Academia

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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Same-sex dating on evangelical campus: Are there two sides of this hot-button story?

Same-sex dating on evangelical campus: Are there two sides of this hot-button story?

Thirty years ago, I asked a gay theologian in Denver a blunt question, while we were thinking out loud about the distant possibility that gay marriage would become a reality.

The question: Did he know anyone in the gay theological world — this man was well connected — who thought that gay women and men should remain virgins until taking vows and forming a monogamous, lifelong relationship with a partner?

After laughing out loud, he said, “No.” The debates, he said, would be about the meaning of the word “monogamous”? Few gay men, in particular, would accept what he called the “twin rocking chairs into the future” approach to absolute sexual fidelity.

About 15 years ago, I asked another gay activist if LGBTQ people lobbying for change in Christian higher education had considered attacking a very specific fault line: If Christian college leaders asked students to promise not to have sex outside of marriage, what would be the doctrinal grounds for banning gay dating?

He said: That’s a very interesting point. That’s going to be an issue someday.

Put those two questions together and you get the tensions on the campus of Azusa Pacific University, where administrators briefly approved a policy stating that gay romance — short of intercourse — was as welcome on the campus as straight. The trustees quickly nixed that revolutionary change.

During this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in), host Todd Wilken and I talked about the APU furor, focusing on a particularly lousy, one-sided news report on the subject that ran in The Los Angeles Times — a newspaper once known for its quality religion-news work.

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Azusa Pacific, doctrine and sex, again: Los Angeles Times acts as cheerleader for one side

Azusa Pacific, doctrine and sex, again: Los Angeles Times acts as cheerleader for one side

After 15 years of work here at GetReligion, it’s easy to describe the question that I hear more than any other when I get into discussions with readers of the blog.

The question: Do you ever get frustrated having to write posts about the same issues in mainstream news, over and over, criticizing the same errors — noting the same holes, the same biases, the same “religion ghosts”?

The answer: Yes, it’s frustrating. However, when we see problems over and over, that means we have to write about them. The repetition shows that the problem is real and is not going away.

That brings me to a new Los Angeles Times story about the ongoing LGBTQ debates at Azusa Pacific University, an evangelical college in greater LA. Our own Julia Duin wrote about some of the early coverage in post the other day. Please check that out.

The new Times piece is the same song, all over again. Frankly, this is one of the most slanted stories I have seen in a mainstream publication in a long time. So here we go — again.

The liberal evangelical side of this equation is covered in depth, as it should be. But if you are looking for student voices, faculty voices, trustee voices on the traditional side of this doctrinal debate, you need to look somewhere else. Let’s walk through the overture of the piece.

On a recent fall day, a group of protesters gathered in a university courtyard, many holding rainbow flags. About 100 students and faculty members were fighting for LGBTQ rights on campus.

With a crowd this size, it might have been possible to get a specific figure. However, let me note that APU has about 5,600 students.

This does not mean that a small crowd of this kind is not important. It takes guts to protest your own school when it is a private school that, when you enrolled, you were told upfront the doctrinal standards that would frame campus life. We are talking about a voluntary association, a private school that no one has to attend. People choose to study there, work there, teach there.

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New lede for an old news story: Brett Kavanaugh and the high court’s Catholic majority

New lede for an old news story: Brett Kavanaugh and the high court’s Catholic majority

The U.S. Supreme Court isn’t only the highest court in the land, its judges have the responsibility to rule on cases that have a lasting impact on American politics, culture and religion. Driving those changes going forward will be a Catholic majority of justices who have become increasingly conservative, shifting the balance of the court for years to come.

The bitter partisan divide over Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court — including weeks of debate over the credibility regarding allegations dating back to the 1980s that he had sexually assaulted a fellow teenager at a party – revealed how polarized politically the country has become since President Trump’s election just two years ago. To conservatives, Kavanaugh is a man smeared with unproven accusations; liberals consider him a danger in the #MeToo age.

Just 20 percent of people in the United States identify as Catholic, a number that is in decline, according to a Pew Research study. As the president has vowed to chip away at abortion rights (legalized in 1973 by the court in the Roe v. Wade decision), it will be conservative Catholics who will be tasked with doing so in the coming years. Aside from Kavanaugh, the Catholics on the Supreme Court include Chief Justice John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Sonia Sotomayor. With the exception of Sotomayor, the other four justices are part of the court’s conservative wing. The remaining justices — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan — are Jewish.

“I do think, however, that the Catholics on the court do fairly represent Catholicism. Roe v. Wade is only one of many issues that are important to Catholics,” said Anne Lofaso, a professor at West Virginia University College of Law. “Indeed, most Catholic abhor abortion. They split on the question whether the government should prohibit others from exercising their right, not so much on whether they would have an abortion. There is a spectrum of issues that Catholics care about ranging from what constitutes marriage, abortion, birth control, poverty, etc. People are not monolithic. We tend to pick and choose what aspects of who we are will be emphasized — hence, the phrase ‘cafeteria Catholic’ … Roberts and Alito represent one end of the spectrum. Sotomayor, a lapsed Catholic, represents another.”   

Some critics have called the current makeup of the Supreme Court a “Catholic boys club” given that they dominate the majority and are male conservatives.

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Azusa Pacific's shift on LGBTQ issues gets a round of boos from most media

Azusa Pacific's shift on LGBTQ issues gets a round of boos from most media

For the past month, we at GetReligion have been following a story at Azusa Pacific University, an evangelical institution about 25 miles east of Los Angeles at the base of the San Gabriel mountains.

A few weeks ago, the school’s administration lifted its ban on same-sex dating relationships, saying that LGBT students could be romantically involved on campus. (However, they were expected not to be having sex; a stricture that heterosexual students were also expected to observe). This caused much rejoicing among gay students and their allies and it was an unusual step for a conservative Protestant college, to say the least.

Then the school’s trustees stepped in and reversed that decision. The San Gabriel Valley Tribune, which has had the most complete coverage thus far, picks it up here:

Azusa Pacific University students linked arms and prayed for one another Monday in response to the university board’s decision to reinstate a ban on LGBTQ relationships late last week.

Two hundred students gathered in front of the Richard and Vivian Felix Event Center on Monday morning in support of LGBTQ students who may have been hurting as a result of the reinstatement of the ban. A clause banning same-sex relationships had been removed from the student code of conduct by administrators at the start of the semester but reinstated on Friday…

In time for the Aug. 27 start of the fall semester and following months of discussions between students and university leaders, Azusa Pacific had removed a section from its student conduct policy that outlawed LGBTQ relationships on campus. The altered language referenced a standing ban on pre-marital sex but dropped any mention to orientation.

When the APU student newspaper published an article on Sept. 18 about the move, the 119-year-old university received some kudos but significantly more criticism, especially from Christian media outlets and pundits.

At this point, the newspaper links to (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President) Al Mohler’s Twitter feed.

Headlines claimed the university had “caved,” “surrendered” and was “Losing ‘God First.’”

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Religion News Service: Movie claims 'red tsunami' will vindicate Donald Trump in November

Religion News Service: Movie claims 'red tsunami' will vindicate Donald Trump in November

In all the sturm und drang of the Kavanaugh-Ford hearings, a Religion News Service story by Steve Rabey (an early GetReligion contributor) on a new Christian film about Donald Trump escaped many peoples’ notice.

Which is unfortunate, in that secular America doesn’t get how vehemently many people believe that God orchestrated President Trump’s 2016 victory. And what’s more, many of those people believe God has mandated another victory for Trump in 2020.

You’ve not heard this? Folks, you’re not reading the right web sites. More below:

(RNS) — Mark Taylor is sure he knows why Donald Trump became president.

Forget Hillary hatred, white anger, Russian interference or voter turnout. Trump’s victory was God’s will, said Taylor. Taylor said he knows this because God told him so.

In 2011, while watching an interview with Trump on TV, Taylor says he heard a voice saying, “The Spirit of God says I’ve chosen this man, Donald Trump, for such a time as this.”

And the Almighty is just getting started, said Taylor, a former firefighter who has published 23 “prophetic words,” many about Trump’s presidency.

The presidential prediction is detailed in “The Trump Prophecy,” a new film produced with the help of faculty and students at Liberty University — some of whom later rejected its message — that will be shown in some 1,200 theaters on Oct. 2 and 4.

It’s not so much evangelical Protestants who are pushing this idea, but a daughter movement made up of charismatics and Pentecostals (linked up with Liberty University film people). I’ve been amazed over the years how few religion reporters follow these folks, even though this demographic was instrumental in getting Trump elected. Plus, a growing percentage of world Christianity is Pentecostal/charismatic (see this classic major Pew Forum study). Visit Brazil, if you don’t believe me. And much of Africa.

The film is part of a small but influential “Trump prophecy” movement that proclaims the current administration is divinely ordained and condemns its critics as servants of Satan.

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A really old debate is back: Does the Old Testament belong in Christian Bibles?

A really old debate is back: Does the Old Testament belong in Christian Bibles?

NORMAN’S QUESTION:

Do the Old and New Testaments belong together?

(Commenting from a stance critical toward Christians, Norman adds that ignorance of history underlies their “comfortable view that the Bible is one and that there is no problem between the Old and New Testaments.”)

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

This classic and complex theme is erupting anew thanks to a U.S. Protestant megachurch pastor cited below. Also, churches have long faced strife over the authority and interpretation of the Old Testament due to the now-disputed teaching (that was carried over into the New Testament) against homosexual relations.

In this “Religion Q & A” item (your new postings via the Website always welcome!!), Norman accurately calls attention to some history. The status of the Old Testament became a pressing issue the church needed to decide in the 2nd Century A.D. Marcion of Pontus, among others, drew a radical distinction between what he saw as the problematic Yahweh of the Old Testament versus the loving God and Father of Jesus Christ in writings that were to form the New Testament.

The church declared Marcion a heretic and consolidated for all time that the Old Testament is part of its Bible alongside the New Testament books, authoritative Scripture for Christians as well as Jews.

Norman further observes that influential 20th Century liberal Protestant thinkers in Germany such as Adolf von Harnack and Rudolf Bultmann echoed Marcion by downplaying the spiritual worth of the Old Testament. He says they “unknowingly contributed to the rise” of the so-called German Christians with their “non- and anti-Jewish” version of the faith. This movement pretty much gained control over Protestantism and accommodated the blatantly anti-Semitic Nazi rulers. Theologians like “neo-orthodox” titan Karl Barth courageously defied this unbiblical heresy in the great Theological Declaration of Barmen (1934).

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What happens when modern Mennonites attempt to find peace on LGBTQ issues?

What happens when modern Mennonites attempt to find peace on LGBTQ issues?

You know that times are tough when even the Mennonites are fighting.

As is almost always the case, reporters who dig deep will find that they are dealing with a conflict that is rooted in theology, not politics (as defined in the actual James Davison Hunter “Culture Wars” book).

Yes, as is almost always the case, we are talking about another doctrinal dispute about the Sexual Revolution — LGBTQ issues to be specific. That brings us to an important Religion News Service update on the Mennonite wars.

Pay close attention to this story’s reference to the “consensus” decision-making traditions in this flock and its attempts to live in peace, despite clashes over doctrines rooted in centuries of Christian tradition. After all, we are talking about some of the freest of all “free church” believers. We will come back to that. Here is the overture:

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (RNS) — The 80 or so people who gather on Sunday at the Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, like many other members of the Mennonite Church USA, are accustomed to singing hymns a cappella in four-part harmony and making decisions by consensus.

It was by consensus more than two years ago that the congregation decided, after a year of study, to welcome LGBTQ people into the full life of the church — a decision that led its pastor perform a same-sex wedding between two women. That wedding tested core Mennonite tenets about sexuality and hastened a growing realignment in this denomination that traces its roots to the 16th-century Anabaptists.

The response from Chapel Hill’s regional body was swift: The Virginia Mennonite Conference immediately suspended pastor Isaac Villegas’ ordination credentials and put off any review or resolution.

In response, the congregation transferred its membership this summer to a conference of Midwestern churches in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. The Central District, with its headquarters in Goshen, Ind., not only admitted the North Carolina congregation into full membership; last month it also restored Villegas’ ordination credentials.

Sound familiar?

If you have followed the Sexual Revolution wars in oldline liberal Protestantism, you will recognize what is happening here. It’s called the “local option” approach to doctrine.

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With elections looming, let’s freshen up that old evangelicals-and-Trump theme

With elections looming, let’s freshen up that old evangelicals-and-Trump theme

Time for reporters who cover politics, or religion, or both, to start planning those big-picture election analyses.

If they’re like The Religion Guy, desks and files are all a-clutter with clippings about why oh why so many evangelicals voted for President Donald Trump and why so many still support him.

Pardon The Guy for once again griping about media neglect of why, oh why, non-Hispanic Catholics also helped deliver the states that gave Trump the White House. Exit polling showed Trump was backed by 81 percent of white evangelicals (with 40 percent casting those votes reluctantly), but also 60 percent of white Catholics.

These numbers are very close to both groups’ Republican support in 2012, but increases from white Catholics’ 52 percent and evangelicals’ 74 percent in 2008.

The fresh angle to exploit is accumulating evidence of broad change across America, with today’s Trumpublican Party as a mere symptom. Presumably Nov. 6 will tell us more about alienated white Americans who resent elitists in education, economics and cultural influence. Here’s some material journalists should ponder.

Recall that in 2012 Charles Murray analyzed five decades of data in “Coming Apart: The State of White America” to profile the growing gap in behavior and values between a thriving upper class that he contrasted with an emerging lower class that suffers eroding family and community life, religion included.

That same year, University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox and colleagues issued a less-noticed but important academic study on the decline of religious and family life for the white working class, under the snappy headline “No Money, No Honey, No Church.”

In April, 2017, pundit Peter Beinart wrote a prescient piece for The Atlantic titled “Breaking Faith.” He contended that a secularized America with so many citizens lacking involvement in religious groups (yes, that much-discussed rise of the “nones”) means many identify the politics of “us” versus “them” in increasingly “primal and irreconcilable ways.”

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