A dynamic, hip, inked leader offers salvation to the left

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It says a lot, in this financially tight age in American newsrooms, when editors put a reporter on an airplane and send her halfway across the nation to hear somebody preach.

In other words, the team at The Washington Post has decided that the work of Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber is a truly national story, one with policy-cultural implications for American religion. After all, we know that the Post isn’t into covering mere “local” stories away from the Beltway.

That recent news feature on this rising star of oldline Protestantism is also interesting because she was about to visit Washington, D.C., for a speaking engagement, which means that the earlier feature story served as a kind of PR-friendly advance story to help build the gate and attract the base, to put this in political/entertainment terms. There was no need to head to Austin to catch the Denver-based punk pastor earlier on her tour, since she was coming to DC (which allowed the Post to feature her work a second time).

Interesting. So what is going on here?

What’s going on is that Bolz-Weber represents a charismatic development in the old, graying world of liberal mainline Protestantism, a highly symbolic slice of America’s religious marketplace that has been caught in a downward demographic spiral for several decades. Apparently, the consumer-friendly world of shopping mall faith likes what this woman is pushing, including her personal style — which the Post features in the lede:

AUSTIN – Nadia Bolz-Weber bounds into the University United Methodist Church sanctuary like a superhero from Planet Alternative Christian. Her 6-foot-1 frame is plastered with tattoos, her arms are sculpted by competitive weightlifting and, to show it all off, this pastor is wearing a tight tank top and jeans.

Right up front, why strip this preacher of her title? Where is “the Rev.” in front of her name?

Also, it helps to know that she is (for the most part) drawing crowds in the hundreds, while a successful megachurch Christian pastor draws regular Sunday flocks that number in the thousands. How do Bolz-Weber’s market statistics compare with someone like, oh, that charismatic feel-good superstar, the Rev. Joel Osteen? Don’t ask.

Glance at the photos and videos from Bolz-Weber appearances and it appears that she is drawing a larger version of the usual liberal Protestant house, with a heavy emphasis on older singles and white people with gray hair and comfortable clothing. For the Post team, that means (hang on, because this gets complex):

To Bolz-Weber’s bafflement, this is now her congregation: mainstream America. These are the people who put her memoir near the top of the New York Times bestseller list the week it came out in September. They are the ones who follow her every tweet and Facebook post by the thousands, and who have made the Lutheran minister a budding star for the liberal Christian set. And who, as Bolz-Weber has described it in her frequently profane dialect, “are [mess]ing up my weird.”

A quick tour through her 44 years doesn’t seem likely to wind up here. It includes teen rebellion against her family’s fundamentalist Christianity, a nose dive into drug and alcohol addiction, a lifestyle of sleeping around and a stint doing stand-up in a grungy Denver comedy club. She is part of society’s outsiders, she writes in her memoir, its “underside dwellers … cynics, alcoholics and queers.”

Which is where — strangely enough — the match with her fans makes sense. The type of social liberals who typically fill the pews of mainline churches sometimes feel like outsiders among fellow liberals in their lives if they are truly believing Christians; if they are people who really experience Jesus and his resurrection, even if they can’t explain it scientifically; if they are people who want to hear words from the Apostles in church, not Thich Nhat Hanh or Barack Obama.

In her body and her theology, Bolz-Weber represents a new, muscular form of liberal Christianity, one that merges the passion and life-changing fervor of evangelicalism with the commitment to inclusiveness and social justice of mainline Protestantism. She’s a tatted-up, foul-mouthed champion to people sick of being belittled as not Christian enough for the right or too Jesus-y for the left.

This is good stuff. The issue is whether the story will deliver the doctrinal details to flesh out the flash.

Here at GetReligion, we think this kind of detail is important since, from Day One, we have been saying that the press doesn’t devote enough ink to the religious, doctrinal content of liberal faith groups. All too often, stories about religious liberals focus on politics and that is that.

It’s clear that this Post piece is arguing that the faith content and the style of this preacher have substance and should be taken seriously. That’s good. So what is she saying? Are readers given substance, or just style?

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Praise be to Soros for investing millions in Baltimore

So, does the cultural left have a leader who might play the role that the Rev. Pat Robertson plays for the mainstream press when it is covering life on the religious right? I mean, is there a person on the religious or anti-religious left whose views are so predictable and, often, so predictably extreme that one can always count on him for that symbolic action or quote that you need to stereotype all of the other people on that side of the cultural aisle?

I mean, other than Madonna or Bill Maher?

At the level of real-life power, I think it would be hard to find a better nominee than mega-billionaire George Soros, the financial titan whose presence looms behind so many important institutions and projects on the cultural and religious left. Yes, I realize that Soros can be found on many lists of prominent celebrity atheists. However, the big tent on the cultural and religious left includes a wide array of people along the spectrum from proud atheism to progressive forms of religious faith. So there is room for this man and his wallet.

Yes, yes, yes, I know that there is a huge flaw in comparing Soros with Robertson, when it comes to the role of providing journalists with easy headlines and soundbites (I mean, other than the fact that Robertson is nowhere near as rich). Robertson talks all the time. Soros does not.

Still, both mean are oh so predictable in their motivations and actions.

Thus, I was interested when the newspaper that lands in my front yard featured a long A1 story built on an actual interview with Soros, focusing on the 15th anniversary of the creation of his Open Society Institute in Baltimore. Is there a GetReligion ghost in the story?

Well, the word “atheist” does not appear in the text, which I think is rather strange. Why is that? To be frank, the elements of the Open Society Institute’s work that are covered by The Baltimore Sun strike me as being, well, so similar to the kinds of social-ministry projects that are taken on by religious groups. In a way, what we have here is a kind of a secular alternative to the work of the major Catholic and Jewish groups that are so powerful here in Charm City.

Like what? Here is a key chunk of the story, right after the description of one outreach program to young internationals:

The lives of these Baltimore teens are among the thousands influenced by George Soros, a billionaire philanthropist who decided 15 years ago that the city, with severe crime and poverty and just enough potential, was ripe for an experiment.

The Baltimore office of his Open Society Institute was designed as a social justice laboratory to keep students engaged in school, confront drug addiction, reduce incarceration and grow an army of advocates. Now, the 83-year-old hedge fund investor — who has given $90 million to the effort here — wants to recreate it in as many as five more U.S. cities.

“A lot remains to be done, but we now consider the Baltimore experiment so successful that we wanted to replicate it nationwide,” Soros said in a phone interview from his native Budapest, Hungary.

Soros, who lives outside New York City, said his organization, Open Society Foundations, has given planning grants to eight communities to compete for future offices. Meanwhile, he pledged his continued support in Baltimore, saying the advancements the institute has helped promote in student attendance, discipline and performance are the return on investment he wanted. “Baltimore is our poster child, the city that has done the most,” he said. “From my perspective, that is the one I cherish the most.”

Now, what we have here are projects linked to ethics and moral choices — topics that journalists must not, repeat must NOT, assume are inherently religious in nature. What I think is missing here — in light of Soros’ beliefs as an atheist — is a story that truly explores precisely why he wants to get involved in this kind of, to be blunt, urban ministry.

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Baltimore Sun looks at art and religion, but not really

From the beginning of this weblog, your GetReligionistas have urged mainstream newsrooms to do a better job of covering liberal religious believers — as RELIGIOUS believers.

Far too often, believers in liberal institutions are covered as if there is nothing to their lives and beliefs but politics.

The same thing tends to happen to African-American churches, even if — doctrinally speaking — these churches are quite conservative. Far too often, it seems that journalists simply assume that these believers are basing their lives on political and cultural motivations, period.

Well, the newspaper that lands in my front yard just served up a story that I kept thinking was going to avoid this syndrome. Why? Because this story focused on a Baltimore project that focused on cooperation linked to religion and art, as opposed to being exclusively about religion and politics.

Trust me, I know that the high arts have become just as politicized in our culture as the popular arts. In fact, because of their connections to government funding and academia, the high arts are even more politicized.

However, this Baltimore Sun story still had the potential to ask some spiritual questions linked to progressive religious institutions and an arts institution, with the added benefit of the involvement of some more traditional African-American churches. Here is the overture:

The old arched red wooden door to the Seventh Metro Church is less that two blocks from the modern glass-and-steel panel that floats in front of the Maryland Institute College of Art’s newest exhibition space. They bring to mind two different eras and seem designed to be used by two dissimilar groups of people: spiky-haired artists and church ladies wearing fancy hats.

But when a white art student in her 20s met a middle-aged African-American pastor, they discovered that both doors opened into sacred spaces where people look for answers to the same big questions.

Caitlin Tucker and Ryan Preston Palmer became acquainted through an innovative program that brings together two of the seminal institutions that have helped transform the Station North neighborhood — the Maryland Institute College of Art and a group of local churches.

“This program has been a catalyst for bringing together the whole neighborhood,” Palmer says. He admits that until recently, he had never set foot in MICA, though he himself is an artist. For her part, neither Tucker nor Bashi Rose, an artist assigned to the Seventh Metro project, had previously crossed the church threshold.

First, let me make a picky comment about Associated Press style. Why does the Sun continue its strange practice, when dealing with the black church, of ignoring AP style for the titles of ministers? In this case, we are talking about “the Rev. Ryan Preston Palmer,” on first reference. Yes, the story calls him a pastor in the previous sentence — but that does not cancel out the guidelines of AP style. I do not think I have ever seen the Sun them ignore this rule with a white clergy person.

Moving on. It’s clear, from the list of participating churches, that this project combines the work of modern artists with the culture of liberal white churches and the style and folk art of more traditional black churches. Here’s the participants list, in urban Station North: Seventh Metro Church, St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, the New Second Missionary Baptist Church, St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church and the Spiritual Empowerment Center.

Tucker states the thesis of the story:

“There’s sometimes an assumption that there’s a divide between artists and communities of faith,” Tucker says. “Not a lot of members of our class identify as religious. The students at MICA who practice a faith have said in campus surveys that they feel discriminated against. But historically, there’s a strong connection between art and religion.”

Now, that is a promising statement, one that I truly hoped would be fleshed out in this story.

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Hey AP: Where is religious left on religious liberty issues?

A long, long time ago, 1998 to be precise, I wrote a column marking the 10th anniversary of my weekly “On Religion” column for the Scripps Howard News Service. I opened it with an observation about one of the major changes I had witnessed on the religion beat during the previous 20 years or so.

Add that all up and we’re talking about events in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. At the top, I noted that, when covering news events:

I kept seeing a fascinating cast of characters at events centering on faith, politics and morality. A pro-life rally, for example, would feature a Baptist, a Catholic priest, an Orthodox rabbi and a cluster of conservative Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans. Then, the pro-choice counter-rally would feature a “moderate” Baptist, a Catholic activist or two, a Reform rabbi and mainline Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans.

Similar line-ups would appear at many rallies linked to gay rights, sex-education programs and controversies in media, the arts and even science. Along with other journalists, I kept reporting that today’s social issues were creating bizarre coalitions that defied historic and doctrinal boundaries. After several years of writing about “strange bedfellows,” it became obvious that what was once unique was now commonplace.

This led me to the work of a famous scholar who was seeing the same pattern:

Then, in 1986, a sociologist of religion had an epiphany while serving as a witness in a church-state case in Mobile, Ala. The question was whether “secular humanism” had evolved into a state-mandated religion, leading to discrimination against traditional “Judeo-Christian” believers. Once more, two seemingly bizarre coalitions faced off in the public square.

“I realized something there in that courtroom. We were witnessing a fundamental realignment in American religious pluralism,” said James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia. “Divisions that were deeply rooted in our civilization were disappearing, divisions that had for generations caused religious animosity, prejudice and even warfare. It was mind- blowing. The ground was moving.”

The old dividing lines centered on issues such as the person of Jesus Christ, church tradition and the Protestant Reformation. But these new interfaith coalitions were fighting about something even more basic — the nature of truth and moral authority.

Two years later, Hunter began writing “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America,” in which he declared that America now contains two basic world views, which he called “orthodox” and “progressive.” The orthodox believe it’s possible to follow transcendent, revealed truths. Progressives disagree and put their trust in personal experience, even if that requires them to “resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life.”

Why bring this up? This is the first thing I thought of the other day when GetReligion readers started sending in links to an Associated Press report noting that — prepare to be shocked — various groups in America are taking different stands on same-sex marriage. Thus, they are also taking different stands on some of the public-square issues linked to the right of doctrinal traditionalists to live out their beliefs in the practical details of public life.

In other words, the doctrinal, philosophical divisions of the “culture wars” era are now affecting how our nation’s leaders view religious liberty and, specifically, the free exercise clause in the First Amendment.

Surprised? There is no need to be. The problem is that this story paints this as a division primarily between religious people and secular people. More on that in a minute.

Now, here’s another key fact that is in the background of this Associated Press news feature. Truth is, the old coalitions that used to support religious liberty have been shattered — especially the remarkable left-right coalition that worked with the Clinton White House on issues of “equal access” and religious freedom in the workplace. That change in the legal landscape is now affecting debates among traditionalists about how to defend their beliefs on marriage and family (and religious liberty). Here is some key material near the top of the story:

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The truly interfaith church of what’s happening now

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From the very beginning of this weblog, your GetReligionistas have argued that some of America’s most important religion stories are taking place on the Religious Left, even on the evangelical and Pentecostal left. I still believe that.

Also, we have always argued that it was important for journalists to cover the religious and doctrinal content of flocks on the religious left in terms of their DOCTRINES, worship and practices, not just their political views. It’s just as bad to assume that, let’s say, liberal Baptists believe what they believe for what are assumed to be political reasons as it is to argue that Baptists on the Religious Right are, truth be told, just a bunch of cynical politicos.

So, yes, I enjoyed reading large chunks of that recent New York Times story that ran under the headline, “A Church That Embraces All Religions and Rejects ‘Us’ vs. ‘Them.’”

By the way, I am not sure that the story nails down the second half of that headline, but that’s another issue. It’s possible that the religious thinker at the heart of this story would have trouble truly tolerating believers that be believes are intolerant. Why do I say that? Hang on a minute or two.

The opening of the story is a feast of Pacific Northwest details, some predictable and some quite refreshing:

LYNNWOOD, Wash. – Clad in proper Pacific Northwest flannel, toting a flask of “rocket fuel” coffee typical of Starbucks’ home turf, Steven Greenebaum rolled his Prius into a middle school parking lot one Sunday morning last month. Then he set about transforming its cafeteria into a sanctuary and himself into a minister.

He donned vestments adorned with the symbols of nearly a dozen religions. He unfolded a portable bookshelf and set the Koran beside the Hebrew Bible, with both of them near two volumes of the “Humanist Manifesto” and the Sioux wisdom of “Black Elk Speaks.” Candles, stones, bells and flowers adorned the improvised altar.

Some of the congregants began arriving to help. There was Steve Crawford, who had spent his youth in Campus Crusade for Christ, and Gloria Parker, raised Lutheran and married to a Catholic, and Patrick McKenna, who had been brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness and now called himself a pagan.

They had come together with about 20 other members to celebrate the end of their third year as the congregation of the Living Interfaith Church, the holy mash-up that Mr. Greenebaum had created. Yearning for decades to find a religion that embraced all religions, and secular ethical teachings as well, he had finally followed the mantra of Seattle’s indie music scene: “D.I.Y.,” meaning “do it yourself.”

The style appears to be mainline Protestant/Reform Judaism, blended with a rather academic infusion of other faith traditions. The Times team notes that:

… The liturgy moved from a poem by the Sufi mystic Rumi to the “passing of the peace” greeting that traced back to early Christianity to a Buddhist responsive reading to an African-American spiritual to a rabbinical song. In other weeks, the service has drawn from Bahai, Shinto, Sikh, Hindu and Wiccan traditions, and from various humanist sources.

I found myself wondering why this congregation needed to go it alone. Why not hang with the Unitarian Universalists, liberal Episcopalians or the United Church of Christ?

However, the whole point of this story is that Greenebaum’s flock somehow represents the trend that researchers usually call our “postdenominational age.” This pair of fact paragraphs is crucial:

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Pod people: Concerning the IRS and the God squads

It’s a basic fact of life in American politics that nothing fires up the non-profit sector on the political right like the election of a strong president whose voter base is on the religious, cultural and political left.

Thus, it’s no surprise that the election of President Barack Obama, an articulate believer from the heart of liberal mainline Protestantism, created a boom in activism on the religious, cultural and political right. That’s the way the world works.

Of course, the folks that got most of the mainstream media ink, after Obama rose to power, were the Tea Party activists. The journalistic template was established early on that we were talking about the Libertarian barbarian hordes marching into the public square to sack civilization (but, hey, at least they aren’t the religious right folks).

Thus, most of our recent media firestorm about the public confession that the IRS focused extra scrutiny on White House enemies has focused on — what are those magic words again — non-profit applications by groups that had “Tea Party” or “patriot” in their names, or were dedicated to scary activities such as distributing educational materials about the U.S. Constitution.

However, there has been some mainstream coverage of the fact that the IRS also targeted some conservative religious groups that were dedicated to activism on key moral issues dear to the heart of White House folks — such as abortion, health-care reform and same-sex marriage. If you want to create a few (repeat, a few) headlines, then you go after the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, right to life networks and similar groups.

I’ve been writing about the IRS affairs the past two weeks for the Scripps Howard News Service and, no surprise, the subject continues to come up here at GetReligion. Thus, Todd Wilken and I dug into the subject in the latest GetReligion “Crossroads” podcast.

Did you actually hear about the question that the IRS asked when considering one right-to-life group’s request for non-profit status? Here’s how one of my columns opened:

IRS Commissioner Steven Miller was already having a rough day at the House Ways and Means Committee when one particularly hot question shoved him into the lower depths of a church-state Inferno.

The question concerned a letter sent by IRS officials in Cincinnati to the Coalition for Life of Iowa, linked to its application for tax-exempt status.

“Please explain how all of your activities, including the prayer meetings held outside of Planned Parenthood, are considered educational,” said the letter, which was released by the Thomas More Society, which often defends traditional religious groups. “Organizations exempt under 501(c)(3) may present opinions with scientific or medical facts. Please explain in detail the activities at these prayer meetings. Also, please provide the percentage of time your organizations spends on prayer groups as compared with the other activities of the organization.”

Welcome back to the religious liberty wars of 2013, in a scene captured by the omnipresent eye of C-SPAN.

Now, the key to the podcast discussion was this: If this whole IRS thing is going to have legs, what is the next legitimate angle for journalists to investigate?

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Pod people: Digging for old news on ‘Nones’

Friends and neighbors, the whole media world continues to buzz with news (me too, of course) about the “Nones,” that growing coalition of religiously unaffiliated voters that showed up big time in that recent survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

This was an important survey, don’t get me wrong. It was also a survey that was packed with interesting angles — many of which get dissected in some depth in this week’s GetReligion podcast — so click here to go listen to that!

One one level, the whole Nones thing isn’t that big of a change in the landscape of American religious practice. The action, it seems, is taking place on the left-to-secular side of things. The bottom line: Lots of people who used to describe the state of their souls by saying things like, “I was raised Southern Baptist (Catholic, Mormon, Episcopal, United Methodist, etc.), but I don’t really go to church much, ’cause I really don’t belief most of that stuff anymore” are now being more honest and saying, “I have no religious affiliation at all” (or less wonky words to that effect).

Is this a new trend? Yes and no.

Four years ago, scholar John Green of the University of Akron, and the Pew Forum team, spoke to a Media Project seminar for journalists from around the world — focusing on religion in the 2008 election. He wrote all kinds of data on the board, but what it came down to was this. People who truly practice their faith make up about 20 percent of the population. People who are religiously unaffiliated (including the slowly rising camp of atheists/agnostics) have been around 10 percent of the population, but their ranks are rising toward 20 percent.

In the middle, the territory I have always called “Oprah America,” are lots of mushy believers who have little institutional commitment to practicing a specific faith. They come and go and their beliefs blow with the cultural winds. What’s the big news? That percentage is down from about 70 percent to 60 percent — because lots of “Nones” are hitting the exit doors.

That’s the news: There is a growing candor on the religious/secular left.

The other angle that fascinated me, since it’s election crunch time, is that this whole “Nones” coalition — secular, plus the spiritual-but-not-religious folks — has become the largest religion-related group in the modern Democratic Party, larger than African-American Protestants, liberal Catholics, liberal white Protestants, etc., etc. What unites this crowd? Well, to be blunt, what unites them is the Sexual Revolution and their opposition to cultural traditionalists.

The more I thought about that, the more I had a nagging sense of deja vu. Where had I heard this before?

Well, join me in this flashback to 2004, via one of my old Scripps Howard News Service columns. Here’s a major chunk of two of that:

Any Top 10 list of slogans for abortion-rights signs would include “Curb your dogma” and “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” … George W. Bush will receive few votes from these voters. They’re not fond of Pope John Paul II, Jerry Falwell and other conservative religious leaders, either.

Political scientists Gerald De Maio and Louis Bolce call them “anti-fundamentalist voters” and their rise has been a crucial — yet untold — story in U.S. politics. Many are true secularists, such as atheists, agnostics and those who answer “none” when asked to pick a faith. Others think of themselves as progressive believers. The tie that binds is their disgust for Christian conservatives.

“This trend represents a big change, because 40 or 50 years ago all the divisive religious issues in American politics rotated around the Catholics. People argued about money for Catholic schools or whether the Vatican was trying to control American politics,” said Bolce, who, with De Maio, teaches at Baruch College in the City University of New York. “That remains a concern for some people. But today, they worry about all those fundamentalists and evangelicals. That’s where the real animus is.”

In fact, Bolce and De Maio argue that historians must dig back to the bitter pre-Great Depression battles rooted in ethnic and religious prejudices — battles about immigration, public education, prohibition and “blue laws” — to find a time when voting patterns were influenced to the same degree by antipathy toward a specific religious group.

Where was this data coming from?

Bolce, an Episcopalian, and De Maio, a Roman Catholic, have focused much of their work on the “thermometer scale” used in the 2000 American National Election Study and those that preceded it. Low temperatures indicate distrust or hatred while high numbers show trust and respect. Thus, “anti-fundamentalist voters” are those who gave fundamentalists a rating of 25 degrees or colder. By contrast, the rating “strong liberals” gave to “strong conservatives” was a moderate 47 degrees.

Yet 89 percent of white delegates to the 1992 Democratic National Convention qualified as “anti-fundamentalist voters,” along with 57 percent of Jewish voters, 51 percent of “moral liberals,” 48 percent of school-prayer opponents, 44 percent of secularists and 31 percent of “pro-choice” voters. In 1992, 53 percent of those white Democratic delegates gave Christian fundamentalists a thermometer rating of zero. …

What about the prejudices of the fundamentalists? Their average thermometer rating toward Catholics was a friendly 62 degrees, toward blacks 66 degrees and Jews 68 degrees.

How did the press handle this trend, back in 2000 or thereabouts?

Surprise! The elite, mainstream press ignored it. Between 1990 and 2000, Bolce and De Maio found that the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post published 929 stories about the political clout of conservative Christians and 59 about that of secularists and religious liberals. They checked the major television newscasts between 2000 and 2004 and found zero stories on the political rise of the, well, “Nones” and the religious left.

So are the “Nones” new? Not really.

So what now? Someone should interview pollsters in Democratic Party offices. That’s where reporters will find lots and lots of detailed info about this rising force in American politics.

Enjoy the podcast.


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