Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod

Sen. Ben Sasse stands out politically, and religiously, in the post-election GOP

Sen. Ben Sasse stands out politically, and religiously, in the post-election GOP

When journalists have sifted through the tea leaves and the ashes left by campaign 2018, they'll doubtless be watching a singular Nebraskan, Sen. Ben Sasse, 46. He'll be the intellectual leader of Donald Trump-wary conservatives in Congress who embrace the Republicans' 1856-2015 heritage. Sasse will be up for re-election in 2020 (unless he retires).

Though a Republican or independent presidential run seems most unlikely, Sasse bids for a voice on the nation's future with his October book "Them," subtitled "Why We Hate Each Other -- and How to Heal" St. Martin's Press). Showing off his chops as a Yale Ph.D. in American history (his dissertation treated President Ronald Reagan and the "religious right"), Sasse analyzes massive disruptions in the economy and the culture that he says will continue to erode Americans' confidence and sense of shared purpose.

As a remedy, he proposes reviving old-fashioned local communities. He also wants Americans to shun destructive media and decries the partisan furies that characterize the Trump era, though the book barely mentions the president or their disagreements. He appeals for vigorous public policy debates that respect the dignity of opponents as fellow citizens. The book’s handling of religious liberty disputes is especially important.

Future media write-ups should emphasize that Sasse is also the most interesting evangelical Protestant in Congress. He previewed “Them” in a 2017 commencement address when The Guy’s daughter graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (for the good stuff, skip ahead to 9:40). Sasse also spoke that year to the Gospel Coalition and in 2016 at Westminster Seminary — California. And here’s what Sasse said on the Senate floor about #MeToo and Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

Journalists will want to peruse his religiously-pitched 2016 interview with World, a Christian newsmagazine. Secular outlets have portrayed Sasse as sort of impressive but lamentably conservative, as in Mother Jones just before the 2016 election when Sasse declined to vote for Trump, slate.com in 2017 and Vanity Fair last month.

“Them” barely mentions a theme The Guy considers essential for a Sasse interview: What’s the role for religion, especially local congregations, in the healthy restored culture Sasse yearns for?

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Will diverse membership save Maryland's Lutherans? Baltimore Sun thinks so, with little backup

Will diverse membership save Maryland's Lutherans? Baltimore Sun thinks so, with little backup

It's one of those old truisms that apparently remains true, a declaration by the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:  “We must face the sad fact that at the 11 o’ clock hour on Sunday morning when we stand to sing, we stand in the most segregated hour in America.”

Although many congregations retain a majority from one ethnic group or another, there have been plenty of movements to bridge the gap over the past 50 years or so. And while much, if not most, of the "mainline" Protestant denominations remain dominated by what one wag called "persons of pallor," The Baltimore Sun informs us that local congregations in two branches of American Lutheranism have been revitalized by the influx of non-white members.

Of course, the Sun was not content to position this as just a church news story -- it had to be tied into the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, triggered by one Martin Luther, after whom King was named.

Creating this tenuous link, of which more in a moment, is but one of the journalism problems afoot here. But start with the headline, "500 years after Luther, Lutherans embrace growing diversity" and this lead-in to the story:

When the Rev. Martin Schultheis gazed out over the pews at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Catonsville on a Sunday 10 years ago, he saw about 200 faces. More than 95 percent, he estimates, were white.
Attendance has dropped since then -- these days, about 150 people attend Sunday services. But those who do go have a different look.
About one-fourth of the worshippers in the congregation are people of color -- a development that stands out in a branch of Christianity that has historically been slow to change.

We then are asked to see this as linked to five centuries of Lutheranism:

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Maybe there's a story here: Lutherans on left, right share some common decline issues

Maybe there's a story here: Lutherans on left, right share some common decline issues

If you hang out in the world of organized religion for several decades -- either as a participant, a reporter-outsider or both -- then you reach a point where there is something refreshing about reading an honest report by a faith-based group that's trying to address a real problem.

It's so easy to ignore problems, year after year, until you look up one day and your pews contain a dozen or so people over the age of 70. The next thing you know, you're trying to see how many nonprofits can lease space in your building so that you can keep the heat on and the doors open.

Sound familiar? Plot lines linked to declining numbers and aging sheep have been getting more and more prominent in recent decades, especially among the oldline Protestant churches on both sides of the Atlantic. That's an old story. We talked about that story in this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), but only because it was linked to something more complex and, I think, more interesting.

You see, many churches on the doctrinal right are facing some -- repeat "some" -- of the same issues as those on the left. Yes, there is some truth to the claims that American Catholics have been able to hold things together because of rising numbers in Hispanic parishes (while also importing some priests from the Global South). Southern Baptists have drifted into a slight decline, facing numbers that are not as staggering as those seen in the "Seven Sisters" on the Protestant left, but they are bad (especially when it comes to baptisms). The old-guard SBC knows that continued growth among African-American and Latino churches is crucial.

So this brings me to a report that I bumped into last year published (.pdf here) by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in its Journal of Lutheran Mission. What's it about? It's about the 40 years or so of decline in membership in the churches of this conservative synod, a decline that is quite similar to that seen on the left.

Want to see some candor? Check out these bullet points from the introduction to the Journal package:

* ... (A)ll denominations gain the overwhelming majority of their membership from natural growth: from children of adult members raised in the faith. Thus, the retention of baptized and confirmed youth is a key area on which to focus.
* The LCMS’s persistent, long-term decline manifests itself both in a massive decrease in child baptisms (down 70 percent since their peak in the late 1950s) and a smaller but still significant decrease in adult converts (down 47 percent since their peak, again in the late 1950s).

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This just in! Lutheran left tests theory that progressive doctrine is key to church growth

This just in! Lutheran left tests theory that progressive doctrine is key to church growth

From the first days of this blog, I have argued that religion-beat professionals need to dedicate more coverage to theological, doctrinal and cultural issues on the religious left (hardly anyone uses capital letters).

Why? Consider this equation: One of the biggest news stories of the late 20th Century was the rise -- in terms of public-square clout in America -- of what became known as the Religious Right (almost everyone uses capital letters).

There were, no doubt about it, big stories there to cover -- especially among evangelical Protestants shaken by the Roe vs. Wade ruling. But consider this question: Were religious conservatives, to some degree, stepping into a cultural void created by decades of numerical decline among liberal Protestants? I would argue that both halves of this equation needed lots of coverage.

There have been attempts by liberal churches to fight back against the demographics that have been pulling them down, by which I mean declining numbers of converts and the cumulative impact of decades of low birthrates.

There are valid stories to cover, in all of this. Thus, I was glad to see Religion News Service dedicate nearly 1,800 words to a feature about church-growth efforts at a Bible Belt (but college-town) congregation in the liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

As things turned out, 1,800 words were not enough. Here is the overture:

CARY, N.C. (RNS) -- At a Bible study on a weekday evening, Lutheran minister Daniel Pugh paced before a group of 50 church members in cargo shorts and a plaid button-down shirt talking about Adam and Eve.
Clutching a hand-held remote he clicked through a PowerPoint presentation, telling members of Christ the King Lutheran Church that one way to interpret the story of Adam and Eve is as a coming-of-age allegory about a pair of carefree teens caught red-handed having sex.
In this, alternative reading of The Fall, the “forbidden fruit” offered to Eve in Chapter 3 may be a metaphor for sex, he said, and the “serpent” may be a metaphor for a penis.

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When covering the Lutheran left, Minneapolis daily kindly omits sobering journalistic questions

When covering the Lutheran left, Minneapolis daily kindly omits sobering journalistic questions

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is an amalgamation of three other Lutheran denominations, formed 29 years ago. When mainstream American journalists talk about "Lutherans," this is usually the crowd they are talking about.

The ELCA is also, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports, a church confronting changing times. In other words, this body is part of the ever-evolving world of liberal Protestantism, the "Seven Sisters" of the old mainline.

The paper's story begins with a typical journalistic scene-setter, at least the kind that is used when journalists are fond of the group that is being profiled:

Redeemer Lutheran Church is not your typical Lutheran outpost. Summer means the bike store and coffee shop are humming, kids camp and Zumba classes are in gear, and the young adults renting its apartments are mentoring children in this north Minneapolis neighborhood.
It represents a new model for the Lutheran Church, which is transforming itself to attract younger and diverse members, be more relevant to neighbors below its steeples and shake its image as a Scandinavian bastion best known for hot dish, Jell-O and Ole and Lena.

Anyone who regularly listened to Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" stemwinders about life in and around Lake Woebegone, Minnesota, will recognize the stereotype, even if Keillor was actually raised in a Plymouth Brethren congregation.

The Minneapolis paper continues explaining, however, There is a dark cloud on the horizon:

Minnesota, with the largest number of Lutherans in the nation, will be instrumental in shaping the future of the faith. Time is of the essence: 37 percent of the churches in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America -- the largest denomination in Minnesota and the U.S. -- now have fewer than 50 Sunday worshipers. ...
Membership at the ELCA plunged from 5.2 million in 1988 to about 3.7 million today. In Minnesota, numbers fell from 782,000 to about 679,000.

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Crossroads podcast: A Muslim at an Episcopal altar? Face it, that's a complicated story

Crossroads podcast: A Muslim at an Episcopal altar? Face it, that's a complicated story

Sometimes the issue flares up in a major religious denomination. Take, for example, the 2007 case of an Episcopal priest who declared, "I am both Muslim and Christian." She was eventually defrocked. Coverage of that story led to some interesting discussions here at GetReligion.

Quite some time ago, there was the case of a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor who was disciplined for taking part in a post-Sept. 11 service that involved praying with Oprah Winfrey, as well as leaders from a wide spectrum of religious traditions, including Islam and Hinduism. 

Or maybe we're talking about a professor at a major evangelical Protestant school -- like Wheaton College -- who not only wore a hijab in support of oppressed Muslims, but took to social media to declare that she believes that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. She quoted the pope, when making that point.

These kinds of news reports loomed in the background during this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), which focused on a recent Holy Week Mass in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, during which the clergy renewed their ordination vows.

The bottom line: Stories about interfaith work and worship almost always raise complicated theological issues and, nine times out of 10, there are more than two camps of believers involved in the debates. Hold that thought.

Key details about the new Holy Week story: A Muslim interfaith leader preached during the rite, in the normal point in the liturgy dedicated to the sermon. A passage from the Quran was read, before the Gospel. The preacher stood with the bishop and others at the altar during the consecration prayers and she received the consecrated bread during Holy Communion.

All of this was discussed in my Universal syndicate "On Religion" column this week. Here is a sample of that column, which included material from contacts with Bishop Robert C. Wright, as well as the preacher, Soumaya Khalifah.

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Time to work up those walkups to the Supreme Court’s big transgender moment

Time to work up those walkups to the Supreme Court’s big transgender moment

On March 28, the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in the Gloucester County School Board case, its first encounter with the growing transgender rights movement.

Journalists, it's time to work up those walkups.

The basics: The Obama administration’s Departments of Education and Justice notified all U.S. public schools last May that to qualify for continued federal funding they need to follow each student’s sense of personal  “gender identity,” as opposed to birth biology, regarding access to “sex-segregated restrooms, locker rooms, shower facilities, housing and athletic teams (.pdf document here)."

That change redefined  “sex” under Title IX of the anti-discrimination law in question. For 44 years before that, the government thought “sex” meant  biological gender, not an identity that may conflict with it. In the current case, an anatomically female Virginia high schooler who is transitioning wants to use boys’ toilets instead of unisex facilities the school provides. Local school districts are caught between transgender rights appeals and community concerns about privacy and security.

The case’s significance is not ended by the February 22 decision of the incoming Donald Trump administration to rescind the Barack Obama directive for now. Access to locker rooms and showers are also part of this hot-button debate.

With gay marriage legalized throughout the United States by the Supreme Court, the LGBTQ movement is focusing all its moxie on transgender rights. The belief that gender is “assigned” at birth but flexible, rather than fixed by biology, gains cultural clout from important segments of the Democratic Party, big business, the academic world, the entertainment industry, professional and college athletics, and the like.

That poses a major challenge for advocates of religious liberty, already on the defensive with other issues.

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Warning! Journalism maze ahead! When ministers are ministers but maybe not ...

Warning! Journalism maze ahead! When ministers are ministers but maybe not ...

First, my apologies for the fact that this week's "Crossroads" feature post is a day or two late. The world just keeps spinning out of control and it's hard to catch one's breath.

Second, I should warn readers that this week's podcast -- click here to tune that in -- deals with a topic so confusing that, several times, host Todd Wilken and I got a bit confused ourselves. In the end, we confessed that we totally understand that some journalists struggle in this complicated corner of the religion-news world (and thus make mistakes, such as this and even -- oh my -- this).

The topic? The language that various religious groups use to describe their leaders who are ordained, or in other cases not ordained. As I wrote several days ago:

When it comes to history, some religious movements insist that they don't have ordained clergy -- yet clearly they have leaders who play some of the roles that ordained clergy play in other flocks. Remember all the controversies a few years ago about GOP White House candidate Mitt Romney and his time as a "bishop" in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
Suffice it to say that a Mormon bishop is not the same as a Pentecostal bishop, or a United Methodist bishop, or a Lutheran bishop, or an Anglican bishop, or an Eastern Orthodox bishop. Reporters need to understand these kinds of facts, when dealing with stories that involve clergy or other "ministers" in various religious traditions.

In addition to offering reporters and editors many, many chances to make factual errors, these ordained-on-not issues can affect a wide range of legal and even financial issues linked to religious life and practice.

Everyone knows that, when a Catholic priest hears confessions, this communication is -- stated in legal language -- "privileged" and protected communication. With America's heritage of church-state separation, the state has no write to ask this priest to violate his vows (a point of law that is, some are convinced, getting blurred as of late).

But how about a Catholic deacon who has a private conversation with a church member in which she or he divulges loaded information?

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Bold M.Z. offers New York Times Magazine a lively update on Lutheran sex

Bold M.Z. offers New York Times Magazine a lively update on Lutheran sex

I don't know. Maybe there are elite journalists who have trouble understanding that it is actually possible to put the words "Lutheran" and "libertarian" -- with a small "l" -- in the same sentence? Maybe that is why M.Z. "GetReligionista emerita" Hemingway is a bit of a mystery in some blue zip codes.

Anyway, it was fun to read what amounts to the CliffsNotes edition of the "Talk" interview -- "Mollie Hemingway Hates How Feminists Talk About Sex" -- that Ana Marie Cox of The New York Times Magazine did recently did with the one and only M.Z.

Via email, I asked M.Z. if there was any way that the public might be able to see a full transcript of this affair. Alas, she only has her half of the 90-minute talk, so that's a "no." But what we have here is lively enough.

The interview, as you can see in the screenshot above, starts with the obligatory question about Hemingway being a conservative who doesn't think highly of one Donald Trump. What a shock. All conservatives are alike, of course, and if you've met one then you've met them all. I mean, how can anyone follow M.Z. on Twitter for, oh, an hour and not see the Grand Canyon that yawns between her cultural and moral views and those of Citizen Trump?

Anyway, GetReligion readers will want to read this interview for themselves. However, I will offer this slice as an introduction, for obvious reasons:

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