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Friday Five: Minister tax break, Mormon death, The Crown's religion, Trump's dirty words and more

Friday Five: Minister tax break, Mormon death, The Crown's religion, Trump's dirty words and more

I watched the first season of "The Crown" on Netflix with my wife, Tamie.

I enjoyed it, although I wouldn't say I was goo-goo over it. When the second season came out, we caught an episode or two. Then my bride binged on the rest of it one day while I was busy with something more important (probably playing Words With Friends on my iPad). 

Suffice it to say that I haven't made it to the part featuring Queen Elizabeth II and the Rev. Billy Graham. (Right now, Tamie and I are in the middle of "Greenleaf," an Oprah Winfrey-produced drama featuring a black megachurch in Memphis, Tenn. That series reminds me of "Dallas," but with religion, not oil, as the family business. But I digress.)

Back to "The Crown": The Washington Post published an excellent Godbeat piece on it this week. More on that in a moment.

First, thought, let's dive right into this week's Friday Five:

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The theology behind Oprah's 'stirring, spiritual call to arms' at Golden Globes? Time magazine nails it

The theology behind Oprah's 'stirring, spiritual call to arms' at Golden Globes? Time magazine nails it

Unless you live in a cave with no television, social media feeds or electricity, you know about Oprah Winfrey's "stirring, spiritual call to arms" at the Golden Globes.

Winfrey's speech — tied to the #MeToo movement — "has fans dreaming" of a presidential run by the talk-show icon and Democrats from Hollywood to Iowa "captivated" by the possibility.

Here at GetReligion, editor Terry Mattingly suggested months ago: "Yes, the religious left exists: Can you think of a logical person (Oprah) to serve as its leader?"

Oh, her.

But speaking of religion, have the breathless news reports since Sunday night acknowledged — or mostly ignored — Oprah's Gospel-meets-New Age religious maven role? 

Take a wild guess.

However, a leading Godbeat pro has an extremely insightful story on the surprising theology shared by Oprah and, believe it or not, her potential 2020 adversary, President Donald Trump.

I'm talking about Time magazine religion writer Elizabeth Dias, who notes that Trump and Winfrey both "preach a gospel of American prosperity, the popular cultural movement that helped put Trump in the White House in 2016."

More insight from Dias' highly relevant piece:

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Yes, the religious left exists: Can you think of a logical person (Oprah) to serve as its leader?

Yes, the religious left exists: Can you think of a logical person (Oprah) to serve as its leader?

If you asked a crowd of journalists to name two or three people who are the "faces" of the Religious Right, it's pretty easy to think of the names that would top the list.

The problem, of course, is that many of these people are either dead -- think the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Phyllis Schlafly -- or they have faded from the scene, other than the occasional headline-inducing sound bite (here's looking at you, the Rev. Pat Robertson).

This knee-jerk tendency to favor the old Religious Right guard was crucial during the 2016 campaign. Why? Many elite political-beat reporters -- religion-beat pros did much better -- failed to notice that, while Donald Trump won his share of endorsements among older religious conservatives (or, well, their children), most of the rising stars on the moral right wanted little or nothing to do with him, in terms of public support.

You see, there is a problem with simplistic American political labels, when you try to stick them on religious believers. They rarely fit. While traditional religious believers tend to agree on many doctrinal issues that have political implications (think abortion, gender, the meaning of marriage), they often disagree when it comes to political solutions to problems linked to poverty, race, foreign policy, military spending, immigration, the economy, etc.

You can see this most clearly when talking about ancient forms of Christianity. Are the U.S. Catholic bishops at home with the political left or with the right? That would be the right, on sexual morality, but the left on many other issues, from immigration to health care. Is Pope Francis liberal or conservative when you are talking about hot-button issues in American life? Where is he on gender and right-to-life issues, in contrast with economics and immigration?

"Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I talked about all of this, and much more, when recording this week's podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Our news hook, however, was not on the cultural right. Instead, we were talking about my post critiquing a Reuters report about the religious left. The original Reuters report is here.

As always, it's hard to pin accurate political labels on biblical beliefs. There are political liberals who are pro-life. There are political conservatives who are strongly pro-abortion-rights. There are conservatives who totally oppose Donald Trump's perspectives on immigration and refugees. I could go on and on.

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San Francisco Chronicle needed more info on nuns who walked out on pro-gay leafletting

San Francisco Chronicle needed more info on nuns who walked out on pro-gay leafletting

The theological tug-of-war between the Archdiocese of San Francisco and gay advocates shows no sign of ending soon, which means there will continue to be news coverage to dig into, naturally.

The latest soldiers in this battle are a group of nuns who staged a walkout when students passed out gay-rights materials at their school. But the nuns engaged in this battle are not old fogeys. They’re savvy 20- and 30-somethings who know what to do with an iPhone and who understand the cultural wars that are unfolding on their turf. Did this crucial information make it into the story?

Listen to how the San Francisco Chronicle described what happened a week ago:

The divisions within the Bay Area’s Catholic community over gay rights hit Marin Catholic High School full force the other day, when a group of nuns walked out of their classes to protest the sponsors of a program intended to protect gay and lesbian teens from bullying.
The five members of the Dominican Sisters of Mary order exited their classrooms Friday as students began handing out flyers at the Kentfield school promoting a nationwide Day of Silence.
Their walkout came one day after 100 prominent local Catholics attracted national attention by taking out a full-page ad in The Chronicle calling on the pope to oust Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, in part for trying to get teachers at Catholic schools to sign off on a morality clause that characterizes homosexual relations as “gravely evil.”

Let's keep reading, because it takes a while to get to these nuns.

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What Mark Silk said! Time, for some strange reason, overlooks 'Oprah' and the MTD wave

What Mark Silk said! Time, for some strange reason, overlooks 'Oprah' and the MTD wave

A hearty "Amen!" in this corner for the key points in Mark Silk's Religion News Service take down of a really, really strange Time magazine interpretation of a poll on the Bible and religion.

Let's let the man preach:

This week the American Bible Society (Protestant) released its annual survey ranking the “Bible-Mindedness” of America’s 100 largest cities (well, actually, America’s 100 largest media markets). Conducted by the Barna Group (evangelical), the ranking is based on “the highest combined levels of regular Bible reading and expressed belief in the Bible’s accuracy.” This year, Birmingham/Anniston/Tuscaloosa AL won the top spot while Providence RI/New Bedford MA came in dead last for the third year in a row.
OK, so far so good. However, Time, in its story, transformed the results into, in the words of the headline, “These Are the Most Godless Cities in America.” Holy Misconception, Batman! Since when does non-Bible-mindedness equal Godlessness?

Silk, with justification, notes that this interpretation slants everything away from cultural Catholicism and in the Bible-driven direction of Protestantism and, especially, evangelical Protestantism. That's accurate. However, I would argue that Time missed at least two other crucial points in this tone-deaf piece.

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Pod people: 'Green funerals,' Baby Boomers and the American way of death

Pod people: 'Green funerals,' Baby Boomers and the American way of death

For some reason, I got a bit fired up during the recording of this week's "Crossroads" podcast, with host Todd Wilken (click here to tune that in). The subject wasn't all that controversial, but it really got under my skin. We were talking about my recent post on the topic of the spiritual wanderers called the Baby Boomers (talkin' 'bout my generation) and the trend toward "green funerals." 

Now, that is a topic that has interested me for several decades -- dating back to when I taught as "Communicator on Culture" at Denver Theological Seminary (right after my exit from full-time religion-beat reporting at The Rocky "RIP" Mountain News).

At that time, 1991-93, America was still in the (a) New Age religion era, while also (b) experiencing a wave of death-and-dying movies at the local multiplex (biggest hit, of course, was "Ghost"). Thus, I led a seminar on "The Good Death" and how traditional Christian views on the subject were not what was being sold at the local shopping mall (or most funeral homes).

The main takeaway from the seminar was that the spiritual adventures of the 1960s era were leading Americans in all kinds of different directions, from Eastern religions to traditional forms of Christianity and Judaism, from Oprah spirituality to damned-if-I-don't secularism. There was, in other words, no one trend dominating the death-and-dying landscape.

That was true then and I would argue it's still true today, which is why the recent Washington Post report on "green funerals" bugged me so much.

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WPost: Avoiding Maya Angelou's soul, if at all possible

In the world of political, cultural and social studies theory there is a term — “civil religion” — that scholars have been arguing about for decades. You can talk about Rousseau and you can dig into Tocqueville and travel on to Martin Marty, but sooner or later you end up with the 1967 Robert Bellah essay entitled, “Civil Religion in America,” written by Robert Bellah in Daedalus in 1967. As the Encyclopedia of Religion and Society notes: Bellah’s definition of American civil religion is that it is “an institutionalized collection of sacred beliefs about the American nation,” which he sees symbolically expressed in America’s founding documents and presidential inaugural addresses. It includes a belief in the existence of a transcendent being called “God,” an idea that the American nation is subject to God’s laws, and an assurance that God will guide and protect the United States. Bellah sees these beliefs in the values of liberty, justice, charity, and personal virtue and concretized in, for example, the words In God We Trust on both national emblems and on the currency used in daily economic transactions. Although American civil religion shares much with the religion of Judeo-Christian denominations, Bellah claims that it is distinct from denominational religion.

Back in by Church-State Studies days at Baylor University, I wrote my thesis on a topic linked to all of this, a 290-page work called “A Unity of Frustration: Civil Religion in the 15 October 1969 Vietnam War Moratorium.” Amazingly enough, you no longer have to go to my office or to the main campus library in Waco, Texas, to read it (although I have been pleased at how many researchers have used it through loaner programs). Now Google Books has made it available (sort of).

Anyway, while most people look at civil religion as something rooted in the belief of a great, unified, majority, I argued — with extensive material from interviewing Marty (key: a community of communities) — that some minority religious or semi-religious movements have, over time, been absorbed into the majority and thus into the civil religion.

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LATimes pours out its love for the 'spiritual' Williamson

A positive news story about a political newcomer isn’t unusual. Newspapers and television outlets do these sorts of things regularly, and for all sorts of reasons. So on one level, it’s not all that surprising that the Los Angeles Times offered a rather complimentary — some might even say “fawning” — profile of New Age authoress and teacher Marianne Williamson, who is challenging longtime area Congressman Henry J. Waxman in the 2014 elections. Here is a sample of the prose:

It was a Thursday night, normally a slow time for churches and synagogues, but the sanctuary of The Source Spiritual Center in Venice was packed.

When a diminutive woman stepped to the front of the room, people paused in their scramble for a chair or purchase of a T-shirt and engulfed her in cheers and applause.

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