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Friday Five: Forgiveness and justice, Scouting and faith, Tree of Life anniversary, Eric Metaxas

Friday Five: Forgiveness and justice, Scouting and faith, Tree of Life anniversary, Eric Metaxas

I’m back home in Oklahoma after a two-week trip that took me from Las Vegas (for the Religion News Association annual meeting) to Searcy, Ark. (for the 96th Bible lectureship at Harding University, the alma mater of Botham Jean).

Other stops along the way included Los Angeles, a Rust Belt town in Ohio and Chick-fil-A drive-thru lines in at least three states.

I’m looking forward to resting up a bit this weekend.

First, though, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: I highlighted the viral story of “The hug seen around the world: Botham Jean's brother forgives ex-officer who killed his brother” in a post Thursday.

I focused on a splendid front-page story in the Dallas Morning News. Among the plethora of coverage by major media, another good piece was this one in the Washington Post looking at the debate over forgiveness that the hug ignited.

My post noted that the brother wasn’t the only person to hug convicted murder Amber Guyger. The judge did, too, and gave her a Bible.

I wrote:

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That question again: Why did America 'lose its religion' around 1990? Or did it?

That question again: Why did America 'lose its religion' around 1990? Or did it?

Six days after the eminent Emma Green of The Atlantic and TheAtlantic.com walked off with three major first-place prizes at the Religion News Association convention, her staff colleague Derek Thompson plunged into a perennial puzzle on the beat. The breathless headline announced, “Three Decades Ago, America Lost Its Religion. Why?”

Once again, we’re talking about the growth of “Nones” who shun religious affiliation.

One can hope Thompson did not write that hed and was denied the right to change it. As the commentariat is well aware, America did not lose its religions (American religions are always plural) . Rather, “organized religion” began losing more individuals — mostly from the mushy middle of the spectrum, in terms of practicing a faith — though dropouts often retained an intriguing melange of religious ideas and practices.

Thompson asks, “What the hell happened around 1990?”

Was that really a magic year? He cites three explanations from Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith for the rise of the nones — the end of the Cold War (yep, that came in 1989-1991), alleged alienation due to Republicans’ link with the “Christian Right” (which had long roots and gained visibility starting earlier, in 1980), and the 9/11 attacks by radical Muslims that sullied all religions (and occurred a full decade later). On the last point, you’d have thought damaged esteem for Islam would inspire renewed interest in Christianity and Judaism.

The year 2000 might be a better starting point for America’s religious recession. And any analysis should note that the important “Mainline” Protestant decline started way back in the mid-1960s. The biggest evangelical group, the Southern Baptist Convention, only began to slowly slip in 2007. As for Thompson’s nones, Pew Research cites the noticeable lurch downward from 2007, when they totaled an estimated 36.6 million, to the 55.8 million count just seven years later.

Chronology aside, Smith himself might agree with The Guy on the big flaw in the journalistic ointment. This is another of those many thumbsuckers that are interested mostly in white evangelical Protestants. The writer largely ignores other large faith sectors like Catholics, Mainline/liberal Protestants and African-American Protestants of various kinds. And what about Latino Pentecostals?

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WABAC machine time again: Many Americans indifferent on politics? Ask different questions

WABAC machine time again: Many Americans indifferent on politics? Ask different questions

Wait! You mean all of America isn’t represented in the daily tsunami of acid that is political Twitter?

That’s the thesis of an interesting, but ultimately hollow, New York Times piece built on three days of Gray Lady representatives doing National Geographic-style heart-to-hearts with ordinary Americans who live in and around Scranton, Pa.

Why focus on this specific location, if the goal is to listen to the heart of America? Why, isn’t the logic — the political logic, that is — perfectly obvious? Here is the overture:

SCRANTON, Pa. — This hilly, green stretch of northeastern Pennsylvania is a critical front line in next year’s battle for control of the country. Donald J. Trump made huge gains among white working-class voters here, and Democrats want to win them back. Joe Biden, who was born here, can’t stop talking about it.

But just because Mr. Biden can’t stop talking about Scranton doesn’t mean everyone in Scranton is talking about Mr. Biden, the president, or politics at all. In three days of interviews here recently, many people said they were just scraping by and didn’t have a lot of patience for politics. Many said they didn’t follow the news and tried to stay out of political discussions, whether online or in person. National politics, they said, was practiced in a distant land by other people and had little effect on their lives.

This leads to this somber double-decker Times headline:

The America That Isn’t Polarized

Political institutions may be more divided than they’ve been in a century and a half, but how divided are Americans themselves?

So the goal is to learn why many average Americans are not as enraged about politics as are, well, New York Times editors and reporters who live on Twitter? Or think of it another way: Is this article, in part, a response to liberal and conservative critics (shout out to Liz Spayd, the Times public editor pushed out two years ago) who have complained that America’s most influential newsroom isn’t all that interested in covering half or more of America?

So what subjects were avoided in this epic piece? For starters, here are some terms that readers will not encounter as they work through it — “Supreme Court,” “God,” “abortion,” “schools,” “bathrooms” and, to probe recent fights among conservatives, “Drag queen story hour.”

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Democrats embrace the Nones: Religious scenarios for the big 2020 vote are taking shape

Democrats embrace the Nones: Religious scenarios for the big 2020 vote are taking shape

OK. America is months away from March 3, when primaries in California and 14 other states may well fix the final shape of the Democrats’ presidential contest and whether it might grind away until the July convention.

But the 2020 campaign is already fully launched and running red hot, so let’s scan some scenarios for political reporters who are watching religion and religion reporters who are watching politics.

The one novel angle this round is Pete Buttigieg’s pitch to inspire voters who are liberal in both religion and politics to at last get organized for victory. The Guy suspects he’s more likely to move up from the second tier and snag the nomination than that such a New Religious Left will deliver the goods in ballot boxes. Still, Mayor Pete’s prospects are newsworthy because he’s out to scramble the religious dynamics of the past four decades.

However, the Democratic National Committee proclaimed the bigger reality in a significant resolution (.pdf here) at its August meeting in secular San Francisco that roused scant MSM interest — but energized conservative and secularist media. The party championed the patriotism and morals of religiously unaffiliated Americans and said they “should be represented, included and heard” because they are now “the largest religious group within the Democratic Party.”

The party can count noses. Or its leaders noted the predictions of religion-and-politics experts like scholar John C. Green of the University of Akron.

Party leaders said the nonreligious were 17 percent of 2018 voters, and they make up a third of today’s Democrats vs. only 17 percent in 2007 when Barack Obama launched his campaign. They constitute something like a fourth of the overall U.S. population and 35 percent of those under age 30. So there’s “potential to deliver millions more votes” through “targeted outreach” that boosts turnout.

The Democrats’ statement ignored the ground-level fact that religiously unaffiliated Americans tend to be less engaged in civic affairs, and harder to contact and organize, than members of religious congregations. Crucially, the above data remind us that two-thirds of Democrats remain nominally or actively religious. Combined with religiously inclined Independents, they’ll determine who wins.

How to get 271 electoral votes?

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#RNA2019 awards honor nation's top religion writers -- many of these names will be familiar

#RNA2019 awards honor nation's top religion writers -- many of these names will be familiar

In a post last year, I described Emma Green’s piece for The Atlantic headlined “The Jews of Pittsburgh Bury Their Dead” as one of the best religion stories of 2018.

“It’s remarkable in a number of ways,” I wrote. “The strength of the idea and the implementation of it. The quality of the writing and the specific details contained therein. The depth of the religious knowledge and the ability to convey it in understandable prose.”

Green has established herself as one of the nation’s preeminent religion journalists, and it could be argued — especially after Saturday night — that she occupies that top spot all alone, especially in magazine work blending news reporting and commentary.

Here’s what I mean: At the Religion News Association’s annual awards banquet here in Las Vegas, Green got plenty of exercise walking back and forth from her seat to pick up first-place awards.

She won top honors in three categories: for the Supple Award for Excellence in Religion Feature Writing, for Excellence in Religion News Analysis and for Excellence in Magazine News Religion Reporting. A video of the awards banquet can be viewed online.

At some point, RNA typically posts links to all the winners’ stories, but I don’t see that as I’m typing this. However, I believer hearing reference to Green’s extraordinary story that I mentioned above.

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Friday Five: #RNA2019, pastor suicide, newspaper credibility, culture wars, hilarious sermons

Friday Five: #RNA2019, pastor suicide, newspaper credibility, culture wars, hilarious sermons

It’s day two of the Religion News Association annual conference in Las Vegas.

That’s right — the nation’s religion journalists are discussing faith and spirituality in Sin City.

More on that as we dive into Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: I wrote about the RNA meeting in my post Thursday.

By all means, follow the conference in real time via the #RNA2019 hashtag on Twitter. Also, the RNA is live-streaming sessions on its Facebook page. …

2. Most popular GetReligion post: “Believers must face this: All kinds of people (pastors too) wrestle with depression and suicide,” Terry Mattingly wrote in this week’s No. 1 most-clicked post.

If you haven’t, make sure to read the post. In it, tmatt noted that this is one of the most personal topics that he has ever touched on here at GetReligion. Yes, all of this is linked to one of the major national religion-news stories of last week — the suicide of the Rev. Jarrid Wilson, the 30-year-old founder of a a nationally known ministry for people struggling with depression and suicide. Then again, the recent 9/11 anniversary played a role in this post. And double make sure to listen to the related podcast.

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Quebec religious symbols law gets fair, if bewildered, treatment by news media pros

Quebec religious symbols law gets fair, if bewildered, treatment by news media pros

It’s called the Quebec religious symbols law and it’s an odd one.

Passed in June, public employees, such as police officers, government workers and school teachers, are forbidden from wearing any religious regalia. It’s been on appeal ever since and just got approved for a hearing in front of Canada’s highest court.

After plowing through several Canadian newspapers, I found the most succinct explanation in The Atlantic::

Bill 21, or its official name, “An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State,” was passed last month, after Quebec’s center-right government held a marathon parliamentary session—and curbed debate in the face of staunch opposition. Yet polls nevertheless show the legislation is popular—63 percent of Quebecers support a ban on judges, police officers, and prison guards wearing religious symbols; 59 percent back such a restriction on teachers, too. The legislation, which applies only to new hires or those who change jobs within an organization, means workers in positions of authority in public schools, courtrooms, law enforcement agencies and other places can no longer wear such symbols.

Being that this includes public school teachers (and aides too, I’m guessing), that’s a lot of now-forbidden jobs.

That this debate is happening in Quebec is no surprise, given its history and how it views itself compared with the rest of Canada. Some Quebecers fear that the broader Canadian policy of multiculturalism will erase their “distinct identity” as a French-speaking province. These concerns have translated into efforts such as Bill 21.

Actually, the Quebecers are copying what’s going on in France, where it’s been illegal to wear full face-coverings in public in France since 2010. (There is not a national ban on hijabs, which simply cover the woman’s head and hair.) Since 2004, it has also been illegal to wear conspicuous religious symbols, including headscarves but also yarmulkehs and crucifixes, in French state schools.

The province’s version of laicity is not quite the laïcité most commonly associated with France, which has a complete separation of religion from the public space, but it’s not too far off either…

However, the Canadian law is stricter than what was passed in France.

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Podcast puzzle: Why do editors send political reporters to cover complex religion stories?

Podcast puzzle: Why do editors send political reporters to cover complex religion stories?

It was the key moment in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast-radio session. Host Todd Wilken asked a relatively simple (you would think) question about mainstream news coverage of the Rev. David Platt’s decision to pray for President Donald Trump during a worship service at McLean Bible Church, a very influential D.C. Beltway megachurch.

This turned into a hot mess on Twitter (#NoSurprise). I wrote a GetReligion piece about the online controversy with this headline: “Praying for presidents? That's normal. Praying for Donald Trump? That fires up Twitter.

The initial coverage, of course, focused on the true religion in most American newsrooms — politics.

This brings me to the substance of Wilken’s question.

Toward the end of the first wave of coverage, Emma Green off The Atlantic wrote an essay — “On Praying for the President” — that paused and examined what actually happened at McLean Bible Church. She considered the history of pastors praying for presidents. She looked at the record of this particular minister. She also (#Amen) wrote about the actual contents of the prayer. In the body of the piece Green concluded:

What’s remarkable about this prayer is not that it happened, but that it shows how thoroughly the Trump era has opened the way for cynicism and outrage over even mundane, predictable Christian behavior. Within the world of evangelicalism, Platt does not roll with the hard-core Trump supporters; his prayer was studiously neutral, clear of boosterism and partisanship. While Trump has certainly amplified divisions among evangelicals over race, gender, and the rightful relationship between Christianity and politics, the choice to pray for a person in leadership is not a meaningful symbol of evangelicalism’s transformation under the 45th president.

Wilken asked this question: Why was Emma Green able to write that? Why did she “get” this story when many others did not?

The short answer is that Green is a religion-beat professional.

I could add, of course, that she is talented, works really hard and tries to accurately report the views of a wide range of religious believers, while working at a mainstream, left-of-center magazine of news and opinion. At this point, all of that goes without saying and Green consistently draws praise from religious conservatives as well as progressives. Anyone who reads GetReligion knows that, while we may debate with Green every now and then, this blog consistently praises her work. She often does more factual reporting in analysis pieces than others do in “hard-news” reports.

That’s the easy answer to Wilken’s question. In the podcast I used a rather long and complex sports metaphor (getting somewhat emotional in the process) that, I hope, went a bit deeper.

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Praying for presidents? That's normal. Praying for Donald Trump? That fires up Twitter

Praying for presidents? That's normal. Praying for Donald Trump? That fires up Twitter

Is it controversial to pray for the president of the United States?

Not really. Anyone who knows anything about religious life in America knows that, week after week, people in a wide variety of religious congregations pray for the president (and the nation’s leaders in general) in a wide variety of ways. Sometimes these prayers are short, inserted in a longer litany of concerns (as in the Orthodox Christian parish I attend) and sometimes they are longer and more specific.

Here is a special-use prayer drawn from the world of liturgical mainline Protestantism (The Book of Common Prayer used in the Episcopal Church):

For the President of the United States and all in Civil Authority

O Lord our Governor, whose glory is in all the world: We commend this nation to thy merciful care, that, being guided by thy Providence, we may dwell secure in thy peace. Grant to the President of the United States, the Governor of this State (or Commonwealth), and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do thy will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in thy fear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

Next question: Is it controversial to pray for President Donald Trump?

Apparently so. It appears that this answer is linked to another question that, for millions of Americans (including many journalists) remains controversial: Should Trump be recognized, in just about any way, as the president of the United States?

The world of Twitter journalism just had a fascinating firestorm about these questions — racing from a news report at The Hill all the way to a calm essay by Emma Green at The Atlantic, with a variety of comments by chattering-class voices in between. Let’s start with the politically charged basics, at The Hill: “Pastor defends prayer for Trump, says aim was not to endorse policies.” This event took place at one of the most high-profile evangelical megachurches near the D.C. Beltway.

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