Godbeat

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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Will white evangelical women push Ted Cruz challenger Beto O'Rourke over the top? Not so fast

Will white evangelical women push Ted Cruz challenger Beto O'Rourke over the top? Not so fast

My baby sister, Christy, is a conservative Christian and a registered Republican in Texas. She never has voted for a Democrat (she insists her vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 general election actually was a vote against Hillary Clinton).

However, Christy, who is in her mid-40s, told me she’s torn on the high-profile U.S. Senate race between incumbent Republican Ted Cruz and Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke.

“I can’t support Beto because he’s pro-choice, and I just think Cruz is a liar,” my sister said in a text message.

I thought about Christy this week as I read a New York Times story from Dallas on some white evangelical women — who have supported anti-abortion candidates in the past — putting their support behind O’Rourke:

DALLAS — After church on a recent Sunday, Emily Mooney smiled as she told her girlfriends about her public act of rebellion. She had slapped a “Beto for Senate’’ sticker on her S.U.V. and driven it to her family’s evangelical church. 

But then, across the parking lot, deep in conservative, Bible-belt Texas, she spotted a sign of support: the same exact sticker endorsing Beto O’Rourke, the Democrat who is challenging Senator Ted Cruz.

“I was like, who is it?” she exclaimed. “Who in this church is doing this?”

Listening to Ms. Mooney’s story, the four other evangelical moms standing around a kitchen island began to buzz with excitement. All of them go to similarly conservative churches in Dallas. All are longtime Republican voters, solely because they oppose abortion rights. Only one broke ranks to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But this November, they have all decided to vote for Mr. O’Rourke, the Democratic upstart who is on the front line of trying to upend politics in deep-red Texas. 

In the Senate race, one of the most unexpectedly tight in the nation, any small shift among evangelical voters — long a stable base for Republicans — could be a significant loss for Mr. Cruz, who, like President Trump, has made white evangelicals the bulwark of his support.

If you’re unfamiliar with O’Rourke, he’s a rock star among the national Democratic Party and a favorite of national news media eager to explore whether his candidacy might turn Texas — long a red state — blue:

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Nix 'Mormon' talk in news! How can media handle major faith’s unreasonable plea?

Nix 'Mormon' talk in news! How can media handle major faith’s unreasonable plea?

The venerable Mormon Tabernacle Choir has announced that it is now named “The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.” (Will newswriters trim that to “Tabernacle Choir”?)

Reason: President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has declared that “the importance of the name” that God “revealed for His Church,” means believers and outsiders must drop “Mormon” and use that full nine-word name. (Copyreaders will note: definite article with capital T, hyphen, lower-case d.)

Church scriptures say this name was given to founder Joseph Smith, Jr., on April 26, 1838, the same day God granted him “the keys of this kingdom.”

Nelson, a former surgeon who became Smith’s successor as prophet in January, even asserts that use of “Mormon” is "a major victory for Satan." He admits “it’s going to be a challenge to undo tradition of more than 100 years,” but change is “non-negotiable”  because “the Lord wants it that way.” 

The faith will lose something, because the “Mormon” people have long built up respect for their nickname through upright and neighborly living. Indeed, the church spent serious money on an image-boosting “Meet the Mormons” movie and “I’m a Mormon” ads.

The name game is a blame game that puts the media in a bind, as news executives said after Nelson’s August edict, so The Religion Guy adds some guidance to GetReligion’s prior article and this tmatt interview with an LDS journalism professor.

Obviously, The Guy gave this perennial problem considerable thought in co-authoring the book “Mormon America” with his late wife Joan.

The Associated Press Stylebook deems the long-ingrained “Mormon” label acceptable — although it originated with 19th Century antagonists — and was only gradually adopted by the believers themselves.

Since “Mormon” is no slur for 21st Century audiences, what’s going on here?

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From award-winning religion writer, a primer on how to tell a difficult story about a pedophile

From award-winning religion writer, a primer on how to tell a difficult story about a pedophile

Dear young journalists (and old ones, too): Want insight on how to report and tell an extremely difficult story?

Check out Charlotte Observer religion writer Tim Funk’s in-depth feature on the daughters of a pedophile pastor. Funk, a veteran Godbeat pro, was among the winners in the Religion News Association’s 2018 annual contest. His latest gem might well win him accolades again next year.

The 5,000-word piece (don’t let that count scare you; it reads much shorter) is both conversational in tone and multilayered in terms of the depth of information provided.

Funk’s compelling opening immediately sets the scene:

Their crusade began when Amanda Johnson visited the church of her childhood and saw a picture of her father on the wall.

She froze in fear, and felt the blood draining from her face. Then, she told the Observer, “I literally ran back to the car.”

For five years, she didn’t tell her older sister, Miracle Balsitis, who had asked her family not to mention her father’s name or any news about him.

But earlier this year, when Johnson found out from a friend that the photo was still on the wall, she finally told her sister.

Balsitis was shocked. Didn’t Matthews United Methodist Church know that Lane Hurley, their father and the church’s former pastor, was in prison because of child sex abuse crimes committed three years after he left the Matthews church?

Why, the sisters asked themselves, would a framed photo of him still be hanging next to pictures of other past clergy in a place of honor reserved for what a nearby plaque called “The Faces of Spiritual Leadership”?

The two sisters had left the Charlotte area 24 years ago — Balsitis, 39, now lives in California; Johnson, 35, in Kernersville.

They decided it was time to confront Matthews United Methodist about the picture.

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Soros: He's invoked from DC to Malaysia. An anti-Semitic dog whistle? Atheist straw man?

Soros: He's invoked from DC to Malaysia. An anti-Semitic dog whistle? Atheist straw man?

OK, readers, it’s pop quiz time. My question: What do the following political players have in common; Franklin Graham, George Soros and the Koch brothers?

Did I hear you mumble “nothing,” other than gender and the aforementioned political-player designations?

Not a bad guess. But not the answer I’m looking for at the moment.

The commonality I have in mind is that they all serve as public boogeyman — names to be tossed around to convey a suitcase of despised qualities that need not be unpacked for opponents skilled in the art of in-group rhetoric.

Those on the left tend to think of Graham and the Kochs as despicable actors poisoning the political well with hypocritical religious justifications (Graham) or by employing their vast wealth to back libertarian, hyper pro-business, anti-tax, anti-regulatory agendas (the Kochs).

Those on the right tend to view Soros as an atheist billionaire, internationalist busy-body set on destroying what they view as rightful national norms for the sake of unrealistic democratic (note that’s with a small “d”) fantasies. In America, many conservatives see him as a fierce enemy of the religious liberty side of the First Amendment.

If you paid close attention to the soul-numbing Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation fight you may know that, unlike Graham and the Kochs, Soros’ name popped up at the tail end of that scorched-earth display political bloodletting — which is why I bring him up now. (President Donald Trump, as he has before, first mentioned Soros; Sen. Chuck Grassley disparaged Soros when asked about Trump’s comment.)

But first.

My point here is not to convince you of the rightness or wrongness of Soros or the others mentioned above. Frankly, I have strong disagreements with them all. Besides, love them or hate them, I’m guessing your minds are already pretty well made up about what level of heaven or hell they’re headed for come judgement day. So what chance at changing minds do I really have anyway?

Also, they're all entitled, under current American law, to throw their weight around in accordance with their viewpoints — again, whether you or I like it or not.

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Thinking about Christians in politics: 'Usual suspects' labels just don't work, do they?

Thinking about Christians in politics: 'Usual suspects' labels just don't work, do they?

Stop and think about the following for a moment.

What political label would you stick on a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox person who believed all of his or her church’s moral and social teachings, as they are being articulated in this day and age?

Let’s list some of the crucial issues. Abortion and related “life issues” — such as euthanasia — would have to be mentioned. Many Catholics, including people frequently called “conservatives” (take me, for example), would include the death penalty in the “life issue” list. Then there would be the defense of the sacrament of marriage, as defined throughout Judeo-Christian history, and the belief that sex outside of marriage — for gays and straights — is a sin.

Now, there are other issues that are commonly linked to a “whole life” approach to the public square — such as immigration, the environment, medical care, economic justice, racial equality, etc. Traditional believers in the ancient churches may debate the fine details of some of these issues, but my point is that it is often hard to stick conventional political labels on the conclusions reached by these Christians.

So, where do you put someone who is pro-life, and favors national health care (with conscience clauses built in)? This person is pro-immigration reform and leans “left” on the environment. She is a strong defender of the First Amendment — both halves of that equation. Are we talking about a Democrat or a Republican?

After the chaos of the past couple of weeks, this is a timely and newsworthy topic for a think piece. Of course, the “lesser of two evils” debates surrounding Donald Trump also fit into this picture. Thus, I saved a recent New York Times op-ed by the Rev. Timothy Keller — founder of the Redeemer Presbyterian network of churches in New York City — for this occasion. The double-decker headline proclaims:

How Do Christians Fit Into the Two-Party System? They Don’t

The historical Christian positions on social issues don’t match up with contemporary political alignments


Here is Keller’s overture:

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What are we to think of 'religious' TV shows that sidesteps the whole God issue?

What are we to think of 'religious' TV shows that sidesteps the whole God issue?

A late September headline at the Esquire magazine website proclaimed “There Is No God on TV, Only The Good Place.”

Indeed, the clever sitcom of that title, which launched season No. 3 last week, plays around with good and evil, heaven and hell, and even portrays supernatural demons. But God is missing.

This NBC fantasy is just the thing to lure the eyeballs of America’s growing legion of young, religiously unmoored “nones,” in a carefully multicultural fashion that also ignores religious beliefs and practices. Instead, the proceedings are all about a hazy moral philosophy about what makes a good person.

CBS makes a different audience bid with “God Friended Me,” which premiered Sunday. The drama’s lead character Miles (played by Brandon Micheal Hall) is a preacher’s kid turned outspoken atheist. Is the “God” who becomes his Facebook “friend” the actual cosmic God or some human or otherworldly trickster? To find out, Miles enlists his devout bartender sister, a hacker pal, and a journalist, and experiences coincidences that just might be miracles.

Judging from one episode, there may not be much here for religion writers to ponder, and it's hard to guess whether “Friended” can even survive. (Ratings prospects are dimmed by CBS’s inability to set predictable Sunday start times following sports events.) This seems inspiration-drenched programming in the varied tradition of “Highway to Heaven,” “Joan of Arcadia,” “Promised Land,” “Seventh Heaven,” “Touched by an Angel,” or last season’s short-lived “Kevin (Probably) Saves the World.”

“The Good Place,” by contrast, has somehow managed to establish a niche and win critics’ acclaim by probing Big Questions with a droll touch. Here salvation is earned strictly by performing good deeds instead of faith. That conflicts with an historic 1999 Catholic-Lutheran accord that insists Christianity believes that “by grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God” who equips and calls us to “good works.”

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Washington Post sees big McCarrick picture: Why are broken celibacy vows no big deal?

Washington Post sees big McCarrick picture: Why are broken celibacy vows no big deal?

For weeks now, your GetReligionistas have carefully followed news coverage of the spectacular fall of ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a key player for decades in countless trends and media storms in American Catholic life. His media-friendly career began in the New York City area and he ended up as a cardinal in Washington, D.C.

Most of the coverage of the “Uncle Ted” scandals this summer focused on his links to the latest developments in decades of horror stories about priests abusing young boys and teens. Also, efforts to promote and protect him was a major plot point in the blunt late-August document released by the Vatican’s former U.S. ambassador, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano.

But those two themes tended to mask, in lots of stories (click here for background), two other crucial parts of the McCarrick drama. For example, most of his abuse focused on young men, seminarians to be specific. Also, the former D.C. cardinal has emerged as the iconic symbol of a larger problem — bishops and cardinals hiding the sins of their colleagues.

These latter elements of the McCarrick story seemed, for weeks, to have slipped onto a back burner in many crucial newsrooms. However, it was hard to know what has happening — behind the scenes — since even elite newsrooms are not as well staffed as they used to be and, well, there simply aren’t enough religion-beat pros out there (since many editors just don’t “get” the importance of this topic).

Now, there’s a feature at The Washington Post worthy of a strong spotlight: “Vatican’s handling of sexual misconduct complaints about ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick reveals a lot about the Catholic Church.”

That’s a rather bland headline, in my opinion. There needed to be something in there about broken celibacy vows and clergy getting busy with adults, including men wearing clerical collars and other ecclesiastical garb.

This story by religion-beat veteran Michelle Boorstein tells a complicated tale, focusing on a timeline of the evidence that is now available showing what key Vatican and U.S. officials had to have known about McCarrick, for the past quarter century or more.

Some of this information was already on blogs by activists such as the late Richard Sipe. Some of the information had been shared, privately, by priests and even bishops and is now emerging. Lots of crucial facts, obviously, remain locked in Vatican-controlled files.

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German Jews joining ultra-right, anti-Muslim party evokes a classic 1965 Jewish Nazi story

German Jews joining ultra-right, anti-Muslim party evokes a classic 1965 Jewish Nazi story

Return with me now to 1965, when as a newly minted journalist I read a story in The New York Times that so thoroughly impressed me that I still recall its emotional impact.

This now-legendary piece by John McCandlish Phillips was about a New York Ku Klux Klan leader and neo-Nazi, Daniel Burros, who unbeknownst to his cronies, was actually a Jew, despite his hate-filled public ranting against Jews and Israel.

The legendary reporter dug deeper and deeper In his interviews and research, until his shocking discovery. Burros threatened to kill Phillips, then committed suicide after his true identity was unmasked.

Why am I bringing this up now? Stay with me, please. I’ll explain below. There’s a paywall to read Phillips’ original piece, now a pdf document. Click here to access it. Also, I should note that GetReligion is housed at the McCandlish Phillips Journalism Institute at The King’s College in New York.

When Phillips died in 2013 — long after he left The Times, and journalism, to start a small Pentecostal Christian outreach ministry in Manhattan that still exists — his Times’ obit referred to his story as “one of the most famous articles in the newspaper’s history.” The obit also called Phillips “a tenacious reporter and a lyrical stylist.”

The article’s quality and the splash it made are certainly part of why Phillip’s story has stayed with me. But here’s another reason.

As a Jew, it seemed unfathomable to me back then that someone raised, as was I, in New York in the mid-20th century — when Jewish communal bonds were much stronger than they are today — could think and act like Burros, who at the time was just six or so years older than I was.

So why have I brought up Phillips’s story?

Because of recent stories out of Germany linking that nation’s Jewish community with rightwing, Nazi-sympathizing politics.

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