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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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Democrats after The Kiss: Did new left let enough 'blue dogs' run in 2018 midterms?

Democrats after The Kiss: Did new left let enough 'blue dogs' run in 2018 midterms?

So what does the famous Al and Tipper Gore snog-deluxe at the 2000 Democratic National Convention have to do with the upcoming midterm elections in 2018? And what does that question have to do with the Big Bang question that is always lurking in American politics, which is control of the U.S. Supreme Court?

Be patient with me here, because I can see the connections in my mind (and in my own political experience over recent decades). But I’m not sure if I can get them to make sense in 600 words or so. But that’s what I need to do, since these questions are connected to the content of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to tune that in.

So let’s start with The Kiss.

Long ago, young Al Gore was one of the heroes of conservative Democrats everywhere — as in “blue dog” Democrats that lean left on populist economic issues and lean right on matters of morality and culture. In other words, Gore was a pro-life Southern Baptist guy when he was in the U.S. House of Representatives and an almost-pro-life guy when he first hit the U.S. Senate.

That made him the kind of Democrat that could get elected over and over in a culturally conservative state — think Bible Belt — like Tennessee. That was good for Democrats. Hold that thought.

But when Gore took his ambitions to the national level, the realities of Democratic Party life made him float over to the liberal side of things on issues such as abortion and the illiberal side of things on issues like religious liberty (I say that as on old-fashioned First Amendment liberal).

In terms of image, however, he made a great New Democrat partner for President Bill Clinton, who once flirted — in politics, that is — with conservative moral stances on a host of issues.

But then Clinton turned into a whole different kind of man in the public eye. To say the least.

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Big religion ghost: Would a 'blue dog Democrat' win Tennessee's U.S. Senate race?

Big religion ghost: Would a 'blue dog Democrat' win Tennessee's U.S. Senate race?

What, pray tell, is a “blue dog Democrat” these days? If you look up the term online, you will find several variations on what characteristics define this politically endangered species.

Growing up as a Democrat in ‘70s Texas, I always heard that “blue dogs” — especially in West Texas — were progressives on economic issues and conservatives on culture. Many were “populist” Texans left over from the old New Deal coalition. Eventually, it was crucial that many “blue dogs” were Democrats who angered Planned Parenthood.

Meanwhile, we had a term for politicos who were conservative on economics and liberal on cultural and moral issues. They were “country club” Republicans.

Here is some language from the website of the current Blue Dog PAC :

The Blue Dog Coalition was created in 1995 to represent the commonsense, moderate voice of the Democratic Party, appealing to mainstream American values. The Blue Dogs are leaders in Congress who are committed to pursuing fiscally-responsible policies, ensuring a strong national defense, and transcending party lines to do what’s best for the American people.

Ah, what do the words “mainstream American values” mean in a land dominated by digital “progressives” and Donald Trump? Are there moral or religious implications there?

The term “blue dog” showed up in a recent New York Times feature about the U.S. Senate race in Tennessee, the Bible Belt state that I now call home. (Click here for a previous post on a related subject.) Here is the Times headline: “A Changing Tennessee Weighs a Moderate or Conservative for Senate.”

In Times terms, of course, this is a race between a “moderate” Democrat, that would be former governor Phil Bredesen, and the “hard-line” Republican, Rep. Marsha Blackburn. As always, the term “moderate” is a sign of editorial favor.

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Old questions about the headline you did not see: Why didn't press spot royal 'fetus bump'?

Old questions about the headline you did not see: Why didn't press spot royal 'fetus bump'?

For years, it was one of the most painful, divisive journalism questions faced by reporters and editors, a question that they couldn’t look up in the Associated Press Stylebook — the bible of most mainstream newsrooms.

The question: When is an unborn child an “unborn child” or a “baby”? When should reporters use the supposedly neutral term “fetus”?

Here is the top of a recent news story that serves as a perfect, and tragic, example of this journalism issue:

A grieving widower has revealed why he shared photos of his dead wife and unborn daughter after they were killed by an allegedly drunk driver.

Krystil Kincaid was eight months pregnant with her daughter, Alvalynn, when their car was struck on a California highway on Sept. 9. Her heartbroken husband, Zach, who lives in San Jacinto, Calif., decided he wanted the world to see the unsettling images of the 29-year-old mother and their little girl lying in a coffin together at their wake.

That’s a tragic example of this journalism issue.

Here is another new case study, drawn from current celebrity clickbait news. After all, it’s hard for journalists to ignore a royal baby bump.

In this case, the New York Times headline proclaims: “Prince Harry and Meghan Markle Announce She’s Pregnant.” The lede is where we see the “problem.”

LONDON — Another royal baby is on the way.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, are expecting a child in the spring, Kensington Palace announced.

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R-rated 'Game of Thrones' is also grist for debates about a second 'R' -- religion

R-rated 'Game of Thrones' is also grist for debates about a second 'R' -- religion

Last week, the New York Times magazine produced a fawning piece about George R.R. Martin, fantasy’s “reigning king” because of his seminal “Game of Thrones” series, now at five (immense) books.

I say “fawning” because the story was only on the series’ amazing success and not on the major problems Martin is having at finishing up his series. More on that in a bit. The goal, eventually, is to discuss whether the Times or any other publication has has shown any interest in the role of religion in this global hit.

These books started coming out in 1996, then continued in a (sort of) steady clip until 2011 with the release of book five. Book six, “The Winds of Winter,” was supposed to be out by 2016 at the latest, but the writer got caught up with helping produce the HBO drama (starting in 2011) Game of Thrones.

I read the first two books some years ago, but, annoyed with non-ending violence, I dropped them. I picked them up again in the fall of 2014 and finished the series while teaching in Fairbanks so as to have something to occupy me during that cold, dark winter. Now I’m making my way through the HBO drama and am nearly finished with the fourth season. As the Times says:

After the HBO show premiered, the world Martin had created became a global phenomenon, and his readership reached heights few authors have ever found — his American peers now include other household names of genre fiction, such as Tom Clancy and Stephen King.

The plot of “ASOIAF,” as fans call it, is concerned largely with events unfolding in and around the continent of Westeros around the year 300 A.C. (“after conquest” of the seven kingdoms in the books). The inciting incident of the series is the death, under suspicious circumstances, of Jon Arryn, who had been serving as hand of the king (chief of staff, basically) to a royal named Robert Baratheon. Arryn’s demise sets in motion a chain of events leading to the murder of King Robert himself, which in turn creates a power vacuum, destabilizing the prevailing political order. After centuries of relative calm, chaos erupts into a full-blown war, involving several of the realm’s great family houses.

Millions of people, of course, knew all of that already.

One reason it’s been taking me so long to get through the HBO series is because I can’t watch the stuff while the kiddo is awake because the violence/gore/explicit sex content is off the charts. Maybe that’s why — of the reams of material written about the book and wildly successful series — comparatively little has been written about the role of religion in the Game of Thrones books.

Not to say there isn’t any.

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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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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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Read it all: The New Yorker offers a stunningly good take on the 'Christian' rock wars

Read it all: The New Yorker offers a stunningly good take on the 'Christian' rock wars

First, here is yet another tmatt confession: I am so old that I attended one of the original “Jesus music” rock festivals held in Texas in the early 1970s. Then I went to Baylor University during the era when various branches of Word Records in Waco were releasing early albums linked to what would become Contemporary Christian Music.

There’s more. Anyone digging into the roots of “folk” and later “rock” music inside church doors will eventually hit a 1967 landmark — the “Good News” folk musical by Bob Oldenburg. Who played the role of the “skeptic” the first performances? That would be my big brother, Don, who was playing a ukulele before it was cool.

As a journalist, I have been covering the “Christian music” wars since the late 1970s and, of course, that topic ended up in my book “Pop Goes Religion: Faith in Popular Culture.” The key theme: CCM is music defined by unwritten rules about lyrics and the belief that all “Christian art” should, in reality, be evangelism in disguise.

Hold that thought. I wrote all of that to add punch to my praise for an almost unbelievably good New Yorker feature by Kelefa Sanneh that just ran with this epic headline:

The Unlikely Endurance of Christian Rock

The genre has been disdained by the church and mocked by secular culture. That just reassured practitioners that they were rebels on a righteous path.

It opens with a quotation that left me stunned. I have read shelves full of books about “Christian rock” and have never been clubbed over the head with these words.

Try to guess the minister who had this to say in 1957, addressing whether gospel music could be wedded to rock ‘n’ roll. This Baptist pastor from the South was blunt:

Rock and gospel were “totally incompatible,” he explained: “The profound sacred and spiritual meaning of the great music of the church must never be mixed with the transitory quality of rock and roll music.” And he made it clear which he preferred. “The former serves to lift men’s souls to higher levels of reality, and therefore to God,” he wrote. “The latter so often plunges men’s minds into degrading and immoral depths.”

Who said that? That would be the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Take it away, Aretha Franklin.

It’s hard not to quote every other passage in this must-read piece, which punches all the right buttons — from the copycat “Jesus is my boyfriend” style of worship music to battles over loud drums and heavy-metal guitars. Yes, U2 is in here. Ditto for Bob Dylan.

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What does it mean when a member of Pussy Riot shows up at a Christian arts festival?

What does it mean when a member of Pussy Riot shows up at a Christian arts festival?

You’ve all heard of Pussy Riot, the defiant all-female Russian punk band that got headlines back in 2012 when several of them interrupted a prayer service -- invading the altar area -- at the Christ Our Savior Orthodox Cathedral in Moscow with anti-Vladimir Putin chants. (Tmatt covered that here). 

Since then, these anarchist/feminists have been known for disrupting everything from a World Cup game to the Moscow subway. But they haven’t been particularly known for any religious sentiments, other than a song addressed to the Virgin Mary called “Punk Prayer: Mother of God, Drive Putin Away.”

So I was amazed to read a Religion News Service story about one of its members appearing at Greenbelt, a famous Christian music festival held in the U.K.

From its shock-effect name to its defiant activist tactics, little about the Russian band Pussy Riot would suggest that the punk group is on a holy mission.

But after an appearance last weekend (Aug. 26) at Greenbelt, the U.K.’s foremost Christian arts festival, Pussy Riot’s co-founder Maria Alyokhina explained that the act, beginning with the 2012 protest that resulted in two years in a labor camp, should be understood as a “Christian gesture.”

Pussy Riot is better known in the West for its feminism and political resistance -- which almost prevented Alyokhina from making her date at Greenbelt. The Russian authorities had barred her from boarding a plane earlier this month as she headed on a tour of British arts events, telling her she was forbidden to leave the country until she completed a 100-day community service sentence for taking part in an unauthorized protest in April.

But Alyokhina, 30, is not easily deterred. She drove instead, crossing at an unsecured section of the border, and kept going until she reached Lithuania, where she boarded a plane to Britain.

What the festival-goers in England got was Alyokhina and other members of her band putting on a show, called “Riot Days.”

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