Donald Trump

Hurrah for blue pews! New York Times embraces small, doctrine-optional Manhattan flock

Hurrah for blue pews! New York Times embraces small, doctrine-optional Manhattan flock

Reporters who are truly interested in the future of the American faith-scene need to know this number — 100. Or maybe it’s 85 or 90. I’ve heard others say the crucial number is 115 in expensive zip codes.

But the late Lyle Schaller, a legendary church-management guru in oldline Protestant circles, once told me that it took about 100 actively contributors to fund the salary-and-benefits package for a credentialed minister in a mainline church. When Schaller said “mainline,” he was talking about the “Seven Sisters.” In descending order by size, that’s the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

In other words, if a church had more than 100 active members (or households) it could provide for its minister and then do other things — like keep the building from falling down. With fewer than 100 members, a church would be constantly struggling with basic expenses, trying to keep the doors open.

So that’s the statistic that looms over that glowing New York Times feature about a lively Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that represents the future of the religious left. The dramatic main headline states: “The Church Where Believing in God Isn’t Strictly Necessary.”

Yes, I hear what many readers are thinking. This is a church that even the New York Times can love. And how many people are in these pews? Readers will have to read way down into the story to find that information. Meanwhile, the summary lede contains a few details:

Observant Presbyterians are always part of gatherings at Rutgers Presbyterian Church. But much of the time, so are Roman Catholics and Jews, as well as a smattering of people who consider themselves vaguely spiritual. Valerie Oltarsh-McCarthy, who sat among the congregation listening to a Sunday sermon on the perils of genetically modified vegetables, is, in fact, an atheist.

You have to love that detail about the “perils of genetically modified vegetables.” However, the thesis statement comes a few paragraphs later, as the editorial angels sing a song of hope for a future free of nasty stuff like ancient doctrines:

Typically, the connective tissue of any congregation is an embrace of a shared faith.

Yet Rutgers, a relatively small church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has rejected that. Sharing a belief in God — any God at all — isn’t necessary.

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Christian Zionism: Theology shmology. We're talking about another culture war punching bag

Christian Zionism: Theology shmology. We're talking about another culture war punching bag

I’m back — for which I apologize to those readers who hoped to be rid of me. What I will not apologize for is my good fortune to have, so far, outwitted the health-care industry. This despite what I consider some lamebrain screw ups by a few of its practitioners.

Not that I’m totally ungrateful. Medical surgeons possess extraordinary mechanical skills. Just like the best computer technicians and car mechanics. The problem is that health care has become way too specialized, leaving some practitioners unable to consider the patient as a unified field. Drug “A” may be great for gout, but how does it interact with statins? Can beta blockers negatively impact kidney function? You get the idea. Think holistically because your doctor may not. Ask questions. Do your own research.

But enough. Last I checked Get Religion was still about the business of journalism about religion. So consider this our segue.

The occasion for my return is a review of a new book on Christian Zionism that ran in the liberal American Jewish publication The Forward. For reasons beyond all sound judgement, some of the more anarchistic voices at GR thought I might want to offer an opinion. Clearly a setup, but how could I refuse?

The review in question ran under a challenging headline: “Why Everything You Think You Know About Christian Zionism Is Wrong,” and was penned by Rafael Magarik, an English professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

The book was produced by religion and foreign policy maven Daniel G. Hummel, who is associated with Upper House, which for lack of a better term I’ll call a sort of a Christian think tank at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Hummel titled his book, “Covenant Brothers: Evangelicals, Jews, And U.S.-Israeli Relations.”

I have not read Hummel’s book, and I probably won’t (over the years I’ve read my fill on the subject, both pro and con). Nor, I’d wager, will most of those who already have a firm opinion about the intent, value or theological underpinnings of contemporary Christian Zionism.

Which is entirely the point of Magarik’s review — a verbal dart aimed at the vast majority of liberal Jews (in Israel and elsewhere), and equally liberal Christians, not to mention Muslims of all ideological stratums, who look upon Christian Zionists with utter political disdain.

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'Faith' vs. 'religion'? A religion-beat pro reacts to that stunning New York Times hit piece

'Faith' vs. 'religion'? A religion-beat pro reacts to that stunning New York Times hit piece

I have been writing about the mainstream news media’s struggles with religion news since 1981 and my first academic exposure to this journalism issue was in 1974.

There are times when you think that you’ve seen it all. There are times when you think that you cannot be shocked or angered — again.

Then a media powerhouse runs a news piece or an op-ed like the one the New York Times ran the other day by a regular contributor, Timothy Egan, with this headline: “Why People Hate Religion.” I saw this piece after following a series of dead-serious tweets by religion-beat pro Sarah Pulliam Bailey of The Washington Post (she is a former member of the GetReligion team). I affirm everything she had to say in that mini-storm.

This New York Times blast is another one of those pieces in which there are good people of faith and really, really bad people who cling to “religion.” In other words, it’s about mindless evangelicals (What other kind is there?) and the current occupant of the White House.

Oh wait, the target is bigger than that, it’s about the evils of the “overtly religious,” as in:

… The phonies, the charlatans who wave Bibles, the theatrically pious. … Vice President Mike Pence wears his faith like a fluorescent orange vest. But when he visited the border this summer and saw human beings crammed like cordwood in the Texas heat, that faith was invisible. …

Pence is the chief bootlicker to a president who now sees himself in messianic terms, a president who tweets a description of himself as“the second coming of God.” As hard as it is to see God Part II boasting about grabbing a woman’s genitals, paying hush money to a porn actress, or calling neo-Nazis “very fine people,” millions of overtly religious Americans believe in some version of Jesus Trump, Superstar.

There’s more to this acidic, simplistic sermon than shots at evangelical Trump-sters, of course.

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What a world we live in: 'Reality Criticized For Not More Clearly Distinguishing Itself From Satire'

What a world we live in: 'Reality Criticized For Not More Clearly Distinguishing Itself From Satire'

During this week’s “Crossroads” podcast — click here to tune that in — host Todd Wilken and I talked about the ongoing war between The Babylon Bee, a conservative Christian news satire site, and the progressive fact checker squad at Snopes.com.

Oh, and as often happens in discussions of religion and public life, the threat that (trigger warning) Chick-fil-A seems to pose to American civilization ended up in the mix.

Here’s a typical question from the discussion: Is it satire to satirize contemporary satire by pretending to think that the satire is actual real news?

Or something like that.

The bottom line is that real news is starting to sound like satire. As the Bee said the other day: “Reality Criticized For Not More Clearly Distinguishing Itself From Satire.” At the same time, lots of satire is starting to sound like subtle (or not so subtle) forms of real — or some would say “fake” — news. Take the top of this New Yorker piece for example:

Customers across the nation who turned out for Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day were in for a surprise, as the chicken restaurant chose today to launch a new product, Hate Sauce.

Delighted customers mobbed the restaurants to try the zesty new sauce, with many chicken fanciers ordering their sandwiches with extra hate. “It’s so spicy it makes your mouth feel like it’s on fire — like a gay couple in hell,” said Harland Dorrinson, who sampled the sauce at a Chick-fil-A in Orlando.

That’s pretty blunt and, thus, it’s easy to assume that it’s satire (which it is).

But how about the quotes in the following story about a Chick-fil-A war at the University of Kansas?

“KU granted Chick-fil-A, a bastion of bigotry, a prime retail location in the heart of our campus,” KU’s Sexuality & Gender Diversity Faculty and Staff Council said in a letter sent this week to Chancellor Doug Girod, the provost’s office and the athletic department.

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This is all about politics, of course: 'A deep and boiling anger' soaks into American life

This is all about politics, of course: 'A deep and boiling anger' soaks into American life

All together now. It’s time to recite one of the semi-official GetReligion mantras: “Politics is real. Religion is, well, not all that real (or words to that effect).”

At the heart of the whole “The press … just doesn’t get religion” syndrome is fact (I’m wonder if anyone would dispute this) that politics the most important subject in the world of news, according to the people who run our culture’s most powerful newsrooms.

More often than not, religion news gets major coverage — on television especially — when (a) religion affects politics or (b) religion-news facts and trends are debated in ways that, to many journalists, resemble politics (lots of Catholic hierarchy coverage fits into this mold).

With this in mind, let’s look at a recent NBC News story that ran under this sprawling double-decker headline:

'A deep and boiling anger': NBC/WSJ poll finds a pessimistic America despite current economic satisfaction

A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that 70 percent of Americans say they're angry at the political establishment

Here is the overture, which centers on the horrors at the heart of the Donald Trump era:

WASHINGTON — The political and cultural upheaval of the last four years has divided the country on ever-hardening partisan and generational lines, but one feeling unites Americans as much as it did before the 2016 election.

They’re still angry. And still unsettled about the future.

The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that — despite Americans’ overall satisfaction with the state of the U.S. economy and their own personal finances — a majority say they are angry at the nation’s political and financial establishment, anxious about its economic future, and pessimistic about the country they’re leaving for the next generation.

So what is the most newsworthy angle in this poll-driven story? What is the most shocking information in this package of poll numbers?

It would appear that the biggest news here is -- #Surprise — politics and the political implications of the latest numbers about the state of the U.S. economy.

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Is it OK to pray for President Donald Trump’s defeat?

Is it OK to pray for President Donald Trump’s defeat?

BRAD ASKS:      

I think Trump is a bad president. Is it right of me to pray for his defeat?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Let’s turn Brad’s question around. Will it be proper for others to pray for the defeat of the Democrats’ 2020 nominee? Does this change the answer?

The president has provoked the most ferocious pro-and-con political emotions in our lifetimes, so prayers inevitably result. That’s because prayer is a virtually universal phenomenon.

We all know the phrase ‘foxhole religion” about desperate situations. How many hardened unbelievers find themselves offering sincere prayers when their child is in the emergency room?  Even under ordinary circumstances, Pew Research polling shows 55 percent of Americans say they pray every day, while an added 21 percent pray regularly but less frequently. Even one-fifth of those without any religious affiliation or identity pray daily!

There are countless accounts of favorable responses to prayer, yet how do we understand the many prayers left unanswered? Why do bad things happen to good people despite their prayers? Why do good things happen to evil people who never pray? What happens when, as with election 2020, people pray simultaneously for opposite results a la President Lincoln on the two sides in the Civil War: “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other.”

Mysteries abound. A veteran minister’s newsletter says after a “physical breakdown” and full medical testing last year, doctors concluded he was “exhausted by stress and worry.” He indeed faced major difficulties, but the diagnosis surprised him because he was praying so earnestly. He finally realized “I was simply worrying in the presence of God,” which “wore me out.” His health gradually improved after he learned to relax and simply pray for “strength to persevere,” with “peace in the assurance that God has heard me.”

These are among the most complex matters of the human heart, as ancient as the Bible’s Psalms and Book of Job (which provide us no neat formulas).

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Is a new centrist coalition possible? Don’t underestimate the Vatican’s power In Italian politics

Is a new centrist coalition possible? Don’t underestimate the Vatican’s power In Italian politics

he Tiber River cuts through Rome in the shape of a serpent, splitting the ancient city in half.

On one side is the Vatican, home to the Catholic Church with the large dome of St. Peter’s Basilica looming over the city’s skyline. Directly across from the Vatican is Palazzo Montecitorio, seat of the Italian parliament. It is a place many Italians despise because it houses bickering politicians.

These two forces, within miles of each other, yet far apart in so many other ways, could come into renewed conflict over the coming weeks.

Italy’s government was plunged into chaos this past Tuesday when the nationalist-populist coalition that had struck fear across the European establishment fell apart. It means that Italians could be going to the ballot box once again in late October. It’s also a sign of how powerful the Catholic Church remains, mostly behind the scenes, in helping to determine the country’s political outcomes.

Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing party known as The League, triggered the political tsunami after he abandoned the anti-establishment Five Star Movement in an effort to force a no-confidence vote and provoke new elections. Ahead of the vote, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced that he was resigning, which officially brought the coalition to its knees.

The developments of the past week have left a power vacuum that will be filled either in the upcoming elections or if the Five Star Movement creates a ruling coalition with the center-left Democratic Party and several other smaller political factions. Salvini, who had served as the country’s interior minister and deputy prime minister, is pushing for a vote.

Salvini’s 40% approval rating — considered high for a country known for its very fractured political system — could very well get him elected prime minister. At the same time, traditional conservatives, led by billionaire-turned-politician Silvio Berlusconi and his Forza Italia party, have seen support eroded as voters increasingly flock to the League.

That these political parties, largely rejected by the electorate last year, want to join forces and stop the anti-immigrant League should come as no surprise. Undoubtedly, the Catholic Church will be rooting for such an outcome, favoring a French-style centrist coalition.

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Make America great again? Washington Post essay shows a more complex evangelical viewpoint

Make America great again? Washington Post essay shows a more complex evangelical viewpoint

It’s easy to feel depressed about the state of American journalism these days.

For starters, there is the digital advertising crisis, with Google, Facebook and others sucking up billions of dollars that used to go to local newspapers and broadcast newsrooms to provide coverage of local, regional and state news. To fight back, some of America’s top newspapers have mastered the art of hooking waves of digital subscribers by telling them what they want to hear about national news.

Meanwhile, many news consumers are completely confused about what is “news” and what is “commentary” or analysis writing. People talk about getting their news from television channels (think MSNBC and Fox News) that offer some traditional news reporting, surrounded by oceans of commentary. The Internet? It is a glorious and fallen mix of the good and bad, with many readers choosing to read only what reinforces their core beliefs.

What is news? What is opinion?

Well, the Washington Post recently ran a pair of articles that — in a good way, let me stress — illustrated why some of this confusion exists. Both focused on white evangelicals and their celebrated or cursed support of President Donald Trump. In this case, the news article and the opinion essay are both worth reading, but it was the opinion essay that truly broke new ground. Hold that thought.

First, the news. I am happy to report that the Post, in this case, let the religion desk handle a story about religion and politics. The headline: “He gets it’: Evangelicals aren’t turned off by Trump’s first term.”

There’s only one point I would like to make about this article. Read the following summary material carefully:

Trump enjoyed overwhelming support from white evangelicals in 2016, winning a higher percentage than George W. Bush, John McCain or Mitt Romney. That enthusiasm has scarcely dimmed. Almost 70 percent of white evangelicals approve of Trump’s performance in office, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center poll.

Interviews with 50 evangelical Christians in three battleground states — Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — help explain why. In conversation, evangelical voters paint the portrait of the Trump they see: a president who acts like a bully but is fighting for them. A president who sees America like they do, a menacing place where white Christians feel mocked and threatened for their beliefs. A president who’s against abortion and gay rights and who has the economy humming to boot. …

Evangelical Christians are separated from other Protestants (called mainline Protestants) by their belief in the literal truth of the Bible as well as their conservative politics on gender roles, sexuality, abortion and other subjects.

Wait, do most evangelicals — of all colors — have what are essentially POLITICAL views on abortion, sexual morality, gender, etc.? Wouldn’t be more accurate the say that they have theological views that, like many others, they struggle to defend when they enter voting books?

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Yo, MSM: Anyone planning to stalk Jesusland religion ghosts lurking in 'The Hunt' movie?

Yo, MSM: Anyone planning to stalk Jesusland religion ghosts lurking in 'The Hunt' movie?

What a country we live in, these days. If you have been following the controversy surrounding the now-delayed movie “The Hunt,” you know that this is — according to mainstream media reports — yet another controversy about politics, anger, guns, violence and America’s Tweeter In Chief.

Oh, and there is no way to avoid the dangerous word “elites” when talking about this Hollywood vs. flyover country saga. However, if you probe this media storm you will find hints that religion ghosts are hiding in the fine print — due to the movie’s alleged references to “deplorables” and “anti-choice” Americans.

But let’s start with a minimalist report at The Washington Post that ran with this headline: “Universal cancels satirical thriller about ‘elites’ hunting ‘deplorables’ in wake of shootings.” Here’s the overture:

Universal Pictures has canceled its plan to release “The Hunt,” a satirical thriller about “elites” hunting self-described “normal people,” amid a series of mass shootings and criticism that the film could increase tensions.

“We stand by our filmmakers and will continue to distribute films in partnership with bold and visionary creators, like those associated with this satirical social thriller, but we understand that now is not the right time to release this film,” Universal said in a statement.

The studio already had paused its marketing campaign for the R-rated movie, which was slated for release on Sept. 27. … “The Hunt,” directed by Craig Zobel (“Z for Zachariah”) and produced by Blumhouse Productions, follows 12 strangers who are brought to a remote house to be killed for sport. 

Everything in this media-drama hinges on how this movie is alleged to have described the beliefs and behaviors of these “normal” Americans — who are stalked by rich, progressive folks defined by high-class culture and political anger issues. The elites are led by a character played by Oscar-winner Hilary Swank.

If you are looking for facts in this oh so Donald Trump-era mess, journalists at The Hollywood Reporter claim to have details deeper than the innuendoes glimpsed in the hyper-violent trailers for the movie (trailers that appear to be vanishing online). Here is a chunk of that story, which is referenced — aggregation style — in “news” reports all over the place.

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