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Three weekend reads: Another #MeToo case for SBC, faith-based adoption and Bible teacher Jimmy Carter

Three weekend reads: Another #MeToo case for SBC, faith-based adoption and Bible teacher Jimmy Carter

After a week in Puerto Rico on a Christian Chronicle reporting trip, I'm still catching up on my sleep — and my reading.

Speaking of reading, here are three interesting religion stories from the last few days.

The first concerns the latest #MeToo case facing the Southern Baptist Convention. The second is an in-depth analysis of religious freedom vs. gay rights in taxpayer-funded adoption and foster care. The third is a feature on the Sunday school class in Plains, Ga., taught by former President Jimmy Carter.

1. Southern Baptist officials knew of sexual abuse allegations 11 years before leader’s arrest

Sarah Smith, an investigative reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, delves into how the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board handled allegations that a 25-year-old seminary student sexually assaulted a 16-year-old girl.

A crucial question: Why didn't the board report the matter to police?

Smith meticulously reports the facts of the case and gives all the relevant parties ample space and opportunity to comment, even if some choose not to do so or to issue brief statements that shed little light. This is a solid piece of journalism.

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God, man and FIFA: The ongoing struggle to keep soccer as 'secular' as possible

God, man and FIFA: The ongoing struggle to keep soccer as 'secular' as possible

Before we dive into this week's "Crossroads" podcast -- which is about faith and football (soccer here in America) -- please click here and take a look at the map that ran atop a Washington Post feature story in 2015. (To tune in the new podcast, just click here.)

Basically, if you are looking for lots and lots of unbelievers, your best bet is to head to China, Europe and other highly industrialized and educated nations.

Where things get really complex is in Europe -- a continent in which belief and unbelief bump into one another on a regular basis. North America is quickly moving in that direction as well (you may have seen a few headlines about that). 

Now, look at the same map and think about the teams that made it into this year's FIFA World Cup (click here for a list).

Quite a mix of faith-intensive and rather faith-free nations, right? And what about the championship game, with powerful France taking on the cinderella squad from Croatia?

The Catholic News Agency offered this interesting feature about Croatia and its coach, under this striking headline: "Croatia's World Cup soccer coach clings to the rosary as he finds success."

How would this kind of symbolism play in modern France? Here is a key chunk of this story:

Here’s one reason Catholics in the US might be rooting for the small Central European country: Croatia is a deeply Catholic country, and the coach of its national team, Zlatko Dalic, is a man of sincere faith.

Dalic said recently that his current success is due to his faith in God, and that he always carries a rosary to hold onto in difficult times. Dalic spoke about his faith on Croatian Catholic radio when the World Cup began.

“Everything I have done in my life and in my professional career I owe to my faith, and I am grateful to my Lord,” Dalic said. ... "When a man loses any hope, then he must depend on our merciful God and on our faith," he said.

In that sense, Dalic explained that "I always carry a rosary with me" and "when I feel that I am going through a difficult time I put my hand in my pocket, I cling to it and then everything is easier.”

Now, why is the rosary hidden in his pocket? Why not just wear it around his wrist?

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'Usual suspects' offer Kavanaugh reactions: Can reporters find any new religious voices?

'Usual suspects' offer Kavanaugh reactions: Can reporters find any new religious voices?

Yes, it's time (trigger warning) to take another trip into the past with a rapidly aging religion-beat scribe. That would be me.

I hope this anecdote will help readers understand my point of view on some of the coverage, so far, of how "religious leaders" are reacting to the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. Click here for GetReligionista Julia Duin's initial post on this topic.

Let me stress that, in this case, I certainly think that it's appropriate to seek out the views of religious leaders who are in public life. In recent years, big rulings on church-state cases -- most linked to the First Amendment -- have rocked American politics and culture. There's no doubt about it: This is a religion-beat story.

But how do reporters decide which "usual suspects" to round up, when flipping through their files trying to decide who to quote?

So here is my flashback to the mid-1980s, while I was working at the late Rocky Mountain News. The setting is yet another press conference in which leaders of the Colorado Council of Churches gathered to address a hot-button news topic. If I remember correctly, it had something to do with immigration.

If you look at the current membership of this Colorado group, it's pretty much the same as it was then -- with one big exception. Back then, the CCC was made up of the usual suspects, in terms of liberal Protestantism, but the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver was cooperating in many ways (although, if I remember correctly, without covenant/membership ties). Today, the CCC includes an independent body called the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, which I have never heard of before. Needless to say, this is not the Catholic archdiocese.

So at this press conference, all of the religious leaders made their statements and most talked about diversity, stressing that they represented a wide range of churches.

In the question-and-answer session, I asked what I thought was a relevant question. I asked if -- other than the Catholic archdiocese -- any of them represented flocks that had more members in the 1980s than they did in the '60s or '70s. In other words, did they represent groups with a growing presence in the state (like the Assemblies of God, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)?

One or two of the clergy laughed. The rest stared at me like I was a rebellious child.

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When profiling ADF's Kristin Waggoner, why not include facts about her Pentecostal roots?

When profiling ADF's Kristin Waggoner, why not include facts about her Pentecostal roots?

In late 2005, back in my Washington Times days, I visited the Scottsdale, Ariz., offices of Alliance Defending Freedom, the legal firm that is best known today for litigating Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission and a wave of other important religious-liberty cases before the Supreme Court.

I was very much aware of them, as they were beginning to outdo other stalwarts  -- such as the Rutherford Institute and Jay Sekulow’s American Center for Law and Justice -- in the Christian legal arena. I was researching a piece on ways legal groups were mounting annual campaigns to “defend Christmas,” which ran here. (My byline has been removed, but that is my piece. At the time, the ADF was known as the Alliance Defense Fund.)

It took other media nearly a decade to wake up and discover the ADF. There’s Think Progress’s 2014 piece on the “800-pound Gorilla of the Christian Right;" a similar piece, also in 2014, by the New York Times; a 2016 mention by Politico, a 2017 piece by The Nation on “the Christian legal army” behind the Masterpiece case and more.

So I was interested to see yet another profile on the group; this time a spotlight on Kristin Waggoner, who has litigated ADF’s most high-profile cases this year, by Washington Post feature writer Jessica Contrera.

There were delicious details but major gaps. For example, try to find any specific, factual information about this woman's faith. Some excerpts:

Two days before the announcement of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s retirement, a woman who stood to gain from it was on the steps of the Supreme Court once again. Kristen Waggoner’s blond bob was perfectly styled with humidity-fighting paste she’d slicked onto it that morning at the Trump hotel. Her 5-foot frame was heightened by a pair of nude pumps, despite a months-old ankle fracture in need of surgery. On her wrist was a silver bracelet she’d worn nonstop since Dec. 5, 2017, the day she marched up these iconic steps, stood before the justices and argued that a Christian baker could legally refuse to create a cake for a gay couple’s wedding.

Her job was to be the legal mind and public face of Alliance Defending Freedom., an Arizona-based Christian conservative legal nonprofit better known as ADF. ...

Then follows some back story, then a pivot to Waggoner’s personal life.

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Are standard theories about the decline of religion in United States crumbling? 

Are standard theories about the decline of religion in United States crumbling? 

The Religion News Service column “Flunking Sainthood,” as the title indicates, expresses the outlook of liberal Latter-day Saints. But author Jana Riess, who comes armed with a Columbia University doctorate in U.S. religious history, is also interesting when writing about broader matters.

Her latest opus contends that two standard theories about big trends in American religion are too simple and therefore misleading. Her focus is the rise of religiously unaffiliated “nones” to constitute 39 percent of “millennials” from ages 18 to 29. The Religion Guy more or less agrees with her points but adds certain elements to the argument.

So, theory No. 1: Though Riess doesn’t note this, this concept was pretty much the creation of the inimitable Dean M. Kelley (1927–1997) in “Why Conservative Churches Are Growing.” This 1972 book was electrifying because Kelley was a “mainline” United Methodist and prominent executive with the certifiably liberal National Council of Churches. (His expertise on religious liberty gave the NCC of that era a major role on such issues.) 

Under this “strict churches” theory, religious bodies that expect strong commitments on doctrine and lifestyle from their adherents will prosper because this shows they take their faith seriously, and  they carefully tend to individual members’ spiritual needs. By contrast, losses characterize more latitudinarian (Don’t you love that word?) denominations such as those that dominated in the NCC.

Kelley’s scenario proved keenly prescient, since white “mainline” and liberal Protestant groups were then just beginning decades of unprecedented and inexorable declines in active membership and over-all vitality. The Episcopal Church, for one example, reported 3,217,365 members in 1971 compared with 1,951,907 as of 2010. So much for left-wing Bishop Jack Spong’s 1999 book “Why Christianity Must Change or Die.” Statistics have been even more devastating with groups like the United Church of Christ and the Church of Christ (Disciples).

Now comes Riess to announce that scenario is “crumbling” because some strict conservative groups like the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) have also begun declining in recent years while others, e.g. her own Latter-day Saints (LDS) or Mormon Church, still grow but at more sluggish rates.

That’s accurate, important, and yes it tells us factors other than strictness are at play.

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National Review offers in-depth look at BYU's religious freedom and media conference

National Review offers in-depth look at BYU's religious freedom and media conference

It's summer, which means that your GetReligionistas -- like many other folks -- are spread out all over the place.

One or two are outside of the United States (think rainforests) and others are on the move for family reasons, etc. In a week or so, I head over to Prague for lectures during this summer's European Journalism Institute.

Like I said, it's summer and these things happen, creating occasional gaps in what we publish.

So, instead of a Friday Five collection from Bobby Ross, Jr., let's flash back a bit to his round-up about the religious freedom and journalism event that recently took Ross, and me, out to the law school at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Click here to flash back to Bobby'r Friday Five wrap on that.

In the weeks ahead, speeches and panels from that event will go online. You really, for example, want to see the keynote speech in the media track, by Emma Green of The Atlantic. Watch updated versions of this space and this one, too, as the links go live. Here is a Facebook link for the "Getting It Right" panel shown in the tweet at the top of this post.

Now, if you want to read an extended piece about this conference, click here for the National Review feature -- by Utah-based scribe Betsy VanDenBerghe -- that just ran with this headline: "Religious-Freedom and LGBT Advocates Offer Rare Lessons in Pluralism." Here is the overture:

In late June, as the United States descended into a high-combustion immigration debate marked by a degree of rancor extraordinary even for an era characterized by discord, an alternate universe quietly unfolded in which cultural-political rivals of goodwill came together to discuss an equally contentious issue: the tension between religious freedom and LGBT rights.

Resuscitating such old-school notions as common ground and fairness for all, the fifth Religious Freedom Annual Review, hosted by the Brigham Young University International Center for Law and Religion Studies in Provo, Utah, gathered legal scholars, LGBT advocates, journalists, and concerned Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders to grapple over court cases, questions about higher education and journalistic fairness, and -- surprise! -- common feelings of vulnerability.


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When covering the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, theology and church history matter

When covering the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, theology and church history matter

I used to cover the Episcopal Church’s triennial meetings with some trepidation, as they were lengthy affairs with zillions of pieces of legislation floating between House of Deputies and the House of Bishops. One wore out at least one set of shoes racing back and forth to cover them.

I earned a master’s degree from an Episcopal seminary, so going to the General Convention was old home week, as I had lots of friends at these gatherings. There always seemed to be a huge Sexual Revolution issue at stake: Like whether whether women should be bishops or non-celibate gay men ordained as priests. The Episcopalians were usually years ahead of other denominations in the radicality of what they were willing to vote in.

Thus, the Episcopal Church’s current convention in Austin has also attracted some news coverage. The big issue: Whether to declare God a He, She or It. The question has been under discussion for awhile, a press release says, but now the matter is up to vote.

I have no doubt the denomination will vote to create a new prayer book and de-gender God as much as possible. Some clergy have been doing this for years, such as the clergywoman at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle who’d replace the “He” pronouns for the Holy Spirit in the fourth-century Nicene Creed to a “She.” The fact that one just doesn’t change the Christian church’s most recognized creed didn’t occur to her.

For those of you used to praying to “Our Father who art in heaven,” it seems curious the matter is being debated, but apparently Jesus’ references to God, as reported in scripture, no longer settle this issue.

What will be voted on is whether to revamp the denomination’s seminal piece of literature that guides every liturgy. Says the Washington Post: 

The terms for God, in the poetic language of the prayers written for centuries, have almost always been male: Father. King. Lord. And in the Episcopal Church, the language of prayer matters. The Book of Common Prayer, the text used in every Episcopal congregation, is cherished as a core element of Episcopal identity.

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Bondage, death, sex and Hollywood spirituality: Why avoid religion hook in life of Master Skip?

Bondage, death, sex and Hollywood spirituality: Why avoid religion hook in life of Master Skip?

Before I get into this strange and troubling post, let me stress what this post is NOT about.

Back in the 1980s, when I worked the Denver religion beat, I did several stories that involved a local congregation in the Metropolitan Community Church. The MCC is a denomination that is best known as a home for LGBTQ Christians and their families.

What I learned was that -- at that stage of its development -- the MCC was a complex institution, in terms of the theological orientations of its members. Yes, there were some New Age-style people, but there were way more clergy and members whose background was in liberal Protestantism (think United Methodists or old-line Presbyterians). And there were evangelicals and charismatics who remained evangelicals and charismatics, other than their views on sex.

So this post is not about a news report slamming the MCC. It is also not a post claiming that it is normal, somehow, for a MCC member/leader to have a secret life involving dangerous sex. Alas, anyone who follows the news knows that "double life" sin can be found, every now and then, in lots of conservative flocks (think Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Baptists).

Now, to the story itself, with kinky details left out. For The Hollywood Reporter, this story is a window into the life of a major "player" in the movie industry, a senior vice president at William Morris Endeavor Entertainment.

The religion angle isn't important. My question: Could journalists do justice to the religion angle, without smearing this man's church? Here's the dramatic double-decker headline. Note the word "ritual."

Death in a Hollywood Sex Dungeon:

How a Top Agency Executive's "Mummification" Ritual Ended in Tragedy

Here is the story's overture, with no religion angle in sight:

For nearly three decades, Skip Chasey, one of Hollywood's top dealmakers, led a delicate balancing act of an existence. One Sunday last November, it all came tumbling down around him.

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The New York Times 'reports' on an old mantra: Free speech for me, but not for thee

The New York Times 'reports' on an old mantra: Free speech for me, but not for thee

If you are a journalist of a certain age, as well as an old-guard First Amendment liberal, then you remember what it was like trying to get people to understand why you backed ACLU efforts in 1978 to defend the rights of a neo-Nazi group to march through Skokie.

Clearly this march was going to cause pain and emotional suffering, since that Chicago suburb included many Holocaust survivors. But First Amendment liberals stood firm.

If you grew up Southern Baptist in the Bible Belt, it was also hard to explain why you thought Hustler magazine had the right to publish a filthy, sophomoric satire of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, including a fake claim that he had committed incest with his mother in an outhouse.

That case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. As a New York Times report at the time noted, this Hustler piece was clearly satire and the First Amendment wasn't supposed to protect people from feeling offended or even abused by voices in the public square.

The central legal issue is whether, in the absence of the kinds of false statements purporting to be fact on which libel suits are based, a public figure like Mr. Falwell should be able to win damages from a publication that intentionally causes emotional distress through ridicule, tasteless or otherwise.

Several Justices suggested they were grappling with a conflict between the freedom of the press to carry on a long tradition of biting satire, and what Justice Antonin Scalia called the concern that ''good people should be able to enter public life'' without being exposed to wanton abuse in print.

I remember, back then, liberals saying they would be quick to defend the First Amendment rights of conservatives who spoke out on tough, tricky and even offensive issues.

This brings me to one of the most Twitter-friendly stories of this past weekend, a Times report that ran with this rather blunt headline: "Weaponizing the First Amendment: How Free Speech Became a Conservative Cudgel." It's amazing how little religious content is in this report, in light of waves of religious-liberty fights in recent years.

If you are looking for the thesis statement or statements in this article -- which I think was meant to be "news," not analysis -- here it is: 

... Liberals who once championed expansive First Amendment rights are now uneasy about them.


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