The Gospel Coalition

Theology in headlines: When a terrorist starts quoting Calvinism, journalists should be careful

Theology in headlines: When a terrorist starts quoting Calvinism, journalists should be careful

No doubt about it, when a domestic terrorist starts defending his actions with concepts drawn from the great Protestant reformer John Calvin, it is time for journalists to up their games.

The manifesto published by John Earnest, the accused gunman at Chabad of Poway, is a classic example of a story that all but demands that newsrooms deploy one or two journalists with experience covering the nuts and bolts of religion and, to be specific, church history. Here is one of my earlier posts on this puzzle: “Weaponized Calvinism? Accused shooter said his salvation was assured, no matter what.”

The key is that Earnest was preaching a deadly sermon that — he stated this, in writing — had multiple sources. While he was clearly influenced by the conservative Calvinism of his home congregation, Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church, his words and the testimony of church members indicated that he had, for the most part, rejected much of what he heard during his days in a pew.

In the end, his manifesto took centuries of fierce anti-Semitism from sources online and mixed it with a key theme in Calvinism — that believers who have been chosen (the elect) by God are assured of salvation, no matter what. As Earnest said:

My God understands why I did what I did. … To my brothers in Christ of all races. Be strong. Although the Jew who is inspired by demons and Satan will attempt to corrupt your soul with the sin and perversion he spews — remember that you are secure in Christ.

During this week’s Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in) I stressed that reporters would need help navigating the astonishingly complex world of debates inside Calvinism. That was the bad news. The good news is that — because of several years of arguments about the alt-right and the heresy of white supremacy — there are lots of conservative Calvinists around who are ready to fire soundbites at these targets. They are, as I said, the theological equivalent of “lawyered up.”

There are places to head online to get a head start. Check out this giant double-decker headline at Christianity Today:

Who’s to Blame When the Shooter Is One of Our Own?

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Forget politics and focus on faith: Thinking about that 'evangelical' puzzle again

Forget politics and focus on faith: Thinking about that 'evangelical' puzzle again

Every now and then a columnist faces a writing challenge that requires a call to the copy desk asking what is or what is not appropriate language in a family newspaper.

Believe it or not, this even happens to folks like me who cover religion.

Consider, for example, this passage from one of my “On Religion” columns back in 2011 about debates — in journalism and in academia — about the meaning of the much-abused Godbeat f-word, “fundamentalist.”

Anyone who expects scholars to stand strong and defend a basic, historic definition will be disappointed. As philosopher Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame once quipped, among academics "fundamentalist" has become a "term of abuse or disapprobation" that most often resembles the casual semi-curse, "sumbitch."

"Still, there is a bit more to the meaning. ... In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views," noted Plantinga, in an Oxford Press publication. "That makes it more like 'stupid sumbitch.' ... Its cognitive content is given by the phrase 'considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.' "

Now, in the Donald Trump era, similar arguments have raged about the meaning of the word “evangelical.”

As a rule, journalists have — #DUH — attempted to turn “evangelical” into a political word, as opposed to a term linked to specific doctrines and church history. Many evangelical leaders have attempted to point reporters to the work of historian David Bebbington, who produced a short, focused set of four evangelical essentials. Here is one version of that:

Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a life long process of following Jesus

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Attention media folks: That White House PR event upset many on Southern Baptist right

Attention media folks: That White House PR event upset many on Southern Baptist right

To understand what's happening at the top of the Southern Baptist Convention these days, you really have to be willing to believe that, in the end, many religious believers truly believe that religious doctrine matters more than partisan politics.

Yes, I know. The headlines insist otherwise. Headlines tend to increase a few picas in size the minute the word "evangelicals" gets connected to the words "Donald Trump."

Here's a case in point. This past week, The New York Times basically ignored the dramatic national meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention -- with lots of developments linked to women and Baptists of color -- until it was possible to write a story with this headline: "Pence Reaches Out to Evangelicals. Not All of Them Reach Back."

But, hey, at least that one story did make an important point: One of the crucial tensions inside this particular SBC gathering was between clashing camps of solid "evangelicals." Actually, lots of people on both sides of that SBC debate about the Pence appearance would, under other circumstances, be called "fundamentalists" in the sacred pages of the Times.

This brings me to this weekend's think piece, which was written by Jonathan Leeman, editorial director of the 9Marks Journal and an active leader at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. He is also the author of a new book entitled, "How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age."

The headline: "Truth, Power, and Pence at the SBC." Here's how this essay opens: 

I’m sitting here at the Southern Baptist Convention. Earlier today Vice President Mike Pence addressed the convention. We were told he initiated the offer to speak. I wish we had not accepted.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m grateful to God for our nation. I want him to bless it. But here’s a question for my fellow Southern Baptists and evangelicals more broadly: can you name a place in the Bible where God sends a ruler of a (non-Israelite) nation to speak to God’s people? Is the pattern not just the opposite?

Now, what's this all about? Is it a missive from a "moderate" (which means "liberal," in current SBC speak) at an urban church in a blue-zip DC zip code within shouting distance of the Capitol dome? 

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Beyond Dallas, onrushing #ChurchToo furor may spell trouble for biblical 'complementarians'

Beyond Dallas, onrushing #ChurchToo furor may spell trouble for biblical 'complementarians'

At this writing we don’t know whether Paige Patterson will turn up for his star appearance to preach the keynote sermon at the June 12-13 Dallas meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

Whatever, thanks to Patterson, reporters will flock to this gathering of the biggest U.S. Protestant denomination.

That’s due to the mop-up after Patterson’s sudden sacking as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (per this GetReligion item). It’s a dramatic turn in the onrushing #ChurchToo furor hitting U.S. Protestants after decades of Catholic ignominy over sexual misconduct.

The ouster involved his callous attitudes on spousal abuse, rape and reporting, plus sexist remarks, as protested by thousands of Baptist women. Patterson and Southwestern are also cover-up defendants in a sexual molesting case against retired Texas state Judge Paul Pressler. The storied Patterson-and- Pressler duo achieved what supporters call the SBC’s “conservative resurgence” and opponents the “fundamentalist takeover.”     

 The prime figure among their younger successors is R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. He has denounced the current scandal as “a foretaste of the wrath of God,” and predicts ongoing woe for Southern Baptists and other  evangelicals. Doubtless he’s also upset over the downfall of SBC headquarters honcho Frank Page.

Mohler especially fears damage to the “complementarian” movement in which he and Patterson have been allied. It believes the Bible restricts women’s authority in church and home. Their evangelical foes charge that this theology disrespects women and their policy input, ignores victims’ voices and fosters abuse and cover-ups.

The Religion Guy has depicted the debate between “egalitarian” evangelicals and complementarians here. For other background, note this narrative from a female ex-professor at Southwestern.

Complementarians gained momentum with the 1987 launch of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, backed by conservatives including Patterson’s wife Dorothy, Mohler, Daniel Akin who succeeded Patterson’s as president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and many non-Baptists. 


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Thinking, with Andy Crouch, about the stunning power of celebrities in religion and ...

Thinking, with Andy Crouch, about the stunning power of celebrities in religion and ...

This is an unusual think piece, because its contents is primarily theological -- as opposed to journalistic.

However, the whole "think piece" concept is this: We're talking about articles that will be of interest to anyone who is interested in trends in religion in the news or the process of covering them in the mainstream press.

In this case, there are all kinds of links between Andy Crouch's subject in this recent post at The Gospel Coalition -- "It’s Time to Reckon with Celebrity Power" -- and the news. He even states that in the overture.

What Crouch has not done, however, is write out the names.

It was not a great week. In three separate cases in my immediate circles, a person with significant power at the top of an organization, each one a subject of flattering major media exposure during their career, was confronted with allegations of sexual misconduct and related misdeeds. In one case, the person resigned from his role and board memberships, accompanied by a direct and remorseful confession. In the second, the person resigned, but not without posting a defiant denial of all allegations against her. In the third, the person likewise denied all allegations in the strongest terms -- at one point with physical force, banging on a table -- and, as I write, remains in his position.
All three were, or at least had once been, seen as among the most exemplary Christian leaders of their generation, including by many who worked closely with them. While I wasn’t personally close to any of the three, I have experienced and benefited from their exceptional gifts in leadership and ministry, as have thousands or millions of others.

This was one of the pieces that I was thinking about this past week when, in my post about the "Crossroads" podcast, I listed the five "Big Idea" takeaways from my 30 years writing my national "On Religion" columns.

To be specific, note No. 5:

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Former GetReligionista explains: Why voting for the 'lesser of two evils' is still evil

Former GetReligionista explains: Why voting for the 'lesser of two evils' is still evil

Often, painful lessons are the ones that matter the most.

That has certainly been the case, over the past two years, for many evangelical Protestants here in America. Could you imagine, in the past, a politician being hit with the kinds of accusations made against GOP Senate nominee Roy Moore -- some of them backed up with impressive on-the-record evidence -- and seeing large numbers of evangelicals claim that they were more determined than ever to vote for him?

At the same time, the Donald Trump era -- broadly defined -- has offered many journalists a chance to realize that evangelicalism, even in predominately white congregations, is not a political and doctrinal monolith.

We are seeing new attention given, at last, to the evangelical left. Many reporters are also learning that there is a difference between evangelicals who enthusiastically embrace a Moore, or a Trump (think primary voters), and those who cast votes for these kinds of men with agonizing reluctance, or refuse to do so at all (think general elections).

The bottom line: Some of the most devastating commentary on Moore, and Trump, has come from scribes with impeccable conservative credentials, in terms of politics and Christian doctrine (the later of which is more important, as far as I am concerned).

With that in mind, please read the following think piece for Joe "GetReligionista Emeritus" Carter, a former mainstream journalist who now edits the website of The Gospel Coalition. The headline: "The Nonpartisan Solution to Our Roy Moore Problem."

This is strong stuff. So let's get started with this summary material near the top.

Journalists and news consumers: As you read this, you should be asking whether or not you have seen this evangelical perspective included in mainstream news coverage of the train wreck in Alabama.

As we have discovered over the past two years, so long as the flawed candidate can be considered the “lesser of two evils” (i.e., not a Democrat), then some evangelicals believe we can vote for them and keep a clean conscience.

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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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Maybe Twitter helped some editors see bigger puzzle of Trump and evangelicals

Maybe Twitter helped some editors see bigger puzzle of Trump and evangelicals

After months of "Evangelicals love Donald Trump!" coverage, it appears some major news organizations are starting to put together a few key pieces in the American Evangelical Protestant puzzle.

Is this because, in the wake of the very well-timed "hot mic" tape leak, more of these news reports are being written by veteran religion-beat professionals, as opposed to the tone-deaf folks in the political-journalism pack?

That is certainly a big part part of the picture.

Is it because of Twitter and other forms of social media, which allow editors to see (without needing to meet any of these religious nuts) evidence that the world of #NeverTrump #NeverHillary has existed on the cultural right since the start of the White House race? After all, how many pros in the Acela Zone follow developments in Utah or know about the Gospel Coalition? I'm amazed, even at this point in the game, how many journalists have never heard of the Rev. Russell Moore.

Before we get to the Sarah Pulliam Bailey round-up for today, it is significant that the Associated Press has produced a feature with the headline, "Why Do Evangelicals Prefer Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton?"

Of course, this headline should have included the word "some," as in "some evangelicals." Down in the body of the feature, AP made it rather clear that many -- perhaps even most -- religious conservatives are not planning to vote for Trump, but against you know who. This is not news to people who follow religion trends, but it will be surprising to some editors at daily newspapers:

Recent polls show the GOP presidential nominee drawing about 70 percent of the white evangelical vote. Although some evangelicals defended Trump's character, many couched their endorsements in pragmatic terms, focused on Trump's promise that he will appoint conservative justices to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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