Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

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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'Church vs. Church': New York Times delves into the biblical debate over immigration in Iowa town

'Church vs. Church': New York Times delves into the biblical debate over immigration in Iowa town

"Church vs. Church in a Town Split by an Immigration Raid," said the headline on a front-page article in Wednesday's New York Times.

That certainly sounds like a religion story.

To its credit, the Times highlights the faith angle right up top and devotes a fair amount of ink to it. There's much to like about this in-depth report. But for a reason I'll explain in a moment — a reason not entirely the newspaper's fault — the piece failed to satisfy me completely.

Before I get into that, though, let's start with the strong lede:

MOUNT PLEASANT, Iowa — In the days after immigration agents raided a dusty concrete plant on the west side of town, seizing 32 men from Mexico and Central America, the Rev. Trey Hegar, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, got into an impassioned argument on his Facebook page.

“The Bible doesn’t promote helping criminals!!!!” a Trump supporter wrote.

Mr. Hegar answered with Leviticus: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

The Trump supporter came back with the passage in the Gospel of Mark about rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and added for good measure: “Immigration laws are good and Godly! We elected our leaders and God allowed it.”

President Trump’s immigration crackdown has been promoted with biblical righteousness by senior members of his administration, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions. And in heartland communities where the president is popular, the crackdown is often debated — by supporters and critics alike — through the lens of Christian morality.

After offering background both on the Iowa town and the national immigration debate, the Times returns to the Bible question:

Mr. Hegar, a Texan who served four years in the Marines before attending a Presbyterian seminary, finally asked the Trump supporter he was debating on Facebook: “Which Scripture do we obey?”

He answered himself: “The one from Jesus to ‘Do unto others’ is what we choose.”

That's good stuff — the kind of excellent detail found in the best journalism.

But here's what kept me from loving this story: There was no strong voice on the other side.

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What ever happened to that Presbyterian church that split over gay clergy? Paper offers half the answer

What ever happened to that Presbyterian church that split over gay clergy? Paper offers half the answer

The Kansas City Star tries hard — really hard — to tell an inspiring story about a Presbyterian church that split.

The problem: The facts make the positive spin a little difficult to compute.

Basically, turmoil engulfed a congregation affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). When the national denomination approved ordaining gay clergy, a big chunk of an Overland Park, Kan., congregation decided to join a more conservative denomination. Members voted 350-100 for the switch, according to the Star.

But the change to the new denomination — A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO) — sparked a legal fight:

Heartland Presbytery, the regional body that represents Presbyterian Church USA, filed a lawsuit in Johnson County District Court against the 350 disaffiliated members. Heartland argued that Presbyterian Church USA owned the church, its pews, its Bibles and all other property. But the ECO faction believed the church and its contents belonged to the congregation, the entity that holds title to the building.
Based on Kansas’ adherence to denominational rules, the judge found that Heartland Presbytery, represented by the remaining 100 members, was the true owner of the church property.
The division and the lawsuit created a perfect storm between the two groups that caused about 600 people to leave the church entirely.

These kind of legal fights are, of course, not limited to Presbyterians. Just today, a major ruling in a case involving Episcopal churches was issued in South Carolina. Look for GetReligion analysis of media coverage there soon.

But back to the Star: What is the news angle?

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Splitsville in Houston: What's right (and wrong) with front-page story on Presbyterian 'divorce'

Splitsville in Houston: What's right (and wrong) with front-page story on Presbyterian 'divorce'

Maybe you remember the Presbyterian Chihuahua episode.

If you don't, here's the Reader's Digest version: A major congregation affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) closed in the Atlanta area. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution devoted only 233 words (in the Living Section) to the news.

That prompted the GetReligion reader who tipped us to the coverage to quip:

I believe I've seen an obit for a Chihuahua that was longer.

Fast forward a few months to present day, and in Houston, two churches — including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s eighth-largest congregation — are seeking to leave the denomination for a more conservative body.

That sounds like news, right? But will the Houston Chronicle give it more attention than a Chihuahua's obit?

Yes indeed! It's an above-the-fold, Page A1 story in today's Chronicle:

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'I believe I've seen an obit for a Chihuahua that was longer,' reader says of story on major church's closing

'I believe I've seen an obit for a Chihuahua that was longer,' reader says of story on major church's closing

So, according to a headline from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a "major Presbyterian church" closed.

Question: How much ink did the local church's closing merit in that major daily newspaper?

Answer: 233 words on Page 1D of the Living section. 

At least that's how the AJC handled the news, despite the hot social issue — think same-sex unions — involved in the story.

Let's start at the top:

On Sunday, after 66 years serving parishioners on Lawrenceville Highway, Rehoboth Presbyterian Church closed the doors to its sizable campus near Tucker, apparently a victim of changing social mores and a divided congregation.
The church recently voted to allow gay marriages to be performed there, following last year’s Supreme Court decision, and many influential members left, according to a GoFundMe page intended to help rescue Rehoboth.
This challenge was aggravated by the church’s financial difficulties, as it faced $160,000 in repairs, according to the same page.

Those three paragraphs amount to half the story. Let me rephrase: They amount to half of what the newspaper printed. They're nowhere near half the story of what actually happened. 

"I believe I've seen an obit for a Chihuahua that was longer," said the GetReligion reader who tipped us to this story. (For the record, I Googled for the Chihuahua obit but couldn't find it. So put that claim under the heading of "funny but unverified.")

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Sunday morning in Palm Beach: What happens when, and where, for Citizen Donald Trump?

Sunday morning in Palm Beach: What happens when, and where, for Citizen Donald Trump?

A decade or so ago, I lived in West Palm Beach, Fla., and taught at a campus on the other side of the Intercoastal Waterway from the famous, and infamous, world that is Palm Beach.

Now, the people who live in this enclave of big money tend to talk and, no surprise, one of things they love to talk about is people with money and how those people spend their money. A central question is whether the person being discussed is "old (inherited) money" or "new money."

The key: Those "new money" people (think Rush Limbaugh) have to graciously earn respect from the many Palm Beachers with old money, don't you know.

During the years I was there, I heard local folks say one thing over and over about Donald Trump, whose profile on both sides of the Intercoastal was, well, YYHHUUGGEE. Trump, folks agreed, was the ultimate example of "old money" who kept acting like "new money." This was not a compliment.

I pass along this observation because of that New York Times feature that ran the other day describing the life of the billionaire GOP front-runner through the eyes of a man who would certainly know the fine details -- the man who for decades served as the butler at Citizen Trump's Mar-a-lago estate in Palm Beach.

Anthony Senecal, now semi-retired, has to know the details of Trump's life, tastes and habits inside out. In light of the obsessive news coverage of Trump's life and beliefs during this campaign, what question would any reporter be SURE to ask if granted an interview with this butler?

Let's see if we can spot the God-shaped hole here. But first, the overture:

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Hey reporters: Donald Trump tries to woo Iowa evangelicals, by attending liberal church?

Hey reporters: Donald Trump tries to woo Iowa evangelicals, by attending liberal church?

So you are a billionaire Republican candidate from New York City and your goal is to demonstrate your conservative, man-of-the-people bona fides in the final days before the Iowa caucuses. You know that evangelical Christians are a crucial constituency in this contest, so on Sunday morning you visit a:

(a) Nondenominational megachurch, the kind with a praise band, an altar call at the end of the service, a history of sending people to the "March For Life" and backing centuries of church doctrine on marriage and family.

(b) Southern Baptist congregation that is putting down roots up in the rural, small-town soil of the north.

(c) Conservative Presbyterian Church in America flock, since you have been reminding doubters that you are very, very proud to be a Presbyterian.

(d) Solidly progressive church in the liberal Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that represents almost everything that evangelical voters in Iowa consider dangerous.

The answer for reality-television superstar Donald Trump was (d).

However, perhaps there is another answer. Perhaps it doesn't matter where you go to church since elite reporters won't know the difference (or spend a few seconds online to learn)?

Consider the top of the Washington Post story that ran under this headline: "Trump goes to church in Iowa and hears a sermon about welcoming immigrants."

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Nostalgia time for the Religion Guy, with observations from an American town

Nostalgia time for the Religion Guy, with observations from an American town

This Memo, more personal than others posted by the Religion Guy, scans a nostalgia-drenched week that demonstrated several American trends.

First, hundreds of alums marked the end of the Time and Life Building as the Time Inc. magazines move to lower Manhattan, due to cost-cutting that afflicts all print media. 

Then there was a visit to hometown Endicott, New York, for the 100th anniversary of Union-Endicott High School. This American village of 13,392 typifies the hollowing out of U.S. industry, and religious phenomena seen elsewhere. 

Background: The Endicott Johnson Corporation, now defunct, was once the nation’s biggest or one of its biggest shoe manufacturers. E.J. fended off union organizers with medical services and other remarkable “square deal” benefits given line workers, many of them Americanizing immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe. International Business Machines, all but vanished locally, originated in Endicott and had major operations there through much of the 20th Century.

Endicott was incorporated in 1906 and later absorbed the older town of Union. The reigning Johnson family gave the land for First Methodist Church to build in 1902, the Religion Guy’s own First Baptist Church in 1905, and the original Catholic parish, St. Ambrose, in 1908. The Johnsons also donated the Baptists’ pipe organ, still in use, and provided many other community services.

The Guy’s boyhood village was roughly half Catholic and half Protestant, with a high invisible wall between. The ecumenism fostered soon afterward by the Second Vatican Council was virtually non-existent.

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What’s ahead for Americans who believe in traditional marriage?

What’s ahead for Americans who believe in traditional marriage?


With the U.S. Supreme Court’s mandate to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide, what’s ahead for religious believers in traditional man-and-woman marriage alone? (The Guy poses this timely topic now in place of the usual question posted by an online reader.)


The historic June 26 legalization, by a one-vote majority of a deeply divided Supreme Court, demonstrates with stark clarity religion’s declining influence and stature in American culture.

The one aspect is obvious. Traditional marriage belief is firmly taught, with no immediate prospect of change, by the Catholic Church, Southern Baptist Convention, most other evangelical Protestants, many “historically black” Protestant churches, conservatives within “mainline” Protestant denominations, Eastern Orthodoxy, Latter-day Saints, Orthodox Judaism, Islam and others.

A massive 2014 Pew Research survey indicates those groups encompass the majority of Americans, something like 140 million adults.

Of course, not all parishioners agree with official doctrine or practice their faith. In a May poll by Pew, the 57 percent of all Americans supporting gay and lesbian marriages tracked closely with the 56 percent among those identifying as Catholic. That contrasted with only 41 percent of black Americans and 27 percent in the nation’s biggest religious bloc, white evangelicals.

The less-noticed aspect is the weakness of religions on the triumphant side, which generally followed the LGBT movement rather than exercising decisive leadership, unlike past church crusades that helped win independence from Britain, abolition of slavery, labor rights, child welfare, social safety nets, women’s vote, alcohol prohibition, civil rights laws, or withdrawal from Vietnam.

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