Mainstream editors always want at least one religion story in the newspaper during the days leading up to Easter. It's a law. That's one reason you see all of those strange faith-based cover stories on the magazine racks this time of year (and just before Christmas, too). However, veteran Godbeat reporter Cathy Lynn Grossman at USA Today -- a friend of this blog, I should mention -- didn't settle for giving her editors one pre-Easter story this year. She turned in a story on baptism trends so packed with news hooks that they should have let her do a whole section on it. There are so many trends referenced in this story that my head was spinning trying to keep up.
Let's start very broad, with the summary early in the story:
For believers, baptism is modeled on their savior, who the Bible says waded into the water to consecrate himself to God. They may be sprinkled, washed from a flowing pitcher or immersed, as faith rituals vary. But all forms point to beliefs: rebirth in faith, salvation from sin, acceptance of God's promises and charges. For parents who bring a baby before their church, baptism is a pledge of their faith, a shield against evil, a wrapping of communal arms around a defenseless soul.
For Christians of all denominations, "even if they never darkened the door of a church any other time in their life ... there's a tendency to hold onto this life-cycle marker," says the Rev. Paul Sullins, a sociologist at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.
So far so good. Then comes the march of news hooks that raise question after question after question, all of them worthy of coverage in and of themselves.
Like what? Hang on.
The Catholic Church has more than doubled in size in the past half-century, but its rate of infant baptism steadily has fallen, Sullins says.
Methodists and Lutherans have seen both baptisms and their membership numbers slide for years. ... (The) Assemblies of God, which has had a boom in membership since 1980, saw its annual baptism numbers peak in 1997, then inch downward.
The Southern Baptist Convention has seen a half-century decline in baptisms and stalled growth in membership.
So what's up with the Catholics? The creeping impact of suburbanization? Birth control? Total assimilation into the mainstream? It is really interesting that the rate of Catholic baptisms has fallen even faster than the rate of decline in births. What's up with that?
And the charismatics and the Southern Baptists, what's going on there? Mass-media inspired Universalism? The drip, drip, drip of prosperity? Changing roles for women? The kind of functional Universalism that sets in when people are afraid to offend others by talking about faith issues? Is everybody home watching ESPN and Oprah? What does it mean that the membership of the Assemblies of God is growing, but the baptism numbers are down?
Looming over all of this is intermarriage, and not just between Catholics and Protestants. Also, scores of people are moving from denomination to denomination and the old ways often fade (or get stronger, with some liturgical converts).
And then there are the theological questions. As Grossman notes:
All the denominations that emphasize infant baptism, such as Catholics, Methodists and Lutherans, struggle with a contemporary culture that rejects the very idea that humanity is born into sin or that parents should steer children's spiritual development, says the Rev. Gayle Carlton Felton, author of the United Methodist Church's statement on baptism theology and practice, This Gift of Water. Methodists "no longer literally believe that baptism removes the burden of sin that would send a child to hell," Felton says.
Well, is that United Methodists in the pews, pulpits or seminaries or all of the above?
OK, time for one more? How about "do it yourself" baptism?
There are now baptism-style ceremonies where God is never mentioned by parents seeking to initiate their children into a world of all faiths, says Ema Drouillard of San Francisco, who runs the website Ceremonyway.com.
She conducted such an event for Kirsten and Farnum Alston of Marin County, Calif., for their baby, Greer, in 1998. "We just wanted a larger spirit to guide our daughter, but we didn't want to get specific. I wanted all her bases covered," says Kirsten Alston. The couple grew up Presbyterian, but now "we just do Christianity L-I-T-E" for Greer, who "believes in angels and fairies, leprechauns and Santa Claus."
That's enough for now. Like I said, and this is a compliment, this story really should have been a series of stories. Would USA Today let a senior reporter do a series on an eternal-life-and-death topic like this? Why not?