Richard Ostling

'Mainline' blues: A veteran on religion beat gives an old church trend fresh legs

'Mainline' blues: A veteran on religion beat gives an old church trend fresh legs

How many stories have been written on the important demographic slide across the decades among America’s moderate-to-liberal Protestant churches, the "Seven Sisters" of the old mainline?

Such pieces typically report the latest membership totals and such. But newswriters should always seek new ways to freshen up old themes, and colleague David Briggs provides an example of just how to do that.

In case anyone doesn’t know the name, Briggs was the Religion Guy’s predecessor as an Associated Press religion writer, also covered the beat for the Buffalo News and Cleveland Plain Dealer, and has been president of the Religion Newswriters Association. He now edits the “Ahead of the Trend” blog for the Association of Religion Data Archives, an organization housed at Penn State that religion journalists are --  or should be -- well aware of.

By the way, the ARDA boasts that Briggs is considered “among the Top 10 secular religion writers and reporters in North America,” which sounds right. Who’d be on your own list? Leave me some notes in the comments pages.

Here’s the old-school Briggs formula: Pull together telling data that haven’t gotten much coverage, interview some of the usual suspects on the implications and then propose a strong conclusion about mainline woe: “Not only is there no end in sight, but there are few signs of hope for revival in rapidly aging, shrinking groups.”

These churches won’t disappear, we’re told, but their decline will not bottom out, much less turn around.

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Listening to D.C. debates: Who speaks for Southern Baptists?

Listening to D.C. debates: Who speaks for Southern Baptists?

A constant commandment for journalists is to “assess thy sources.”

The running debate on “what is an evangelical,” so pertinent for newswriters during this presidential campaign, involves “who speaks for evangelicals” and consequently “who speaks for the Southern Baptist Convention”? The sprawling SBC is by far this category’s  largest U.S. denomination, with 15.5 million members, 46,000 congregations, and $11 billion in annual receipts.

As noted by Jonathan Merritt in Religion News Service, the issue has been pursued with a vengeance by Will Hall, the new editor of the state Baptist Message newspaper in Louisiana. Hall targets as unrepresentative the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and its president since 2013, the Rev. Russell D. Moore, 44, who’s the Southern Baptists’ prime spokesman on moral and social issues in the public sphere.

An editorial by Hall charged that Moore’s dislike for presidential candidate Donald Trump in particular “goes beyond the pale, translating into disrespect and even contempt for any Christian who might weigh these considerations differently” while Moore otherwise “has shown apparent disdain for traditional Southern Baptists.”

Moore is certainly outspoken about Trump. In a New York Times op-ed last Sept. 17, he said evangelicals and other social conservatives who back the billionaire “must repudiate everything they believe.”  He joined the 22 essayists in the “Against Trump” package in the Feb. 15National Review. Moore said with Trump, “sound moral judgments are displaced by a narcissistic pursuit of power” that religious conservatives should view as “decadent and deviant.”

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Christian history flashback: What’s the legacy of the Jesus Movement 45 years later?

Christian history flashback: What’s the legacy of the Jesus Movement 45 years later?

JOSH’S QUERY:

[Referring to Time magazine's 1971 cover story on the youthful "Jesus Revolution"]  A lot has happened since then -- culturally, religiously, movement-wise -- and I’d be fascinated to see you revisit your journalistic and theological mind.

THE RELIGION GUY’S RESPONSE:

This interests Josh because his parents were members of Love Inn, which typified the youth-driven “Jesus Movement” of those days. It was a combination church, commune, Christian rock venue and traveling troupe, based in a barn near the aptly named Freeville, New York (population 500).

As a “Time” correspondent, the Religion Guy figured this revival, which was hiding in plain sight, was well worth a cover story, managed to convince reluctant editors to proceed, and did much of the field reporting including a visit to Love Inn. Arguably, that article -- by the Guy’s talented predecessor as “Time” religion writer, lay Catholic Mayo Mohs -- put the “Jesus freaks” permanently on the cultural map.

The following can only sketch mere strands of a complex phenomenon and offers as much theorizing as hard fact. For some of the history, the Guy is indebted to the valuable “Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism” by Randall Balmer of Dartmouth College.

Quick summary: The Jesus Movement developed pre-existing phenomena into a youth wing that energized and reshaped U.S. evangelical Protestantism as a whole. This occurred just as evangelicalism was clearly emerging as the largest segment of American religion while beginning in the mid-1960s moderate to liberal “mainline” Protestant groups began inexorable decline.

The Jesus Movement was related to and influenced by the “Charismatic Movement,” which first reached public notice around 1960. This wave took a loosened version of Pentecostal spirituality into “mainline” Protestant and Catholic settings and, especially, newer and wholly independent congregations, along with free-floating gatherings akin to the secular Woodstock (August, 1969).

Early “street Christians” clustered around hot spots such as the Living Room in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, the Christian World Liberation Front adjacent to the University of California at Berkeley, Seattle’s Jesus People Army, and His Place on the Sunset Strip (led by Arthur Blessitt who later evangelized his way across the nation pulling an outsize wheeled cross).

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Keeping up: Journalism word games, slogans, euphemisms and misdirections

Keeping up: Journalism word games, slogans, euphemisms and misdirections

Journalists’ need to nurture professional skepticism should apply to the latest partisan lingo.

Examples from showbiz and advertising are legion. Are drivers of cars other than Subarus unloving? If a TV drama announces that the events and characters are totally fictional, the viewer automatically thinks “this story must be about real events and characters. Otherwise why the disclaimer?”  

Public discourse on politics, morals and religion is full of such word games, slogans, euphemisms and carefully calculated misdirections. 

In politics, during the Great Depression conservatives coined a classic still with us, the “right to work law,” which actually means the “right to refuse union membership or dues-paying,” and in reality “the right to have a weak union.” Ask your Guild rep. The Jan. 17 New York Times Magazine ran down the ways different eras have proudly embraced or shunned “progressive” and “liberal.”  “Left-leaning” becomes cautious journalistic usage when “liberal” is a slur. Has “socialist” suddenly become benign now that 43 percent of Iowa Democrats accept that label? 

In other up-to-the-minute canons, oppressive-sounding “gun control” is now “gun safety.” Insurgent Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio is magically an “establishment” candidate. In current campaign speak, “amnesty” means whatever immigration policy the other guy wants -- or used to want.  Newswriters are now expected to replace “illegal” immigrant with “undocumented.” 

Turning to moral and sexual conflicts, the Stylebook from The Religion Guy’s former Associated Press colleagues has this stumble (unless it’s been corrected in the latest edition):  “Use anti-abortion instead of pro-life and abortion rights instead of pro-abortion or pro-choice.”

My take: "Anti" sounds negative while “rights” is positive for Americans. Better for journalists to use parallel terms that leaders on the two sides accept as their labels, “pro-life” vs. “pro-choice,” admitting that the latter skirts what action is being chosen. Meanwhile, conservatives borrow that helpful “choice” slogan when it comes to schools.

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Another press perplexity: So who speaks for Muslims in the United States?

Another press perplexity: So who speaks for Muslims in the United States?

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations is an awkwardly but accurately named alliance formed in 1955 to give the nation’s variegated Jews a united voice on key matters. Reportedly the Eisenhower White House either originated or promoted the idea of an umbrella group to make life simpler for everybody. The New York City-based conference encompasses 55 groups, communal, political and religious, and pretty much includes all sectors of Jewish life except the stricter forms of Orthodoxy, Hasidism and the anti-Zionist sects.

With less media notice than it deserves, a similar U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations was established in Washington, D.C., in 2014 with a constituency of 19 religious and communal groups.

At the moment, USCMO is no place for busy reporters to do their one-stop shopping to obtain quick, representative quotes and handy background info. However, if it can consolidate support this is certainly an organization to watch. USCMO says its purposes are “to build an active, integrated American Muslim community,” to “speak with one clear, communal voice” and to “support a national agenda for the entire Muslim community.”

These are tall orders given the numerous ethnicities and fiefdoms.

Founders include the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Islamic Circle of North America, Muslim American Society and The Mosque Cares, led by W. Deen Mohammed II, who is USCMO’s treasurer. Absent are factions seen as heterodox like the Ahmadiyyas, Moorish Science and Minister Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, which embraces the black nationalism of Mohammed’s grandfather. The prominent Islamic Society of North America is not affiliated but has joined USCMO events. The list looks to be stronger on Sunni than Shi’a and Sufi representation.

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Perennial press perplexity: How many Muslims are there in the United States?

Perennial press perplexity: How many Muslims are there in the United States?

Let's hold the above question for a moment and start with statistics about Christians in the United States.

Religion writers should be uttering hallelujahs for an organization many may not know about, the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. This  association has just agreed to replace the National Council of Churches and rescue the invaluable “Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches.” This statistical compilation, issued since 1916, had been moribund since 2012 due to NCC financial woes. (Future contacts: yearbook.asarb@gmail.com and www.asarb.org.)

The U.S. Census hasn’t asked about religious affiliations for decades, yet a writer often needs to report a denomination’s total adherents. Though the Yearbook’s data are self-reported without auditing and sometimes out of date, it’s the best resource journalists and religious leaders have had for comparisons and as a source in which to quickly find numbers, contacts, and basics.

The American Jewish Committee in 2009 likewise cut loose the 115-year-old “American Jewish Year Book,” taken over by the Springer book house. Jewish headcounts are complicated, but the 2014 annual  estimated a population of 6.6 million to 6.7 million. The 2015 edition (list price $299!) has yet to appear. Meanwhile, the ubiquitous Pew Research Center figures the U.S. currently has 5.7 million “Jews by religion” as distinct from ethnic identity.

Moving to Islam’s U.S. followers, a number reporters would like to cite regularly, the following may not help much.

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What are the ins and outs -- mostly ins -- of the giant, online Bible Gateway?

What are the ins and outs -- mostly ins -- of the giant, online Bible Gateway?

HEATHER’S QUESTION:

I don’t see the New Revised Standard Version in my biblegateway.com app. Do you have any idea why it’s excluded?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

This specific topic is quick and easy, so the Guy will use the space and occasion to provide broader information about the quite remarkable www.biblegateway.com (hereafter BG), billed as “the most-visited Christian Website in the world” with “more than 18 million unique visitors per month” -- and a must reference stop for journalists and Religion Q&A readers. The heart of things is a free and fully searchable online archive of complete Bible texts in 70 languages. The offerings in English are 53 texts and 14 audio versions (three of these read by the euphonious Max McLean of C.S. Lewis On Stage fame) plus many related features.

On Heather’s point, the main Website posts the New Revised Standard Version, known for its gender-inclusive language. But, yes, the NRSV is not among the text and audio versions accessible for free via the Bible Gateway App for mobile iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Android and KindleFire. This is not BG’s doing. Older Bible versions in “public domain” can be used free by anyone but BG negotiates with 27 publishers for licenses that allow posting of newer versions under copyright. The National Council of Churches, which controls NRSV rights, granted BG the Web rights in 2012 but decided not to include a license for the app.

Still, the app’s offerings are extensive, and the ins and outs of the parent Website are almost totally “in.”

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That same old question for 2016: What is an 'evangelical,' anyway?

 That same old question for 2016: What is an 'evangelical,' anyway?

The Carson- Cruz- Rubio-Trump piety sweepstakes aimed at the vital “evangelical vote” in Iowa has produced recent news that would have been unthinkable a generation ago:

* Businessman Donald Trump brags that “Franklin Graham said incredible things about me” (the evangelist isn’t endorsing anyone), then targets Senator Ted Cruz: “In all fairness, to the best of my knowledge not too many evangelicals come out of Cuba, OK?” Unclear what that means, but it followed Trump’s previous slap at surgeon Carson’s Adventist church after Carson questioned Trump’s faith.

* Preacher’s kid Cruz tells a church rally, “Keep this revival growing. Awaken the body of Christ that we might rise up to pull this country from the abyss,” and quotes the favored Bible verse of evangelical activists, 2 Chronicles 7:14 (“If my people ...”).

* Not to be outdone, Senator Marco Rubio states in an online ad, “Our goal is eternity, the ability to live alongside our Creator and for all time, to accept the free gift of salvation offered to us by Jesus Christ. ... The purpose of our life is to cooperate with God’s plan...“ The Catholic candidate also appoints 15 evangelical, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Orthodox Jewish notables (e.g. law Professor Michael McConnell, Pastor Rick Warren) as advisors on future religious liberty issues.

* An e-mail blast from Eric Teetsel, late of the Manhattan Declaration now running Rubio’s “faith outreach,” quotes Southern Baptist social-issues spokesman Russell Moore on evangelical constituencies: “Ted Cruz is leading the Jerry Falwell wing, Marco Rubio is leading the Billy Graham wing and Trump is leading the Jimmy Swaggart wing” (the latter a scandal-scarred  televangelist).

Political nose-counters note that in 2012, 57 percent of Iowa voters identified as evangelicals (vs. 22 percent in New Hampshire, the second lowest percentage among states behind only Senator Sanders’ Vermont). Iowa polls show Cruz moving well ahead of Carson and Trump in evangelical support, while CNN says nationwide Trump leads Cruz by 45 to 28 percent among white evangelicals. And the Wall Street Journal reports the Cruz camp thinks there are  90 million U.S. evangelicals (!) of whom 54 million didn’t vote in 2012(!!).

Obviously, both politics and religion reporters need to pursue that ever-challenging question, What is an “evangelical”?

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Why is it so important to certain Muslims to practice beheading?

Why is it so important to certain Muslims to practice beheading?

TERRY’S QUESTION:

What is it with Muslims and beheadings? Where does that (tradition) come from?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Islam has no hesitation about capital punishment when proper legal procedures are observed and death is hudud (mandatory) under Sharia (religious law). Traditionally this covers such infractions as murder, adultery, homosexual activity, political rebellion, and apostasy, including (under the strictest regimes) conversion to a different religion.

Beheading has a long human history, but what’s remarkable in the 21st Century is its continued use by certain sectors of Muslims while, as the question implies, much of the world regards it as repugnant. Today’s terror sects demonstrate that decapitation remains singularly effective for striking fear into the hearts of subjects and for expressing contempt toward victims. The current “Islamic State” caliphate, a.k.a. ISIS, proudly posts its bloodthirsty videos for another purpose, inspiring excitable youths to join its revolt against traditional religious authorities and attack despised fellow Muslims and non-Muslims.

We also have official incidents -- minus video publicity -- such as Saudi Arabia’s mass execution January 2 of 47 alleged terrorists and political dissidents. The event included beheadings, including of a popular Shia activist, along with deaths by firing squad. Such executions are not unusual for the kingdom. By media accounts, it decapitated some 1,100 defendants in 1984-2004, and at least 57 in 2014 alone, for crimes ranging from drug-running to religious apostasy. Several Muslim regimes that formerly used this method of execution have abandoned it. That leaves Saudi Arabia as unique, and especially noteworthy because it purports to preserve pure and authentic Islamic practice.

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