In a politically polarized era (think red and blue), what does it mean to be a purple church?

In a politically polarized era (think red and blue), what does it mean to be a purple church?

A daily Google email alerts me to headlines about “evangelicals.” Most days, at least one publication delves into some version of this question: Why do most evangelicals support President Donald Trump?

I know, I know: Haven’t we figured that one out yet?

On the flip side, the supposed “rise of the religious left” in response to Trump is a favorite storyline for some journalists and talking heads.

Ho-hum. Isn’t there anything new on the religion and politics beat?

For anyone as tired as I am of the same old, same old, NPR religion and beliefs correspondent Tom Gjelten’s recent feature on a “purple church” in North Carolina was a refreshing change.

What’s a purple church? It’s a congregation that draws members from both sides of America’s vast Grand Canyon between red and blue, as Gjelten explains:

At a time when Americans are moving apart in their political and religious views, worshippers at White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, N.C., have learned to avoid some subjects for the sake of maintaining congregational harmony.

"You wouldn't run up to a stove and touch a hot burner," says DeLana Anderson, a church deacon. "So, I'm certainly not going to do that here."

White Memorial is thriving, with about 4,000 members, while other mainline Protestant congregations are struggling. Just as impressively, it brings together worshippers with disparate political views, both red and blue.

"Raleigh is a purple city. North Carolina is a purple state," notes Christopher Edmonston, the church's senior pastor. "Many of the people who have come to church here in the last 25 years are from other parts of the country, and they bring their ideas, their politics, their viewpoints, with them. So we almost have to be purple if we're going to continue to be open and welcome to any person that wants to come."

The news peg for the NPR report is a recent Barna Group report on the communication challenges that pastors face in a divided culture.

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Friday Five: #ExposeChristianSchools, Trump's Bible, buried lede, tmatt's future, Mariano Rivera

Friday Five: #ExposeChristianSchools, Trump's Bible, buried lede, tmatt's future, Mariano Rivera

“Reporter Trolls Christian Schools” was the headline on a recent Wall Street Journal column after a New York Times reporter asked for feedback from people who had attended Christian schools.

A lot of conservatives saw the request — tied to the viral hashtag #ExposeChristianSchools that emerged after headlines over Vice President Mike Pence’s wife, Karen, teaching at an evangelical school — as a pretense for a looming hit piece.

In fact, the actual New York Times article published drew praise from some, including a Southern Baptist minister who called it “insightful reporting and not one-sided negative.”

Me? I didn’t find the piece terribly insightful, enlightening or revealing of Christian school experiences that I know about.

This will give you an idea of the tone: The Times starts with quotes from those who “struggled with bullying and depression” at Christian schools, moves to quotes from those who “experienced lasting pain and confusion” at Christian schools and finishes with — this must be the “not one-sided negative” part — those who “shared stories of love and acceptance of others” at Christian schools.

Got a different view of the article? Feel free to comment below.

Now, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: This is one of those weeks when a single story or issue didn’t really stand out. So let’s go with President Donald Trump’s tweet supporting Bible literacy courses in public schools.

I wrote an entire post about this subject earlier this week, and since I see our analytics, I know many of you missed reading it.

So here’s another chance to check it out.

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Think it through: Did you hear that there are more Wiccan folks in America than Presbyterians?

Think it through: Did you hear that there are more Wiccan folks in America than Presbyterians?

So, did you hear that there are now more Wiccan believers in America than there are Presbyterians?

If you’ve been on social media lately, there is a good chance that you have heard this spin on some Wicca numbers from — Who else? — the Pew Research Center.

If you are looking for a blunt, crystalized statement of an alleged story in American culture, it never hurts to turn to The New York Post. Here is the top of a recent story that ran with this trendy headline: “Witch population doubles as millennials cast off Christianity.”

If you were interested in witchcraft in 1692, you probably would have been jailed or burned at the stake. If you’re interested in witchcraft in 2018, you are probably an Instagram influencer.

From crystal subscription boxes to astrologist-created lip balm, the metaphysical has gone mainstream. Millennials today know more about chakras than your kooky New Age aunt. That’s why it’s no surprise that the generation that is blamed for killing everything is actually bringing popularity to centuries-old practices.

According to the Pew Research Center (click here for .pdf), about 1.5 million Americans identify as Wiccan or pagan. A decade ago, that number was closer to 700,000. Presbyterians, by comparison, have about 1.4 million votaries.

It would be interesting to know how this story hatched at this time, seeing as how the Pew numbers — which are certainly interesting — are from 2014.

No doubt about it, this is a story. However, this specific twist on the numbers depends on definitions of two crucial terms — “Wiccans” and “Presbyterians.” It’s an interesting comment on the age in which we live that the first term is probably easier to define than the second.

So let’s think about that for a second, with the help of a GetReligion-esque piece by Mark Tooley, over at the Juicy Ecumenism blog. Yes, that site is operated by the conservative Institute on Religion & Democracy. However, I think this discussion — centering on the challenge of defining denominational terms — will be of interest to all journalists who are about accurate, when using statistics and basic religious terms. Here is a crucial statement early on:

… Faddish stories can sometimes be ginned up based on old numbers.

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Early 2020 contender? Dream #NeverTrump candidate makes political waves with a new book

Early 2020 contender? Dream #NeverTrump candidate makes political waves with a new book

Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse has a new book out called "The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis — and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance." 

I'll pause for a second so you can catch your breath after that title ...

Yes, that was a childish thing to say. My apologies.

But seriously, Time is pretty certain the book marks a first step toward the Republican senator — whom the magazine dubs "the Anti-Trump" — making a White House run:

Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse is not yet running for President, and his new book, The Vanishing American Adult, is not about politics, policy or his own life story, all of which someone like him would normally write about if he were thinking about running for President.
"I'm pretty certain the President is never mentioned at any point in this book," Sasse, a Republican, told me when I asked him about Donald Trump as we recently sat outside a café a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol. "I want to move upstream from politics to have that conversation about all the things that we should want for our kids."
But jump-starting a postpartisan national conversation about what the nation should want for its children is exactly the sort of thing someone who is looking to run for President might do. And the solutions that Sasse proposes are, in many cases, precisely the opposite of the examples set by Trump or Hillary Clinton, both of whom Sasse has criticized for failing to behave like "you know ... an adult."
For Sasse, emotional and intellectual maturity is a lockpick for the nation's future. He speaks of an American crisis of loneliness and disconnection; he calls for parents to take back responsibility for their children's upbringing from schools and for children to resist consumerism, travel widely, work hard and "become truly literate," with a reading list that resembles a graduate-seminar syllabus. His personal canon contains unexpected choices for a conservative Republican: books by Aldous Huxley, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Karl Marx, along with Augustine and Alexis de Toqueville.

Way back in August, GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly noted that Sasse is "a hero of religious and cultural conservatives" and "was the dream #NeverTrump third-party candidate after Trump's victory in the primaries."

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God-talk in Politico: Website gingerly approaches Trump's religiosity in profile

God-talk in Politico: Website gingerly approaches Trump's religiosity in profile

The late Phyllis Tickle, doyenne of writers about religious publishing, has a warm place in my heart for her 1997 book, "God-Talk in America." (And, yes, it's partly because she said something nice about one of my books therein.)

But when we consider "God-talk" today, much of that discussion must center on President Donald Trump and his administration. A nearly infinite number of pixels have been spilled in the analysis of Trump's references to faith versus the rather coarse lifestyle he embraced in his pre-campaign days. I am sure armies of reporters are checking into any current rumors.

Now, as we approach the 100-day mark of the new administration, Politico jumps into the God-talk arena, asking, "Has Trump found religion in the Oval Office?" Here's the opening:

President Donald Trump has increasingly infused references to God into his prepared remarks -- calling on God to bless all the world after launching strikes in Syria, asking God to bless the newest Supreme Court justice, invoking the Lord to argue in favor of a war on opioids.
He's also taken other steps to further cultivate a Christian right that helped elect him, granting new levels of access to Christian media and pushing socially conservative positions that don't appear to come naturally to him.
One of the first interviews Trump sat for as president was with the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody.
“I’ve always felt the need to pray,” Trump said in that late-January interview. “The office is so powerful that you need God even more because your decisions are no longer, ‘Gee I’m going to build a building in New York.’ … These are questions of massive, life-and-death.”
“There’s almost not a decision that you make when you’re sitting in this position that isn’t a really life-altering position,” Trump added. “So God comes into it even more so.”

But don't let the semi-friendly tone fool you, gentle reader. 

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Thinking outside the bricks: Sensitive Washington Post piece reports fate of empty church buildings

Thinking outside the bricks: Sensitive Washington Post piece reports fate of empty church buildings

Church rolls may drop, but the buildings don’t always fall to the wrecking ball -- some of them are converted to condos. That trend is the focus of a story in the Washington Post that is at once factual, thoughtful and sensitive.

The smoothly written piece is a massive 1,480 words, yet it reads rather fast. It gives us an overview of the situation across the nation's capital. It offers a few insights on how professionals convert church buildings. And it shows a soothing feel for the concerns of the people who had to leave their sacred spaces.

Church conversions are a kind of gentrification, but with a difference, as the Post points out.

"As churches’ congregations move to the suburbs and D.C. property values soar, increasing numbers of religious institutions are selling their properties in the city, usually with plans to move closer to their congregants," the paper says.  "But … some experts say that a church’s former life as a sacred space requires a particular kind of respect."

The Post gets into the expected issues of restoring a big building with neglected windows, plumbing and HVAC.  It deals also with how to divide up a big room that's built around a pulpit. But it's much more, says writer Amanda Abrams. 

A freelance writer who is not a religion specialist, Abrams might have well gotten caught up in those mundane details. But no, she recalls the reason for the buildings -- and so do her sources:

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New York Post flubs the strange case of a liberal church and a lesbian minister's pension

New York Post flubs the strange case of a liberal church and a lesbian minister's pension

What we have here is one of the most ironic little religion-news stories that I have come across in quite some time.

However, readers of The New York Post would almost certainly not know that, since the team that produced the story left out The. Crucial. Fact. that made the story so ironic and interesting in the first place. The headline: "Lesbian pastor’s widow takes on church to get pension payments."

I think that the Post team thought they had yet another story about generic, Christians being prejudiced against a lesbian Christian. They didn't realize that this story was much more ironic than that. Let's look for the crucial missing detail at the top of this news report. Read carefully.

A lesbian pastor’s widow is battling the Presbyterian Church for refusing to pay her pension.
Letty M. Russell, a Harvard-trained author who became one of the first ordained women ministers in the United States and one of the first female teachers at the Yale Divinity School, served as pastor of the Presbyterian Church of the Ascension in East Harlem from 1959 to 1971, says her widow, Shannon Clarkson.
Russell collected a $600 monthly pension for seven years while she was alive and designated Clarkson, her partner of 32 years, as her beneficiary. But when the 77-year-old Russell died of cancer in 2007, the Presbyterian Church’s pension board quickly cut Clarkson off.

OK, here is the crucial question: What in the world is "the Presbyterian Church"? Which denomination is that, pray tell, out of the alphabet soup that is Presbyterian life in America?

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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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A Buddhist parable that applies to the Presbyterian Church in America and race

  A Buddhist parable that applies to the Presbyterian Church in America and race

The Religion Guy urges religion writers to monitor parochial media, but beware the obvious pitfall: Such sources can offer limited perspectives.

Remember the ancient Buddhist parable about blind men and the elephant? One touches the beast’s tail and thinks it’s a rope, another touches the trunk and thinks it’s a tree, a third touches the belly and thinks it’s a wall.  Limited perception distorts the fuller reality, something journalists are duty bound to depict fairly.  

So with the Presbyterian Church in America, well worth coverage as one of this generation’s most successful and innovative denominations, with influential conservatives among its members. Major secular media give the PCA little  notice and ignored its newsworthy General Assembly in June.

Christianity Today headlined a piece on the assembly “PCA Goes Back to Where it Started: Women’s Ordination.” True, one reason the PCA broke from the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (PCUS) in 1973 was opposition to women in  church offices. The 2016 assembly ordered a study of whether women can be ordained as deacons (though not lay elders), and encouraged females’ full participation “in appropriate ministries.”

The assembly also approved overwhelmingly a declaration that the PCA “does recognize, confess, condemn and repent of corporate and historical sins, including those committed during the Civil Rights era.” Denounced as past PCA sins were claims “that the Bible sanctions racial segregation and discourages interracial marriage” and members’ “participation in and defense of white supremacist organizations.”

CT reported on this second action, which Religion News Service covered with both a spot item and a Tobin Grant analysis headlined “What Catalyst Started the Presbyterian Church in America? Racism.” Grant thinks “the PCA exists only because of its founders’ defense of slavery, segregation and white supremacy.” That’s truthy, but overly simplified.

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