Evangelicals

Thinking 'evangelical,' again: As always these arguments pit theology against politics

Thinking 'evangelical,' again: As always these arguments pit theology against politics

Like many bitter dodgeball contests linked to religion these days, the fight began on Twitter.

On one side was a historian who has written several books on the roots of evangelicalism — defining the term (a) in doctrinal terms and (b) in a global context. When you put those two things together, you end up with lots of people, in lots of places, throughout Protestant history, who are “evangelicals.” It helps that the word is used this way around the world in many different church settings.

On the other side were other historians, as well as woke, post-evangelical voices. The key here? You guessed it: that famous 81 percent number, as in the percentage of self-identified “evangelicals” who — gladly or reluctantly — voted for GOP candidate Donald Trump (or against Democrat Hillary Clinton). Thus, “evangelicals” are white, conservative Republicans with racist roots (and lots of homophobia).

In other words, “evangelical” has evolved into semi-curse word that cannot be separated from contemporary American culture and Trumpian-era politics. We know this is true, because this is the way the term is used in most elite media coverage of politics.

The argument focused on an article at The Gospel Coalition website by Thomas Kidd of Baylor University with this title: “Phillis Wheatley: An Evangelical and the First Published African American Female Poet.”

The problem is that Wheatley is a black, heroic figure. Thus, it is wrong to identify her as an “evangelical,” even in an article that is striving to get modern evangelicals to pay more attention to the lives and convictions of evangelicals in other cultures and in other times. The piece ended by noting: “Evangelicals, of all people, need to remember her today.”

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That strong New York Times #ChurchToo horror story -- with clues pointing to big SBC issues

That strong New York Times #ChurchToo horror story -- with clues pointing to big SBC issues

Throughout the 16-plus years that GetReligion has been around, I have received emails asking why the mainstream press has focused on clergy sexual abuse cases in the Church of Rome, but not abuse cases in liberal and conservative Protestant flocks.

That’s an important question and one that looms over the intense media coverage we are currently seeing — with good cause — at the Southern Baptist Convention meetings in Birmingham (click here for Bobby Ross Jr. round-up on preliminary coverage).

That is also the subject at the heart of a gripping #ChurchToo feature at The New York Times — “Her Evangelical Megachurch Was Her World. Then Her Daughter Said She Was Molested by a Minister” — linked to SBC debates about sexual abuse. It’s a solid, deep story about one controversy in a powerful congregation and it contains clues pointing toward larger issues that will, eventually, have to be covered in the national press.

You see, there are reasons that SBC leaders — the ones who truly want to act — have struggled to come up with a one-plan-fits-all proposal to crack down on the monsters in their midst. To understand why, I want to flash back to an important Joshua Pease essay that ran a year ago at The Washington Post. Here’s my commentary about that: “ 'The Sin of Silence' in The Washington Post: It's easy to hide sin in an independent-church maze.”

The following chunk of the Pease essay is long, but essential for those who want to understand the larger issues that lurk in the painful new piece at the Times.

Without a centralized theological body, evangelical policies and cultures vary radically, and while some church leaders have worked to prevent abuse and harassment, many have not. The causes are manifold: authoritarian leadership, twisted theology, institutional protection, obliviousness about the problem and, perhaps most shocking, a diminishment of the trauma sexual abuse creates – especially surprising in a church culture that believes strongly in the sanctity of sex. ...

The problem in collecting data stems, in part, from the loose or nonexistent hierarchy in evangelicalism. Catholic Church abusers benefited from an institutional cover-up, but that same bureaucracy enabled reporters to document a systemic scandal. In contrast, most evangelical groups prize the autonomy of local congregations, with major institutions like the Southern Baptist Convention having no authority to enforce a standard operating procedure among member churches.

Journalists: Please read that passage two or three times. The Southern Baptists have a real problem, here, and it’s not going to go away. It’s a theological problem, as well as a legal one.

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Ready, set, go! The much-anticipated Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting starts in 3, 2, 1 ...

Ready, set, go! The much-anticipated Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting starts in 3, 2, 1 ...

Sex abuse. Women’s roles. Abortion.

All could make headlines at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting, which starts Tuesday in Birmingham, Ala.

But as The Associated Press notes, the sex abuse scandal that has rocked the nation’s Protestant denomination for months is expected to dominate the yearly gathering.

That scandal started, of course, with a bombshell investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. The Texas papers have kept at the investigation and delivered a final piece of their series Sunday. That front-page report focused on “Baptist abuse victims’ battle: silence, survival, speaking out.” It’s certainly a worthy read in advance of the SBC meeting.

Just two years ago, someone (OK, maybe it was me) whined about reporters’ seeming lack of interest in the SBC’s meeting. But in 2019, the gathering is, no doubt, the journalistic place to be.

GetReligion’s own Richard Ostling offered a tip sheet last week for news writers covering the Baptist extravaganza, as he put it. And on Sunday, GR editor Terry Mattingly featured a think piece by the SBC’s Russell Moore.

Already, The Tennessean’s Holly Meyer — who is covering the meeting with her Gannett colleague Katherine Burgess of Memphis’ Commercial Appeal — has filed her first story from Birmingham.

Meyer reports from a pre-convention meeting of the denomination’s executive committee:

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The Southern Baptist Convention's executive committee took steps Monday to make it clear that it can kick out churches that show a disregard for sexual abuse. 

While the ability to sever ties with such churches already exists, the executive committee voted to enshrine in the convention's constitution that addressing sexual abuse is part of what it means to be a Southern Baptist church

"In the culture, situations and issues arise from time to time where we need to make explicit what has already been implicit," said Pastor Mike Stone, chairman of the executive committee. "These actions are a confirmation of what Southern Baptists have always believed."

The top administrative body, which acts on behalf of the convention when it is not in session, also supported a bylaw change on Monday that would form a special committee to address misconduct allegations, including sexual abuse, against churches. 

The new panel would conduct inquiries — not investigations — into the allegations and make a recommendation to the executive committee about whether the convention should be in fellowship with the church in question. 

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Washington Post Magazine gives voice to unsung evangelical whistleblowers/bloggers

Washington Post Magazine gives voice to unsung evangelical whistleblowers/bloggers

I’ve written for the Washington Post Magazine more than a dozen times, but I’ve never known it to be all that interested in certain inside baseball aspects of American religious culture. Stories always had to connect with a larger issue –- usually politics -– to get in.

Which is why I was happily surprised to see this recent feature on the corps of bloggers who’ve been going after Protestant churches that have tolerated — if not outright encouraged — sexual and spiritual abuse. And there’s a bunch of them out there and many of these congregations are quite large.

Those of us who are insiders on the beat have known about the Wartburg Watch, the most famous of these blogs, for years.

After an opening anecdote about one whistleblower, the Post continues:

(Recent exposes) are thanks to the Wartburg Watch and Watch Keep, blogs that are part of a larger constellation of “Christian watchdog” outlets. While clergy sex abuse within the Catholic Church has been in the headlines for years, it’s only more recently that abuses within Protestant churches have started to draw mainstream media attention. Much of the credit for this quickening churn goes to a circle of bloggers — dozens of armchair investigative journalists who have been outing abuse, one case and one congregation at a time, for over a decade now, bolstering their posts with court records, police reports, video clips of pastors’ sermons, and emails, often provided to them by survivors.

Most of these bloggers are women; many come from churches that teach women’s submission and deny women’s spiritual authority. “Investigative blogger women started a revolution at their kitchen tables,” says pastor Ashley Easter, who hosts the Courage Conference, a Christian, survivor-focused gathering. They have advocated “for victims of abuse from where they were, where they could find a platform — blogs and social media.”

Recently, a younger cohort of “ex-vangelicals” and online activists have joined the fold, and in late 2017 #ChurchToo started to trend on Twitter. In turn, a wave of secret-smashing tweets blossomed into reported pieces at publications like Mother Jones and the New Yorker. Yet the bloggers who built the foundation for this activist network are known mainly to church abuse survivors and reporters covering these stories. To the rest of the world, their efforts have mostly blended into the joint backgrounds of the clergy sex abuse scandal and #MeToo.

You know what I really liked about this piece? It gave the ‘little people,’ who are so often ignored by their pastors, a vote.

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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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The lifelong ripple effects of a fertility doctor who poured his Strangelovian essence into his work

The lifelong ripple effects of a fertility doctor who poured his Strangelovian essence into his work

The Fertility Doctor’s Secret,” a longform report for The Atlantic about doctor Donald Cline of Indianapolis, reports dozens of facts — but is bound to disappoint readers who are reasonably informed about Christian teaching on infertility.

There are mere traces of religion in Sarah Zhang’s coverage, and too little digging deeper on remarks that beg for attention. In other word, this story has religion-shaped holes in it.

But first the basic narrative: Cline, who opened his clinic in 1979, is believed to be the father of at least eight children by virtue of using his sperm to impregnant unknowing patients.

That this story has come to light is one of the perverse miracles of connecting through Facebook and discovering the secrets of one’s DNA through consumer-focused DNA testing offered by 23andMe and Ancestry.com.

We’re told twice that Cline cited Bible verses to these now-grown humans, which raises some interesting factual questions. Zhang presents a sole example:

For months, nothing much happened. Then one of [Jacoba] Ballard’s half sisters went for it. She found Cline’s children — those he raised with his wife — and his adult grandchildren on Facebook and sent them a group message. A granddaughter replied, saying she didn’t know anything and couldn’t help.

But then, Ballard says, she got a message from Cline’s son. He had been looking through her Facebook photos and recognized her priest — he said he was Catholic too. He helped broker a meeting between his father and six of the siblings at a restaurant. Cline, who was then in his late 70s, walked in with a cane.

Ballard remembers this first family reunion of sorts as oddly matter-of-fact. Cline admitted to using his own sperm but said the records had been destroyed years ago. He asked each of the siblings what they did and where they lived. He read them Bible verses from a notepad. Ballard saw this as a misguided attempt to comfort her, and she snapped at him: “Don’t try to use my religion.”

Late in the story — in the 101st paragraph, to be specific — Zhang reveals only one example of Bible-thumping:

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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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New York Times scribe has big problem with 'New South' -- it's full of backward church people

New York Times scribe has big problem with 'New South' -- it's full of backward church people

To be honest, I had shoved the Ginia Bellafante feature at The New York Times — “Abortion and the Future of the New South” — so far back into the “think piece” folder of guilt that I almost forgot that this “Big City” masterpiece still existed.

In this case, the term “masterpiece” is defined as a piece of first-person journalism that has to be in the running as one of the greatest summary statements of Gray Lady-speak ever put on paper.

I mean, Rod “Benedict Option” Dreher — a former Brooklyn resident — had already produced this truly fab summary statement of what’s going on here. Before we get to the latest response to the Bellafante opus — at Scalawag, hold that thought — let’s let Dreher kick off this thinker-fest:

I’m so sorry. Really, just very sorry. Here entitled Yankees like the NYT’s Ginia Bellafante thought the American South existed to give Millennial Brooklynites a place to reproduce Park Slope, but more affordably, and now we’ve gone and ruined it for them with our deplorable social and religious views.

Ah, right. All that icky religious stuff. That really messes things up for “Tess” and other relocated New Yorkers. Here is the essential Times-talk overture:

Tess wanted her own kingdom, and New York — forbidding, impossible — wasn’t going to let her build it. The start-up costs for the baking and catering business she envisioned were going to be too high; the rent on her apartment in Bed-Stuy was increasing. When she moved in it was $1,800 a month; just a few years later, it was approaching $3,400.

This young woman was a citizen of the New South now. Her business, Tess Kitchen, was thriving. Her New Orleans apartment, at $1,900 a month, had three bathrooms.

I called Tess on the day that the Louisiana House Health and Welfare Committee backed legislation to prohibit abortions once a fetal heartbeat was detected. This came 24 hours after Alabama passed the most restrictive abortion law in the country, one that does not allow exceptions for rape or incest. That followed the passage of another restrictive abortion law in Georgia.

Living in a very liberal city in a very conservative state is a trick mirror. “You really forget that you are in the Deep South here,’’ she said.

Need more? It’s all about the word “backward,” you see. You see the people who are, to New York-raised reformers, still yearning for the “Old South” are still fighting the Civil War.

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An issue that never goes away: What do U.S. religious groups teach about abortion?

An issue that never goes away: What do U.S. religious groups teach about abortion?

THE QUESTION:

What do U.S. religious groups teach about the contentious abortion issue?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Remarkably, the abortion issue is as contentious as when the U.S. Supreme Court liberalized law 46 years ago, with new state restrictions injecting it into courtrooms and the 2020 campaign. The following scans significant teachings by major religious denominations.

The Catholic Church, the largest religious body in the U.S. (and globally), opposes abortion, without exceptions. A Vatican Council II decree from the world’s bishops declares that “from the moment of its conception, life must be guarded with the greatest care,” and calls  abortions “abominable crimes.” The official Catechism says the same and dates this belief back to Christianity’s first century (Didache 2:2, Epistle of Barnabas 19:5).

Eastern Orthodox and Catholic leaders have jointly affirmed “our common teaching that life begins at the earliest moments of conception” and is “sacred” through all stages of development. However, America’s 53-member Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops acknowledges “rare but serious medical instances where mother and child may require extraordinary actions.”

A Southern Baptist Convention resolution before the Supreme Court ruling advocated permission in cases of “rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity” or damage to a mother’s “emotional, mental, and physical health.” The SBC later shifted toward strict conservatism on many matters. A 2018 resolution affirms “the full dignity of every unborn child” and denounces abortion “except to save the mother’s physical life.”

Two United Methodist Church agencies helped establish the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights (since renamed Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice) to champion women’s unimpeded choice. But the 2016 UMC conference directed the agencies to leave the coalition, and voted to withdraw endorsement, upheld since 1976, of the Supreme Court’s “legal right to abortion.” The UMC recognizes “tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify” abortion. It opposes late-term abortion except for danger to the mother’s “physical life” or “severe fetal anomalies incompatible with life.”

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