Convert or die: Washington Post profiles evangelicals reaching gang members in Brazil

Convert or die: Washington Post profiles evangelicals reaching gang members in Brazil

Criminal gangs and their rampages through society are a cancer in Central and Latin America and very few governments have a clue as to how to change the situation.

Prisons are beyond overcrowded, the economies are poor and many people are unemployed, which ramps up gang membership. And yet some nervy evangelical pastors in the hinterlands of Brazil have come up with an idea of how to use social media to pull people out of gangs.

That brings me back to this Washington Post piece, which I’ve been meaning to get around to for some while, since came out a month ago. It’s quite a read and worth a flashback.

RIO BRANCO, Brazil — As the sound of gunshots grew closer, Janderson Viera knew that the rival gang that had taken over his neighborhood was coming for him.

Running to his bedroom, he called the only lifeline he had left: the Rev. Arnaldo Barros.

“I want to convert,” he said.

As gang wars drive Brazil’s homicide rate to historic highs, evangelical pastors — long revered in the nation’s slums and prisons — have come up with a new way to protect members looking for a way out.

For anyone wondering why evangelical Christianity has exploded in Brazil, this story explains why (click here for a classic blast of Pew Forum data on this).

For those of you needing a review of the past few decades, this story summarizes the enormous growth of evangelical Protestants, particularly Pentecostals, in Brazil. Most seem to be former Catholics.

Back to the Post:

Gang leaders say the only way to leave the business alive is to convert to Christianity. So Barros, a televangelist popular here in western Brazil, memorializes a gang member’s embrace of the ancient articles of faith using the most modern of tools: He records the conversion on his smartphone and posts the videos on YouTube, Facebook and WhatsApp. The converts gain immunity against retribution by rival gangs and their own.

Gang leaders and law enforcement officials say it works.

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American media ignore 'Sing Hallelujah to the Lord,' the anthem of Hong Kong's protests

American media ignore 'Sing Hallelujah to the Lord,' the anthem of Hong Kong's protests

There are two million people marching in the streets of Hong Kong these days, which is one-quarter of the population of the entire city-state that is China’s last bastion of freedom. This fabulous video from TeamBlackSheep shows you a little of what it’s been like.

Not only was a controversial law at stake that would have greatly impacted what little freedoms Hong Kong Chinese have these days, but the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre was just two weeks ago.

What hasn’t been reported on by much of the international media in Hong Kong these days is how a song from the 1970s Jesus movement has become, for many, the anthem of the pro-democracy movement. Here’s a report from Shanghaiist.com that contains a bunch of videos of folks singing this hymn.

Remember, English is not their first language, which makes it all the more compelling:

A hymn sung by Christian groups participating in the ongoing anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong has caught on and become the quasi anthem of the movement.

Composed in 1974, the song is sung in a minor key, and notable for its simplicity and catchiness due to its repeated harmonies of just one phrase.

Alarmed by reports of police brutality, many church groups galvanized to participate in peace protests, calling on the authorities to stop the violence.

Their presence on the front lines of the protests were helpful in making the demonstrations look more like an outdoor worship service rather than the “organized riots” the government said it had to crack down on to bring back law and order.

“Outdoor worship services?”

Why hasn’t anyone reported on this? I saw tiny mentions in foreign media, like in The Economist, but that’s about it in the secular media. Oh, and German broadcaster Deutsche Welle said this:

"Sing Hallelujah to the Lord" has become a hit across Hong Kong in the past few days, and it's the first thing I heard as I made my way to Sunday's anti-extradition bill protest.

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Why do many Bible Belt Democrats oppose abortion? Truth is, that's a religion-beat story

Why do many Bible Belt Democrats oppose abortion? Truth is, that's a religion-beat story

Democrats who, to one degree or another, oppose abortion are currently having another fleeting moment of mainstream media attention.

If you have been around for several decades (and you spent those decades as a pro-life Democrat) you have seen this happen before. Basically, this happens whenever the leadership of the Democratic Party and, thus, editors in some elite newsrooms, are tempted to believe that it’s in their political interest to win back conservative Democrats in parts of the Midwest, South and Southwest.

Right now, there are some Democrats who want to nominate a candidate that Donald Trump cannot, somehow, defeat in a few heartland states. But is that worth compromising on abortion, backing restrictions favored by a majority of centrist Americans and even large numbers of Democrats who do not live in the Acela Zone between Washington, D.C., and Boston?

Yesterday, my colleague Julia Duin wrote about a New York Times piece focusing on these issues — sort of. The headline noted a familiar hole in the coverage: “New York Times finally profiles pro-life Democrats but forgets to add what religion they might be.” Why did Times editors publish this story? Duin writes:

I’m guessing it is a follow-up on their April 9 story that had poll data showing how the Democrat Party’s hard-left activists don’t represent most of the party faithful.

So they sent a reporter not to the South, where a lot of conservative Democrats live, but to western Pennsylvania. Having lived four years in the county just north of Pittsburgh, I know that it’s the Bible Belt of the Rust Belt. But as far as I could tell, the reporter didn’t go near a house of worship. That’s a big journalism problem, in this case.

This brings me to a new piece in the New York Post that ran with this headline: “Why many Dems in the South back the new anti-abortion laws.

This is not a hard-news piece. It’s an opinion essay by Salena Zito, but it includes lots of information gathered while reporting in Bible Belt-flyover country. GetReligion (other than weekend think pieces) normally doesn’t focus on opinion material, but I thought readers might want to see some this essay — since it directly addresses facts the Times team avoided in that recent A1 story.

Those two crucial subjects linked to the lives of pro-life Democrats? That would be race and religion.

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Covering Rep. Gabbard’s American path to Hinduism, including some complex, tricky details

Covering Rep. Gabbard’s American path to Hinduism, including some complex, tricky details

Most clickbait is so flatly manipulative that I find it easy to resist, but there is the occasional instance when a headline like “Tulsi Gabbard Had a Very Strange Childhood” when I think, “OK, convince me.” 

Kerry Howley does a lot of convincing in her nearly 7,000-word essay, published in the recent edition of The American Prospect. My impressions of Rep. Gabbard, who represents the Second Congressional District of Hawaii, are from the headlines: She’s of Samoan heritage, she’s a Hindu and she stood against Sen. Kamala Harris’ efforts to depict a nominee’s involvement in the Knights of Columbus as a theocratic threat to the American judicial system. 

As Howley shows in her reporting, Gabbard self-identifies as Hindu although the group in which she grew up — the Science of Identity — does not claim a Hindu identity. Like many other movements that repackage Hinduism for Americans, Science of Identity offers Eastern theology (teachings from the Bhagavad Gita), a passionate leader with an exotic adopted name (Chris Butler becomes Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupananda Paramahamsa) and homemade variations on the life of faith (Howley quotes an aunt of Gabbard’s who calls Butler’s group the ‘alt-right of the Hare Krishna movement’ ”).

In this respect, Gabbard is Hindu in the same way that Arlo Guthrie was Hindu when he became a disciple of Guru Ma (Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati).

Gabbard’s father led his family into the movement before she was born, and she has stayed in relationship with it throughout her life.

Gabbard moved leftward in her perspectives on abortion and same-sex couples after she volunteered for military service and worked with a medical unit north of Baghdad. As Howley describes it:

When she returned, her positions on social issues eventually fell a bit more in line with the party; she said that living in a theocracy had changed her, and she no longer believed the state should dictate the romantic or reproductive lives of its citizens.

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Seattle Times story on 'Undoing Whiteness' yoga class is tone deaf on what yoga is all about

Seattle Times story on 'Undoing Whiteness' yoga class is tone deaf on what yoga is all about

Just when you think it can’t get any more ‘woke’ here in the great Pacific Northwest, a Seattle Times piece created lots of outrage last week by profiling a yoga teacher offering a class on “undoing whiteness.”

What was problematic wasn’t just the topic of the class, but also the reporter’s brazen use of his platform to lecture white readers on their racist backgrounds.

Naturally this got some online reaction. You know things are heating up when the Times cuts off comments at 89, saying it was due to the “sensitive nature of this topic.”

Is there a religion angle here? That’s a controversial topic, as well. Tmatt reminded us here that while yoga is rooted in a spiritual practice based on Hindu tenets, the media keeps on stripping it of religious content.

That definitely happened here.

Laura Humpf braced herself for fresh salvos of death threats, rage-soaked slurs and indictments of “reverse racism” from media provocateurs.

The Seattle yoga instructor had endured it before, four years ago, after putting out word about a class for people of color only, at her studio.

She was slammed by critics for being exclusionary and promoting likely illegal segregation, but was doing neither, says Humpf. This is racial caucusing, and she sees the time-honored technique of voluntarily congregating by race to oppose racism as a way to dismantle a white-supremacist pathology found in everyday society.

This spring, Humpf publicized an “Undoing Whiteness” yoga class at Rainier Beach Yoga, geared toward white people wishing to “unpack the harmful ways white supremacy is embedded” in their “body, mind and heart.” Along with providing a contemplative space, the class would dissect the “pathology of whiteness” — an obliviousness to the batch of privileges society grants white skin — and how it operates in daily life.

Were there any editors looking over this story before it went to print? The reporter spouts off about “a white-supremacist pathology found in everyday society” as though it’s fact. Why not throw an “alleged” in there?

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Familiar journalism question: Why did New York Times ignore Franco Zeffirelli's Catholic faith?

Familiar journalism question: Why did New York Times ignore Franco Zeffirelli's Catholic faith?

The lengthy New York Times obituary for the Franco Zeffirelli features lots of material — as it should — about the legendary director’s off-stage and off-screen private life, which was colorful, to say the least. The headline proclaimed: “Franco Zeffirelli, Italian Director With Taste for Excess, Dies at 96.”

The word “bastard” plays a dramatic role in this story, since that social stigma loomed over Zeffirelli throughout his life. The word “homosexual” is in the mix, as well. The Times also noted that, in his political career, Zeffirelli was a “conservative” who fiercely opposed abortion. Then again, he also fought with the Communists opposing Mussolini’s Fascists and the German Nazis.

Zeffirelli lived a sprawling, complex life that, at times, was almost as dramatic as the designs for his opera productions.

But there was something else that, when describing his life, Zeffirelli always stressed — his faith. In fact, the word “Catholic” never shows up in the Times piece. Also, there is only a passing reference to one of the works that, via television, made him famous with mass audiences around the world — his popular 1977 mini-series “Jesus of Nazareth.”

That’s rather strange. As my colleague Clemente Lisi noted, in a Religion Unplugged feature about Zeffirelli’s complex career and faith:

“Faith has been my life,” Zeffirelli said in an interview two years ago with Italian state television RAI. “How can you live without it?”

The Times piece covered so many bases. So why ignore this man’s faith — which he openly discussed — as well as his complex personal life? Here is one large chunk of the obit:

A whirlwind of energy, Mr. Zeffirelli found time not only to direct operas, films and plays past the age of 80, but also to carry out an intense social life and even pursue a controversial political career. He had a long, tumultuous love affair with Luchino Visconti, the legendary director of film, theater and opera. He was a friend and confidant of Callas, Anna Magnani, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Coco Chanel and Leonard Bernstein.

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New York Times finally profiles pro-life Democrats but forgets to add what religion they might be

New York Times finally profiles pro-life Democrats but forgets to add what religion they might be

It was kind of hard to miss Sunday’s long-awaited story in the New York Times on grassroots pro-life Democrats, as it was smack in the middle of A1, atop the fold. I’m guessing it is a follow-up on their April 9 story that had poll data showing how the Democrat Party’s hard-left activists don’t represent most of the party faithful.

So they sent a reporter not to the South, where a lot of conservative Democrats live, but to western Pennsylvania. Having lived four years in the county just north of Pittsburgh, I know that it’s the Bible Belt of the Rust Belt.

But as far as I could tell, the reporter didn’t go near a house of worship. That’s a big journalism problem, in this case.

PITTSBURGH — Abortion is an issue that Lynndora Smith-Holmes goes back and forth on. “Six of one, half dozen of the other,” she said the other day as she finished her lunch break.

“Does it go back to people having abortions in back alleys? Haven’t we overcome that?” she asked, questioning the restrictive laws passed recently in states like Alabama and Kentucky.

At the same time, Ms. Smith-Holmes, who works for a day care center in the Allentown neighborhood of Pittsburgh and votes Democratic, said there should be limits. And she is not comfortable with the idea of taxpayer money going to fund abortions — a position that has become almost impossible to hold in the Democratic presidential primary. “Who’s paying for these?” she wondered.

That’s about all we hear about Smith-Holmes. Wouldn’t it be nice to know if Smith-Holmes has any religious background that informs her thoughts on abortion? In terms of statistics, that would be a logical angle to pursue.

There are still some opponents of abortion barely hanging on as Democrats. “I’m really sad because I don’t want to be a Republican,” said Jeannie Wallace French of Pittsburgh, who has worked with groups like Feminists for Life, which oppose abortion but are less partisan than many mainstream groups.

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Thinking 'evangelical,' again: As always these arguments pit theology against politics

Thinking 'evangelical,' again: As always these arguments pit theology against politics

Like many bitter dodgeball contests linked to religion these days, the fight began on Twitter.

On one side was a historian who has written several books on the roots of evangelicalism — defining the term (a) in doctrinal terms and (b) in a global context. When you put those two things together, you end up with lots of people, in lots of places, throughout Protestant history, who are “evangelicals.” It helps that the word is used this way around the world in many different church settings.

On the other side were other historians, as well as woke, post-evangelical voices. The key here? You guessed it: that famous 81 percent number, as in the percentage of white, self-identified “evangelicals” who — gladly or reluctantly — voted for GOP candidate Donald Trump (or against Democrat Hillary Clinton). Thus, “evangelicals” are white, conservative Republicans with racist roots (and lots of homophobia).

In other words, “evangelical” has evolved into semi-curse word that cannot be separated from contemporary American culture and Trumpian-era politics. We know this is true, because this is the way the term is used in most elite media coverage of politics.

The argument focused on an article at The Gospel Coalition website by Thomas Kidd of Baylor University with this title: “Phillis Wheatley: An Evangelical and the First Published African American Female Poet.”

The problem is that Wheatley is a black, heroic figure. Thus, it is wrong to identify her as an “evangelical,” even in an article that is striving to get modern evangelicals to pay more attention to the lives and convictions of evangelicals in other cultures and in other times. The piece ended by noting: “Evangelicals, of all people, need to remember her today.”

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You think Southern Baptist life is complicated? Independent Baptist world is really wild

You think Southern Baptist life is complicated? Independent Baptist world is really wild

We should deal with Westboro Baptist Church question right up front.

Was the late Pastor Fred “God Is Your Enemy“ Phelps, Sr., a Baptist?

Certainly. He was a Baptist because his small, independent flock called itself “Baptist “ and he was its leader. So there.

Next question: Is former President Bill Clinton a Baptist? The odds are 100-1 that the answer remains “yes,” since Clinton has been a member of many Southern Baptist churches during his lifetime. In 2018, Clinton made a Charlotte pilgrimage to view the casket of the late Rev. Billy Graham, paying homage to the Southern Baptist evangelist who was one of his heroes — as a Bible Belt boy and as a politico with a complex private life.

So who gets to decide who is a Baptist and who is not? To adapt a saying by the great William F. Buckley, is there a way to definitively prove that Mao Zedong wasn’t a Baptist?

Here’s the newsworthy, but related, question right now: Who gets to say who is a “Southern Baptist”? That’s the topic that dominated this week’s “Crossroads” podcast conversation — click here to tune that in — in the wake of the national Southern Baptist Convention meetings last week. That gathering in Birmingham, Ala., made lots of headlines because of the complicated, often emotional discussions of how to fight sexual abuse in SBC congregations.

Since SBC churches are autonomous, leaders of the national convention — lacking the legal ties associated with the word “denomination” — can’t order folks at the local level to take specific actions, including on issues linked to the ordination, hiring and firing of ministers.

So how can the SBC get local pastors and church leaders to crack down on sexual abuse? That was the topic of a post I wrote called, “Kick 'em out? Southern Baptists seek ways to fight sexual abuse in autonomous local churches.” Apparently, leaders at the national level have decided to adopt tactics that have been used at the “associational” (local or regional) level or in state conventions — “breaking fellowship” with congregations that cross controversial doctrinal lines. In the past, progressive Baptists protested when some associations and states used this tactic to deal with the ordination of women and, more recently, various LGBTQ ministry issues.

Now this strategy will be used with churches that fail to meet certain standards linked to preventing sexual abuse, caring for victims and handling future accusations. Thus, I wrote:

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