Atheists & Agnostics

Pulpits vs. pews: Thinking about choices that mainline Protestants make on Election Day

Pulpits vs. pews: Thinking about choices that mainline Protestants make on Election Day

Anyone listing turning points in American politics would have to include that day in 1980 when candidate Ronald Reagan went to Dallas and faced a crowd of 15,000 evangelical, Pentecostal and fundamentalist Christian leaders.

Reagan told them, “I know you can’t endorse me. But ... I want you to know that I endorse you.”

The mainstream press grasped the importance of that declaration.

However, a recent symbolic move by leaders on the left didn’t get anywhere near as much ink (analog or digital). I am referring to that resolution (.pdf here) by the Democratic National Committee stating, in part:

WHEREAS, religiously unaffiliated Americans overwhelmingly share the Democratic Party’svalues, with 70% voting for Democrats in 2018, 80% supporting same-sex marriage, and 61% saying immigrants make American society stronger; and

WHEREAS, the religiously unaffiliated demographic represents the largest religious group within the Democratic Party, growing from 19% in 2007 to one in three today. …

Therefore, the party saluted “religiously unaffiliated Americans” because of their advocacy for “rational public policy based on sound science and universal humanistic values. …”

This really isn’t news, for religion-beat pros who have been paying attention. After all political scientist John C. Green of the University of Akron connected these dots in 2012, when the Pew Forum released its “Nones on the Rise” report. Here is a chunk of an “On Religion” column that I wrote at that time:

The unaffiliated overwhelmingly reject ancient doctrines on sexuality with 73 percent backing same-sex marriage and 72 percent saying abortion should be legal in all, or most, cases. Thus, the "Nones" skew heavily Democratic as voters — with 75 percent supporting Barack Obama in 2008. The unaffiliated are now a stronger presence in the Democratic Party than African-American Protestants, white mainline Protestants or white Catholics.

"It may very well be that in the future the unaffiliated vote will be as important to the Democrats as the traditionally religious are to the Republican Party,” said Green, addressing the religion reporters. "If these trends continue, we are likely to see even sharper divisions between the political parties."

At that time, Green noted that a party led by atheists, agnostics and Nones might have trouble making peace with several key flocks in the Democratic Part’s historic base — such as African-American Protestants, Latino Catholics and blue-collar believers in the American heartland.

This brings me to this weekend’s “think piece” by progressive Baptist pastor and scholar Ryan Burge, whose work with @Religion_Public has made him a must-follow voice in Twitter (@ryanburge).

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Friday Five: Heidi Hall's last story, mainline blues, praying to plants, FFRF stenography, Ukraine scoop

Friday Five: Heidi Hall's last story, mainline blues, praying to plants, FFRF stenography, Ukraine scoop

Friends and loved ones mourn Wednesday’s death of Heidi Hall, a former religion and education editor for The Tennessean.

As noted by that newspaper, the cause of her passing was metastatic colorectal cancer. She was 49.

Hall wrote a final story, published Thursday.

“It's the story of her life — of losing everything when she left the (Jehovah’s) Witnesses — and finding a new family of her own,” RNS editor-in-chief Bob Smietana noted on Twitter.

Now, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Yes, our own Terry Mattingly is a tough critic.

But he gave an extremely positive review to Washington Post religion writer Julie Zauzmer’s piece that ran this week with this headline: The circuit preacher was an idea of the frontier past. Now it’s the cutting-edge response to shrinking churches.”

“If you start reading this one, you will want to read it all,” tmatt said.

Amen.

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Sports Illustrated reports on Freedom From Religion Foundation's complaints about Clemson football

Sports Illustrated reports on Freedom From Religion Foundation's complaints about Clemson football

Hey, guess what? It really is possible for a journalist to report on the Freedom From Religion Foundation in a fair, insightful way.

In a post earlier this month, I made the case that “regurgitating the anti-religion group’s talking points as if they’re the gospel truth is not great journalism.”

Leave it to a sports writer, of all people, to show a better way of handling a story involving the FFRF.

I missed the following Sports Illustrated piece when it came out a few weeks ago, but it’s a terrific read — both for college football fans and those who follow religion news. I’m talking about Tim Rohan’s deep dive into “Faith, Football and the Fervent Religious Culture at Dabo Swinney's Clemson.”

GetReligion readers may recall that we noted in January, “Yes, there's a Jesus angle — and a Chick-fil-A one — in Clemson's football national title.”

In his SI feature, Rohan sets the scene this way:

On a hot, muggy day in August 2012, as Clemson football practice came to an end, coach Dabo Swinney gathered everyone for his closing remarks. Some players noticed a few Rubbermaid troughs stationed about and figured they were heading for the cold tubs. Instead, Swinney announced that one of their teammates, star receiver DeAndre Hopkins, would be getting baptized on the field. Everyone was invited to stay and watch.

Few players or coaches left, if any. They gathered around one of the tubs, which was filled with water, and Hopkins climbed in, still dressed in his jersey and pads. Jesus is the most important thing in my life, Hopkins said, and I want you guys to know I’m living for him. A pastor from NewSpring, a local Baptist church, baptized him, and the crowd cheered.

One assistant coach was so moved by the scene, he snapped a photo of Hopkins in the tub and tweeted it out. The photo caught the media’s attention and made national headlines. After that, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a nonprofit organization that promotes the separation of church and state, received at least three complaints about the Clemson football program. The following year, in the fall of 2013, The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote a story examining Clemson’s religious culture, highlighting Hopkins’s baptism again, and the FFRF received two more complaints. They were coming from alumni and people in the Clemson community.

At that point, Patrick Elliott, an FFRF attorney, opened an investigation and, in April 2014, sent Clemson a letter noting that the First Amendment prohibited the school, as a public institution, from supporting, promoting or endorsing religion. The letter asked Clemson to stop its team prayers, Bible studies and organized church trips.

Charles Haynes, the founding director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute, a nonpartisan organization that educates the public on First Amendment issues, recently reviewed the FFRF’s claims against Clemson. “I don’t think this is a close case,” he says. “Clemson University is clearly violating the First Amendment.”

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Oh yeah -- this post is about that RNS column on why journalists just can't 'get religion'

Oh yeah -- this post is about that RNS column on why journalists just can't 'get religion'

If you ever needed proof that the editor of The New York Times saying something is what makes a point of view “real,” then check out the new Religion News Service opinion piece with this headline: “What it means to ‘get’ religion in 2020.”

Charles C. Camosy of Fordham University starts his “Purple Catholicism” column in a perfectly logical place. That would be the celebrated National Public Radio interview nearly three years ago in which Times executive editor Dean Baquet sort of admits that many journalists have trouble grasping the importance of religion in real life in America and around the world.

That’s the interview that, at the time, was marked with a GetReligion piece under the headline, “New York Times editor: We just don't get (a) religion, (b) the alt-right or (c) whatever.”

(RNS) — Following the 2016 presidential election, Dean Baquet, then executive editor of The New York Times, declared that one of his “big jobs” was to “really understand and explain the forces in America” that produced such a surprising result. Leading media organizations, he admirably admitted, simply do not “get religion.”

Baquet was right to be concerned. Otherwise sophisticated journalists and commentators regularly display minimal understanding of religion and how theological claims ought to function in public discourse. This not only hampers journalists’ ability to get to the heart of a story, it contributes much to the massive and growing distrust religious people tend to have of major media institutions.  

Comosy seems to assume that Baquet’s words brought this sad situation into the light of day, as opposed to millions of words of media-criticism and praise published here at GetReligion over nearly 17 years. I could note my cover story on this topic at The Quill in 1983, but that would be rather indecorous.

However, I will pause to be thankful for the first URL included in this RNS piece — the “minimal understand of religion” link — which points to at GetReligion post with this headline: “Mark Hemingway takes GetReligion-like stroll through years of New York Times religion gaffes.” Yes, that Mark Hemingway.

But here is the key to this piece: Rather than focusing on embarrassing religion errors that make it into print (even though errors are a sign of deeper issues), the RNS columnist digs deep into a philosophical issue noted many, many, many times at here at GetReligion. I am referring to the tendency by journalists that some subjects are “real” (politics and economics), while others are not so real (religion).

Here is the heart of the matter, from his perspective.

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Is belief in the body and blood of Christ ‘too magical’ to handle in hard-news coverage?

Is belief in the body and blood of Christ ‘too magical’ to handle in hard-news coverage?

Journalists love polls, surveys and studies. One week, wine, for example, is good for you. Seemingly the next, it’s not. There is especially true of medical studies. It was also true during the last presidential election. When it comes to polls, studies and surveys, there has been a reckoning of sorts. Nonetheless, news outlets can’t stop reporting on them despite issues with veracity.

The primary reason is that they get clicks.

As a result, they are widely shared on social media platforms. Another reason is that they provide news sites with diverse news coverage. It “can’t be Trump all the time” has become a popular newsroom refrain the past few years.

What we learned this month is that polls, survey and studies involving politics and health — despite their polarizing natures — are fair game. The ones around faith — and specifically around a specific belief — is not. How else would one explain the dearth of coverage around a Pew Study released on August 5 around a central belief that should be held by Catholics, but is increasingly not. Catholic news sites were abuzz with coverage, but secular news outlets chose to ignore it. 

Transubstantiation — the belief that during Mass the bread and wine used for Communion become the body and blood of Jesus Christ — is central to the Catholic faith. Pew found that just 31% of U.S. Catholics believe that statement. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the priest’s offering of bread and wine, known as the eucharist and a re-enactment of The Last Supper, are changed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The reaffirmation of this doctrine came in the year 1215 by the Fourth Council of the Lateran. When consumed, God enters the life of a Catholic. This is essential to salvation.

On the other hand, let’s take another subject that sparks debate and division: belief in ghosts and UFOs. Yes, the phenomenon of people seeing an Unidentified Flying Object, sparking the belief that alien life is out there, has been taken more seriously in the press than any Catholic belief deemed too magical or strange by secular society and mainstream news outlets.

Don’t believe me? UFOs have been in the news this summer, and at other periods of the year, whenever possible. It’s a subject that stretches one’s imagination. It serves as clickbait. It’s important. These are all reasons why UFO stories may be covered, even though they border on conspiracy theory whenever the government may be involved.

For example, Politico, USA Today and the BBC all chose to do UFO stories this month. Why not transubstantiation? By comparison, the central belief of the Catholic faith — so out of reach for many reporters to understand and explain — is relegated to the religious press.

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Thinking about modern Democrats: There are three kinds and religion may be a crucial factor

Thinking about modern Democrats: There are three kinds and religion may be a crucial factor

As a rule, your GetReligionistas do not post critiques — positive or negative — about opinion pieces in the mainstream press. The exceptions usually run on weekends, when we point readers to “think pieces” and essays on topics linked to religion-news work.

Every now and then, however, a think piece comes along that does a better job of handling an important news topic than most of the “hard news” pieces on the same or similar topics.

In this case, we are talking about the many, many debates we will be seeing in the weeks and months ahead as Democratic Party leaders attempt to thin out the field of 666 or so candidates who want the right to run against Donald Trump in 2020.

That brings me to a very important New York Times piece that ran the other day — written by Thomas B. Edsall — under this wordy, but important headline:

The Democratic Party Is Actually Three Parties

They have different constituents and prefer different policies. Satisfying them all will not be easy.

Now, it is impossible, these days, to talk about divisions in the American political marketplace without running into controversial issues linked to religion, morality and culture. Can you say religious liberty? Oh, sorry, I meant “religious liberty.”

Obviously, one of these Democratic armies is the world of “woke” folks on Twitter. Then you have the left-of-center party establishment. And then you have the world of “moderates” and conservative Democrats, who still — believe it or not — exist. You can see evidence of that in recent GetReligion posts about the fault lines inside the Democratic Party on subjects linked to abortion.

Here is Edsall’s overture, which is long — but essential:

Democratic Party voters are split. Its most progressive wing, which is supportive of contentious policies on immigration, health care and other issues, is, in the context of the party’s electorate, disproportionately white. So is the party’s middle group of “somewhat liberal” voters. Its more moderate wing, which is pressing bread-and-butter concerns like jobs, taxes and a less totalizing vision of health care reform, is majority nonwhite, with almost half of its support coming from African-American and Hispanic voters.

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Hazel Motes, do not pray for us

Hazel Motes, do not pray for us

The topic should be catnip for any journalist writing about religion: creating a church without God is hard work and sometimes the idea fails.

But Faith Hill’s report for The Atlantic (“They Tried to Start a Church Without God. For a While, It Worked”) does not deliver well, not least because her angle is more about components than convictions. It’s like reading an economist’s insights into romantic poetry.

Hill starts well enough by making the report personal. We meet Justina Walford, who has left the faith of her childhood, but misses the experience of church. But even here the problems in Hill’s reporting arise quickly: she describes Walford as once being “deeply religious,” but losing her interest because of “overseas travel that made her question how any one religious community could have a monopoly on truth.”

This is nearly robotic language to describe a now-lost belief in and engagement with God. The problem is just as bad when Hill tries to convey the purported advantage that traditional churches have compared to their God-free alternatives:

According to data from the latest version of the Public Religion Research Institute’s annual “American Values Atlas,” 25 percent of Americans today are religiously unaffiliated, up from single digits in the 1990s. Among young people, that number is 39 percent. Those numbers describe not just a retreat from organized religion, but also an erosion of community.Many faith congregations have acted as social anchors in their areas, providing a place to see and be seen by the same friendly faces each week. …

In New York and elsewhere, the basic mechanics of keeping a congregation running have proved difficult. To hire musicians and speakers, buy refreshments, and rent out a venue takes a lot of money. A traditional Church has tithings — but leaders of secular communities have found that attendees are highly suspicious of any plea for donations. Many lapsed believers harbor strong negative associations with the collection plate.

“Faith congregations,” “tithings,” “attendees” — this is a foreign dialect. And it’s an undisputed reality that except when tithing is mandatory, it is a minority phenomenon and hardly the basis of an abundant annual income. 

Maybe the narration improves when Hill turns to the challenges faced by the pioneers of God-free mass meetings? Yeah, not so much:

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Will millennials decide to become nuns? NJ.com and RNS offer contrasting answers

Will millennials decide to become nuns? NJ.com and RNS offer contrasting answers

As nuns age, the huge question has been about who can be found to replace them. The future of Catholic religious orders in the United States is pretty dire at the moment. Two publications recently came out with stories on millennials and nuns, with very different conclusions.

One story is a splashy, detailed look at a handful of millennial women who entered Catholic religious orders in New Jersey and their reasons for doing so. Another is a Religion News Service story, datelined Grand Rapids, Mich., about older nuns who meet with agnostic/seeking millennial women and try to connect on a spiritual plane.

The New Jersey story, available on NJ.com (a group of news sources including the Newark Star-Ledger) follows three women who joined religious orders. There’s Anna, a Rutgers grad; Chiara, a one-time nursing student at Villanova; and Lauren, a former Australian actress now living with a contemplative religious order.

They’re millennial women who have chosen a path more popular for generations before them — one that involves kneeling before an altar, vowing to live in poverty, obeying God and abstaining from sex.

“I didn’t see a lightning bolt that fell out of the sky,” Sister Anna said. “I didn’t see an angel who told me what I was going to do in my life.”

In our hyper-connected, media-saturated age, it’s hard enough to get people to slow down and engage with the spiritual world, much less get them to consider a life lived in service to the church. Yet handfuls of millennial women across the state have taken that path. These women are serving as Catholic sisters or missionaries, many working through the process known as discernment to become “women religious,” commonly referred to as nuns. If the young sisters make it through the discernment process — which takes years and sometimes pulls them thousands of miles from family and friends — they are choosing something permanent, and forsaking the lures of marriage, kids, autonomy and material goods.

I know reporters may feel they have to dumb down religion stories for the masses, but the “kneeling before an altar”? Is that simple act so beyond the experience of most 20-somethings?

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Don't look for God in Epstein selfies: It's all about who had prestige in elite New York circles

Don't look for God in Epstein selfies: It's all about who had prestige in elite New York circles

With Jeffrey Epstein, it was all about the selfies and party pictures.

Yes, his infamous “little black book” of contacts (Gawker link here) contained the names of legions of apparently innocent elite-zip-code personalities (lots of journalists here) who may have never even met Epstein — but he wanted their contact information because they had influence in the public square. Some of the man’s victims made it into the book, as well.

But then there are the people who made it into all of those photos that document the good times shared by the powerful people who were courted by Epstein or who courted him. We are talking about the people who made it to his private island or who flew — for various reasons — on the private Epstein jet. A few were, literally, royals.

It will be hard, but try to make it all the way to the end of the current New York Magazine feature that ran with this revealing double-decker headline:

Who Was Jeffrey Epstein Calling?

A close study of his circle — social, professional, transactional — reveals a damning portrait of elite New York

What do we see in this long list of powerful and famous names?

It’s hard to be more specific than the final words in that headline. This predator’s “little black book” was a guide to “elite New York” — the people with power and access to power. What role did religion play in this drama? That depends on how one defines the term “religion.” (Click here for my first post on this topic.)

Here’s the thesis of the New York piece:

For decades, important, influential, “serious” people attended Epstein’s dinner parties, rode his private jet, and furthered the fiction that he was some kind of genius hedge-fund billionaire. How do we explain why they looked the other way, or flattered Epstein, even as they must have noticed he was often in the company of a young harem? Easy: They got something in exchange from him, whether it was a free ride on that airborne Lolita Express, some other form of monetary largesse, entrée into the extravagant celebrity soirées he hosted at his townhouse, or, possibly and harrowingly, a pound or two of female flesh. …

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