Red churches, blue churches, smart churches, dumb churches

Over the weekend, I ran into an amazing pair of articles on the Newsweek home page that really left me pondering this question: Has anyone in that newsroom ever heard of people like Martin Marty and James Davison Hunter? Without a hint that others have been writing about this topic for, oh, a decade or so, Newsweek ran a commentary by Melinda Henneberger entitled "Red and Blue Churches: Is religion more influenced by our politics than the other way around?" For readers, this ought to sound like a major-league echo chamber. If not, click here or here.

Or even better, go get yourself an old, used copy of "Culture Wars" by James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia and read up on the ongoing divide between the progressives (truth is personal, experiental and evolving) and the orthodox (truth is transcendent, revealed and eternal).

In her quest for red and blue churches, Henneberger visits Advent Evangelical Lutheran Church in the appropriately named Zionsville, Ind. It does not appear that the reporter understands that this is a conservative congregation in a more progressive denomination, even if the word "Evangelical" is in the title. So there is a layer of irony missing.

But the people in these pews are not interested in the religious views of John Kerry, since they believe his stands on basic issues of Christian morality clash with his newly adopted faith-friendly soundbites. You end up with comments like this:

Gala Wurdeman, wife of the assistant pastor at the fast-growing suburban church, said President George W. Bush's faith is very important to her "because my faith is important to me." But of Kerry's beliefs, she said wryly, "I think I have a pretty good idea" already.

Another church member, Marilyn Mesh, said that in fact, she was infuriated when Kerry "started off quoting the Bible" at a local campaign appearance she saw on television. ("Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord," Kerry had said, quoting from the Psalms.) "I thought, "Oh, that sounds sacrilegious to me," Mesh said, "speaking these words as if he were a prophet ... I know his voting record is very liberal and to me that does not jibe with a profession of faith."

It will not be a surprise that the Newsweek reporter attends a blue church. It is also not all that surprising that it is a blue Catholic church, in a blue Catholic stronghold, with an enthusiastically blue Catholic priest who believes that it is wrong for his church to enforce its doctrines at the level of its own sacraments. That sounds like this:

In America in 2004 there are very definitely Red State churches, like theirs, and Blue State churches, like my Roman Catholic parish in Georgetown, where John Kerry, who lives in the neighborhood, received communion not long ago.

A priest there who announced at a later mass that Kerry had been given communion at the church received a hearty ovation, amid the controversy over whether pro-choice lawmakers are entitled to receive the sacraments. (I would like to believe the applause was not for the candidate, but for the principle that no one should be turned away from the communion rail.)

The article contains a variety of other interesting details, such as the progressive true believer who mildly stuns the reporter why his pronouncement that conservative Christians scare him more than anti-American terrorists. Henneberger quips: "Not me; I'll take the roomful of Biblical literalists every single time."

But the big idea seems a bit vague. She does not seem to grasp that the red vs. blue pew phenomenon is rooted in concrete Christian teachings about our culture's hottest political issues. Like I said, there seems to be little recognition that this is an old story, one dissected by some fine commentators on both the left and the right.

Perhaps it is hard to see this reality when the worldview of the publication is -- dare I suggest -- so closely aligned with one side of the debate?

For a shockingly blunt statement relevant to this claim, check out the conclusion of the Eleanor Clift commentary in the same Newsweek online package -- the one with the headline "Faith vs. Reason." Honest, that's the headline. It ends with this statement, which sweeps aside volumes of competing data and dogma on some of the most complex issues of our time.

The Republican message is don't vote for Kerry because he supports abortion rights. Kerry thinks abortion is wrong, but he's not going to impose his religious beliefs on the country. Bush on the other hand has turned his religious beliefs about embryonic stem cells into public policy.

Voters have the choice between a president who governs by belief and a challenger who puts his faith in rational decisionmaking.

So there. In addition to red churches and blue churches, there are also smart churches and dumb churches and, apparently, some major voices at Newsweek have certainly decided which churches are which.

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