Bible Belt

Yes, the WPost Mayor Pete visits the Bible Belt story ran several weeks ago: But it's still important

Yes, the WPost Mayor Pete visits the Bible Belt story ran several weeks ago: But it's still important

It’s time to venture into my “guilt file” — where I stash news stories that I know deserve attention, but breaking news keeps getting in the way.

Several weeks ago — Easter season, basically — the Washington Post ran an important story about the rise of Pete Buttigieg as a real contender among the 100 or so people currently seeking (a) the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination or (b) the VP slot with Joe Biden (the second after Barack Obama winks and hints at an endorsement).

In this case, the religion angle was right there in the headline: “Questions on race, faith and tradition confront Buttigieg in South Carolina.”

In other words, Mayor Pete visits the Bible Belt to see if his mainstream Episcopal Church vibe — brainy white married gay male — will fly in a region in which black Christians are a political force. This is a culturally conservative corner of the Democratic Party tent that tends to get little or no attention from journalists in deep-blue zip codes (that Acela-zone thing). So let’s pull this story out of my “guilt file.”

The headline is solid, pointing to questions about “race, faith and tradition.” Want to guess what part of that equation gets the short end of the stick, in terms of serious content?

This is an important story, in terms of cultural diversity among Democrats. At some point, candidates will need to talk about religious liberty, third-trimester abortion, gender-neutral locker rooms and a host of other powerful cultural issues linked to religion.

The bottom line: Mayor Pete wants to be pro-faith, while attacking conservative Protestants whose views of the Bible are radically different than his own. How will that strategy play in the Bible Belt? Can he appeal to Democrats other those in what the Post calls a “liberal, wealthy and white” niche?

Here is what we are looking for in this story: Will anyone address religious questions to African-American Democrats from Pentecostal, conservative Baptist or Catholic pews? Or will the story only feature the voices of experts talking about these strange people? Here’s the overture:

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BuzzFeed moves in to fix up all those happy tales about Magnolia folks and their 'new' Waco

BuzzFeed moves in to fix up all those happy tales about Magnolia folks and their 'new' Waco

Once upon a time, I was an expert on life in Waco, Texas. I spent six years there in the 1970s — doing two degrees at Baylor University — and have had family ties to Jerusalem on the Brazos for decades, some of which are as strong than ever.

The Waco I knew didn’t have lots of civic pride. For many people, things went up and down with the state of affairs at Baylor. Even the great Willie Nelson — who frequently played in a Waco salon back then — had Baylor ties. And talking about Baylor means talking about Baptists. We used to joke that there were more Baptists in Waco than there were people. We had normal Baptists, conservative Baptists, “moderate” Baptists and even a few truly liberal Baptists. Welcome to Waco.

This old Waco had a dark side — a tragic, but normal, state of things in light of America’s history with race and poverty. Many of the locals were brutally honest about that. And in recent decades, Waco has had tons of bad luck, media-wise. Say “Waco” and people think — you know what.

As you would imagine, the fact that Waco is now one of the Sunbelt’s hottest tourism zones cracks me up. But that’s the starting point for a long, long BuzzFeed feature that I have been mulling over for some time. Here’s the epic double-decker headline:

”Fiixer Upper” Is Over, But Waco’s Transformation Is Just Beginning.

HGTV stars Chip and Joanna Gaines helped convert a sleepy Texas town into a tourist mecca. But not everyone agrees on what Waco’s “restoration” should look like.

There is an important, newsworthy, piece of news writing buried inside this sprawling, first-person “reader” by BuzzFeed scribe Anne Helen Petersen. It’s kind of hard to find, since the piece keeps getting interrupted by chunks of material that could have been broken out into “sidebars,” distinct wings of the main house.

Here’s the key question: Is this story about Chip and Joanna Gaines and their Magnolia empire — the hook for all that tourism — or is it about Antioch Community Church and how its evangelical, missionary mindset has shaped efforts to “reform,” “reboot” or “restore” distressed corners of Waco?

The answer, of course, is “both.” That creates problems, since there are so many elements of the “good” Waco news that clash with BuzzFeed’s worldview. Thus, the goal here is to portray (a) the shallow, kitschy aspects of Waco’s current happiness before revealing (b) the dark side of this evangelical success story.

This vast, multilayered feature is built, of course, built on Peterson’s outsider status and her contacts with former — “former,” as in alienated — members of the Antioch-Gaines world. There’s no need to engage with the views of key people who are at the heart of these restoration efforts because, well, this is BuzzFeed, a newsroom with this crucial “ethics” clause in its newsroom stylebook:

We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women's rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides. 

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USA Today: So 100-plus Tennessee clergy oppose 'anti-gay' bills. How newsworthy is that?

USA Today: So 100-plus Tennessee clergy oppose 'anti-gay' bills. How newsworthy is that?

I realize that I told the following Colorado war story last year.

But I’m going to share it again, because it perfectly describes one of the concerns that a journalist/reader raised in an email the other day about a USA Today story that ran with this sweeping headline: “Clergy in Tennessee take a stand against slate of anti-LGBT legislation.”

Focus on the word’s “Clergy in Tennessee.” The lede then describes this group as 100-plus “religious leaders.” Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

OK, the setting for this mid-1980s war story is a press conference called by the Colorado Council of Churches, announcing its latest progressive pronouncement on this or that social issue. Here’s that flashback:

If you look at the current membership of this Colorado group, it's pretty much the same as it was then — with one big exception. Back then, the CCC was made up of the usual suspects, in terms of liberal Protestantism, but the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver was cooperating in many ways (although, if I remember correctly, without covenant/membership ties). …

So at this press conference, all of the religious leaders made their statements and most talked about diversity, stressing that they represented a wide range of churches.

In the question-and-answer session, I asked what I thought was a relevant question. I asked if — other than the Catholic archdiocese — any of them represented flocks that had more members in the 1980s than they did in the '60s or '70s. In other words, did they represent groups with a growing presence in the state (like the Assemblies of God, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)?

In other words, I asked (a) what percentage of the state’s clergy were actually involved in the religious bodies that had, allegedly, endorsed this political statement and (b) whether the churches involved were, statistically speaking, still the dominant pew-level powers in that rapidly changing state. Note: Colorado Springs was already beginning to emerge as a national headquarters for evangelicals.

I thought that I was asking a basic journalism question, in terms of assessing to potential impact of this CCC statement. I will, however, admit that I was questioning the accuracy of the group’s “diversity” claims.

This brings us to the current USA Today story here in Tennessee. Here is the lede:

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Gray Lady visits buckle of Bible Belt: Ignores historic Christian roots in booming Nashville

Gray Lady visits buckle of Bible Belt: Ignores historic Christian roots in booming Nashville

I have been in and out of Nashville since the mid-1980s and I have heard that great city called many things.

Of course, it is the “Music City,” but I am more fond of the nickname “Guitar Town.”

Southern Baptists used to refer to the national convention’s large, strategically located headquarters as the “Baptist Vatican.” Then again, the United Methodist corporate presence in Nashville is also important.

This points to another reality: The historic synergy between the country music industry and the world of gospel music, in a wide variety of forms (including Contemporary Christian Music). Nashville is also home to a hub of Christian publishing companies that has global clout. All of that contributes to another well-known Nashville label: “Buckle of the Bible Belt.”

It’s an amazing town, with a stunning mix of churches and honky-tonks. As country legend Naomi Judd once told me, in Nashville artists can sing about Saturday night and Sunday morning in the same show and no one will blink.

This brings me to a massive New York Times feature that ran with this sprawling double-decker headline:

Nashville’s Star Rises as Midsize Cities Break Into Winners and Losers

Nashville and others are thriving thanks to a mix of luck, astute political choices and well-timed investments, while cities like Birmingham, Ala., fall behind.

That tells you the basic thrust of the story. What interested me is that the Times covered the rapidly changing face of Nashville — many Tennesseans moan that it’s the new Atlanta — without making a single reference to the role that religious institutions have played in the city’s past and, yes, its present.

That’s really, really hard to do. But the Times team managed to pull that off.

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Democrats after The Kiss: Did new left let enough 'blue dogs' run in 2018 midterms?

Democrats after The Kiss: Did new left let enough 'blue dogs' run in 2018 midterms?

So what does the famous Al and Tipper Gore snog-deluxe at the 2000 Democratic National Convention have to do with the upcoming midterm elections in 2018? And what does that question have to do with the Big Bang question that is always lurking in American politics, which is control of the U.S. Supreme Court?

Be patient with me here, because I can see the connections in my mind (and in my own political experience over recent decades). But I’m not sure if I can get them to make sense in 600 words or so. But that’s what I need to do, since these questions are connected to the content of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to tune that in.

So let’s start with The Kiss.

Long ago, young Al Gore was one of the heroes of conservative Democrats everywhere — as in “blue dog” Democrats that lean left on populist economic issues and lean right on matters of morality and culture. In other words, Gore was a pro-life Southern Baptist guy when he was in the U.S. House of Representatives and an almost-pro-life guy when he first hit the U.S. Senate.

That made him the kind of Democrat that could get elected over and over in a culturally conservative state — think Bible Belt — like Tennessee. That was good for Democrats. Hold that thought.

But when Gore took his ambitions to the national level, the realities of Democratic Party life made him float over to the liberal side of things on issues such as abortion and the illiberal side of things on issues like religious liberty (I say that as on old-fashioned First Amendment liberal).

In terms of image, however, he made a great New Democrat partner for President Bill Clinton, who once flirted — in politics, that is — with conservative moral stances on a host of issues.

But then Clinton turned into a whole different kind of man in the public eye. To say the least.

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Washington Post spots big religion ghost in the Byrds' 'Sweetheart of the Rodeo' revival

Washington Post spots big religion ghost in the Byrds' 'Sweetheart of the Rodeo' revival

You know those "desert island" games people like to play with music, books, movies and other forms of culture? You start with a question like this: If you were stranded on a dessert island, what 10 albums/CDs would you have choose to have with you (with no box sets allowed)? Let the life-defining debates begin.

The Washington Post ran a long, wonderful feature the other day that punched one of those buttons for me. The headline: "It was the Byrds album everyone hated in 1968. Now, ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ is a classic."

If I had to name a "favorite American rock band," I would almost certainly pick the Byrds.

If all Roger McGuinn and company gave American history (forget music) was radio hits that helped introduce that Bob Dylan guy, that would be a lot of cultural clout. But the Byrds, with a major assist from Buffalo Springfield, gave us so, so, so much more. Think Crosby, Stills & Nash, think Poco, think Flying Burrito Brothers, think Eagles, think Tom Petty, think R.E.M. and on and on. Just look at this family-tree chart on that.

This Post story gets that, but it also spotlights the fact that several crucial issues linked to the "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" album that were, yes,  essentially religious. This was when the Byrds tried to wade deep into the water of country music and, thus, ran head-on into Bible Belt culture.

Did the Post spot this "religion ghost"? Yes! This feature does a fantastic job handling a major religion ghost, woven into the life of McQuinn, but missed two other ghosts. Hold that thought. Here is the overture:

In June, with so little fanfare they weren’t even listed on the bill, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman took the stage at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium to play a song from “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.”

They last did that on March 16, 1968, and it did not go well. They were the Byrds then, and the appearance at the Grand Ole Opry elicited boos, catcalls or indifference, depending on who’s telling the story.

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The (S.C.) State launches five-part series on why Bible Belt folks are quitting church

The (S.C.) State launches five-part series on why Bible Belt folks are quitting church

The State, a McClatchy newspaper in Columbia, S.C., doesn’t have a religion reporter due to budget cuts, but its staff has sure published out a lot of religion news lately. Several weeks ago I wrote here about a piece by one of its writers on the state’s exotic snake industry and how snake-handling preachers in surrounding states get their serpents from South Carolina.

(In fact, there was a follow-up article on Saturday about Repticon, a huge snake show in Columbus that had a religion angle to it.)

This year, the staff embarked on a lengthy series called “Losing Faith: Why South Carolina is abandoning its churches.” At least 97 S.C. churches have closed since 2011, a subhead said. Other churches are dying slow deaths, losing thousands of members, so what’s happening to the Bible Belt?

Sarah Ellis, a local government reporter, wrote most of these pieces. In this one, the largest article in the series, she sets out the problem. (And as the author of the 2008 book “Quitting Church,” naturally I’m interested in how this topic has stayed in the news for a decade. My book came out 10 years ago next month.)

As this first article points out, three out of every four people in the South identify as Christian and 80 percent say religion is important in their lives. The South has the country’s highest rate of church attendance. Now we learn that adherence is slipping even in the Bible Belt.

Many churches are dying slow deaths, stuck in stagnation if not decline. And if they don’t do something, in the near future, they’ll share the fate of Cedar Creek United Methodist, a 274-year-old Richland County congregation that dissolved last year; Resurrection Lutheran, a church near downtown Columbia that will hold its last service on Sept. 2; and the dozens of churches that sit shuttered and empty around the state.

At the same time, some churches are growing, and some growing quickly. But they might not look much like the churches your grandparents (and their grandparents) were raised in. From meeting in unconventional places to tweaking their traditions, many churches are adapting, offering something different that many people thought the church couldn’t do for them.

What they’re doing reflects the results of an ongoing conversation among churches: How can they stay alive?

A lot in this piece repeats what’s long been reported elsewhere: The growing numbers of “nones;” aging church members not getting replaced by younger ones and a post-Christian culture where less and less people publicly identify themselves as Christians.


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Generic God brings 'miracle' boy to life, after medical authorities called him a goner

Generic God brings 'miracle' boy to life, after medical authorities called him a goner

Doctors were ready to pull the plug.

The 13-year-old Alabama boy's parents had already signed a set of organ-donation papers. They braced themselves for the worst.

Then something happened that the medical team could not explain, the kind of thing that parents -- yes -- pray for in these circumstances.

As it turned out, the medical experts didn't know everything. For some unknown reason, this boy's brain woke up. Here is the top of the USA Today report:

Jennifer Nicole Reindl has a simple explanation for her young son's recovery from the brink of death due to severe brain injuries.

"It's a miracle," Reindl tells USA TODAY, citing her belief that the hand of God is behind it all.

As you can see, this story is going to have a religion angle -- a strong one. The problem is that there is zero evidence in this story -- which combined aggregation with new reporting -- that reporters or editors asked a single question about the details of this family's faith.

This is, as your GetReligionistas call it, a "generic" God story. Let's continue reading:

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After the Waffle House shootings: It's hard to separate tragedy and faith in Bible Belt life

After the Waffle House shootings: It's hard to separate tragedy and faith in Bible Belt life

It's been a crazy week, in terms of religion-beat life. Thus, I have not had the time to address the media coverage of the Waffle House shooting in the Nashville area.

Yes, Tennesseans are still talking about that second tragedy in the Antioch area.

I have found it interesting that folks in this neck of the woods are talking more about James Shaw -- the 29-year-old hero in this drama -- than they are the young and very troubled man who did the shooting. Can we officially say that this is progress? Sad progress, but progress of some kind.

If you read through some of the coverage -- national and regional -- there is one quick religion angle to be covered in this story. However, I think there is another religion theme in this story that deserved coverage. Hold that thought.

First, care of Nashville Public Radio, the #DUH religion angle, from the Bible Belt point of view. The headline: "Waffle House Shooting Hero Goes From The Hospital To Church." Let's pick this up after the time-sensitive, newsy lede:

James Shaw was discharged from the hospital Sunday morning, freshly bandaged up from a bullet grazing his elbow and a burned hand from grabbing the smoking hot barrel of an AR-15. And where did he go?

"He didn't skip church to be laid up," Rev. Aaron Marble said, as he prayed over Shaw's family at Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church. "But instead [he] went through this experience and got to come to church to give God praise."

Still dressed in a slim-fitting khaki suit, turtle neck and tasseled loafers, the young father, who works for AT&T, spoke at a police press conference.

"If you would ask me, I'm actually not a greatly religious person," Shaw said. "But I know that in a tenth of a second, something was with me to run through that door and get the gun from him."

When talking about this with locals here in Oak Ridge, I have heard several people simply say: "Of course he went to church."

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