South Carolina

Yes, the WPost Mayor Pete visits the Bible Belt story ran several weeks ago: But it's still important

Yes, the WPost Mayor Pete visits the Bible Belt story ran several weeks ago: But it's still important

It’s time to venture into my “guilt file” — where I stash news stories that I know deserve attention, but breaking news keeps getting in the way.

Several weeks ago — Easter season, basically — the Washington Post ran an important story about the rise of Pete Buttigieg as a real contender among the 100 or so people currently seeking (a) the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination or (b) the VP slot with Joe Biden (the second after Barack Obama winks and hints at an endorsement).

In this case, the religion angle was right there in the headline: “Questions on race, faith and tradition confront Buttigieg in South Carolina.”

In other words, Mayor Pete visits the Bible Belt to see if his mainstream Episcopal Church vibe — brainy white married gay male — will fly in a region in which black Christians are a political force. This is a culturally conservative corner of the Democratic Party tent that tends to get little or no attention from journalists in deep-blue zip codes (that Acela-zone thing). So let’s pull this story out of my “guilt file.”

The headline is solid, pointing to questions about “race, faith and tradition.” Want to guess what part of that equation gets the short end of the stick, in terms of serious content?

This is an important story, in terms of cultural diversity among Democrats. At some point, candidates will need to talk about religious liberty, third-trimester abortion, gender-neutral locker rooms and a host of other powerful cultural issues linked to religion.

The bottom line: Mayor Pete wants to be pro-faith, while attacking conservative Protestants whose views of the Bible are radically different than his own. How will that strategy play in the Bible Belt? Can he appeal to Democrats other those in what the Post calls a “liberal, wealthy and white” niche?

Here is what we are looking for in this story: Will anyone address religious questions to African-American Democrats from Pentecostal, conservative Baptist or Catholic pews? Or will the story only feature the voices of experts talking about these strange people? Here’s the overture:

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News? Religious communities build new sanctuaries, and repair old ones, for lots of reasons

News? Religious communities build new sanctuaries, and repair old ones, for lots of reasons

There were a lot of different subjects swirling around during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, so I don’t know exactly where to start. (Click here to tune that in or head over to iTunes.)

On one level, host Todd Wilken and I talked about church buildings and sacred architecture. You know, the whole idea that church architecture is theology expressed in (List A) stone, timber, brick, stucco, copper, iron and glass.

Ah, but is the theology different if the materials being used are (List B) sheetrock, galvanized steel, plastic, concrete, rubber and plywood?

What if you built a Byzantine, Orthodox sanctuary out of the materials in List B and accepted the American construction-industry norms that a building will last about 40-50 years? Contrast that with a church built with List A materials, using many techniques that have been around for centuries and are meant to produce churches that last 1,000 years or more.

These two churches would look very similar. The provocative issue raised by church designer and art historian Andrew Gould — of New World Byzantine Studios, in Charleston, S.C. — is whether one of these two churches displays a “sacred ethos” that will resonate with the teachings of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, while the other may be both modern and more temporary.

Here’s another question along those same lines: Why did farmers, merchants and peasants in places like Greece, Russia, Serbia and Romania for many centuries insist on building churches that would last for generation after generation of believers? Also, why are the faithful in many modern, prosperous American communities tempted to build churches that may start to fall apart after a few decades?

Here’s the end of my “On Religion” column about Gould and his work, based on a lecture he gave at my own Orthodox home parish in Oak Ridge, Tenn. — which is poised to build a much-needed new sanctuary.

“If you build something that looks like a Byzantine church, but it isn’t really built like a Byzantine church, then it isn’t going to look and sound and function like a Byzantine church — generation after generation,” said Gould.

“The goal in most architecture today is to create the appearance of something, not the reality. ... When you build one of these churches, you want the real thing. You want reality. You want a church that’s going to last.”

Now, is this a very newsworthy subject?

Maybe not. But some of these issues can be spotted looming over big headlines some big stories in places like New York City.

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Three key facts about Trump administration allowing religious freedom for S.C. foster care provider

Three key facts about Trump administration allowing religious freedom for S.C. foster care provider

Chelsea Clinton, daughter of Bill and Hillary Clinton, has 2.4 million Twitter followers.

So when the former first daughter tweets, what she says gets attention — be it announcing her pregnancy with a third child or commenting on a news story about a faith-based foster care agency in South Carolina.

I’m certain that Kelsey Dallas, religion writer for the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, didn’t mind the extra clicks that Clinton’s tweet generated for her coverage of a Trump administration decision involving religious freedom — or religious discrimination, depending on one’s perspective.

The lede from Dallas:

The Trump administration on Wednesday made a decision in support of a faith-based foster care agency in South Carolina, announcing that religious organizations are protected by federal religious freedom law and can receive government money even when they won't serve LGBT or non-Christian couples.

"Faith-based organizations that provide foster care services not only perform a great service for their communities, they are exercising a legally protected right to practice their faith through good works. Our federal agency should not — and, under the laws adopted by Congress, cannot — drive faith-motivated foster care providers out of the business of serving children without a compelling government interest," explained a statement from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Miracle Hill Ministries, a Christian organization based in Greenville, had been at risk of having to close its foster care program or adjust its screening process for prospective foster parents if HHS didn't grant it a waiver to nondiscrimination law. Miracle Hill, like many conservative, religious foster care agencies, has been under fire for the last year for refusing to work with LGBT couples for religious reasons.

The Trump administration's decision, although long-expected, sparked an outcry among liberal legal activists, who argue that religious freedom shouldn't protect discrimination.

Like the Deseret News, the Washington Post offered a factual, balanced report on the decision, opening its story like this:

The Trump administration said Wednesday it was granting a Christian ministry in South Carolina permission to participate in the federally funded foster-care program, even though the group will work only with Christian families.

The long-standing policy of Miracle Hill Ministries of Greenville violates a regulation, put into place in the closing days of the Obama administration, that bars discrimination on the basis of religion by groups receiving money from the Department of Health and Human Services.

About a year ago, the South Carolina Department of Social Services learned of Miracle Hill’s policy, notified the group it was in violation of federal law and downgraded it to a provisional license. Gov. Henry McMaster (R) then asked HHS for a waiver.

On Wednesday, HHS said it would grant the waiver, days before the group’s provisional license was set to expire. The department argued that the Obama-era regulation was ill-conceived and that some of its requirements “are not reflected” in the underlying statute.

In reading a variety of news accounts of the decision — including this one by the The Associated Press —  I was struck by certain details that seem important but weren’t reflected in every story.

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Mirror-image news again: Mother Emanuel hosts historic racial-reconciliation service

Mirror-image news again: Mother Emanuel hosts historic racial-reconciliation service

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I would like to give thanks for a recent event linked to racial reconciliation in the deep South, a worship service held in a highly symbolic sanctuary.

I will get to that in a moment.

But first, let’s engage in another “mirror image” experiment. This is a common GetReligion device in which we create a news story — an upside-down or inside-out version of a real story — and then ask what kind of mainstream news coverage it would have received.

So, let’s imagine that the leader of the Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, had traveled south to preach at the historic Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. Readers may recall that Curry delivered a long and spectacular sermon at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. It was quite a scene.

Readers will, of course, remember that Mother Emanuel was the site of the massacre by white supremacist Dylann Roof, who gunned down eight worshippers during an evening Bible study.

So let’s say that Curry comes to this holy ground to preach on racial reconciliation. The church is packed and another 400 people watch the service on closed-circuit video in another sanctuary nearby.

My question: Would this event have received significant coverage in local, regional and even national media?

I am guessing that the answer is “yes.”

Now, the mirror-image question: Was it news when Southern Baptists — led by South Carolina Baptist Convention President Marshall Blalock — filled Mother Emanuel for a “Building Bridges” worship service, praying for racial reconciliation in their state and in America as a whole? Yes, 400 more watched a closed-circuit feed at Citadel Square Baptist Church.

Was it news? As best I can tell, with online searches, the answer is “no.” This surprises me, since Southern Baptists statements on race have made news in recent years. Maybe that’s an old story now?

Anyway, here is some key material from Baptist Press:

"I don't know if we've ever been in a more sacred place," Blalock told messengers and guests. "As we gather in Mother Emanuel Church, the place itself speaks to us of the power of faith in Christ Jesus. We're in a place of safety because, while it's where hearts were broken, it's also the place where the life-saving power of God's grace is."

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The (S.C.) State launches five-part series on why Bible Belt folks are quitting church

The (S.C.) State launches five-part series on why Bible Belt folks are quitting church

The State, a McClatchy newspaper in Columbia, S.C., doesn’t have a religion reporter due to budget cuts, but its staff has sure published out a lot of religion news lately. Several weeks ago I wrote here about a piece by one of its writers on the state’s exotic snake industry and how snake-handling preachers in surrounding states get their serpents from South Carolina.

(In fact, there was a follow-up article on Saturday about Repticon, a huge snake show in Columbus that had a religion angle to it.)

This year, the staff embarked on a lengthy series called “Losing Faith: Why South Carolina is abandoning its churches.” At least 97 S.C. churches have closed since 2011, a subhead said. Other churches are dying slow deaths, losing thousands of members, so what’s happening to the Bible Belt?

Sarah Ellis, a local government reporter, wrote most of these pieces. In this one, the largest article in the series, she sets out the problem. (And as the author of the 2008 book “Quitting Church,” naturally I’m interested in how this topic has stayed in the news for a decade. My book came out 10 years ago next month.)

As this first article points out, three out of every four people in the South identify as Christian and 80 percent say religion is important in their lives. The South has the country’s highest rate of church attendance. Now we learn that adherence is slipping even in the Bible Belt.

Many churches are dying slow deaths, stuck in stagnation if not decline. And if they don’t do something, in the near future, they’ll share the fate of Cedar Creek United Methodist, a 274-year-old Richland County congregation that dissolved last year; Resurrection Lutheran, a church near downtown Columbia that will hold its last service on Sept. 2; and the dozens of churches that sit shuttered and empty around the state.

At the same time, some churches are growing, and some growing quickly. But they might not look much like the churches your grandparents (and their grandparents) were raised in. From meeting in unconventional places to tweaking their traditions, many churches are adapting, offering something different that many people thought the church couldn’t do for them.

What they’re doing reflects the results of an ongoing conversation among churches: How can they stay alive?

A lot in this piece repeats what’s long been reported elsewhere: The growing numbers of “nones;” aging church members not getting replaced by younger ones and a post-Christian culture where less and less people publicly identify themselves as Christians.


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'God made me black on purpose': Be sure to read Politico's exceptional profile of Sen. Tim Scott

'God made me black on purpose': Be sure to read Politico's exceptional profile of Sen. Tim Scott

Twitter has spoken: Tim Alberta's in-depth Politico Magazine story on U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., is a must-read. 

It's a fabulous profile. 

It's a powerful look at the most prominent black elected official in America today.

Amen. Amen. Amen.

For his part, Alberta — the magazine's chief political correspondent — tweeted that Scott is as complex and fascinating a character as he has met in politics." The journalist's exceptionally well-told story reflects that.

Now, about the faith angle: From the piece's title — "God made me black" — to the revealing details shared about Scott's religious journey, Politico does a nice job with that crucial element of what makes this influential senator tick. 

A big chunk of the compelling opening scenes:

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — At the end of Forest Avenue, a narrow artery slicing through blocks of muddy lots and decaying one-story homes, Tim Scott kicks at the gravel and waits. He had shared a table Saturday night with the world’s wealthiest man, Jeff Bezos, at the annual dinner of Washington’s Alfalfa Club, the ultra-exclusive gathering of the political and financial elite that began as a celebration of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s birthday. Now, it’s Monday morning and the junior senator from South Carolina is back home, in one of this challenged city’s most challenging neighborhoods, to get a haircut. The dramatic change of scenery doesn’t faze Scott, a man who straddles disparate universes with unusual ease. But he is not without powers of observation. As conspicuous as he was at the Alfalfa dinner—one of the few black faces in the Capital Hilton ballroom—I am all the more so here. “You know,” he says, leaning in, “you’re about to be like the third white dude ever inside this place.”
The Quick Service Barber Shop is the aesthetic pinnacle of Forest Avenue; its cream-colored exterior is dressed in red and blue paint announcing the proprietors and proclaiming Hebrews 12:14: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” That’s easier said than done around these parts. There was a shooting inside the shop a few months back, Scott tells me; his friends urged him to find a new barber. The senator wouldn’t hear of it. Scott got his very first haircut here a half-century ago, courtesy of Charles Swint. His son, Charles Swint Jr.—a minister who took over the family business—is the only person Scott trusts with a pair of clippers. When his white Cadillac Escalade finally pulls up, Swint Jr., a small, salt-and-pepper-haired man wearing a dark three-piece suit, jumps out and grins at Scott: “Praise the Lord!”

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Powerful piece on Emanuel AME jury foreman brings tears, and a lingering question

Powerful piece on Emanuel AME jury foreman brings tears, and a lingering question

I'm not sure where my fascination with juries started. Perhaps it began when I read John Grisham's 1996 legal thriller novel "The Runaway Jury," which later was turned into a movie starring John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman and Rachel Weisz. Or maybe it has something to do with the trials I've covered in my long journalism career.

Recently, my wife, Tamie, basically forced me to listen to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution podcast series in which the newspaper's editor, Kevin Riley, recounts his experience serving as the jury foreman in a double-murder case. As always, my wife knows best: The Breakdown  series is suspenseful and thought-provoking. I really enjoyed it.

Speaking of juries, an amazing narrative piece on the foreman in the trial of Dylann Roof — the gunman sentenced to death in the Emanuel AME Church massacre in Charleston, S.C. — was published over the weekend.

The byline on the piece in The Post and Courier won't surprise regular GetReligion readers (for the rest of you, click here, here and here to see what I'm talking about).

Yes, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Jennifer Berry Hawes has hit another home run:

When he went to court that day, summoned to jury duty, he hadn't expected to step into a dark chapter of Charleston’s history. His job had kept him on two continents in the months prior, so he wasn’t up on the local news.
When he arrived in the federal courtroom as juror No. 102, he glanced at the defendant in a striped jail jumpsuit — a slim young white man with a bowl haircut. 
Dylann Roof.
Along with the final herd of 67 potential jurors, the last of those winnowed from a pool of 3,000, Gerald Truesdale crammed onto a crowded bench. He listened to 17 of the 18 numbers called out for those would serve on the jury or as alternates.
Each rose and walked to the jury box, then took a seat.
One more to go. He prepared to leave.
“Juror No. 102.”
Given his job as a corporate executive, Truesdale was used to moving in front of large groups. Yet now he felt shaky as he rose from the third row. All eyes watched him step through a waist-high swinging door, across the courtroom and toward the last empty seat in the jury box.
The foreman’s chair.

Hawes' story marks the first time any jurors in the Roof case have shared their stories.

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Victim's blood-stained Bible 'reminds me of the blood Jesus shed for me and you, Dylann Roof'

Victim's blood-stained Bible 'reminds me of the blood Jesus shed for me and you, Dylann Roof'

Wow.

So powerful.

That's the only way to describe the lede on today's front-page Post and Courier story on victim impact statements to Dylann Roof, the condemned gunman in the Emanuel AME church massacre:

Clutching the blood-stained Bible she had with her when Dylann Roof executed nine family and friends around her, Felicia Sanders told the self-avowed white supremacist in court Wednesday that she still forgives him for his actions. They have scarred her life but haven't shaken her faith.
Addressing Roof the day after a jury sentenced him to death, Sanders said the mass shooting that killed nine black worshippers at Emanuel AME Church in June 2015 has left her unable to hear a balloon pop or an acorn fall without being startled. She can no longer shut her eyes when she prays.
But she will carry on, she told him, and continue to follow the words of God still clear in the battered Bible she cherishes.
"I brought my Bible to the courtroom ... shot up," she said. "It reminds me of the blood Jesus shed for me and you, Dylann Roof."
Sanders, who lost her son Tywanza and her aunt Susie Jackson in the shooting, told Roof that when she looks at him she sees "someone who is cold, who is lost, who the devil has come back to reclaim." 

As many times as I've praised the Charleston, S.C., daily's coverage of the massacre and its aftermath — most recently on Wednesday — I know I sound like a broken record.

But the latest story by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jennifer Berry Hawes and her Post and Courier colleagues is again filled with relevant, compelling religious details such as these:

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As Emanuel AME gunman gets death, looking for faith — and finding it — on victims' side

As Emanuel AME gunman gets death, looking for faith — and finding it — on victims' side

It's impossible to tell the story of the Emanuel AME church massacre without a huge dose of faith.

All along, we at GetReligion have praised the unsurpassed local coverage of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jennifer Berry Hawes and her colleagues with the Post and Courier, the daily newspaper in Charleston, S.C.

In the wake of gunman Dylann Roof receiving a federal death sentence Tuesday, we again point readers to Hawes & Co.'s banner coverage of the decision.

But I also want to call special attention to a national story on Roof's sentencing, via the New York Times: 

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Dylann S. Roof, the unrepentant and inscrutable white supremacist who killed nine African-American churchgoers in a brazen racial rampage almost 19 months ago, an outburst of extremist violence that shocked the nation, was condemned to death by a federal jury on Tuesday.
The jury of nine whites and three blacks, who last month found Mr. Roof guilty of 33 counts for the attack at this city’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, returned their unanimous verdict after about three hours of deliberations in the penalty phase of a heart-rending and often legally confounding trial.

The Times' story is full of strong and appropriate religion content, including this reaction:

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