American politicos actually changing "religions"?

Many GetReligion readers will recall that I grew up in Texas as the son of a Southern Baptist pastor. I spent my teen years in Port Arthur, which was and is a rather hellish refinery town on Lake Sabine, on the Texas-Louisiana border. It's best known as the hometown of Janis Joplin and, trust me, I have always understood where she caught the blues. At the same time, Port Arthur is an interesting place in terms of the Southern religious landscape. I mean, it's in Texas, but it's also Cajun Catholic territory, too. So you had legions of cultural Catholics in the area, as well as more than its share of fierce anti-Catholics.

Thus, even the more polite Protestants in town were given to saying things like, "Well, she was raised Catholic and then got saved and became a Christian." The rude people were much worse.

To this day, I flinch like crazy every time I hear someone say something like that. It's crucial to understand I never, ever heard my father say anything remotely like that. Oh, he had some negative views on elements of Catholic doctrine, but he also stressed time after time that there were plenty of Catholics who lived and practiced their faith and that they were our Christian brothers and sisters.

In other words, Catholics were part of another church fold, but they were not part of another religion.

I bring this up because of a very interesting essay in The New Republic by journalist Mark Oppenheimer, who is best known to GetReligion readers for his Beliefs columns in The New York Times. The headline defines the territory to be covered: "Why Are American Politicians Always Switching Religions?"

This is not a hard news story, but it raises an issue of language that is highly relevant what we do here at GetReligion. Thus, the top of the essay states:

If Newton Leroy Gingrich becomes the Republican candidate for president of the United States, then the 2012 election will be a contest between two men who found new religions fairly late in life. Gingrich is on his third religion: He was raised a Lutheran, later became a Southern Baptist, and in 2009 was received into the Roman Catholic church. President Obama, having been raised in an irreligious home, famously found faith as an adult in Chicago, where he was baptized in 1988 by Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. (of great controversy).

Gingrich and Obama are hardly unique in the annals of contemporary politics. Major American politicians seem unusually promiscuous in their religious affinities, not just switching houses of worship but totally altering the substance of their worship. Beyond Obama and Gingrich, there is George W. Bush, raised by old-line, old-money Episcopalians but born again as an evangelical Protestant in 1985, after an apparently profound talk with Rev. Billy Graham; he and his wife attend a Methodist church. ...

Let me state right up front that the content of this essay is very interesting to me. The subject is totally valid. I am simply raising one journalistic issue in the text.

In part, Oppenheimer is saying that some of our ambitious politicians may be switching pews for purely political reasons, while others may be taking part in the same kinds of faith-based migrations that are increasingly common in the population as a whole.

In other words, if a community activist with ambitions in the Democratic Party is going to work with powerful black churches on the South Side of Chicago, it might help to actually join one of them. When a GOP politico is on his third marriage, it rather helps to join a church with some formal means of confession, repentance and forgiveness. Is Sen. Harry Reid's approach to Mormonism, as a convert, the same as that of former Gov. Mitt Romney, a lifer? What is gained? What is lost?

That's interesting stuff. However, the question I want to post is whether George Bush was actually changing RELIGIONS when he evolved from being a low-church Episcopalian to a Texas-twinged United Methodist. He changed from one oldline denomination to another. Is that changing RELIGIONS?

Isn't that sort of what the anti-Catholics were saying in Port Arthur when they said Christianity was one religion and Catholicism was another?

Over at The American Conservative, friend of this blog Rod Dreher addresses this TNR essay, but uses the term "religious affiliations" when discussing these switches, instead of "religions" -- period. That's one option.

In some cases, it would be accurate to say that someone switched DENOMINATIONS when going, let's say, from the United Methodist Church to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It would be accurate to say that someone switched CHURCHES when going from, say, Southern Baptist to Catholic. Switching from Methodist to Muslim would, indeed, be a change of RELIGION. Some of these words are more precise that others.

To the journalists in our midst, what think ye of this linguistic issue? Can you point to some useful guidelines in journalistic style books, texts, etc.? I honestly cannot.

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