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Why did that bizarre AR-15 wedding-renewal rite get big-time national news play?

Why did that bizarre AR-15 wedding-renewal rite get big-time national news play?

"Crossroads" host Todd Wilken opened our conversation this week with a rather snarky question: Why did those rather bizarre AR-15 infused wedding rededication rites at the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary draw attention from national media? (Click here to tune that in.)

Obviously, it had something to do with the mass-shooting in Parkland, Fla.

So this story had guns. That's a very big deal right now.

What else? This is the snarky part. The Associated Press report featured a car in parking lot with a sign requesting prayer for President Donald Trump. So the story had -- sort of -- the Trump factor. There was an earlier "President Trump Thank You" dinner.

What else? Maybe a bit more snark. It also had amazing visual images -- always crucial in a world of glowing screens -- showing lots of very non-mainstream looking religious people. The crowns made out of rifle bullets were especially nice.

Thus, Wilken said, you have guns, Trump and crazy religious people. And the tsunami of Parkland follow-up stories on AR-15s provided the news hook, turning a rather strange local or regional story into a national story. Take it away NPR:

Hundreds of faithful at a Pennsylvania church on Wednesday carried AR-15-style rifles in adherence to their belief that a "rod of iron" mentioned in the Bible refers to the type of weapon that was used in last month's mass shooting in Parkland, Fla.
The armed ceremony at World Peace and Unification Sanctuary in Newfoundland, about 20 miles southeast of Scranton, featured gun-toting worshippers, some wearing crowns of bullets as they participated in communion and wedding ceremonies.
Attendants carefully placed a zip tie into the receiver magazine well of each weapon to assure that a clip could not be loaded.
Concern over Wednesday's gathering prompted a nearby elementary school to cancel classes for the day.

Now, pay close attention to that last part. This congregation has held these rites before. Were classes at that school cancelled then?

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Death outside Waco: Did Mount Carmel believers die because the experts didn't get religion?

Death outside Waco: Did Mount Carmel believers die because the experts didn't get religion?

The subject of the class at Baylor University was contemporary movements in American religious life. On this particular day, the subject under discussion -- with the help of a guest speaker -- was debates about the meaning of the hot-button word "cult."

I was taking the class as part of my master's degree studies during the late 1970s in Baylor's unique church-state studies program, an interdisciplinary program build on studies in history, theology, political science and law. This particular class was important, since legal disputes about new religious movements have helped define the boundaries of religious tolerance in our culture.

To paraphrase one of my professors: Lots of people with whom you would not necessarily want to have dinner have helped defend your religious freedom. True tolerance is almost always tense.

The speaker in our class that day was a soft-spoken leader in a ground that would become infamous more than a decade later -- the Branch Davidians. His name was Perry Jones and it would be another five years or so until a young guitar player and Bible-study savant named Vernon Howell would arrive at the group's 77-acre Mount Carmel headquarters. Howell, of course, would change his name to David Koresh. Jones' daughter Rachel married Koresh, who would eventually become a polygamist.

The main thing I remember about listening to Jones that day, and talking to him after class, was his consistent emphasis on pacifism and biblical prophecies about the End Times -- remaining doctrinal ties back to Seventh-day Adventism, the movement from which the Davidians split decades earlier.

Why share this information? Well, this was the rather personal frame around the contents of my On Religion column this past week and the "Crossroads" podcast that followed. (Click here to tune that in.)

Both focused on religious issues -- in journalism and public life -- addressed in the six-part Paramount Network miniseries called "Waco," which will run through the end of this month.

It was, to say the least, rather haunting to see Perry Jones fatally wounded in the dramatic recreation of the first moments of the two-hour gunfight on Feb. 28, 1993 that opened the 51-day siege outside Waco by an army of federal agents. The hellish fire that ended it all -- its cause remains the subject of fierce debates -- claimed the lives of 76 men, women and children.

Were the Branch Davidians truly a "cult"?

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A complicated trinity in the news: Dr. Ben Carson, Donald Trump and Ellen G. White

A complicated trinity in the news: Dr. Ben Carson, Donald Trump and Ellen G. White

If you are looking for an authoritative figure who represents the views of mainstream Protestant evangelicalism in America, I would trust the Rev. Billy Graham way more than I would Donald Trump.

Take, for example, how evangelicals view the evolution (a dangerous word in this context) of some of the core doctrines in Seventh-day Adventism. While there are still evangelicals who like to use the word "cult" to describe this movement -- in a theological, not sociological sense of that word -- there are many more who, following in the footsteps of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, have come to view Adventists as small-o orthodox Christians.

There are complicated issues at stake here linked to the views of early Adventist leaders about the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), the divinity of Jesus Christ, biblical authority and other doctrines, including the role of Ellen White as a prophet. Journalists who are covering the GOP primaries do not have to master all the fine details on these matters, but they do need to find some quality sources for background as long as Dr. Ben Carson is on the scene and his critics -- like Trump -- are using fighting words to describe the candidate's faith.

Consider, for example, this chunk of a USA Today story in the wake of Trump's sucker-punch comment about Seventh-day Adventism. The scene is Iowa, of course:

Carson's Seventh-day Adventist connection concerns Cedar Rapids retiree Barbara Nuechterlein.
"I just feel that -- how can I say it. All these religions are good, and none of us know which one is right, but I think Sunday is the day of the Sabbath created by the Lord, not Saturday," said Nuechterlein, who described herself as the first woman to work on a 17-man team at an Iowa electric company decades ago.
Nuechterlein also has qualms about Adventists who believe in the writings of evangelist Ellen White as much as they believe in biblical scripture.
"They're entitled to believe what they believe, and that's what makes America great," she said. 

Welcome to the debates about Ellen G. White and her recognized role as a prophet for Adventists.

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The Atlantic finds new sect: Southern Baptist Convention

Maybe someone at The Atlantic was trying to be clever or just writing too fast. Or maybe its online article about the Southern Baptist Convention told a subtler story: a condescending attitude toward the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. “Baptists, Just Without the Baptisms,” quips the headline, rather exaggerated but still arguable if you want to get readers’ attention. The included bar graph does show rates have been falling fairly steadily since 1999. The article also tells of failures to baptize most members between 12 and 29 years old.

But those of us who care about words found our eyes drawn elsewhere in the piece. First, the subhead:

A task force of Southern Baptist ministers reports its finding on the sect’s declining rate of dunkings, saying, “We have a spiritual problem.”

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