Black church

Deja vu, all over again: Why is the rise of the old religious left an oldie that’s ever new?

Deja vu, all over again: Why is the rise of the old religious left an oldie that’s ever new?

One characteristic of our religion beat is that old story themes never die. Sometimes they don’t even evolve very much.

You know the headlines. “Local family redoes this year’s [pick a religious holiday] or “[Name of denomination] elects first [race or gender] official” or “Sensational find proves [pick your favorite Bible story]”or “Sensational find disproves [your most disliked Bible story]”

Another perpetual theme can be seen in the occasional announcements that a new “religious left” (lower case) is arising to challenge the “Religious Right” (usually upper case). This is rather strange, since through much of the 20th Century, religious politicking was largely liberal and it never disappeared. Activism remained especially central among African-American Protestants.

So the media were caught by surprise when the Rev. Jerry Falwell first joined the political thrum in 1979 with Moral Majority, followed by the Rev. Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, et al. Such upstarts continued to monopolize ink through evident (though uneven) impact, amplified by their opponents’ continual clear-and-present-danger alarms.

Now the man-bites-dog angle works in favor of religious liberals and a good story hunch to keep in mind is whether the religious left might launch an effective counterattack. Which brings us to this January 24 item on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” by veteran, award-winning correspondent Tom Gjelten, now a religion specialist.

“The provocations of President Trump may finally be changing” the religious right’s monopoly, he reported, bringing forth “a comparable effort” by religiously motivated liberals.

Gjelten’s exhibit A is Faith in Public Life (FPL), led by a Presbyterian Church (USA) minister, the Rev. Jennifer Butler. Her organization says it has recruited nearly 50,000 local faith leaders and seeks broad support from “mainline” Protestants, Catholics, Jews and those in other religions, in contrast with the right’s narrower religious constituency (as in conservative Protestants, conservative Catholics and many Orthodox Jews).

The FPL website assails President Donald Trump’s “white racist” policies. On immigration, the group opposes adding any miles to the border wall and the hiring of more border agents, wants the 2020 Census to fairly count people regardless of immigration status and fights “Islamophobia.” FPL favors “reproductive rights,” criminal justice reform, voting by felons, and “common sense” gun laws. It works for LGBT protections, and against efforts to “use religious freedom as a justification for discrimination.”

Gjelten admitted that “the religious left, having been largely eclipsed in recent years, has a ways to go before it can match the clout of the religious right.”

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Frederick Douglass is the ideal topic for this year’s Black History Month features

Frederick Douglass is the ideal topic for this year’s Black History Month features

In the 200th year of American independence, President Gerald Ford officially established February as national Black History Month. The idea grew out of African-Americans’ longstanding heritage week timed with the February birth dates of the white emancipator Abraham Lincoln and the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Douglass, the most powerful black orator and agitator during the campaign to end slavery, is the ideal topic for a religion feature this February. That’s due to a magisterial new biography that enjoys universal acclaim from critics, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” (Simon & Schuster).

The Guy recommends the book itself — 888 pages! — and interviews with author David W. Blight, a Yale University history professor who specializes in slavery, abolitionism and the Reconstruction period (Contacts: david.blight@yale.edu or 203-432-8521 or 203-432-3339). Notably, Blight portrays this heroic American with warts-and-all exposure of problematic aspects in public and private life. One example was Douglass’s typically Protestant assertion that Catholic belief in the papacy was a “stupendous and most arrogant lie.”

The touring Douglass moved audiences with addresses, often in churches, that were de facto sermons and made continual use of the Bible. Favorite themes were the Exodus of God’s children from Egypt and the moral denunciations from the Hebrew prophets. This was not a matter of tactical artifice, Blight observes, but an authentic expression of profound spiritual devotion.

In 1831, as a 13-year-old household slave in Baltimore, Douglass experienced a thoroughgoing conversion to — in his own words — “faith in Jesus Christ as the Redeemer, Friend, and Savior of those who diligently seek him.” He was chiefly influenced by sermons of two white Methodists and especially black lay preacher Charles Johnson. Blight says Douglass quickly developed a hunger for Bible reading, saw the world around him “in a new light,” and gained “new hopes and desire” that laid the foundation of his career.

As is frequently the case for Protestants, his faith was further deepened by a fellow layman, Charles Lawson, a semi-literate black laborer. The two would spend endless hours “singing, praying, and glorifying God,” Blight says.

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This just in: Not all Christians agree on marriage and sex! This schism even affects their schools!

This just in: Not all Christians agree on marriage and sex! This schism even affects their schools!

How did I miss this story?

Apparently, there is some kind of move afoot in elite media to push for the establishment of the Episcopal Church, or perhaps the United Church of Christ, as the state-mandated religion in the United States. Have you heard about this?

That’s one way to read the remarkable media response to Second Lady Karen Pence’s decision to return to the teaching at an ordinary evangelical Protestant school that attempts to defend ordinary conservative or traditional Christian doctrine on sexuality. (Yes, I am writing about this issue again.)

Why bring up Episcopalians? Well, Episcopal schools are allowed to have lifestyle and doctrinal covenants that defend their church’s evolving pronouncements blending liberal Christian faith with the editorial pages of The New York Times. Private schools — on left and right — get to define the boundaries of their voluntary associations.

These institutions can even insist that teachers, staff, parents and students affirm, or at least not publicly oppose, the doctrines that are the cornerstone of work in these schools. Try to imagine an Episcopal school that hired teachers who openly opposed the church’s teachings affirming same-sex marriage, the ordination of LGBTQ ministers, etc.

Now, after looking in that First Amendment mirror, read the top of the Times report on Pence’s heretical attempt to freely exercise her evangelical Protestant faith. The headline: “Karen Pence Is Teaching at Christian School That Bars L.G.B.T. Students and Teachers.

Actually, that isn’t accurate. I have taught at Christian colleges in which I knew gay students who affirmed 2,000 years of Christian moral theology or were willing to be celibate for four years. These doctrinal codes almost always focus on sexual conduct and/or public opposition to traditional doctrines. But back to the Gray Lady’s apologetics:

Karen Pence, the second lady of the United States, returned to teaching art this week, accepting a part-time position at a private Christian school that does not allow gay students and requires employees to affirm that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.

You could also say that the school requires its employees not to publicly oppose the teachings on which the school is built. That’s a neutral, accurate wording that would work with liberal religious schools, as well as conservative ones. Just saying. Let’s move on.

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As simple as a cartoon: At the New Yorker, white evangelicalism = Ku Klux Klan + patriarchy

As simple as a cartoon: At the New Yorker, white evangelicalism = Ku Klux Klan + patriarchy

I know reporters do not control the headlines assigned to their piece, so I am hoping Eliza Griswold was chagrined at the click-bait headline give to her recent New Yorker piece: “Evangelicals of Color Fight Back Against the Religious Right.

Where is this happening, I wondered. And what. precisely, is the “religious right” these days?

Answer: White evangelicals. Period.

You know: The evangelical Deep State that’s part Ku Klux Klan and part white patriarchy.

In recent years, I’ve noticed how Eliza Griswold is the major go-to writer who gets to explain the religious world to New Yorker readers. The daughter of former Episcopal Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, and more of a Christianity-and-Islam specialist, she didn’t exactly grow up in an evangelical context. I’m curious as to why she gets to define this group.

On a recent Sunday before dawn, Lisa Sharon Harper, a prominent evangelical activist, boarded a train from Washington, D.C., to New York City. Harper is forty-nine, and African-American, with a serene and self-assured manner. Although she had moved to D.C. seven and a half years ago, to work as the director of mobilizing for a Christian social-justice organization called Sojourners, she still considered New York her home. She missed its edgy energy, and was worn down by the political battles in Washington, which pitted her more and more aggressively against her fellow-evangelicals. On this frigid morning, she was on her way to Metro Hope, her old church in East Harlem. She couldn’t find anything like it in Washington, D.C. “It’s the South,” she told me. Black and Latinx-run evangelical churches committed to justice were scarce, she noted. …

With that, she dismisses a truckload of evangelical megachurch congregations in Prince George’s County in Maryland one of the richest majority black counties in the country. It wraps around the District’s eastern edge. You can’t live in Beltway land for a year or more, in you are a person who cares about church life, without hearing about the many huge, active churches in that area — black, white and mixed.

This is the first clue that this article is going to be as simplistic as a cartoon.

Harper is now the president of Freedom Road, a consulting group that she founded last year to train religious leaders on participating in social action. In August, 2014, eleven days after a police officer named Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, Harper travelled to Ferguson, Missouri, on behalf of Sojourners, to help evangelical leaders mobilize their followers to support protests against police brutality. Last month, she travelled to Brazil to consult with fellow evangelicals of color, working against President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right politician who is often compared to Donald Trump for his authoritarianism and misogynistic comments. (In an interview in 2014, Bolsonaro said that a fellow-legislator “doesn’t deserve to be raped” because “she’s very ugly.” This year, in the Brazilian election, he won an estimated seventy per cent of the evangelical vote.)

In the United States, evangelicalism has long been allied with political conservatism. But under Trump’s Presidency right-wing political rhetoric has become more openly racist and xenophobic. …

Well, that’s quite the opening.

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Gray Lady visits buckle of Bible Belt: Ignores historic Christian roots in booming Nashville

Gray Lady visits buckle of Bible Belt: Ignores historic Christian roots in booming Nashville

I have been in and out of Nashville since the mid-1980s and I have heard that great city called many things.

Of course, it is the “Music City,” but I am more fond of the nickname “Guitar Town.”

Southern Baptists used to refer to the national convention’s large, strategically located headquarters as the “Baptist Vatican.” Then again, the United Methodist corporate presence in Nashville is also important.

This points to another reality: The historic synergy between the country music industry and the world of gospel music, in a wide variety of forms (including Contemporary Christian Music). Nashville is also home to a hub of Christian publishing companies that has global clout. All of that contributes to another well-known Nashville label: “Buckle of the Bible Belt.”

It’s an amazing town, with a stunning mix of churches and honky-tonks. As country legend Naomi Judd once told me, in Nashville artists can sing about Saturday night and Sunday morning in the same show and no one will blink.

This brings me to a massive New York Times feature that ran with this sprawling double-decker headline:

Nashville’s Star Rises as Midsize Cities Break Into Winners and Losers

Nashville and others are thriving thanks to a mix of luck, astute political choices and well-timed investments, while cities like Birmingham, Ala., fall behind.

That tells you the basic thrust of the story. What interested me is that the Times covered the rapidly changing face of Nashville — many Tennesseans moan that it’s the new Atlanta — without making a single reference to the role that religious institutions have played in the city’s past and, yes, its present.

That’s really, really hard to do. But the Times team managed to pull that off.

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Columbia Journalism Review urges diversity: Still, something seems to be missing here

Columbia Journalism Review urges diversity: Still, something seems to be missing here

Here is a parable from a newsroom in this era. The names and location have been omitted to protect the innocent.

It was diversity day in the newsroom. Management brought in speakers to stress the need for various kinds of diversity and, in particular, to celebrate this urban newspaper’s progress in hiring more African Americans and Latinos.

During a discussion period, one journalism gadfly asked about intellectual and cultural diversity. An editor said, “Like what?” The gadfly asked how many black staffers were members of evangelical and Pentecostal congregations (the dominate black churches in that Southern region). There were no hands raised. He asked how many Latino staffers were Catholic. Many hands went up. He asked how many were in Mass the previous Sunday. Almost all of the hands came down.

In other words, the newsroom was becoming more diverse — sort of.

Faithful GetReligion readers will remember this quotation from the amazing 2005 New York Times self study entitled “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust,” in which management was given this challenge:

Expand the scope of our goals in advancing newsroom diversity. Our paper's commitment to a diversity of gender, race and ethnicity is nonnegotiable. We should pursue the same diversity in other dimensions of life, and for the same reason — to ensure that a broad range of viewpoints is at the table when we decide what to write about and how to present it.

The executive editor should assign this goal to everyone who has a hand in recruiting. We should take pains to create a climate in which staff members feel free to propose or criticize coverage from vantage points that lie outside the perceived newsroom consensus (liberal/conservative, religious/secular, urban/suburban/rural, elitist/white collar/blue collar).

What kinds of subjects are affected by this lack of intellectual and cultural diversity? Well, the sentences just BEFORE that hiring challenge had this to say:

Our news coverage needs to embrace unorthodox views and contrarian opinions and to portray lives both more radical and more conservative than those most of us experience. We need to listen carefully to colleagues who are at home in realms that are not familiar to most of us.

We should increase our coverage of religion in America and focus on new ways to give it greater attention. …

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Why is a church shrinking or closing? Reporters: Brace for complex and heated debates

Why is a church shrinking or closing? Reporters: Brace for complex and heated debates

If you are into taking notes, then here is a challenge for folks listening to this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in, or head over to iTunes and subscribe).

The topic, this time, is why so many churches are shrinking and dying these days — in urban areas, as well as small towns and other at-risk locations (think the Rust Belt in general). The hook for this podcast was my recent post about a Religion News Service feature that ran with this headline: “As one historically black Episcopal church closes, others face strong headwinds.”

As host Todd Wilken and I discuss this subject, try to keep track of the number of factors that can affect whether congregations, and in the not-so-distant future entire denominations, shrink and even die.

Is evangelism a priority for this flock?

What about location, location, location — in terms of population growth.

How about the state of the economy in that zip code?

There are demographic issues linked to birth rate and family size.

Is this congregation part of a denomination that is in statistical free fall (is the brand wounded)?

Has the national church taken controversial stands that have caused schisms or departures?

Are the seminaries for this denomination producing pastors that people will trust and follow? Does this particular church body have enough pastors or priests?

Is the church too liberal, or too conservative, for its community?

Does the church have more retirees than young families?

I think there are several others that I’m leaving out, at the moment.

The RNS story focuses on historically black Episcopal parishes closing in North Carolina. That is certainly a poignant topic. My post noted:

These stories are valid, of course. The question is whether reporters will keep asking questions about the trends behind all the “For Sale” signs.

Obviously, this is a complex story that involves urban demographics, real estate, birth rates, worship trends, rising statistics about the “religiously unaffiliated (nones)” and other realities. However, ever since a National Council of Churches executive named Dean M. Kelley wrote That Book (“Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion”) in 1972, journalists and church-growth activists have been arguing about the role of theology in this drama.

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Episcopalians closing more African-American churches: Other big trends in this story?

Episcopalians closing more African-American churches: Other big trends in this story?

No doubt about it, get ready to see more and more stories about church closings.

You know a topic is big news when Pope Francis starts talking about it.

These stories are valid, of course. The question is whether reporters will keep asking questions about the trends behind all the “For Sale” signs.

Obviously, this is a complex story that involves urban demographics, real estate, birth rates, worship trends, rising statistics about the “religiously unaffiliated (nones)” and other realities. However, ever since a National Council of Churches executive named Dean M. Kelley wrote That Book (“Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion”) in 1972, journalists and church-growth activists have been arguing about the role of theology in this drama. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

First, here is the context for this discussion — a Religion News Service feature that ran with this headline: “As one historically black Episcopal church closes, others face strong headwinds.” Here’s the poignant overture:

WARRENTON, N.C. (RNS) — On a chilly December morning, 100 years and one week after its sanctuary opened, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, an African-American congregation with a proud history, was formally closed.

Bishop Samuel Rodman presided over the Eucharistic service in an elementary school a block away from the church, where weekly services ended more than three years ago. Several longtime members returned to read Scriptures and sing hymns. Afterward, the group of 100, including history buffs and well-wishers from North Carolina and Virginia, shared a meal of fried chicken and baked beans.

All Saints is hardly alone among mainline Protestant and Catholic congregations. Faced with dwindling members, crumbling infrastructure and costly maintenance, some 6,000 to 10,000 churches shutter each year, according to one estimate. More closures may be in the offing as surveys point to a decline in church attendance across the country.

But All Saints is an example of an even sharper decline. Historically African-American churches across the South are fast disappearing.

What do the numbers look like? The story notes that the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina “once boasted 60 such churches. Today, a mere dozen are left and, of those, only three have full-time clergy.” This long, deep, story has few, if any, signs of hope for the future.

Note that this feature is focusing on trends in “mainline Protestant and Catholic” churches.

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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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