Richard Ostling

The Powers of negative thinking about the rise of America's 'illiberal left'

The Powers of negative thinking about the rise of America's 'illiberal left'

It’s important to know right from the start that Kirsten Powers is a cradle liberal who has never once voted for a Republican.

She was a Clinton-Gore operative in 1992, a Clinton administration appointee, press secretary for Andrew Cuomo’s first New York governor race and held other partisan posts. She then shifted into opinion journalism, currently as a USA Today columnist and token liberal commentator on Fox News.

Powers’s credentials as a card-carrying political liberal have helped create buzz about her iconoclastic new “The Silencing: How the Left Is Killing Free Speech” (Regnery). It’s proclaimed “an important book” by no less than Ron Fournier, National Journal’s editorial director and former Washington bureau chief of The AP. More predictable praise comes from conservatives like Pulitzer Prize winners Charles Krauthammer and George Will, her fellow Fox pundits.

What possessed Powers to issue a broadside against what she calls “the illiberal left”?  Mainly two things.

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Increase of non-religious Americans: What do Pew Forum numbers mean?

Increase of non-religious Americans: What do Pew Forum numbers mean?

JOSHUA’S QUESTION:

Ed Stetzer suggests the rise of the “nones” -- the religiously unaffiliated -- is a dual trend. On the one hand, the more nominal “cultural Christians” are no longer self-identifying as Christians, and on the other hand the more theologically conservative Christians are becoming more robust. What are the political consequences?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Following Joshua’s posting, the Pew Research Center issued an attention-getting “Religious Landscape Study” of the U.S. that appears to support such a scenario. Introductory notes: “Nones” is shorthand for folks who say “none” when pollsters ask about their religious self-identity. The Pew study calls them “unaffiliated,” whether agnostic, atheist, or the largest subgroup,  those whose religious identity is “nothing in particular.” Stetzer is a church planter turned LifeWay researcher and seminary teacher on mission analysis.

Pew has produced a mass of data that will be chewed on for years. A huge sample size of 35,071 U.S. adults made possible accurate and detailed breakdowns for religious groups. The respondents were interviewed in mid-2014 by phone in either English or Spanish. Unlike most polling with its crude categories, scholars helped Pew frame careful questions to separate out “mainline” Protestants (in 65 sub-categories) from the more conservative “evangelicals.” Keep in mind that there are also significant numbers of self-identified “evangelicals” in “mainline” groups, and in the third Protestant category of “historically black” churches. Since Pew posed these same questions to another large sample in 2007, it can offer timeline comparisons.

The two surveys show that, yes, the “unaffiliated” are increasing. They constituted 16.1 percent of the population in 2007 and jumped to 22.8 percent as of 2014 to become the nation’s second-largest religious category. Evangelical Protestants maintain first place with 25.4 percent of Americans versus the previous 26.3 percent.

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In praise of William Zinsser (1922-2015), 'Who Guided Many Pens' with his 'ministry'

 In praise of William Zinsser (1922-2015), 'Who Guided Many Pens' with his 'ministry'

Almost everyone in the business knows “The Elements of Style,” the crisp 1920 handbook  by William Strunk Jr., later revised by  his onetime Cornell University student, E.B. White of The New Yorker.  Every would-be writer should also absorb a similar and much more enjoyable book that was the best thing to come out of America’s bicentennial year, “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser.

As the headline on his New York Times obituary proclaimed, Zinsser (1922–2015) was an “Editor and Author Who Guided Many Pens.”

Indeed, 1.5 million copies of his classic are in print. He embraced all the Strunk commandments about clarity and concision but with a magazine writer’s flair, e.g. “There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.” A Zinsser maxim about writers: “If their values are solid, their work is likely to be solid.”

After World War Two Army service in North Africa and Italy, Zinsser achieved his “boyhood dream” and was hired by The New York Herald-Tribune. That stylish voice of Eastern Republicanism (final edition April 24, 1966, R.I.P.) was the last serious broadsheet competitor of The Times until The Wall Street Journal recently expanded its general news coverage.

The Religion Guy harbored Zinsser’s same ”dream” after a junior high tour of the paper’s 41st Street plant inspired the journalistic vocation, but it was not to be. Pardon the nostalgia, but here’s Zinsser describing the venerable paper’s city room in “Writing Places: The Life Journey of a Writer and Teacher”:

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While faithful fill pews, movers and shakers can’t get enough of Sunday a.m. TV gabfests

While faithful fill pews, movers and shakers can’t get enough of Sunday a.m. TV gabfests

Movers and shakers from the realms of media and politics can’t get enough of those five Sunday morning TV news gabfests from Washington. Meanwhile, millions of churchgoers ignore the weekly action, unless they religiously remember to set their DVRs.

It’s an important season for these influential shows due to the upcoming  presidential campaign, tight competition for ratings, and three big changes in the cast of characters.

On behalf of his fellow geezers, the Religion Guy is tickled that spry Bob Schieffer, 78, the host of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” regularly grabs more viewers than the younger hosts.  This summer he retires to be replaced by John Dickerson  (a former colleague at “Time” magazine). After last year’s tumult over David Gregory, NBC’s venerable “Meet the Press” is gaining ground with replacement Chuck Todd. In the third switch, CNN cable has tapped Jake Tapper as Candy Crowley’s “State of the Union” successor come June.

The other two personalities: Chris Wallace, Son Of Mike and a onetime “Meet the Press” anchor, has led “Fox NewsSunday” the past dozen years. It’s much the ratings also-ran on broadcast but nears audience parity due to Fox News cable reruns.  Onetime Friend Of Bill George Stephanopoulos continues on ABC’s “This Week.” (Religion beat veterans know his father Robert as the longtime dean of Greek Orthodoxy’s archdiocesan cathedral in New York, and his mother Nikki as the Greek-American church’s news director.)

Here’s what we got in the entirety of the five shows for May 10, chosen because there was no one commanding news story gobbling up air. That would have allowed for a timely little roundup on religion and the 2016 race.

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Big picture: Will global Islam overtake Christianity by 2050?

Big picture: Will global Islam overtake Christianity by 2050?

The Pew Research Center scored ample ink at GetReligion and elsewhere with its important April report on global trends that all religion writers will want to keep on file: “The Future of World Religions: Growth Projections, 2010–2050" (.pdf file here). The 245-page publication provides religious population estimates as of 2050 for each of the 198 nations and territories that have  populations of 100,000 and above, by calculating such factors as birth rates, age distribution, migration, life expectancy and  rates of switching between religions in 70 nations for which we have data.

The headline item was the Pew team’s estimate that “by 2050 there will be near parity between Muslims (2.8 billion, or 30 percent of the population) and Christians (2.9 billion, or 31 percent), possibly for the first time in history.” (Pew explains that Muslims might have outnumbered Christians sometime between 1000 and 1600 as Muslim forces repeatedly invaded Christian strongholds and the Black Death decimated Europe. But we’ll never know because estimates for the Middle Ages are “fraught with uncertainty.”)

The most significant response to Pew’s report (.pdf file here) comes from another essential resource for journalists, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  That analysis tapped the annual CSGC survey for the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, which was expanded this time to include projections to 2050 (.pdf file here).  This center, which the Religion Guy recently visited, provides statistics for various reference books and has just began work on a 3d edition of its World Christian Encyclopedia.

As of 2050, CSGC projects a slightly lower global count than Pew for Muslims at 2.7 billion, and a considerably higher 3.4 billion for Christians.

Why the disparity?

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How, and why, did St. John the Baptist baptize Jesus?

How, and why, did St. John the Baptist baptize Jesus?

GERALD’S QUESTION:

When John the Baptist baptized Jesus, what would the baptismal formula have been? “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” wasn’t used until the 2nd Century.

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Even a highly skeptical scholar like John Dominic Crossan considers it historical fact that Jesus inaugurated his public ministry with baptism performed by his cousin John the Baptist, who was “preaching in the wilderness.” There’s also wide agreement that John would have used full immersion in the waters of the Jordan River (those loud amens you hear are coming from Baptists). But as for what words John recited, the Bible doesn’t say though, yes, it doesn’t seem plausible he would have spoken Christianity’s familiar invocation of the triune God that Gerald quotes.

The Acts of the Apostles depicts three baptisms during the earliest phase of the Christian movement, each performed in the name of Jesus and not the Trinity (which is the practice of modern-day “Oneness” Pentecostals). However, the Gospel of Matthew, written in the same time frame as Acts, suggests belief in the three divine persons in the Trinity in its account of Jesus’ baptism  (3:13-17, paralleled in Mark 1 and Luke 3). As Dale Allison comments, “the Son is baptized, the Father speaks, and the Spirit descends.” Then the Trinity becomes explicit in Matthew 28:19 as Jesus directs his followers to make disciples, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

So invocation of the Trinity quickly emerged in the 1st Century as a permanent feature of Christian baptism. 

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An atheistic example of mainstream press fondness for single-sourcing

An atheistic example of mainstream press fondness for single-sourcing

Opinions expressed by individual writers and talkers are a legitimate aspect of journalism.

But.

But these days newspapers, TV news and allegedly journalistic Web sites are all tempted to overdo such single-sourcing. Mainly that’s because you have to pay a salary and benefits to a seasoned staff journalist so it’s cheaper to throw a few bucks at a freelance. As the saying in the business goes, the operative adjective is “free.”

Like science or medicine, religion is a highly complex news beat that suffers when a news organization lacks an experienced specialist. For example, the Wall Street Journal is pursuing an ambitious effort to expand general coverage beyond its business ghetto. But with religion, it typically limits matters to Friday op-ed pieces written by interested parties. They’re often worth a look but cannot match analysis by a non-partisan journalist carefully assessing various sides of a question.

Another sort of WSJ example occurred with the  April 27 special section titled “The Future Issue.” The religion aspect, not treated in the print package, was relegated to the online postings. The paper had noted Tufts University atheist Daniel Dennett tell us “Why the Future of Religion is Bleak,” while Vanderbilt Divinity dean Emilie Townes separately contended that “The Future of Religion is Ascendant.”

Problem was, the two profs often talked past each other and made some assertions a newswriter would challenge.

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500 years later, how do Protestants and Catholics view each other?

500 years later, how do Protestants and Catholics view each other?

GORDON’S QUESTION:

Is the divide between Protestants and Catholics growing or shrinking?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Will Pope Francis Break the Church?” 

The Atlantic attached that overwrought headline to a sober analysis of internal Catholic tensions written by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat.

No, Francis won’t, despite weighty issues the article surveyed. But a dramatic “break” did actually happen, beginning in 1517 when Martin Luther posted what history calls the “95 Theses.” The German Catholic priest protested sales of indulgences to help the pope build St. Peter’s Basilica “with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.” (Text here.)

Thus began the Protestant Reformation, which quickly raised many other church issues, defied the papacy, split European Christendom, changed the course of civil society and government — and echoes loudly to the present day.

The big 500th anniversary upcoming in 2017 will feature academic confabs and many other observances. The Religion Guy has already received a glossy brochure mailed by the German tourist agency titled “Luther 2017: 500 Years Since the Reformation.” A subhead reads “In the beginning was the Word.”

Indeed, Luther’s Bible translation shaped the modern German language and inspired many other popular translations that supplanted Catholicism’s authorized Latin version. Sadly, Luther’s own devotion to the Bible and its teachings has a diminishing hold on the nominal Protestants of his homeland.

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Are tattoos OK for Jews and Christians? What does the Bible say?

Are tattoos OK for Jews and Christians? What does the Bible say?

JACOB’S QUESTION:

Christians and Jews -- Is it OK for them to get tattoos?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Quick summary: Many if not most Jews say no (as do Muslims). With Christians, it’s complicated.

There are obvious pros and cons with getting a tattoo because it’s a social signifier and permanently so, unlike hair styles, attire, and other expressions of individuality. But as a religious matter the issue is whether to observe the Bible’s commandment in Leviticus 19:28: “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead, or tattoo any marks upon you. I am the LORD” (New Revised Standard Version).

The Hebrew verb here is ambiguous but New York University’s Baruch Levine says it’s “clear in context” that it means tattooing.

Indeed, as Charles Erdman of Princeton Theological Seminary observed, tattooing was common “among all the nations of antiquity” so the ban clearly set apart worshippers of the Bible’s one God against surrounding “pagans.” Note the adjacent biblical laws against flesh-gashing rituals, witchcraft, wizards, and mediums seeking contact with the dead.

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