protesters during the Democratic National Convention. That was the one about the pro-peace crowd that tried to kick some sense into a loud anti-abortion activist who had a bad — or good — sense of timing, depending on one’s point of view.

I must admit that I was amused at the whole “tolerant people attacking the intolerant” angle of that story. As some of you may have noticed, I love that old saying: “There are people in this world who don’t love everybody the way that they’re supposed to and I hate people like that.”

But something got lost lost in the lively debate about angry anti-war people and arrogant conservatives and everything else. This is a blog about mainstream media coverage of religion news and I hoped to get everybody thinking about unusual political-religious stories that the press could cover during the two conventions and the rest of the long and winding road to the White House.

For example, what kind of counter-protest situations might pop up during the GOP convention? Young Republicans throwing Howard Dean plush toys at peaceful throngs of Michael Moore supporters? Choirs of religious right leaders singing “We shall overcome” during a march by the Congressional Black Caucus? Michael Reagan going mano a mano with a sort-of-sibling?

Have some fun with this. Our goal here is to have fun, but also to think about what lively religion coverage can look like. The left and right both have their stereotypes and sacred cows. Let’s spot them. Anyone want to make some predictions about what might happen next on the campaign trail?

Also, any nominations for the best just-off-the-religion-beat story during the Democratic shindig?

The people at the Christianity Today blog — as always — did amazing work. The daily blog at by Steven Waldman was also fun. Both featured sharp insights into the efforts by Democrats to ring spiritual bells, without hanging a copy of the Ten Commandents around the necks of the candidates like a large, heavy ocean-friendly bird with a giant wingspan.

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