Richard Ostling

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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This is a viral news story, obviously: What religion groups oppose vaccinations and why?

This is a viral news story, obviously: What religion groups oppose vaccinations and why?

THE QUESTION:

In light of the recent measles outbreak spreading from certain enclaves of U.S. Orthodox Jews, does their religion, or any other, oppose vaccination?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The current epidemic of highly contagious measles is America’s worst since 2000 when the federal Centers for Disease Control proclaimed the disease eradicated. At this writing there are 704 known cases of the disease, three-fourths of them in New York State, but no deaths yet. The epidemic apparently originated with travelers returning from Israel and then spread out from close-knit neighborhoods of strict Orthodox Jews (often labeled “ultra-Orthodox”) in New York City’s Brooklyn borough and suburban Rockland County, where some residents have not been vaccinated.

New York City has undertaken unusually sharp measures, leveling fines for those lacking vaccination and shutting down some Jewish schools. Significantly, vaccination is being urged by such “Torah true” Jewish organizations as Agudath Israel, United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, the Orthodox Jewish Nurses Association, the Yiddish-language newspaper Der Yid and by rabbinic authorities in Israel.

Medical science is all but universal in refuting claims that have been made about some unexplained link between the increase in autism and the customary MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) or other inoculations of children. Though individual rabbis may hold anti-vaxx ideas, avoidance is not a matter of religious edicts but a secular counterculture, including a since-discredited medical journal article, Internet propaganda and publications from groups like Parents Educating and Advocating for Children’s Health (PEACH) and Robert Kennedy Jr.’s Children’s Health Defense, certain entertainment celebrities, and an offhand remark by candidate Donald Trump.

The journal Vaccine observed in 2013 that outbreaks within religious groups result from “a social network of people organized around a faith community, rather than theologically based objections.”

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For your 2020 agenda: The Democrats’ Equality Act sets up a religion-news sleeper issue   

For your 2020 agenda: The Democrats’ Equality Act sets up a religion-news sleeper issue   

Following committee approval last week, the House of Representatives will soon vote on the “Equality Act” (H.R. 5, text here),  which would add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” protections under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Crucially, the proposal would explicitly ban use of the conscience guarantees in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed by President Bill Clinton. Only two Democratic senators voted against that 1993 act, with names like Biden, Daschle, Feinstein, Kennedy, Kerry and Leahy in the yes column.  

That’s a news story — right there. Journalists should compare such bipartisan unanimity with today’s stark party divide in this First Amendment battle, as on so many other issues. 

The clause states that the religion law “shall not provide a claim concerning, or a defense to a claim under, a covered title, or provide a basis for challenging the application or enforcement of a covered title.”

Need a local angle for coverage? Reporters will want to analyze the impact that would have upon federal funding and other benefits for colleges, health facilities and charities that hold to traditional religious teaching. Anticipate years of lawsuits and political infighting. 

The House will pass the Equality Act because it is sponsored by all but one of the majority Democrats. But a narrow defeat looks probable in the Senate, where so far Maine’s Susan Collins is the only member in the Republican majority backing the bill. Adding political fuel, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to rule next year on parallel questions.  

All that will play out as reporters cover voters pondering whether to re-elect President Donald Trump and keep Republican control of the Senate, thus determining appointments of federal judges and whether the Equality Act becomes law. Among Democratic candidates, Joe Biden backed a similar equality bill in 2015, and the 2019 version is endorsed by the seven others atop polls (Booker, Buttigieg, Harris, Klobuchar, O’Rourke, Sanders and Warren). 

The Equality Act would cover a broad array of businesses and agencies that provide goods or services to the public, forbid sexual stereotyping and make bisexuals a protected class. It would require access to rest rooms, locker rooms, dressing rooms and presumably women’s shelters, on the basis of self-identified gender rather than biological gender. 

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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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Does Islam require stoning to death for adultery and gay sex, and amputation for larceny?

Does Islam require stoning to death for adultery and gay sex, and amputation for larceny?

THE QUESTION:

This month, the Muslim nation of Brunei cited religious grounds for prescribing execution by stoning for those guilty of adultery or gay sex, and amputation of hands to punish convicted thieves. Does Islam require these penalties?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

In the Muslim world there’s no consensus that the faith requires these traditional punishments in modern times, but a handful of the 57 member nations in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation have such legislation. One is the small East Asian sultanate officially named Brunei Darusslam (“Brunei, Abode of Peace”), which proclaimed these penalties six years ago. Due to the resulting uproar, the law did not go into effect until this month. When it did, the foreign minister responded to another round of international denunciations by stating that “strong religious values” form “the very foundation of the unique Bruneian identity.”

The punishments were commanded by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Brunei’s hereditary monarch, who wields absolute political and religious powers and is devoted to strict interpretation and application of shariah (Muslim law). At the same time, fabled oil revenues provide the sultan  eyebrow-raising personal wealth of some $20 billion, the world’s largest home (1,788 rooms), and largest collection of rare automobiles including a gold-plated Rolls Royce.

Regarding punishment for sexual sins, Muslims point out that long before Islam arose the Bible’s Old Testament law named execution as the penalty for adultery (Leviticus 20:10) and for same-sex relations between men (Leviticus 20:13), as well as other sins. Those passages did not state what method was to be used for execution, but rabbinic law later compiled in the Talmud specified stoning for gay relationships. Stoning was also commonly cited for adulterers.

Jewish scholars say the Bible’s various laws on execution were meant to signify and proclaim the seriousness of the misdeeds but were rarely applied in practice.

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After Sri Lanka, news media pros should consider taking a long, detailed look at China

After Sri Lanka, news media pros should consider taking a long, detailed look at China

The horrendous Easter massacre in Sri Lanka dominates the current news cycle, with good cause.

By  coincidence, only weeks ago The Guy surveyed the worldwide phenomenon of  terror, murder and persecution against Christians. Looking ahead, the media might prepare features on a long-running and elaborate government effort aimed at all religions, with this upcoming peg: the 70th anniversary of Mao’s October 1 proclamation of the People’s Republic of China. 

Michael Meyer, author of “The Road to Sleeping Dragon” and other books on China, reminds us in a Wall Street Journal op-ed (behind pay wall) about three religious anniversaries in 2019. It is 10 years since deadly riots in Xinjiang province provoked a major crackdown against Muslims; 20 years since the party launched its effort to liquidate the Fulan Gong movement; and 60 years since Tibet’s young Dalai Lama fled Chinese occupiers’ harassment of Buddhists. All three campaigns persist.

As for Christianity, the regime fears the increasing numbers of converts and continually applies counter-measures.  In north central China, for example, troops last year demolished the Golden Lampstand Church in Linfen, spiritual home for 50,000 evangelicals, just weeks after a Catholic church was destroyed in Xian city.  Under Communist Party boss Xi Jinping’s policy of severe social control, less severe damage has been inflicted on at least 1,500 church buildings.   

The most recent U.S. Department of State survey on global religious freedom notes that China recognizes only five “patriotic” associations that cover Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Islam. All gatherings are required to register with the atheistic regime  -- which believers understandably resist – or risk criminal penalties.  “There continue to be reports the government tortured, physically abused, arrested, detained, sentenced to prison, or harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups,” State says. 

For China roundups, writers might ask who  is the most important figure in the world’s largest nation in terms of religion.

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Regarding Israel and the End Times, what is Dispensationalism? What is the rapture?

Regarding Israel and the End Times, what is Dispensationalism? What is the rapture?

THE QUESTION:

Regarding Israel and Bible prophecies about the End Times, what are the meanings of such terms as Dispensationalism, the rapture, premillennialism, the great tribulation,  pre-tribulationism and Armageddon?

THE GUY’S ANSWER:

A March 31 New York Times article on how religion may influence U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s approach toward Israel had this headline: “The Rapture and the Real World: Pompeo Mixes Beliefs and Policy.”

One key point was that the then-Congressman told a religious audience in 2015 that humanity faces “a never-ending struggle” until “the rapture.” Yes, think “Left Behind” books and movies.

The move of the United States embassy to Jerusalem, and U.S. recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over Syria’s Golan Heights, were thought to boost both President Donald Trump’s evangelical support and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s April 9 election prospects. Analyzing those decisions, the Times explained that “white evangelicals,” Pompeo included, believe “God promised the land to the Jews, and that the gathering of Jews in Israel is foretold in the prophecy of the rapture — the ascent of Christians into the kingdom of God.”

The Times wording was truthy but confusing, and the standard rapture belief is not taught by evangelicalism as a whole — but only one segment. Also, the “white evangelical” reference is strange, since this doctrine can be found in quite a few different kinds of evangelical sanctuaries.

So let’s unpack some elements of these complex matters.

Secretary Pompeo is a member of the Michigan-based Evangelical Presbyterian Church, a small body (89,190 members, 207 congregations) that forsook the more liberal Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1981. It upholds the Westminster Confession and catechisms proclaimed by British clergy and politicians assembled by Parliament in the mid-17th Century. Churches that follow such Reformation-era credos affirm Jesus’s Second Coming and the Last Judgment, but not the modern rapture belief formulated two centuries later.

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As Pope Benedict XVI re-enters the fray, experts take broad look at U.S. Catholicism

As Pope Benedict XVI re-enters the fray, experts take broad look at U.S. Catholicism

Pope Benedict XVI’s sudden emergence from the cloister may well prove to be the religion story of the year.

The media speculated on how things would work six years ago when Benedict broke precedent to abdicate instead of serving as pope till death, to be  succeeded by Pope Francis. Benedict largely maintained silence, lest Catholics think they had two popes. That period ended with a flash last week when conservative Catholic outlets released Benedict’s remarkable 6,000-word  analysis of the Catholic Church’s unrelenting scandals over priests’ sexual abuse of underage victims.

Benedict, who said he cleared the publication with Pope Francis, evidently felt he must plunge into the debate because he thinks the reigning pontiff’s February summit meeting on the sexual-abuse crisis was a flop and the church has not solved this severe and enervating crisis (nor did it when Benedict himself was in charge). Media on both the Catholic right and left said Benedict and his allies are setting up a  clash with his more liberal successor on the causes and cures of the scandal. 

Benedict sees alienation from God as the heart of the matter, with relaxed attitudes toward sin and sex from secular culture that infiltrated the priesthood from secular culture, while “homosexual cliques … significantly changed the climate” in seminaries.

Meanwhile, Francis and his allies stress the need for internal structural reforms in the church. (For what it’s worth, The Guy suspects both pontiffs are correct on the Catholic emergency.)    

What should reporters be doing in the wake of Francis’s summit,  Benedict’s breakout, and ongoing news?

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