Will the waning Barack Obama administration rewrite religious hiring rules?

Will the waning Barack Obama administration rewrite religious hiring rules?

Church-and-state disputes are a hot beat and it's getting hotter all the time.

We have religious objections over the government’s transgender bid to control school toilets and locker rooms nationwide, the Supreme Court’s bounce back of the Little Sisters’ “Obamacare” contraception case, states’ debates over whether merchants can decline gay wedding services on religious grounds, and much else.

Media coverage to date shows little interest in how church-state policy might be affected by a President Clinton, or a President Trump, or the jurists on Donald Trump’s recent Supreme Court list, or a Justice Merrick Garland. Will this be raised at a big June 9-11 “religious right” confab in D.C.? Speakers will include Trump and former challengers Cruz, Fiorina, Huckabee, Kasich, Paul, and Rubio, plus House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Meanwhile, interest groups are ardently lobbying the Obama Administration to change religious hiring policies during its waning days. At issue is application of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) under the 2007 “World Vision memorandum” (click for .pdf) from the Bush Administration’s Department of Justice.

World Vision, a major evangelical organization, had landed a $1.5 million grant to provide mentoring for at-risk youths. The memo ruled that it’s legal for such religious agencies fulfilling service programs through  federal grants to consider religious faith in their hiring. The Obama White House has thus far resisted pressure to abolish that policy, most recently in a Feb. 22 letter from ranking Democrats in the U.S. House.

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Floods of Muslim converts to Christianity? The Daily Beast scratches the surface

Floods of Muslim converts to Christianity? The Daily Beast scratches the surface

It’s not the first article out there about Muslim immigrants to German converting to Christianity but it’s almost certainly the most recent. But the Daily Beast, in reporting on the trend, predictably managed to link this trend to the U.S. presidential elections.

Which was unfortunate, in that the story of thousands of Muslims jettisoning their faith to become Christian is a continuing saga and a decent story in its own right.

Lots of outlets, ranging from the Daily Mail and the Times of Israel to Catholic World Report and NPR (click here for previous GetReligion posts) have reported on Muslims converting by the thousands, especially those from countries like Iran and Afghanistan and Pakistan where conversions from Islam into another religion means an automatic death sentence. This is the first time these folks have been able to choose their own religion or no religion.

We’re talking statistics like 600 Persian converts descending on one church in Hamburg. So, the Daily Beast has waded in with the inevitable political angle:

AMSTERDAM -- Hundreds of Pakistanis and Afghans have been lining up at a local swimming pool in Hamburg, Germany, to be baptized as Christians. In the Netherlands and Denmark, as well, many are converting from Islam to Christianity, and the trend appears to be growing. Indeed, converts are filling up some European churches largely forsaken by their old Christian flocks.
All of which raises a question, not least, for the United States: If American presidential candidate Donald Trump gets elected and bars Muslims from entering the country, as he says he will, would the ban apply to Christians who used to be Muslims? How would one judge the quality of their faith?

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To hell with it: No, seriously, there's a movement to eliminate doctrine of eternal torment

To hell with it: No, seriously, there's a movement to eliminate doctrine of eternal torment

What the ... ?

In case you haven't heard, there's a campaign to eliminate hell.

No, it's not a platform of Donald Trump. In fact, I can't outright dismiss the possibility that Trump might be Satan. (I kid. I kid.)

But seriously, National Geographic reports on changing evangelical attitudes toward hell in a recent feature story.

I love the lede.

See is this opening doesn't grab your attention:

Hell isn’t as popular as it used to be.  
Over the last 20 years, the number of Americans who believe in the fiery down under has dropped from 71 percent to 58 percent. Heaven, by contrast, fares much better and, among Christians, remains an almost universally accepted concept.  
Underlying these statistics is a conundrum that continues to tug at the conscience of some Christians, who find it difficult to reconcile the existence of a just, loving God with a doctrine that dooms billions of people to eternal punishment.  
"Everlasting torment is intolerable from a moral point of view because it makes God into a bloodthirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz for victims whom he does not even allow to die," wrote the late Clark Pinnock, an influential evangelical theologian.   
While religious philosophers have argued over the true nature of hell since the earliest days of Christianity, the debate has become especially pronounced in recent decades among the millions of Americans who identify themselves as evangelicals. The once taboo topic is being openly discussed as well-regarded scholars publish articles and best-selling books that rely on careful readings of Scripture to challenge traditional views.   

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Dollars, demograpic decline and the gospel (or Gospel) of new Washington Cathedral dean

Dollars, demograpic decline and the gospel (or Gospel) of new Washington Cathedral dean

Talk about candor. From the get-go, the recent Washington Post story about the selection of a new dean at Washington National Cathedral is very upfront about the fact that this highly visible Episcopal Church landmark faces a crisis of dollars and demographics. And then there was that earthquake thing, literally.

Consider the headline, for example: "Needing to raise ten of millions, Washington National Cathedral picks a fundraiser for its new dean."

Now, I realize that college and university presidents are frequently hailed as great fundraisers. However, I don't know of many pastors, preachers or priests who have welcomed that label. In this case the Rev. Randy Hollerith -- for some reason the Post editors drop "the Rev." or even "Father" on the first reference -- makes it clear that this isn't his label of choice, either.

There is also the question of whether he plans, as was the norm with the Hollywood-shaped previous dean, Gary Hall (once again, now clerical title on first reference), to use hot-button cultural and theological issues to push the cathedral into the headlines.

Hollerith says he won’t enter the position with plans to focus on specific social justice issues, a contrast to Hall, who was on the national news within a few months after coming in August 2012 by announcing that he’d open the cathedral to same-sex weddings.
“I’m not an issue-driven person. I’m a gospel-driven person,” he said. “Of course, the gospel at times is prophetic and has things to say to the world. But I don’t approach things from the point of view of hot-button issues, so to speak.”
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t share with Hall and other recent deans a focus on one topic in particular: race. The Episcopal Church -- a small Protestant denomination that until recent decades represented the faith of the American elite -- has become less diverse racially in the past few decades, Hall said. ...

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Pope and imam dial back talks about Christian concerns, with assist from some journalists

Pope and imam dial back talks about Christian concerns, with assist from some journalists

The leader of a billion-plus Catholics met with a leader of a billion-plus Muslims, and media gave it appropriately thorough coverage.

Except for one matter: persecution of Christians in Muslim lands.

Pope Francis himself was oddly timid on the point. But that doesn't mean mainstream media had to downplay it also -- especially when they cover plenty of such incidents.

Typical was the Associated Press report:

Pope Francis on Monday embraced the grand imam of Al-Azhar, the prestigious Sunni Muslim center of learning, reopening an important channel for Catholic-Muslim dialogue after a five-year lull and at a time of increased Islamic extremist attacks on Christians.
As Sheik Ahmed el-Tayyib arrived for his audience in the Apostolic Palace, Francis said that the fact that they were meeting at all was significant.
"The meeting is the message," Francis told the imam.

Following this press release-style lede, though, AP says the two leaders discussed "the plight of Christians 'in the context of conflicts and tensions in the Mideast and their protection,' the statement said." It adds that Al-Azhar broke off talks alks with the Vatican a decade ago, after Pope Benedict XVI quoted a Byzantine emperor saying that some Muhammad's teachings were "evil and inhuman."

The article also retells some bloody specifics:

Benedict had demanded greater protection for Christians in Egypt after a New Year's bombing on a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria killed 21 people. Since then, Islamic attacks on Christians in the region have only increased, but the Vatican and Al-Azhar nevertheless sought to rekindle ties, with a Vatican delegation visiting Cairo in February and extending the invitation for el-Tayyib to visit.

But if any Mideastern Christian leaders had opinions on the meeting -- and it's hard to imagine they wouldn't -- AP wasn't interested.

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Caps, gowns and prison whites: Meet Texas' newest seminary-trained pastors

Caps, gowns and prison whites: Meet Texas' newest seminary-trained pastors

Another major Texas newspaper has produced an excellent feature on state-sanctioned minister training inside the Lone Star State's toughest lockups.

Back in March, I (mostly) praised the Houston Chronicle for such a story and shared some reflections of my own experience writing about religion and prisons.

I did, however, wonder why the Chronicle didn't make clear the role of the state and the use of any taxpayer money.

That background leads to the Dallas Morning News front-page Sunday feature that ran under the banner headline "Prophets of hope."

The Morning News story is colorful, nicely written and — if you are a person of Christian faith, as I am — inspiring:

ROSHARON — For a couple of hours, the maximum-security prison felt like a real church.
Daylight illuminated stained-glass windows as voices in spiritual rejoicing sent up hymn after celebratory hymn honoring 33 new pastors in black graduation caps and gowns in the chapel’s sanctuary.
Under a towering white cross, there were sermons, handshakes, hugs and thunderous applause. Joyful pride spilled down mothers’ cheeks as the graduates filed down the aisle out of the room, clutching diplomas and grinning ear to ear.
Beneath those caps and gowns were the prison whites of men whose criminal transgressions landed them behind bars for decades. Outside the chapel walls were the concertina wire and pickets manned by armed guards at the Darrington Unit, one of the toughest prisons in Texas.
The inmates were the second graduating class from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s seminary program. On a recent Monday afternoon, after four years of studies, the men received bachelor’s degrees in biblical studies from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Now, they will be divided into teams and assigned to one of Texas’ 109 prison units, where they will minister to other inmates. Their aim: to help those who will soon be released find reconciliation and rehabilitation through faith.
“I want to commission you today to be prophets of hope,” seminary President Paige Patterson told the men, most of whom are serving sentences of at least 25 years.

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The Washington Post puts generic faith at the heart of a family's fight to save a child

The Washington Post puts generic faith at the heart of a family's fight to save a child

First things first: I have nothing but praise for the dramatic and very human story that unfolds in the recent Washington Post feature that ran under the headline, " ‘God is telling me not to let go’: A mother fights to keep her 2-year-old on life support."

This story focuses on agonizing choices and, in this age of soaring health-care costs, that means dealing with the viewpoints of medical-industry professionals as well as traumatized family members. Readers need to understand both points of view to grasp some of the core issues in this piece.

Also, the story doesn't hide the fact that religious faith is, for the parents of little Israel Stinson, at the heart of their fight to keep him alive. There is quite a bit of religious language in this piece, as there must be.

So what is missing? Well, if this family's faith is at the heart of their story, might readers want to know something about the details of that faith? Maybe even the name of this faith? Are they Baptists, Catholics, Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses or what? Hold that thought.

Here is the overture for the story:

Two-year-old Israel Stinson was being treated for an asthma attack in an emergency room in Northern California last month when he started to shiver, his lips turning purple and his eyes rolling back in his head.
Over the next day, court records claim, Israel had a hard time breathing, went into cardiac arrest and seemingly slipped into a coma. Soon, his doctors declared him brain-dead and decided that he should be disconnected from the machine that kept his heart beating.
But his parents protested: Discontinuing medical treatment, they argued, would violate their son's right to a life -- and their hope that he might eventually have one.

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Religion on the range: One reporter goes the extra miles to cover faith in Billings, Montana

Religion on the range: One reporter goes the extra miles to cover faith in Billings, Montana

I have a lot of sympathy for folks who work on small newspapers in out-of-the-way states.

Back, when I spent a year in northwestern New Mexico back in 1994-1995, I was the only full-time journalist in the state trying to cover the beat. I was also the city editor of my newspaper, so there wasn’t a lot of free time. Yet, I pulled in a Cassells award the following year for the little I was able to do in a market of that size.

Montana, at half the population of New Mexico, has some similarities: Large, open spaces, beautiful vistas, large populations of Native Americans and small newspapers. The Billings Gazette, at 45,000 circ., is the state’s second largest newspaper after the Missoulian to the west.

One thing the Gazette has that no other newspaper in the state does is a religion reporter.

I’ve never met Susan Olp, but she’s covered religion for more than 20 years for the Gazette in the state’s largest city. She’s committed enough to the beat that she visited Israel in 2011 courtesy of a Lilly scholarship. And she must know -- as I learned in my isolated post in New Mexico -- that religion stories don’t always come knocking at your door. You have to go looking for them.

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Journalists: What do emotions have to do with spirituality? Dalai Lama says a great deal

Journalists: What do emotions have to do with spirituality? Dalai Lama says a great deal

Still not sure about the whole spiritual-but-not-religious-thing?

Fuzzy on how someone can claim to have a transcendent worldview while insisting that organized religion is just not their bag?

Then this recent piece from The New York Times may be of help.

The story details a project backed by global Buddhism's unofficial exemplar, the Dalai Lama. The "simple monk" -- as the Tibetan Buddhist religious leader, Nobel Peace Prize-winner and all-around pop culture icon of inner-peace and outer-calm often refers to himself -- is the force behind the ambitious Atlas of Emotions.

The project is an attempt to explain the panoply of human emotions and their influence on human actions using the language of Western transpersonal psychology (Full disclosure: In the late 1970s I was a media liaison in India for the International Transpersonal Association.)

The Dali Lama's hope is "to help turn secular audiences into more self-aware, compassionate humans," as the Times article put it.

Here's how the Atlas explains itself:

This Atlas was created to increase understanding of how emotions influence our lives, giving us choice, (at least some of the time) about which emotion we are experiencing, and how our emotions influence what we say and do. While emotions are central to our lives – providing the joy, alerting us to threats, a force for change, a warning against what is toxic, and calling to others for help – we don’t choose what to feel or when to feel it. The Atlas of Emotions was created to give us more awareness of our emotions, and sometimes even some choice about what we are feeling, through better understanding of how emotions work.

The combination of deep self-awareness, emotional self-management as an essential life skill, and compassionate action to a grok degree is as an encompassing definition of the spiritual-but-not-religious (hereafter SBNR) ideal as I've heard.

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