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Looking for a religion ghost in Jimmy Carter's current clout with Democrats and journalists

Looking for a religion ghost in Jimmy Carter's current clout with Democrats and journalists

This is really a great time — in terms of mainstream media coverage — to be a liberal or “progressive” evangelical.

If you needed proof of this thesis — other than the contents of op-ed pages and wire features — then look no further than the latest political/media comeback by former President Jimmy Carter.

I have followed Carter for decades (I was a Carter volunteer at Baylor University in 1975-76), which is understandable since it’s impossible to report on the role of “born again” Christians in American political life without paying close attention to what Carter believes and when he believed it. He inspired many, many “moderate” Baptists and other evangelicals to take politics seriously.

Here’s a question I have asked for several decades now: Name another American politician — Republican or Democrat — who was willing to cost himself support within his own party by taking a critical stance, of any kind, on abortion. To this day, Carter’s language on abortion makes his party’s leadership nervous (see his remarks last year at Liberty University).

But the former president has certainly evolved on other crucial doctrinal issues. What role has this played in his current popularity with Democrats and, thus, with the press?

Consider this recent feature from the Associated Press: “Jimmy Carter finds a renaissance in 2020 Democratic scramble.” Here is the totally political overture:

ATLANTA (AP) — Jimmy Carter carved an unlikely path to the White House in 1976 and endured humbling defeat after one term. Now, six administrations later, the longest-living chief executive in American history is re-emerging from political obscurity at age 94 to win over his fellow Democrats once again.

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New social-media explosion could make news: Should Protestants have women pastors?

New social-media explosion could make news: Should Protestants have women pastors?

THE QUESTION:

Should women be pastors or preachers in U.S. Protestant churches?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The above issue erupted in recent days among U.S. evangelicals (more on this in a moment). In the interest of full disclosure, the (Protestant) Religion Guy’s personal opinion on this is yes, and in fact his own local congregation has its first female pastor. But as usual “Religion Q & A” intends to provide a non-partisan journalistic survey.

Let’s first note that Catholic and Orthodox tradition bars any realistic prospect of female priests, even as increasing numbers of U.S. Protestant women become ministers. The Association of Theological Schools reports women are 30 percent of the students (mostly Protestants) in member seminaries preparing for the M.Div. professional clergy degree.

With “mainline” Protestants, the Congregationalist ancestors of today’s United Church of Christ ordained America’s first female, Antoinette Brown, in 1853, though she later went Unitarian and few other women followed till the 20th Century. Women achieved full clergy status in e.g. predecessor bodies of the United Methodist Church and Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1956 and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1970, and in the Episcopal Church in 1977 (following non-canonical protest ordinations in 1974).

Among “evangelical” Protestants, from the late 19th Century some denominations appointed women to such leadership roles as preacher, evangelist, missionary or deacon, and in certain instances to clergy status. But most congregations barred women pastors, either de facto or de jure.

Lately, a vigorous evangelical movement has formalized the belief that limiting pastors, preachers and lay officers to males is God’s mandate in the Bible. The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) organized in 1987. Its founding “Danvers Statement” defined Protestant “complementarianism,” meaning the two genders have distinct roles that complement each other, over against “egalitarians.”

This document teaches that gender distinctions are part of God’s “created order.”

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Since numbers make news, how do we explain America’s religious recession since 2000?

Since numbers make news, how do we explain America’s religious recession since 2000?

Numbers make news. Think of how many articles will report breathlessly on U.S. political polls between now and Nov. 3, 2020. And numbers created “the biggest American religion story of the past decade,” says analyst Mark Silk, referring to the increase in “nones” who tell pollsters they have no particular  religious identity.

This is news: A new Gallup report says a severe religious recession began to build right around 2000.

What explains this turn-of-the-century turn? Journalists with Gallup numbers in hand should run this puzzle past the experts in search of explanations. 

Gallup combines data from 1998–2000, compared with 2016–2018. A topline finding is that Americans reporting membership in a house of worship hit an all-time low of 50 percent by last year, which compares with a consistent 68 percent or more from 1937, when the question was first asked, and all the way through the 1990s. The era since 2000 mingles that loss with declining worship attendance and the  “nones” boom.   

Since your audiences are already transfixed by the 2020 campaign, consider this detail from Gallup’s internals. Comparing 1998-2000 with 2016-2018, church membership reported by Republicans slipped from 77 percent to 69 percent, but among Democrats plummeted from 71 percent to 48 percent, a remarkable 23 percent drop. (Independents went from 59 percent to 45 percent.) How come?

Journalists will find further statistics to ponder in the latest General Social Survey report from the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. In this account, the “nones” have reached 23 percent. At the same time, however, 34 percent of American adults report “strong” religious affiliation, and similar percentages have held constant across the years since 1973. 

Writing for the interfaith journal First Things, Mark Movsesian of the St. John’s University Center for Law and Religion (who belongs on your source list) joins those who say the U.S. is experiencing “a decline in religious affiliation among people whose identification was weak to begin with.” As with politics, he proposes, “the middle seems to be dropping out in favor of the extremes on either end.”

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Covering the life and times of Rachel Held Evans: Focus on doctrines, not political choices

Covering the life and times of Rachel Held Evans: Focus on doctrines, not political choices

I just did a Google Images search for the words “American Evangelicals” and it yielded — on the first screen — as many images of Vladimir Putin as of the Rev. Billy Graham. If you do the same thing on Yahoo! your images search will include several pictures of George Soros.

I don’t need to mention the number of images of Donald Trump, a lifelong member of the oldline Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Do I?

The obvious question — one asked early and often at GetReligion — is this: “What does the word ‘evangelical’ mean?” But that really isn’t the question that needs to be asked, in this context. The more relevant question is this: “What does ‘evangelical’ mean to journalists in the newsrooms that really matter?”

I raise this question because of a remarkable passage in the New York Times feature about the tragic, early death of Rachel Held Evans, a highly influential online scribe whose journey from the conservative side of evangelicalism to liberal Protestantism has helped shape the emerging evangelical left. The headline: “Rachel Held Evans, Voice of the Wandering Evangelical, Dies at 37.”

Before we look at that news story (not a commentary piece) let’s pause to ask if the word “evangelical” has content, in terms of Christian history (as opposed to modern politics).

For background see this GetReligion post: “Yes, 'evangelical' is a religious term (#REALLY). You can look that up in history books.” That points readers toward the work of historian Thomas S. Kidd of Baylor University, author of the upcoming book, “Who Is an Evangelical?: The History of a Movement in Crisis.” Here is a crucial passage from Kidd, in a Vox explainer piece:

The most common definition of evangelicalism, one crafted by British historian David Bebbington, boils down to four key points. First is conversion, or the need to be born again. The second is Biblicism, or the need to base one’s faith fundamentally on the Bible. The third is the theological priority of the cross, where Jesus died and won forgiveness for sinners. The final attribute of evangelicals is activism, or acting on the mandates of one’s faith, through supporting your church, sharing the gospel, and engaging in charitable endeavors.

In today’s media, “evangelical” has shifted from the historic definition to become more of a rough political and ethnic signifier.

The news media image of modern evangelicalism, he added, “fails to recognize most of what was happening in the weekly routines of actual evangelical Christians and their churches. As Bebbington’s definition suggests, most of a typical evangelical’s life has nothing to do with politics.”

Now, from my perspective, the most important thing that needs to be said about the work of Rachel Held Evans is that she openly challenged the DOCTRINAL roots of evangelical Christianity, as opposed to focusing merely on politics.

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Too late to patch things up? How to cover a schism, United Methodist Church edition

Too late to patch things up? How to cover a schism, United Methodist Church edition

Church splits are endemic with Protestantism, and in coming years a really messy example is almost certain to afflict the large (6,951,278 members, $6.3 billion annual  income) U.S. sector of the United Methodist Church.

At issue is biblical teaching and authority, especially regarding openly gay clergy and same-sex marriage, Protestants’ most divisive issues since slavery.

As reporters and other religion-watchers will know, the UMC’s highest tribunal ruled on April 26  that church law allows much of the “Traditional Plan” that global church delegates passed in February to reinforce existing moral prohibitions. The tribunal also approved a measure that allows dissenting congregations to leave the UMC and keep their buildings and assets (text here).               

Approval of this special “exit plan” is a huge local, regional and national story. This exit plan apparently lasts until New Year’s Eve 2023 and sidesteps the “trust clause” by which the denomination claims ownership of local church properties.

Withdrawal plans must be approved by two-thirds of a congregation’s professing members, but also by a simple majority of delegates to area meetings called “annual conferences.” Judging from past struggles in other denominations, one can imagine mischief with that second requirement.

Methodists who want to loosen church discipline and give congregations local option on gay policies will mount  a last-chance effort at next year’s General Conference (mark your calendars: May 5–15, Minneapolis Convention Center), but the traditionalists should be able to continue their unbroken 48-year winning streak.

Herewith a few pointers for covering future developments. 

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USA Today tries to explain why many Catholics are hitting the exits, but finds only one reason

USA Today tries to explain why many Catholics are hitting the exits, but finds only one reason

What are you supposed to think when you pick up the newspaper in your driveway and see a headline that proclaims, “Catholic Church In Crisis”?

I don’t know about you, but this question immediately jumps into my mind: OK, so which Catholic crisis are we talking about?

Thus, when I started reading the massive USA Today feature (which ran on A1 in several Gannett newspapers in Tennessee, of course) on this subject, I assumed that the “crisis” in question was the ongoing clergy sexual abuse scandal. However, I wanted to see (a) if this feature would accurately note how long this scandal has lasted and (b) whether it would place the sexual-abuse crisis in the context of several other major problems in the American church (and the Western world in general). Also, if the USA Today team connected sexual abuse to any other issues, what would those issues be?

Right up front, readers learn that the “crisis” is people leaving the Catholicism or seriously thinking about doing so. That’s interesting and a valid way to approach the current state of things.

After a stack on anecdotes about people nearing the exits, there is this thesis statement:

The Catholic Church in the U.S. is at a crossroads. As millions of devout followers filled the pews this Easter season to celebrate the religion’s most important holiday, others hovered at the door, hungry for community and spiritual guidance but furious at the church’s handling of the decades-long sex abuse crisis that’s resulted in young children being raped and abused by priests who were often protected by their superiors.

Seven months after a damning grand jury report in Pennsylvania revealed that 1,000 children had been abused at the hands of more than 300 priests, and as state attorneys general across the nation investigate the church, a Gallup poll published in March found that 37% of U.S. Catholics are considering leaving the church because of the sex abuse crisis and the church’s handling of it. That’s up significantly from 2002, when just 22% of Catholics said they were contemplating leaving their religion after The Boston Globe published an explosive series that initially exposed the abuse and subsequent cover-up.

So, let it be known that the true crisis is clergy sexual abuse and that alone and that this scandal was “initially exposed” by the Globe in the massive “Spotlight” reports in 2002.

Let’s see — that’s wrong and wrong.

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President Lallene J. Rector of Garrett-Evangelical: 'Our lobby and stairwells were rainbowed up'

President Lallene J. Rector of Garrett-Evangelical: 'Our lobby and stairwells were rainbowed up'

As documented repeatedly by my colleagues at GetReligion, precious few reporters have bothered to interview conservative United Methodists about the church’s teachings on marriage and sexual morality. What’s remarkable is when the subject of a one-sided interview does something other than describing the traditionalist side in terms that avoid mere name-calling.

Consider the case of Anne Ford of Chicago magazine interviewing President Lallene J. Rector, of the United Methodist Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in the northern Chicago suburb of Evanston. (As the hyphen suggests, “Evangelical” in this name does not refer to a theological emphasis, but to Garrett’s assimilation of Evangelical Theological Seminary in 1974.)

A pleasant surprise emerges in the first paragraph. Ford’s question repeats the Godbeat meme that the United Methodist Church’s General Conference “voted to ban ordaining LGBTQ people and performing same-sex marriages.”

Rector, while beginning on a note of horror about the vote, works her way around to a touch of humor:

Our students are devastated. I was personally sickened. We’re a left-leaning school. We’re on the record as being inclusive. After the vote, our lobby and stairwells were rainbowed up. The denomination’s been arguing over these issues since 1972, and as you can imagine, many people are fed up. We’ve lost a lot of seminary students to other denominations.

Any writer who must consult the academia-to-English dictionary regularly must give thanks for a seminary dean who uses a phrase as playful as “rainbowed up.”

So what can be found in this interview that is crucial, in terms of journalists learning where this local, regional, national global story might be moving?

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What happened to old-school journalism? Reporters keep slanting United Methodist coverage

What happened to old-school journalism? Reporters keep slanting United Methodist coverage

Here’s something that you don’t see every day.

I mean, it used to be perfectly normal to see a top editor at an American newspaper defend old-school virtues like balance, fairness and showing respect for people on both sides of hot-button debates. But recently, this has not been the norm — especially when dealing with news about religion and culture.

Consider, for example, recent coverage of the United Methodist Church and, especially, the trials and tribulations endured by leaders of this global denomination’s liberal U.S. establishment.

Please hear me: I have been covering this story for four decades and I know that activists and clergy on both sides have experienced lots of pain. All kinds of people have been tempted to head for the exits.

Liberal U.S. United Methodists, in particular, have seen one general conference after another vote against them, in part because the growing parts of this global — repeat GLOBAL — flock are doctrinally conservative when it comes to marriage, sex and the Bible. The left holds the high ground in American bureaucracies, but the right has more converts, more children and, thus, more votes.

Press coverage of the latest traditionalist victory, this past February in St. Louis, has been dominated by the beliefs and stories of the UMC left, usually with one quote provided by a conservative (90 percent of the time, that’s Mark Tooley of the Institute for Religion & Democracy). Click here for my post on an NBC News report that — so far — gets the gold medal for bias.

So, the other day a Toledo Blade reader named Joe Strieter wrote the newspaper’s managing editor to express concern about UMC coverage. The reader send GetReligion a copy of this very detailed letter and here is a sample:

Although the writer … did not specifically express her personal opinion, it's hard to avoid the impression that her sympathies lie with the "losing side."  …

Three people are pictured — all of them opposed to the action taken at the conference. No one is pictured who voted for or defended the resolution. …

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How a past and (maybe) future pope are providing crucial leadership in age of Francis

How a past and (maybe) future pope are providing crucial leadership in age of Francis

The events of the past few days have truly been monumental for the Roman Catholic church.

You may not have noticed — unless you’ve bothered to read the ever-growing list of Catholic news websites on both the right and left. While liberals and conservatives within the church continue to wage a very public war over everything from the future of Christendom in the West to the ongoing clerical abuse crisis, two prominent voices have led the charge when it comes to these two issues.

Again, it was conservative Catholic media that proved to be the preferred mouthpiece for Cardinal Robert Sarah and Pope Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI. Both men — with help from right-leaning news organizations — have been very vocal about the problems plaguing the modern church in our ever-secular world.

It is fitting that these two men — one considered a potential future pope, the other already a pope — are the ones leading the charge as the church continues to become polarized. Under Francis’ papacy, the ideological split has become more pronounced. As the curia continues to polarize itself in public on issues like immigration and homosexuality, church leaders like Sarah and Benedict refuse to be silenced. Once again, it’s those Catholic media voices on the right that are helping to spread their message.

Case in point: this past week. At a time when Christians around the world continue on their Lenten journey, Sarah and Benedict are making a statement about the direction of Catholicism, the legacy of Vatican II and where the church is going. Sarah, who hails from the majority-Muslim nation of Guinea in Africa, contrasted Pope Francis’ statements in telling Christian nations they should open their borders to Islamic refugees.

The 73-year-old cardinal, in his new book” Evening Draws Near” and the “Day is Nearly Over,” argues that it’s wrong to “use the Word of God to promote migration.” Sarah laments the “collapse of the West” and what he calls “migratory processes” that threatens Europe’s Christian identity. As birthrates continue to drop across Europe, and workers from other continents are needed to take jobs, the culture of the continent is changing.

“If Europe disappears, and with it the priceless values of the Old Continent, Islam will invade the world and we will completely change culture, anthropology and moral vision,” he wrote.It’s worth noting that Sarah has been at odds with Pope Francis and his allies over an array of issues, including liturgical matters and translations of Latin texts.

The excerpt was largely ignored by mainstream news outlets.

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