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The Atlantic bravely attempts a religion-free (almost) look at New York kids in the culture wars

The Atlantic bravely attempts a religion-free (almost) look at New York kids in the culture wars

One of the most talked about articles in the American news media last week, at least in the Twitter-verse, was not a news piece.

But it could have been a news piece. In fact, I would argue that it should have been a news piece — at least in a world in which New York City metro editors have their ears open and can spot religion-and-culture angles in public and private schools.

I am talking about George Packer’s essay at The Atlantic Monthly that ran with this poignant and news double-decker headline:

When the Culture War Comes for the Kids

Caught between a brutal meritocracy and a radical new progressivism, a parent tries to do right by his children while navigating New York City’s schools.

This is, I think, one of the few times that readers can see the term “culture wars” used in a manner that reflects the definition given that term in the landmark James Davison Hunter book “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America.” Here is how I described the University of Virginia sociologist’s main point in a tribute column long ago, on the 10th anniversary of my national “On Religion” column. In that work:

… (He) declared that America now contains two basic worldviews, 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."

On one level — the most obvious level — Packer’s Atlantic piece is about the role that fiercely woke “identity politics” is playing in elite New York City culture, as demonstrated in public schools. So what does “identity politics” mean, right now?

This whole article wrestles with that issue, from the point of view of a progressive parent who has been shaken awake by the facts on the ground. However, Packer also noted that not all identities are created equal, in this world. This is one of the only places where readers get a glimpse of the religious and moral implications of this fight, in the years after Barack Obama era:

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Hurrah for blue pews! New York Times embraces small, doctrine-optional Manhattan flock

Hurrah for blue pews! New York Times embraces small, doctrine-optional Manhattan flock

Reporters who are truly interested in the future of the American faith-scene need to know this number — 100. Or maybe it’s 85 or 90. I’ve heard others say the crucial number is 115 in expensive zip codes.

But the late Lyle Schaller, a legendary church-management guru in oldline Protestant circles, once told me that it took about 100 actively contributors to fund the salary-and-benefits package for a credentialed minister in a mainline church. When Schaller said “mainline,” he was talking about the “Seven Sisters.” In descending order by size, that’s the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

In other words, if a church had more than 100 active members (or households) it could provide for its minister and then do other things — like keep the building from falling down. With fewer than 100 members, a church would be constantly struggling with basic expenses, trying to keep the doors open.

So that’s the statistic that looms over that glowing New York Times feature about a lively Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that represents the future of the religious left. The dramatic main headline states: “The Church Where Believing in God Isn’t Strictly Necessary.”

Yes, I hear what many readers are thinking. This is a church that even the New York Times can love. And how many people are in these pews? Readers will have to read way down into the story to find that information. Meanwhile, the summary lede contains a few details:

Observant Presbyterians are always part of gatherings at Rutgers Presbyterian Church. But much of the time, so are Roman Catholics and Jews, as well as a smattering of people who consider themselves vaguely spiritual. Valerie Oltarsh-McCarthy, who sat among the congregation listening to a Sunday sermon on the perils of genetically modified vegetables, is, in fact, an atheist.

You have to love that detail about the “perils of genetically modified vegetables.” However, the thesis statement comes a few paragraphs later, as the editorial angels sing a song of hope for a future free of nasty stuff like ancient doctrines:

Typically, the connective tissue of any congregation is an embrace of a shared faith.

Yet Rutgers, a relatively small church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has rejected that. Sharing a belief in God — any God at all — isn’t necessary.

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More news about old churches being sold and flipped: Does it matter why this is happening?

More news about old churches being sold and flipped: Does it matter why this is happening?

Trigger alert: News readers are going to be seeing more and more stories about churches closing down and going up for sale.

There’s a good reason for this: Lots of churches, in lots of zip codes (but some zip codes more than others) are closing and being put up for sale. This is an obvious local story hook and often comes with colorful art, as these sanctuaries are turned into pubs, condos, art galleries, mansions, etc., etc.

However, these local stories also have valid national angles, because some flocks (think Seven Sisters of oldline Protestantism) are closing more churches than others. Also (think Catholic parishes in New York City), some of these churches are sitting on ultra-prime real estate in older downtown neighborhoods.

So here is my question: Is the fate of the church bodies that formerly occupied these holy spaces an essential element in all of these stories? In the old journalism formula “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why” and “how,” does the “WHY” element remain important?

It would appear not, based on many of the stories that I am seeing.

Consider this new NPR report that does with a very broad headline: “Houses Of Worship Find New Life After Congregations Downsize.” See the implied question there? Why are so many congregations downsizing or even closing?

So what facts made it into the story? Here is the overture:

When Lisa and Dan Macheca bought a century-old Methodist church in St. Louis back in 2004, they didn't think much about the cost of heating the place.

Then the first heating bill arrived: $5,000 for a single month.

"I felt like crying," Lisa Macheca said. "Like, 'Oh my gosh, what have I gotten myself into?' "

Over the course of a decade, the Machecas, who both have hospitality backgrounds, renovated the 115-year-old church into a bed and breakfast. Repurposing these buildings — known as adaptive reuse — is becoming increasingly common as the religious preferences of Americans shift.

So what is going on here?

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Buttigieg and faith: WPost edges closer to covering pew gaps inside today's Democratic Party

Buttigieg and faith: WPost edges closer to covering pew gaps inside today's Democratic Party

A decade or more ago — I forget which White House race — the pollster and scholar John C. Green of the University of Akron made a witty comment about American politics and the role that faith often plays at ground level on election day.

This election, he told me (and I paraphrase), was going to be another one of those cases in which the presidency would be decided by Catholic voters in Ohio. But Green didn’t just point at generic Catholic voters. He said that the crucial factor would be whether “Catholics who go to Mass every Sunday” showed up at the polls in greater numbers than “Catholics who go to Mass once a month.”

In other words, he was saying that there is no one Catholic vote (click here for GetReligion posts on this topic) involved in the so-called “pew gap.” Catholics who go to Mass every week (or even daily) have different beliefs than those who show up every now and then.

So when a presidential candidate hires a “faith outreach director,” it’s crucial to ask (a) which group of believers the candidate hopes to rally, (b) how many of them are out there and (c) are we talking about people whose faith pushes them into action?

You can see these factors — often hidden between the lines — in a recent Washington Post story that ran with this headline: “Pete Buttigieg hires the first faith outreach director of the 2020 campaign.” There are one or two places in this piece where the Post team comes really, really close to examining the crucial faith-based cracks inside today’s Democratic Party.

The key: Is Buttigieg trying to rally religious liberals (and secularists) who already on his side or is he, like Barack Obama, attempting to reach out to centrists and liberal evangelicals? So far, the other key player in this pre-primary faith contest is Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who urgently needs support from voters in the African-American church.

So Buttigieg has hired the Rev. Shawna Foster as his faith-outreach director. What does this tell us about the Democratic Party at this stage of the contest?

Foster … has a broad imperative to talk to all religious groups. She said she thinks mainline Protestants (those who are not evangelical and tend to be more liberal, both religiously and politically) have been overlooked by political campaigns and are probably sympathetic to the religious views of Buttigieg, an Episcopalian.

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Thinking about modern Democrats: There are three kinds and religion may be a crucial factor

Thinking about modern Democrats: There are three kinds and religion may be a crucial factor

As a rule, your GetReligionistas do not post critiques — positive or negative — about opinion pieces in the mainstream press. The exceptions usually run on weekends, when we point readers to “think pieces” and essays on topics linked to religion-news work.

Every now and then, however, a think piece comes along that does a better job of handling an important news topic than most of the “hard news” pieces on the same or similar topics.

In this case, we are talking about the many, many debates we will be seeing in the weeks and months ahead as Democratic Party leaders attempt to thin out the field of 666 or so candidates who want the right to run against Donald Trump in 2020.

That brings me to a very important New York Times piece that ran the other day — written by Thomas B. Edsall — under this wordy, but important headline:

The Democratic Party Is Actually Three Parties

They have different constituents and prefer different policies. Satisfying them all will not be easy.

Now, it is impossible, these days, to talk about divisions in the American political marketplace without running into controversial issues linked to religion, morality and culture. Can you say religious liberty? Oh, sorry, I meant “religious liberty.”

Obviously, one of these Democratic armies is the world of “woke” folks on Twitter. Then you have the left-of-center party establishment. And then you have the world of “moderates” and conservative Democrats, who still — believe it or not — exist. You can see evidence of that in recent GetReligion posts about the fault lines inside the Democratic Party on subjects linked to abortion.

Here is Edsall’s overture, which is long — but essential:

Democratic Party voters are split. Its most progressive wing, which is supportive of contentious policies on immigration, health care and other issues, is, in the context of the party’s electorate, disproportionately white. So is the party’s middle group of “somewhat liberal” voters. Its more moderate wing, which is pressing bread-and-butter concerns like jobs, taxes and a less totalizing vision of health care reform, is majority nonwhite, with almost half of its support coming from African-American and Hispanic voters.

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Hazel Motes, do not pray for us

Hazel Motes, do not pray for us

The topic should be catnip for any journalist writing about religion: creating a church without God is hard work and sometimes the idea fails.

But Faith Hill’s report for The Atlantic (“They Tried to Start a Church Without God. For a While, It Worked”) does not deliver well, not least because her angle is more about components than convictions. It’s like reading an economist’s insights into romantic poetry.

Hill starts well enough by making the report personal. We meet Justina Walford, who has left the faith of her childhood, but misses the experience of church. But even here the problems in Hill’s reporting arise quickly: she describes Walford as once being “deeply religious,” but losing her interest because of “overseas travel that made her question how any one religious community could have a monopoly on truth.”

This is nearly robotic language to describe a now-lost belief in and engagement with God. The problem is just as bad when Hill tries to convey the purported advantage that traditional churches have compared to their God-free alternatives:

According to data from the latest version of the Public Religion Research Institute’s annual “American Values Atlas,” 25 percent of Americans today are religiously unaffiliated, up from single digits in the 1990s. Among young people, that number is 39 percent. Those numbers describe not just a retreat from organized religion, but also an erosion of community.Many faith congregations have acted as social anchors in their areas, providing a place to see and be seen by the same friendly faces each week. …

In New York and elsewhere, the basic mechanics of keeping a congregation running have proved difficult. To hire musicians and speakers, buy refreshments, and rent out a venue takes a lot of money. A traditional Church has tithings — but leaders of secular communities have found that attendees are highly suspicious of any plea for donations. Many lapsed believers harbor strong negative associations with the collection plate.

“Faith congregations,” “tithings,” “attendees” — this is a foreign dialect. And it’s an undisputed reality that except when tithing is mandatory, it is a minority phenomenon and hardly the basis of an abundant annual income. 

Maybe the narration improves when Hill turns to the challenges faced by the pioneers of God-free mass meetings? Yeah, not so much:

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Will millennials decide to become nuns? NJ.com and RNS offer contrasting answers

Will millennials decide to become nuns? NJ.com and RNS offer contrasting answers

As nuns age, the huge question has been about who can be found to replace them. The future of Catholic religious orders in the United States is pretty dire at the moment. Two publications recently came out with stories on millennials and nuns, with very different conclusions.

One story is a splashy, detailed look at a handful of millennial women who entered Catholic religious orders in New Jersey and their reasons for doing so. Another is a Religion News Service story, datelined Grand Rapids, Mich., about older nuns who meet with agnostic/seeking millennial women and try to connect on a spiritual plane.

The New Jersey story, available on NJ.com (a group of news sources including the Newark Star-Ledger) follows three women who joined religious orders. There’s Anna, a Rutgers grad; Chiara, a one-time nursing student at Villanova; and Lauren, a former Australian actress now living with a contemplative religious order.

They’re millennial women who have chosen a path more popular for generations before them — one that involves kneeling before an altar, vowing to live in poverty, obeying God and abstaining from sex.

“I didn’t see a lightning bolt that fell out of the sky,” Sister Anna said. “I didn’t see an angel who told me what I was going to do in my life.”

In our hyper-connected, media-saturated age, it’s hard enough to get people to slow down and engage with the spiritual world, much less get them to consider a life lived in service to the church. Yet handfuls of millennial women across the state have taken that path. These women are serving as Catholic sisters or missionaries, many working through the process known as discernment to become “women religious,” commonly referred to as nuns. If the young sisters make it through the discernment process — which takes years and sometimes pulls them thousands of miles from family and friends — they are choosing something permanent, and forsaking the lures of marriage, kids, autonomy and material goods.

I know reporters may feel they have to dumb down religion stories for the masses, but the “kneeling before an altar”? Is that simple act so beyond the experience of most 20-somethings?

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Podcast talking: Would Democrats take Marianne Williamson seriously if her name was ....

Podcast talking: Would Democrats take Marianne Williamson seriously if her name was ....

Donald Trump is not going to be beaten just by insider politics talk. He’s not going to be beaten just by somebody who has plans. He’s going to be beaten by somebody who has an idea what the man has done. This man has reached into the psyche of the American people and he has harnessed fear for political purposes.

“So, Mr. President — if you’re listening — I want you to hear me please: You have harnessed fear for political purposes and only love can cast that out. So I, sir, I have a feeling you know what you’re doing. I’m going to harness love for political purposes. I will meet you on that field, and sir, love will win.”

— Marianne Williamson’s final statement in first debate for Democrats seeking White House in 2020.

Anyone want to guess what this particular candidate might use as the anthem that plays at the beginning and end of her campaign rallies?

I’m thinking that it might be something that honors the 1992 bestseller — “A Return to Love” — that made her a national sensation back in what people called the New Age era. Something like this: Cue the music.

I focused quite a bit on that book’s old New Age theology in my recent post (“Evil, sin, reality and life as a 'Son of God': What Marianne Williamson is saying isn't new”) about a fascinating New York Times feature about Williamson and her decision to seek the White House. I thought it was appropriate that the Times gave so much attention to the religious themes and concepts in her work, instead of going all politics, all the time.

But, truth be told, the key question discussed in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast — click here to tune that in — focused on mass media, celebrity, religion and, yes, politics, all at the same time.

Look again at that debate quote at the top of this post and give an honest answer to this question: Would that quotation be receiving more attention if the candidate who spoke it was someone named Oprah? How about this person’s candidacy for the Democratic Party nomination?

Williamson is being treated as a bit of a novelty, frankly, even though millions of Americans — on the elite coasts, but also in the heartland, because of her role as a spiritual guide for Oprah Winfrey.

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