Rick Warren

Covering the life and times of Rachel Held Evans: Focus on doctrines, not political choices

Covering the life and times of Rachel Held Evans: Focus on doctrines, not political choices

I just did a Google Images search for the words “American Evangelicals” and it yielded — on the first screen — as many images of Vladimir Putin as of the Rev. Billy Graham. If you do the same thing on Yahoo! your images search will include several pictures of George Soros.

I don’t need to mention the number of images of Donald Trump, a lifelong member of the oldline Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Do I?

The obvious question — one asked early and often at GetReligion — is this: “What does the word ‘evangelical’ mean?” But that really isn’t the question that needs to be asked, in this context. The more relevant question is this: “What does ‘evangelical’ mean to journalists in the newsrooms that really matter?”

I raise this question because of a remarkable passage in the New York Times feature about the tragic, early death of Rachel Held Evans, a highly influential online scribe whose journey from the conservative side of evangelicalism to liberal Protestantism has helped shape the emerging evangelical left. The headline: “Rachel Held Evans, Voice of the Wandering Evangelical, Dies at 37.”

Before we look at that news story (not a commentary piece) let’s pause to ask if the word “evangelical” has content, in terms of Christian history (as opposed to modern politics).

For background see this GetReligion post: “Yes, 'evangelical' is a religious term (#REALLY). You can look that up in history books.” That points readers toward the work of historian Thomas S. Kidd of Baylor University, author of the upcoming book, “Who Is an Evangelical?: The History of a Movement in Crisis.” Here is a crucial passage from Kidd, in a Vox explainer piece:

The most common definition of evangelicalism, one crafted by British historian David Bebbington, boils down to four key points. First is conversion, or the need to be born again. The second is Biblicism, or the need to base one’s faith fundamentally on the Bible. The third is the theological priority of the cross, where Jesus died and won forgiveness for sinners. The final attribute of evangelicals is activism, or acting on the mandates of one’s faith, through supporting your church, sharing the gospel, and engaging in charitable endeavors.

In today’s media, “evangelical” has shifted from the historic definition to become more of a rough political and ethnic signifier.

The news media image of modern evangelicalism, he added, “fails to recognize most of what was happening in the weekly routines of actual evangelical Christians and their churches. As Bebbington’s definition suggests, most of a typical evangelical’s life has nothing to do with politics.”

Now, from my perspective, the most important thing that needs to be said about the work of Rachel Held Evans is that she openly challenged the DOCTRINAL roots of evangelical Christianity, as opposed to focusing merely on politics.

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Trump is what matters: Mark Burnett/Roma Downey faith duet gets a nod in The New Yorker

Trump is what matters: Mark Burnett/Roma Downey faith duet gets a nod in The New Yorker

During the summer of 2017, I spent some time trying to get ahold of Mark Burnett, originator of “The Apprentice,” “Survivor,” “Shark Tank” and other reality TV shows.

I was researching a story on Paula White, A key spiritual advisor to Donald Trump. She’d told me she’d held Bible studies for cast members of “The Apprentice” and I wanted to see if Burnett would talk about having her on the set.

This Hollywood player had an obvious Christian connection, as he’d been married to “Touched by an Angel” co-star Roma Downey since 2007, so I thought a few questions about Paula’s Bible studies shouldn’t faze him. But he’d been under pressure to release tapes from “The Apprentice” (so people can check to see if Trump said anything outrageous on them), so he was not commenting on anything to do with the show. Downey, by the way, is one of the most openly Christian actresses in Hollywood.

So I was intrigued to read more about his religious journey in a new story out in The New Yorker. The gist of this long tale isn’t faith by any means. Like so much news fodder these days, the key is Trump, Trump, Trump.

This feature story wanders around, asking this question: Does Burnett feel any responsibility for staging the show that propelled Trump toward the presidency? In other words, Burnett created this monster and how does he live with it?

Answer: Very well. If Burnett feels any qualms about his curious role in American history, he’s not talking about it. As good and insightful as the article is –- and I certainly learned a lot from it –- I’ll not be dwelling on most of it. But I do have something to say about the religious parts.

Downey, who grew up in a Catholic family in Northern Ireland, is deeply religious, and eventually Burnett, too, reoriented his life around Christianity. “Faith is a major part of our marriage,” Downey said, in 2013, adding, “We pray together.”

For people who had long known Burnett, it was an unexpected turn. This was a man who had ended his second marriage during a live interview with Howard Stern. … In 2008, Burnett’s longtime business partner, a lawyer named Conrad Riggs, filed a lawsuit alleging that Burnett had stiffed him to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. …

Years ago, Burnett told Esquire that religion was “a waste of time.” (Second wife) Dianne Burnett told me that when she was married to him he had no interest in faith. “But you know what? People change,” she continued.

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A floating podcast: Are evangelicals more confused than usual, these days? #REALLY

A floating podcast: Are evangelicals more confused than usual, these days? #REALLY

This week's "Crossroads" podcast is a bit different, for several reasons.

In the headline, I called this a "floating" podcast because, well, I phoned into the Lutheran Public Radio studio from a cruise boat in the Bahamas (the final stage of some wonderful 40th wedding anniversary celebrations). So I was "floating," at the time. Also, the podcast isn't going to be posted on the GetReligion website right away because our tech person is (continuing the wedding theme) on his honeymoon. So click here to access the Issues, Etc., version of this show.

Now, to the topic. Host Todd Wilken asked me to take a look at an NPR essay that ran with this headline: "2017 Has Been A Rough Year For Evangelicals."

Yes, we are talking about yet ANOTHER elite-media look into the identity crisis among many evangelical leaders in the era of Donald Trump. But before we get into the heart of that essay, check out the lede:

As 2017 ends, evangelical Christians in the United States are suffering one of their periodic identity crises. Unlike other religious groups, the evangelical movement comprises a variety of perspectives and tendencies and is therefore especially prone to splintering and disagreement.

Yes, the first half of that is basically fine -- since anyone with any exposure to the American brand of evangelicalism knows that debates about doctrine and identity have been common through the decades. But what's going on with the statement that evangelical churches and institutions contain a "variety of perspectives and tendencies" and, thus, are somehow uniquely prone to divisions, debates and disagreements?

I laughed out loud the first time I read that.

So American Catholicism is a fortress of cultural conformity? Ditto for Lutherans and Anglicans?

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Yes, 'evangelical' is a religious term (#REALLY). You can look that up in history books

Yes, 'evangelical' is a religious term (#REALLY). You can look that up in history books

Over the years, your GetReligionistas have asked variations on the following question many times: What does the word "evangelical" mean?

Faithful readers will recall that, in 1987, I had a chance to ask the Rev. Billy Graham that question and, basically, he said that he no longer felt confident that he knew the answer. He then proceeded to frame "evangelical" in terms of ancient Christian doctrines, saying that he defined an "evangelical" as someone who believes all the doctrines in the ancient Nicene or the Apostles creeds. Graham stressed the centrality of belief in the resurrection and that salvation is through Jesus, alone.

However, if you follow the news, you know that most pollsters, politicos and journalists no longer believe that "evangelical" is primarily a religious word. During this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), host Todd Wilken and I discussed this puzzle as we tried to make sense out of a recent "Newsmax's 100 Most Influential Evangelicals in America" list.

Take a second and scan that list, if you will. Note that, after the predictable Billy Graham nod at No. 1, the next nine are Graham’s son Franklin, Joel Osteen, Mike Huckabee, Pat Robertson, Rick Warren, Jerry Falwell Jr., Joyce Meyer, Vice President Mike Pence and the married Hollywood duo of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey.

In my new "On Religion" column on this topic, historian Thomas Kidd made the following observation about the Newsmax list:

Disputes about the meaning of “evangelical” are so sharp that “several people on this list would not even agree that some other people on the list are ‘Christians,’ let alone ‘evangelicals’ as defined by any set of core doctrines,” said historian Thomas Kidd of Baylor University, whose research includes work on American religious movements, including the roots of evangelicalism.
Making this Top 100 list, he added, seems to be linked to “some kind of prominent position in media or politics or both,” as opposed to “leading successful churches or Christian organizations. ... I would imagine all these people believe that Jesus is the Son of God and they may even share some ideas about the authority of scripture -- but that’s about it.”

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Memory eternal! DC loses Michael Cromartie, who loved both sides of the First Amendment

Memory eternal! DC loses Michael Cromartie, who loved both sides of the First Amendment

I've been saying this in seminary and journalism classrooms for several decades, but let me say it again.

For a long time now, the First Amendment has been a kind of painful blind spot -- a blind spot with two sides. On one side there's the press and, on the other, there's the world of religion. The problem is that these two powerful forces in American life just don't get along.

Yes, there are lots of journalists who just don't "get" religion, who don't respect the First Amendment role (that whole "free exercise of religion" thing) that religion plays in public and private life. We talk about that problem a lot at this website.

However, there's another problem out there, another stone wall on which I have been beating my head for decades. You see, there are lots of religious leaders, and their followers, who just don't "get" journalism, who don't respect the First Amendment role that a free press plays in American life.

Some people can see one side of that two-sided blind spot and some people can see the other.

We just lost one of the rare people in Washington, D.C., who saw these problems on both sides of that blind spot with a clear, realistic and compassionate eye. That would be Michael Cromartie, who for years organized constructive, candid, face-to-face encounters between mainstream religious leaders and elite members of the Acela Zone press. News of Cromartie's death -- at age 67, after a battle with cancer -- spread in social media on Monday.

There will, I am sure, be detailed obituaries in major media. After all, Cromartie had contacts in most of those newsrooms. Right now, the best place to find tributes to his work with the Ethics and Public Policy Center is at Christianity Today. The headline: "Died: Michael Cromartie, the Church’s Ambassador to Washington."

Personally, I think it would have been more accurate to say "mainstream evangelicalism's ambassador" to Beltway-land, since that was the world in which Cromartie had the strongest influence. However, as an evangelical Anglican he worked with leaders and thinkers in a wide range of other pews, as well. Here is a major chunk of a CT tribute:

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Pastor of America's largest parish retires, with lots of (solo) shots at Catholic conservatives

Pastor of America's largest parish retires, with lots of (solo) shots at Catholic conservatives

A long time ago -- the early 1980s -- I wrote a front-page feature for The Charlotte Observer about life in the tiny Catholic Diocese of Charlotte. The news hook was an interview with the first bishop of what was, at that time, America's smallest diocese.

Things have changed in the Queen City, when it comes to Catholic life. In fact, if you follow news about American Catholicism you know that one of the most important stories is the explosion of Catholic statistics in the Bible Belt, including the Deep South and the Southeast. The rising Catholic tide in the Southwest is, to a large degree, linked with issues of immigration. That's a factor in the South, but the growth is also linked to large numbers of converts and transplants from the North.

Just the other day, Crux ran little story -- "In the U.S. South, the Church is in ‘growth mode’ " -- focusing on a meeting of bishops from the South. It noted:

“We are all in a growth mode. That’s a good thing,” Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta told the Diocese of Charleston’s newspaper The Catholic Miscellany.
“We are spending part of our time here talking about the need to establish new parishes, expand pastoral outreach, and respond to growing numbers both from immigration and those moving here from other parts of the country,” the archbishop continued. “We all are sharing in this growth.”

So, the Observer recently had a perfect opportunity to dig into some of these complex and important subjects.

The hook for this long story was the retirement of Msgr. John McSweeney, the senior priest at St. Matthew Catholic Church -- America's largest Catholic parish. To add to the symbolism, the lede notes that this New Yorker was the first priest ordained in the Charlotte diocese.

This is where things get interesting. This long, long piece is based on an interview with the outspoken McSweeney and, well, that is that. The bottom line: He is highly critical of many things that would be affirmed by traditional or even middle-of-the-road Catholics in the Bible Belt. As the Observer puts it, he believes the Catholic Church often puts the "Book of Law before the Book of Love."

Who gets to respond to his views on a litany of hot-button topics?

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So, The Los Angeles Times posits that this popular evangelical writer is a fundamentalist

So, The Los Angeles Times posits that this popular evangelical writer is a fundamentalist

As a rule, GetReligion doesn't pay attention to editorials, commentaries and reviews for the simple reason that our purpose is to focus on the good and bad in mainstream religion news coverage, with a strong emphasis on the word "news."

Besides, it's hard to critique matters of accuracy, bias and balance in forms of writing in which authors are free to speak their minds, as columnists or commentators.

However, even it comes to writing about movies -- whether we are talking about news or commentary -- The Los Angeles Times is not just another newspaper. It matters what kinds of labels the La La land newspaper of record pins on real people who work in the public square.

So here is the top of the Noel Murray review of the new movie "The Case for Christ," which is based on the journey that former Chicago Tribune legal-affairs reporter Lee Strobel made from atheism to Christian faith. The headline on the review: " 'The Case for Christ' prioritizes drama over evidence."

Lee Strobel became a fundamentalist Christian hero thanks to his 1998 book “The Case for Christ,” chronicling how his dogged research into Jesus’ resurrection helped convert him from atheism. Director Jon Gunn and screenwriter Brian Bird’s film version emphasizes Stobel’s personal drama over his academic investigation, which makes for a watchable movie but thin theology.
Mike Vogel plays Strobel, who at the start of the 1980s was an award-winning Chicago journalist with a happy marriage and a bright future, until his wife, Leslie (played by Erika Christensen), found God. Anxious to get their life back to the way things were, he started interviewing scholars in various disciplines, hoping that by presenting Leslie with the facts, she’d back down.

Veteran GetReligion readers will not be surprised that it was the word "fundamentalist" that caught my attention, after clicking on a URL sent in by a reader on the West Coast.

There are two ways to read the "fundamentalist" clause in the lede.

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Hey Los Angeles Times team: There was a purpose-driven ghost in your Phelps story

Hey Los Angeles Times team: There was a purpose-driven ghost in your Phelps story

Another day, another news report about an American at the Olympics, another chance to spot an important religion ghost.

Actually, this particular Los Angeles Times story was about the ultimate Olympian in the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro -- as in Michael Phelps, the superstar swimmer who has 21 gold medals and counting, as of last night.

It's crucial to know that the goal of this story was to describe how Phelps turned his life around and made it back to his fifth Olympics, after a series of private-life disasters that suggested he was all washed up. But here is the angle for GetReligion readers: When Phelps tells the story of his comeback, was there a faith-based -- maybe "purpose driven" -- hook in there somewhere? Hold that thought.

First, here is the solid, punch Times description of the pit that Phelps dug for himself:

Four years ago, Phelps didn’t want to swim. He wasn’t training diligently. He wasn’t happy in the pool. He tried to fake it. Phelps managed to win four gold medals and two silvers in London, still performing at a different level than the rest of the world even when he didn’t care. ... He finally had enough.
Phelps retired for 18 months and wanted nothing more to do with swimming. Longtime rival and 11-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte predicted it wouldn’t last. He was right. Phelps couldn’t resist the lure of the pool and returned in April 2014. He gradually started to fall in love with the sport again. ...
The pivotal moment, however, came when he was cited for driving under the influence after leaving a Maryland casino in September 2014. Phelps, who pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 months of probation, enrolled in a 45-day treatment program in Arizona. This wasn’t his first run-in with trouble outside of the pool. Ten years earlier, Phelps was arrested for DUI and a tabloid published a photo of him in 2009 inhaling from a marijuana pipe.

So what happened to Phelps?

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Listening to D.C. debates: Who speaks for Southern Baptists?

Listening to D.C. debates: Who speaks for Southern Baptists?

A constant commandment for journalists is to “assess thy sources.”

The running debate on “what is an evangelical,” so pertinent for newswriters during this presidential campaign, involves “who speaks for evangelicals” and consequently “who speaks for the Southern Baptist Convention”? The sprawling SBC is by far this category’s  largest U.S. denomination, with 15.5 million members, 46,000 congregations, and $11 billion in annual receipts.

As noted by Jonathan Merritt in Religion News Service, the issue has been pursued with a vengeance by Will Hall, the new editor of the state Baptist Message newspaper in Louisiana. Hall targets as unrepresentative the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and its president since 2013, the Rev. Russell D. Moore, 44, who’s the Southern Baptists’ prime spokesman on moral and social issues in the public sphere.

An editorial by Hall charged that Moore’s dislike for presidential candidate Donald Trump in particular “goes beyond the pale, translating into disrespect and even contempt for any Christian who might weigh these considerations differently” while Moore otherwise “has shown apparent disdain for traditional Southern Baptists.”

Moore is certainly outspoken about Trump. In a New York Times op-ed last Sept. 17, he said evangelicals and other social conservatives who back the billionaire “must repudiate everything they believe.”  He joined the 22 essayists in the “Against Trump” package in the Feb. 15National Review. Moore said with Trump, “sound moral judgments are displaced by a narcissistic pursuit of power” that religious conservatives should view as “decadent and deviant.”

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