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Buttigieg and faith: WPost edges closer to covering pew gaps inside today's Democratic Party

Buttigieg and faith: WPost edges closer to covering pew gaps inside today's Democratic Party

A decade or more ago — I forget which White House race — the pollster and scholar John C. Green of the University of Akron made a witty comment about American politics and the role that faith often plays at ground level on election day.

This election, he told me (and I paraphrase), was going to be another one of those cases in which the presidency would be decided by Catholic voters in Ohio. But Green didn’t just point at generic Catholic voters. He said that the crucial factor would be whether “Catholics who go to Mass every Sunday” showed up at the polls in greater numbers than “Catholics who go to Mass once a month.”

In other words, he was saying that there is no one Catholic vote (click here for GetReligion posts on this topic) involved in the so-called “pew gap.” Catholics who go to Mass every week (or even daily) have different beliefs than those who show up every now and then.

So when a presidential candidate hires a “faith outreach director,” it’s crucial to ask (a) which group of believers the candidate hopes to rally, (b) how many of them are out there and (c) are we talking about people whose faith pushes them into action?

You can see these factors — often hidden between the lines — in a recent Washington Post story that ran with this headline: “Pete Buttigieg hires the first faith outreach director of the 2020 campaign.” There are one or two places in this piece where the Post team comes really, really close to examining the crucial faith-based cracks inside today’s Democratic Party.

The key: Is Buttigieg trying to rally religious liberals (and secularists) who already on his side or is he, like Barack Obama, attempting to reach out to centrists and liberal evangelicals? So far, the other key player in this pre-primary faith contest is Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who urgently needs support from voters in the African-American church.

So Buttigieg has hired the Rev. Shawna Foster as his faith-outreach director. What does this tell us about the Democratic Party at this stage of the contest?

Foster … has a broad imperative to talk to all religious groups. She said she thinks mainline Protestants (those who are not evangelical and tend to be more liberal, both religiously and politically) have been overlooked by political campaigns and are probably sympathetic to the religious views of Buttigieg, an Episcopalian.

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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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Podcast talking: Would Democrats take Marianne Williamson seriously if her name was ....

Podcast talking: Would Democrats take Marianne Williamson seriously if her name was ....

Donald Trump is not going to be beaten just by insider politics talk. He’s not going to be beaten just by somebody who has plans. He’s going to be beaten by somebody who has an idea what the man has done. This man has reached into the psyche of the American people and he has harnessed fear for political purposes.

“So, Mr. President — if you’re listening — I want you to hear me please: You have harnessed fear for political purposes and only love can cast that out. So I, sir, I have a feeling you know what you’re doing. I’m going to harness love for political purposes. I will meet you on that field, and sir, love will win.”

— Marianne Williamson’s final statement in first debate for Democrats seeking White House in 2020.

Anyone want to guess what this particular candidate might use as the anthem that plays at the beginning and end of her campaign rallies?

I’m thinking that it might be something that honors the 1992 bestseller — “A Return to Love” — that made her a national sensation back in what people called the New Age era. Something like this: Cue the music.

I focused quite a bit on that book’s old New Age theology in my recent post (“Evil, sin, reality and life as a 'Son of God': What Marianne Williamson is saying isn't new”) about a fascinating New York Times feature about Williamson and her decision to seek the White House. I thought it was appropriate that the Times gave so much attention to the religious themes and concepts in her work, instead of going all politics, all the time.

But, truth be told, the key question discussed in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast — click here to tune that in — focused on mass media, celebrity, religion and, yes, politics, all at the same time.

Look again at that debate quote at the top of this post and give an honest answer to this question: Would that quotation be receiving more attention if the candidate who spoke it was someone named Oprah? How about this person’s candidacy for the Democratic Party nomination?

Williamson is being treated as a bit of a novelty, frankly, even though millions of Americans — on the elite coasts, but also in the heartland, because of her role as a spiritual guide for Oprah Winfrey.

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Pew gap 2020: Thinking about Emma Green, sad Trump voters and woke wing of Democratic Party

Pew gap 2020: Thinking about Emma Green, sad Trump voters and woke wing of Democratic Party

As the 2020 White House race draws closer, I think I hear a familiar train a comin’. Or maybe it’s this slow train, coming up around the bend. I’ve already bought my new political t-shirt for the months ahead.

Whatever you want to call it, the train that’s coming is more and more coverage of Donald Trump and his white evangelical voters — both enthusiastic supporters and reluctant ones. It’s the same train that so many mainstream journalists spotted in 2016, but never took the time to understand (or were unwilling to make that effort, for some strange reason).

The bottom line: They thought the whole “81 percent” thing was a story about the Republican Party and the Republican Party, alone.

As for me, I keep thinking about all the church-goin’ people that I know who really, really, really do not want to vote for Trump. Yet they hear the train a comin’, since they remain worried about all those familiar issues linked to the First Amendment, abortion, the U.S. Supreme Court, etc. (Click here for my breakdown on the various evangelical voting camps in the Trump era.)

So what is happening on the Democratic Party side of this story?

That brings me to a short, but important, essay by Emma Green (she’s everywhere, these days) that ran at The Atlantic Monthly website with this headline: “Pete Buttigieg Takes Aim at Religious Hypocrisy.” It starts you know where:

On the debate stage, Buttigieg gave voice to a view that has become common among Democratic voters: Many of Trump’s policies, along with his conduct as president, do not reflect Christian values. “The Republican Party likes to cloak itself in the language of religion,” Buttigieg said. “We should call out hypocrisy when we see it.”

Many religious conservatives, of course, agree with that statement, that Trump’s conduct doesn’t “reflect Christian values.” His policies? That’s a bizarre, very mixed bag, for most religious conservatives that I know.

Back to Green:

This has been a theme throughout Buttigieg’s campaign. The mayor has spoken openly about his religious faith and rallied religious rhetoric to his advantage: This spring, he called out Mike Pence for his opposition to same-sex marriage, saying, “Your quarrel, sir, it is with my creator.”

This is a departure from the usual playbook for the Democratic Party.

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As I head out the door: Online ordinations fight in Tennessee raises old church-state question

As I head out the door: Online ordinations fight in Tennessee raises old church-state question

If you have read GetReligion for a while — several years at least — you know that when you see images of mountains in East Tennessee and North Carolina, that means that it’s finally vacation season at this here weblog.

Well, “VACATION” doesn’t mean that we close down. It just means that people come and go — not to be confused with Bobby Ross, Jr., heading to Texas Ranger games — so you may see business days with one or two posts instead of the usual three. But the cyber doors will never close. I’m about to leave my home office in one set of mountains (the Cumberlands) to hide away (near a WIFI cafe) for a couple of days in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

But before I go, let me point readers to a very interesting church-state story developing here in the Volunteer State, a story that raises a very important question that shows up in religion news every now and then. The headline: “Internet church sues Tennessee over law banning weddings by online-ordained ministers.”

That question is: What — in legal, not theological terms — is a “church”? Here is the overture, care of the Knoxville News-Sentinel:

A Seattle-based online church is suing the state of Tennessee over a new law that bars online-ordained ministers from performing weddings.

Universal Life Church Ministries filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. … The law, which states that "persons receiving online ordinations may not solemnize the rite of matrimony" was to go into effect July 1. But Chief District Judge Waverly Crenshaw scheduled a July 3 hearing in Nashville on the restraining order requested by ULCM attorneys. …

ULCM describes itself as a "non-denominational, non-profit religious organization famous worldwide for its provision of free, legal ordinations to its vast membership over the internet." It has ordained more than 20 million people, including singer-actress Lady Gaga, talk show host Stephen Colbert and actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

The bottom line is right here:

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'Bullets Rarely Miss': Rolling Stone offers faith-free vision of suicides in the American West

 'Bullets Rarely Miss': Rolling Stone offers faith-free vision of suicides in the American West

To the extent that it’s possible to write beautifully about suicide, with sympathetic portraits of people who have killed themselves and of the survivors who must live with the wreckage and agonizing questions of what they could have done differently, Stephen Rodrick has achieved it in “All-American Despair,” a 9,000-word report for Rolling Stone.

This is the type of longform reporting — comparable to the magazine’s field reports from the counterculture’s dance of death at the Altamont Free Concert in 1969 and the trampling of Who fans at a general admission concert in Cincinnati in 1979 — that for many decades made Rolling Stone more than a source for record reviews and lots of first-person-voice (“ … as I drove down the highway with Julia Roberts, I noticed that …”) visits with celebrities.

Yet in these 9,000 words, any concept of God or of a meaningful spiritual side of life is nebulous. The first sentence mentions Toby Lingle’s funeral at Highland Park Community Church after he shot himself.

That’s poignant. Yet there’s no indication of why Highland Park was the host of this somber gathering. Was Lingle an occasional visitor? Was his sister a member? Was it simply a matter of seating capacity?

We learn deeper into the story that whatever faith Lingle had was extinguished by the death of his mother, who protected him from verbal lashings by his father:

Toby and his older brother, Tim, and his sister, Tawny, grew up in the one-gas-station town of Midwest, Wyoming, about 40 miles outside Casper. His graduating class was just 16 kids. His mom was an EMT who answered the doctorless town’s medical questions at all hours. His father was a mean alcoholic who worked in the nearby oil fields before retiring on disability. Often cruel, according to Tawny, their dad took particular pleasure in tormenting his youngest son. When a teenage Toby quit a hard, unforgiving job in the oil fields, his father sneered, “We’re not going to have Christmas this year because of you.”

Toby’s brother joined the Navy, and his sister had a baby and moved away. It was just Mom, Dad and Toby in the small house. Toby’s mom tried to protect him the best she could. But she had her own problems: long, unexplained crying jags that scared her kids. Then, at just 46, a lifetime of smoking caught up with her, and she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Toby took her to Casper for doctor appointments and begged her to stop smoking, but she couldn’t. She died six months later; Toby was 19. Talking to his friends and family, it’s clear that Toby’s emotional growth ended the day his mom and protector died. (His father died two years later.)

“He said, ‘God couldn’t exist if he took our mom,’” Tawny told me at her tidy Casper apartment where Lingle would crash when he was having one of the crying spells that tormented his adult life. “He could never see any good in the world after that.”

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