As the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination develops, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is making faith-related headlines again.
This time the news has nothing to do with whether Walker thinks President Barack Obama is a Christian.
The New York Times explored Walker's religious background in a front-page story Sunday:
The Times' lede:
DES MOINES — Scott Walker, the son of a Baptist preacher, learned a lot about being a politician by going to church.
He was introduced to glad-handing while greeting worshipers beside his father after Sunday services. His confidence as a public speaker began at 2, when he delivered a Christmas greeting from the pulpit, and it blossomed when he preached occasional sermons as a teenager. And now, Mr. Walker’s lifelong church involvement may be a powerful asset as he positions himself to run for the Republican presidential nomination and focuses on early primary and caucus states dominated by evangelical voters.
Already a hero to fiscal conservatives — both the Tea Party base and billionaire donors like Charles G. and David H. Koch — Mr. Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, made his most explicit appeal yet to the Christian right on Saturday before hundreds of social conservatives in Iowa. During his toughest times in office, he said, “What sustained us all along the way is we had people who said, ‘We prayed for you.’ ”
A few days earlier, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel produced its own, even more in-depth portrait of Walker's faith:
The top of the Journal Sentinel's report:
Few things are as central to understanding Scott Walker as his relentless political calculus and his evangelical Christian faith.
Those two facets of the governor are coming together as never before in his all-but-certain bid for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. They will be on full display Saturday when the two-term governor joins fellow would-be presidential candidates at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition 2015 Spring Kickoff.
So far, Walker's folksy mix of faith and politics has resonated with evangelical Christian voters, a key constituency for Republican candidates.
"He is definitely galvanizing our membership," said Timothy Head, executive director of Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition, which stages the Iowa event.
One angle that each story explored, and one that I'll highlight here, concerns Walker changing churches a decade ago.
The Times described the denomination in which Walker grew up this way:
Mr. Walker’s father, the Rev. Llewellyn S. Walker, was a minister in the American Baptist Churches USA, a more pluralistic denomination than the conservative and better-known Southern Baptist Convention.
Later in the Times story:
As an adult, Mr. Walker moved to Wauwatosa, a Milwaukee suburb, in search of a Republican-leaning district in which to run for the State Assembly. He and his wife, Tonette, joined another American Baptist congregation, Underwood Memorial Baptist Church, which had a history of social activism.
A dozen years later, in 2005, Underwood voted to affiliate with the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, a gay-accepting national group, and a small rainbow flag was affixed to its signboard. (The hiring of a woman as pastor in 2003 had accelerated its progressive tilt.)
Mr. Walker, by then a candidate for governor, left the church.
“Tonette said they were looking for a more family-friendly place,” said Marilyn Carrington, a longtime member.
Some members believed he had cut ties because of Underwood’s liberal drift. “As soon as we put the flag on the sign, he was out of there,” said Kevin Genich, a former church member who knew Mr. Walker.
After a campaign event in Iowa on Friday, Mr. Walker deflected a question about whether he had left Underwood because it openly embraced gay members. He said there were few children the ages of his sons there. “Ultimately, we wanted to go to a place where our kids would have the ability to interact with other kids,” he said.
Mr. Walker’s parents, who in retirement had moved to be near their son and joined Underwood, had no objections. They continue to worship there.
Contrast that with how the Journal Sentinel characterized the former church:
A lifelong American Baptist, Walker transferred his membership from Underwood Memorial Baptist Church in Wauwatosa to Meadowbrook just about a decade ago. A center-left congregation in a mainline denomination, Underwood took a sharper turn to the left beginning in 2003 with the arrival of the Rev. Jamie Washam, a female pastor who spoke out against the war in Iraq and Wisconsin's gay marriage ban.
In 2004, the church voted to affiliate with the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, a coalition of churches and organizations that welcomes gay and lesbian people and works to end discrimination against them.
The Walkers left for Meadowbrook the following year, about four months after he announced his first gubernatorial bid.
Washam declined to be interviewed for this story.
The governor and his wife switched churches because they were looking for more activities for their two sons, who were then nearing the end of elementary school, campaign officials said.
"From what I can gather having spoken to a couple of people in the Bible study in addition to the first lady and governor, they left because of the youth group," said Kirsten Kukowski, spokeswoman for Walker's political action committee.
A side note: Did the vote to join the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists occur in 2004 or 2005? The Times and the Journal Sentinel had different dates.
In a GetReligion post back in April, Richard Ostling also addressed Walker's religious background:
Ostling's post said that the American Baptist Churches USA "has a liberal flank but is largely moderate to moderately evangelical."
Meanwhile, both the Times and the Journal Sentinel offered background on Walker's current church.
From the Times:
Meadowbrook Church, where Mr. Walker now worships, is politically and theologically conservative. It is accepted among the church’s clergy and congregation that the Bible is the word of God, “without error,” and that Christ’s return is “imminent.” It is led by a council of elders that is open only to men.
While the Rev. Jamie Washam, the pastor of Underwood, opposed a Wisconsin ballot measure to ban same-sex marriage in 2006, Meadowbrook’s pastor urged members to vote to define marriage as between one man and one woman. “The church cannot recognize any alternative arrangements as being God’s will for any persons or society,” the pastor, John Mackett, wrote on a church blog.
At the same time, Meadowbrook is not politically active on issues like abortion. Sermons hew close to Bible readings.
Mr. Mackett, who stepped down as pastor last year, said he had often received text messages from Mr. Walker on a Monday discussing his sermon. “It was never a trite remark,” he said. “It came out of a thoughtful reflection on something that was said or happened in church.
And from the Journal Sentinel:
While the move to Meadowbrook might have reflected Walker's family needs, it also didn't hurt his political aspirations to be affiliated with a congregation that is connected to Elmbrook, arguably one of the most influential churches in southeastern Wisconsin, said Laura Olson, a political science professor at Clemson University who has written extensively on the intersection of faith and presidential politics.
"The charitable interpretation would be that he decided that 'This doesn't square with my belief system,'" Olson said of Walker's departure from Underwood. But, she said, it also could be useful for him politically "to be part of a large network of people who all speak the same language religiously."
In transferring his membership to Meadowbrook in 2005, Walker chose a church that is more theologically and politically conservative.
It's all fascinating stuff.
Between them, the Times and the Journal Sentinel devoted about 4,500 words to Walker's faith (hint: that's about the same length as 2 Corinthians).
That's a lot of information to digest, and I'm still doing so.
I always prefer specific details on what a candidate, church or denomination believes, as opposed to vague generalities like "pluralistic" or "conservative." To the extent that each of these stories moved beyond such terms, I welcomed it. I also appreciated each newspaper tackling the important angle of Walker's faith as he moves toward a presidential bid.
However, if you have time to read just one of the stories, I'd recommend the Journal Sentinel's version. At first blush, it impressed me as more detailed and nuanced.