Question for journalists: Are Baylor's LGBTQ battles about politics or doctrine?

Question for journalists: Are Baylor's LGBTQ battles about politics or doctrine?

Let’s start with this question: Does the following sequence of events add up to a news story or not?

I. The world’s most prominent Baptist academic institution — Baylor University (I’m an alum) — gets involved in some heated debates about whether the campus LGBTQ group will be recognized as an official campus organization. That would (a) give it student-fee funds and (b) signal that regents consider the group’s work to be in accord with Baylor’s mission.

II. Representatives and “Baylor Family” supporters of the group Gamma Alpha Upsilon (GAY) start a petition asking the regents to affirm what previously was known as the Sexual Identity Forum.

III. Doctrinally conservative Baylor-ites respond with a petition of their own.

Here’s an interesting point to note: Only the progressive half of that online-petition equation draws coverage from The Waco Tribune-Herald.

IV. Shortly after that, the Baylor regents decline to meet with representatives of GAY. This draws more ink from the Tribune-Herald, once again with the left side of this debate receiving coverage. There is no content from those supporting Baylor’s doctrinal stance on sex and marriage (other than quotes from university policy and doctrinal statements).

V. Things got kicked up a notch, in terms of heat and public conflict, when the Rev. Dan Freemyer of the progressive Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth delivered the benediction at one of Baylor's spring graduation rites. Baylor traditionally gives this role to a Baptist clergyperson who is the parent of one of the graduates.

There’s more. Here is the top of my national “On Religion” column this week, which served as the hook for this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in): 

God is doing new things in today's world, he said, while offering blunt prayer requests on behalf of the graduates.

"God, give them the moral imagination to reject the old keys that we're trying to give them to a planet that we're poisoning by running it on fossil fuels and misplaced priorities -- a planet with too many straight, white men like me behind the steering wheel while others have been expected to sit quietly at the back of the bus," said Freemyer.

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When reporters have time for a big think: Where is world religion heading, anyway?

When reporters have time for a big think: Where is world religion heading, anyway?

Baylor University historian and Christian Century columnist Philip Jenkins set forth 21st Century prospects in his book “The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity” (Oxford University Press, 2002, updated 3rd edition 2011). His work underscores a theme that has become familiar to all religion specialists, the shift of Christianity’s center of population and power away from traditional Western Europe and North America toward the “Global South,” especially in Africa and Asia.

When time permits, journalists should consider updating that scenario — with accompanying graphics. If you need a local or regional news angle, check out the links to tensions inside the United Methodist Church.

Then, for a fresh global angle, focus on the implications if Christianity is supplanted by Islam as the world’s largest religion. That brings us to data recently posted by Pew Research Center’s Jeff Diamant (a former colleague covering the religion beat).

Pew estimates that as of 2015 there were 2,276,250,000 Christians globally, compared with 1,752,620,000 Muslims. Its projection for 2060 is that the totals will be nearly even, 3,054,460,000 versus 2,987,390,000. Flip that a couple percentage points and Islam would take the lead, and current trend lines suggest Islam could become number one at some point in our century. Birth rates play a key role in this drama.

Hold that thought.

Pew is one of two major players in world religion statistics. Another, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, projects for 2050 (not 2060) a slightly lower 2.7 billion for Muslims and significantly higher 3.4 billion for Christians. This even though CSGC figures that in this century’s first decade Islam was growing faster than Christianity, at 1.86 percent per year, as opposed to Christianity’s 1.31 percent (and a world population rate of 1.2 percent).

These two agencies of number-crunchers are friendly partners in some ventures but have some differences on method.

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Unfinished 2019 business in America's ongoing First Amendment wars over religious liberty

Unfinished 2019 business in America's ongoing First Amendment wars over religious liberty

During the year-end news rush, many or most media – and The Religion Guy as well – missed a significant development in the ongoing religious liberty wars that will be playing out in 2019 and well beyond. 

 On Dec. 10, Business Leaders in Christ filed a federal lawsuit against the University of Iowa for removing the group’s on-campus recognition on grounds of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  This club for business students requires its leaders to uphold traditional Christian beliefs, including that “God’s intention for a sexual relationship is to be between a husband and wife.” See local coverage here.

These sorts of disputes across the nation are thought to be a factor in religious citizens’ support for Donald Trump’s surprise election as president. And the Iowa matter is a significant test case because the Trump Department of Justice filed in support of the club Dec. 21, in line with a 2017 religious liberty policy issued by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. 

The DoJ’s court brief is a forthright presentation of the argument the Iowa club and other such organizations make for freedom of association, freedom of speech and “free exercise of religion” under the Constitution. Contact: Eric Treene of the Civil Rights Division, 202–514-2228 or

More broadly, what does the American nation believe these days regarding religious freedom?

That’s the theme of a related and also neglected story, the Nov. 29 issuance of a new “American Charter of Freedom of Religion and Conscience” (info and text here). The years-long negotiations on this text were sponsored by the Religious Freedom Institute, which evolved from a Georgetown University initiative, and Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion. 

The Religion Guy finds this document important, although at 5,000 words needlessly repetitive.  In essence, it asserts that freedom of religiously grounded thought, observance and public action, and the equal rights of conscience for non-believers, are fundamental to the American heritage and the well-being of all societies. 

Adopting lingo from federal court rulings, the charter says these freedoms are not absolute. But any “substantial burden” limiting them “must be justified by a compelling governmental interest” and implemented by “the least restrictive” means possible. The charter also endorses the separation of religion and state.

It is remarkable — and discouraging to The Guy — that basic Bill of Rights tenets even need to be reiterated in this dramatic fashion, because that tells us they are too often neglected -- or rejected.  

The charter has won a notably varied list of initial endorsers because it purposely avoids taking stands on the “sometimes bitter debates” over how to apply these principles, in particular clashes between religious traditionalists and the LGBTQ community.

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Why are Catholic schools so good at hoops? New York Times cites several good reasons

Why are Catholic schools so good at hoops? New York Times cites several good reasons

If you've been online during the final stages of March Madness you have probably seen people chatting about this question: Why are Catholic schools so good at basketball?

The question will linger after Villanova's smashing 79-62 win over Michigan in last night's title game. This is the second national title for Villanova (with its ties to the Augustinian Order) in three years. And, of course, Notre Dame won the women's final four, on a shot that was called -- with some reason -- a near miracle.

Yes, it's easy to joke about the prayers of hoops-loving nuns and saints.

However, there is an interesting story here, one linked to culture, theology and economics. Kudos to The New York Times for producing a serious feature-length piece that dug into the substance of this topic. The #DUH headline: "Why Catholic Colleges Excel at Basketball." Here is a crucial transition passage:

Excelling in big-time college basketball sits easily at mission-oriented institutions. Sports are not only these universities’ front porch, but also the faith’s emissary.
Villanova’s president, the Rev. Peter M. Donohue, hosts an opening Mass for athletes every year, where he reminds them they are ambassadors for the university’s mission. “To have our charism move on,” he said, using a dogma-tinged Greek word for spirit, “the banner needs to be carried.”

Whoa. "Dogma-tinged"? I think it's enough to say that this is a theological term. Also, that definition is a bit off. The word "charism" has a much more specific meaning, one that would have done a better job of supporting this story's thesis. says:

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Chronicle of Higher Education offers shallow view of Christian colleges and student marriages

Chronicle of Higher Education offers shallow view of Christian colleges and student marriages

Before you get too far along, you might want to click on the video above and watch this introductory video from Cedarville University in Ohio.

Yes, it's a promotional thing, but it also captures the gestalt of this rather theologically conservative evangelical school.

I believe such understanding will help as you evaluate a report from The Chronicle of Higher Education that gives somewhat short shrift to the notion that one happy byproduct of Christian education is a crop of Christian marriages. That implied negativity, among other issues, is one of the journalistic problems I found in the article, headlined, "‘Ring by Spring’: How Christian Colleges Fuel Students’ Rush to Get Engaged."

Let's start with a slightly longish excerpt:

It was "surreal" for Nikki Garns when Cedric Martin got on one knee in Pennsylvania’s Caledonia State Park, framed by a beautiful waterfall and mountains, to ask her if she would marry him. When she exclaimed, "Yes!," Ms. Garns was only a sophomore.
Mr. Martin’s proposal, although it felt surreal, wasn’t a surprise. For about a month before the engagement, both Ms. Garns and Mr. Martin had talked with her parents, assuring them that they were mature enough to be engaged. Initially, her parents said they thought she was too young. After talking with their daughter one-on-one, however, Ms. Garns’s parents gave Mr. Martin their approval.
Ms. Garns isn’t the only student at Houghton College, a Christian college in western New York, who’s engaged. Like many Christian institutions, Houghton is gripped by a trend known as "ring by spring," which refers to the aspiration among many students to be engaged by the spring semester of their senior year.
And, like other colleges, Houghton acknowledges the trend, and even advances it. The college’s counseling center offers a couples retreat for seriously dating or engaged couples, which brings 12 to 15 couples to a local camp to listen to a renowned speaker discuss the Biblical fundamentals of marriage. Six weeks after the retreat, the couples meet up again for a "Great Date Night."

I realize the Chronicle is a secular newspaper and I have no idea of the faith background, if any, of the reporter and editors involved with this story. But think about this: students at Christian colleges find themselves "gripped by a tend" in which these young adults want to get engaged and be married. Shocking, isn't it?

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Yes, 'evangelical' is a religious term (#REALLY). You can look that up in history books

Yes, 'evangelical' is a religious term (#REALLY). You can look that up in history books

Over the years, your GetReligionistas have asked variations on the following question many times: What does the word "evangelical" mean?

Faithful readers will recall that, in 1987, I had a chance to ask the Rev. Billy Graham that question and, basically, he said that he no longer felt confident that he knew the answer. He then proceeded to frame "evangelical" in terms of ancient Christian doctrines, saying that he defined an "evangelical" as someone who believes all the doctrines in the ancient Nicene or the Apostles creeds. Graham stressed the centrality of belief in the resurrection and that salvation is through Jesus, alone.

However, if you follow the news, you know that most pollsters, politicos and journalists no longer believe that "evangelical" is primarily a religious word. During this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), host Todd Wilken and I discussed this puzzle as we tried to make sense out of a recent "Newsmax's 100 Most Influential Evangelicals in America" list.

Take a second and scan that list, if you will. Note that, after the predictable Billy Graham nod at No. 1, the next nine are Graham’s son Franklin, Joel Osteen, Mike Huckabee, Pat Robertson, Rick Warren, Jerry Falwell Jr., Joyce Meyer, Vice President Mike Pence and the married Hollywood duo of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey.

In my new "On Religion" column on this topic, historian Thomas Kidd made the following observation about the Newsmax list:

Disputes about the meaning of “evangelical” are so sharp that “several people on this list would not even agree that some other people on the list are ‘Christians,’ let alone ‘evangelicals’ as defined by any set of core doctrines,” said historian Thomas Kidd of Baylor University, whose research includes work on American religious movements, including the roots of evangelicalism.
Making this Top 100 list, he added, seems to be linked to “some kind of prominent position in media or politics or both,” as opposed to “leading successful churches or Christian organizations. ... I would imagine all these people believe that Jesus is the Son of God and they may even share some ideas about the authority of scripture -- but that’s about it.”

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How can journalists begin to comprehend all those labels that divide Christians?

How can journalists begin to comprehend all those labels that divide Christians?

WENDI’S QUESTION (paraphrased):

Denominational. Non-denominational. Fundamentalist. Baptist. Mormon. Methodist. Assembly of God. Etc. Etc.: How do we know what type of beliefs these are? Why or why not claim to be ‘Christian’ without anything else added? This is confusing me.


Wendi has good reason to be confused, especially about the incredibly complex situation in the United States this article will seek to unscramble. By contrast, one or two churches often denominate in European countries and there are fewer minorities. The same was once generally true in developing nations that now have an ever-increasing variety of churches.

Contrast that with the New Testament, where followers of Jesus Christ were simply “Christians” or adherents of “the way.” Jesus himself prayed to God the Father that his followers “may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that You sent me and loved them even as You loved me” (John 17:23).

On the church’s founding day, Pentecost, barriers of language and ethnicity miraculously vanished (Acts 2). The Apostle Paul taught that “there is neither Jew nor Greek” in God’s kingdom “for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) and that Christians share “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5).

Such is the Christian ideal. But does this spiritual unity require membership within one organization, as the ancient churches -- Catholic and Orthodox -- believe (though they have many distinct subgroups)? Are separate organizations based on culture or doctrinal details appropriate?

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Falwell, Trump and the Christian college press: Yes, some leaders prefer PR over hard news

Falwell, Trump and the Christian college press: Yes, some leaders prefer PR over hard news

So what, precisely, is the history of that famous -- some would say cynical -- quote about the freedom of the press and who gets to exercise that right and who does not?

I'm referring to something that I ad-libbed into this week's Crossroads podcast. This week's discussion with host Todd Wilken (click here to tune that in) focuses on the mini-media storm about Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., and his decision to quash a column critical of Donald Trump (his "locker-room" remarks about women, to be precise) in the campus newspaper, The Champion.

You can find several versions of the quote, as demonstrated by this entry at the "Quote Investigator" website:

(1) Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.
(2) Freedom of the press is confined to the people who own one.
(3) Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.
(4) Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.

As often happens in live recording sessions, when one is 60-something years old, I could not remember the person who originated this famous quotation, whatever it is. I almost said "H. L. Mencken," which appears to be a common mistake. The folks at Quote Investigator noted:

An exact match to the fourth expression was printed in the “The New Yorker” magazine in 1960. A.J. Liebling wrote an essay titled “The Wayward Press: Do You Belong in Journalism?” that included the following passage. Boldface has been added to excerpts:
"The best thing Congress could do to keep more newspapers going would be to raise the capital-gains tax to the level of the income tax. (Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.) There are irresistible reasons for a businessman either to buy or to sell, and anybody who owns the price of a newspaper nowadays must be a businessman."

Ah, but note that this quote is between parentheses. Was he paraphrasing something he read elsewhere? The QI team noted that there are similar ideas in articles a few decades earlier.

What does this have to do with Falwell, Liberty and the anti-Trump column?

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Yes, Jerry Falwell, Jr., spiked an anti-Trump column (Dang it, publishers do things like that)

Yes, Jerry Falwell, Jr., spiked an anti-Trump column (Dang it, publishers do things like that)

Several times a year, either to students at journalism conferences or in a classroom at The King's College in New York City, I deliver a lecture that I call "Up Against the Wall: Getting along with administrators at private colleges."

The big idea of this talk is that private schools are difficult, but not impossible, places in which to do traditional journalism -- because in a private school the administration is both the publisher of the newspaper and the "local government" that student journalists need to cover.

The goal, I stress, is to do as much journalism as possible, with an emphasis on hard-news reporting. Thus, one of my guidelines -- while serving as newspaper advisor at two Christian private schools -- was to address campus controversies with real reporting, as opposed to taking the easy way out and writing splashy opinion columns.

This brings us, of course, to news reports about Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., yanking an opinion column critical of Donald Trump out of the Liberty Champion. Here is the top of The Politico report on this development:

The president of Liberty University censored an article critical of Donald Trump, according to the sports editor of the school's official newspaper, the Liberty Champion.
The editor, Joel Schmieg, posted a statement on his Facebook account claiming it was Jerry Falwell Jr., the university's president and a Trump supporter, who spiked the column, which criticized Trump for lewd comments he made on a hot mic during a 2005 taping of "Access Hollywood."
"Yesterday I was told [Falwell] was not allowing me to express my personal opinion in an article I wrote for my weekly column in the Liberty Champion about Trump and his 'locker room talk,' " Schmieg wrote.
"I understand Joel's frustration regarding the situation," Cierra Carter, the opinion editor for the Liberty Champion, told POLITICO. "Our president has been very vocal with his opinions during this election season and we'd like that same privilege."

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