Press offerings during holy seasons (continued): Contrasting approaches in The New York Times

Weeks ago, The Religion Guy discussed the perpetual media problem of handling religious holidays and highlighted a godsend (so to speak) for Holy Week 2017,  Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge’s “The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.” 

Alas, a quick Google check finds no coverage of her or her blockbuster.

The New York Times, whose top editor recently confessed that “media powerhouses ... don’t get the role of religion in people’s lives,” proved that point with the sort of potshot at tradition one often gets from the mainstream news media during holy seasons. Molly Worthen’s Good Friday piece looked askance at evangelical conservatives’ biblical beliefs and “natural human aversion to unwelcome facts.” 

Then came Easter and a contrasting, surprising Ross Douthat column that meditated on U.S. “mainline” Protestant slippage.

Complaints about religious conservatives are the oldest of old news, so Douthat’s opus was by far the more interesting. In this case a political conservative was preaching to “this newspaper’s secular liberal readers,” and a staunch Catholic was telling cultural Protestants to shape up. The column was part of his mordant “implausible proposals” series, which mingles wry fantasy with sincerity.

 Douthat took an overly familiar theme in a new and unexpected direction. It’s well-known that times are tough for America’s seven ecumenically allied (the "Seven Sisters" camp) and predominantly white “mainline” Protestant denominations known for theological flexibility. Over the past four decades their combined memberships have shrunk 30 percent, from 28,160,000 to 19,590,000. Nothing like this has happened previously in American religion.

(Yes, I am aware that those “Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches” data are out of date because the National Council of Churches was unable to compile its standard annual the past five years -- a sign of mainline disarray.)

Instead of proclaiming the inherent superiority of conservative religion, Douthat expressed concern that de-churched liberals lack the organizing principles, intellectual coherence and public language to foster the common good. He’d like “liberal post-Protestants” to resume weekly church involvement, for their own sake, their families and their nation:  

“Liberals, give Mainline Protestantism another chance. ... The Mainline churches’ doors are open. They need you; America still needs them.” At religiondispatches.org, Jonathan Malesic responded that “there is just one problem: belief.” Even a Christian residue will keep mainline dropouts from returning.

Historian Worthen’s item was summarized in the headline: “The Evangelical Roots of Our Post-Truth Society,” in particular denial of scientific facts. This Trump-Era scenario originated with by up-from Fundamentalism writer Rachel Held Evans. Evangelicals, of course, say their truths are actually true, as do most religions.

A 1,300-word article cannot plumb the varieties within evangelicalism the way Worthen did in “Apostles of Reason” (2013), which was hailed by Evangelical scholars. In the Times, Worthen played “the conservative evangelical war on facts” and distrust of the news media over against beneficent modern science and “peaceful coexistence in a pluralistic world.”  

She especially targeted belief in an error-free Bible, but what that means is complicated, witness the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy’s 4,000-word declaration (.pdf here). Worthen did, though, acknowledge the evangelical legions that shun rigid literalism, embrace empirical science and think geological dating eliminated “young earth” chronology and six-day creation 150 years ago.

By the way, Worthen pursues similar things in the May Atlantic, explaining that President Trump “won over evangelicals -- and won the election -- because he exploited beliefs and fears with origins deep in America’s past.”

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