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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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Baptists and bishops: Must-read pair of weekend thinkers from Russell Moore and J.D. Flynn

Baptists and bishops: Must-read pair of weekend thinkers from Russell Moore and J.D. Flynn

Back in the religion-beat Good Old Days — roughly 1985-95 or hereabouts — religion-beat professionals in most American newsrooms could count on getting travel-budget money to cover at least two major events every year.

That would be the annual summer meeting of the national Southern Baptist Convention — prime years in the denomination’s civil-war era — and a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops, where some progressives were wrestling with Pope St. John Paul II and there were rumblings about a massive sexual-abuse scandal among priests and bishops.

Along with meetings of the Religion Newswriters Association, these were the dates on the calendars when the pros could get together and talk shop over a few modest meals/drinks on the company dime.

Well, those meetings roll on, of course, and continue to make news. A few reporters get to attend these major events, since they represent newsrooms that are (a) still quite large, (b) led by wise editors or (c) both. Lots of others scribes (speaking for a friend) catch key moments via streaming video, smartphone connections and transcripts of major speeches and debates.

With that in mind, here is a double-dose of weekend think-piece material linked to these two events which will take place in the next week or so in Birmingham, Ala., and Baltimore. Some people get barbecue and some get crab cakes.

First up, an essay by a key SBC voice, the Rev. Russell Moore of Beltway land, entitled: “10 Things I Wish Everyone Knew About Southern Baptists.” There are some important topics early on (“Westboro Baptist Church isn’t one of us” and “There are some things in our past we’re ashamed of”) but the most important info comes near the end, in terms of topics currently in the news. For example:

#8. We’re more ethnically diverse than you might think.

Among the fastest growing demographics in the Southern Baptist life are African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American congregations. The most vibrant of our churches often include many languages and ethnic groups.

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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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Your journalism tip sheet for next week's annual Southern Baptist Convention extravaganza

Your journalism tip sheet for next week's annual Southern Baptist Convention extravaganza

If you decide last-minute to visit the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual extravaganza at Birmingham, Ala., June 11–12, you may need a hotel in Montgomery, if not Atlanta, since something like 10,000 “messengers” (please, never say “delegates”) will be cramming 37 local hotels. Whether in-person or from long distance, some coverage tips. 

Media should recognize that alongside its vast Sunbelt flock,  America's largest Protestant denomination claims, for instance, 42,000 adherents in New York State, 68,000 in Illinois, 76,000 in Indiana, 84,000 in Kansas-Nebraska and 206,000 in California. This influential empire has 51,541 local congregations and mission outposts, with $11.8 billion in yearly donations.

Long gone are the years when pulses pounded over high-stakes political machinations as hardline conservatives were winning SBC control. But news always abounds. 

Notably, this is the first meeting since the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News blew the lid off SBC sanctity with data on 350 church workers accused of sexual misconduct with 700-plus victims since 1998.

That crisis reaches the floor Wednesday afternoon, June 12, when SBC President J.D. Greear’s sexual abuse study gets a ridiculously tiny 20-minute time slot. Greear’s address Tuesday morning may offer grist. And the June 10-11 convention of local and state SBC executives gets a proposed policy to protect minors (.pdf text here).

Another related effort was last month’s survey on perceptions of the abuse problem, which critics will think exposes naïve attitudes.  Sources who monitor SBC depredations include evangelical blogger “Dee” Parsons of The Wartburg Watch and the 10 SBC victims and victim advocates featured in  the current Christianity Today (behind pay wall).

Greear, a North Carolina pastor, is up for re-election Tuesday afternoon to a second year as SBC president. Should be automatic, though he’s under some right-wing fire for saying women can be speakers at Sunday worship despite the SBC’s 2000 “complementarian” stance that only men should be pastors.

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Question for journalists: Are Baylor's LGBTQ battles about politics or doctrine?

Question for journalists: Are Baylor's LGBTQ battles about politics or doctrine?

Let’s start with this question: Does the following sequence of events add up to a news story or not?

I. The world’s most prominent Baptist academic institution — Baylor University (I’m an alum) — gets involved in some heated debates about whether the campus LGBTQ group will be recognized as an official campus organization. That would (a) give it student-fee funds and (b) signal that regents consider the group’s work to be in accord with Baylor’s mission.

II. Representatives and “Baylor Family” supporters of the group Gamma Alpha Upsilon (GAY) start a petition asking the regents to affirm what previously was known as the Sexual Identity Forum.

III. Doctrinally conservative Baylor-ites respond with a petition of their own.

Here’s an interesting point to note: Only the progressive half of that online-petition equation draws coverage from The Waco Tribune-Herald.

IV. Shortly after that, the Baylor regents decline to meet with representatives of GAY. This draws more ink from the Tribune-Herald, once again with the left side of this debate receiving coverage. There is no content from those supporting Baylor’s doctrinal stance on sex and marriage (other than quotes from university policy and doctrinal statements).

V. Things got kicked up a notch, in terms of heat and public conflict, when the Rev. Dan Freemyer of the progressive Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth delivered the benediction at one of Baylor's spring graduation rites. Baylor traditionally gives this role to a Baptist clergyperson who is the parent of one of the graduates.

There’s more. Here is the top of my national “On Religion” column this week, which served as the hook for this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in): 

God is doing new things in today's world, he said, while offering blunt prayer requests on behalf of the graduates.

"God, give them the moral imagination to reject the old keys that we're trying to give them to a planet that we're poisoning by running it on fossil fuels and misplaced priorities -- a planet with too many straight, white men like me behind the steering wheel while others have been expected to sit quietly at the back of the bus," said Freemyer.

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Looking for a religion ghost in Jimmy Carter's current clout with Democrats and journalists

Looking for a religion ghost in Jimmy Carter's current clout with Democrats and journalists

This is really a great time — in terms of mainstream media coverage — to be a liberal or “progressive” evangelical.

If you needed proof of this thesis — other than the contents of op-ed pages and wire features — then look no further than the latest political/media comeback by former President Jimmy Carter.

I have followed Carter for decades (I was a Carter volunteer at Baylor University in 1975-76), which is understandable since it’s impossible to report on the role of “born again” Christians in American political life without paying close attention to what Carter believes and when he believed it. He inspired many, many “moderate” Baptists and other evangelicals to take politics seriously.

Here’s a question I have asked for several decades now: Name another American politician — Republican or Democrat — who was willing to cost himself support within his own party by taking a critical stance, of any kind, on abortion. To this day, Carter’s language on abortion makes his party’s leadership nervous (see his remarks last year at Liberty University).

But the former president has certainly evolved on other crucial doctrinal issues. What role has this played in his current popularity with Democrats and, thus, with the press?

Consider this recent feature from the Associated Press: “Jimmy Carter finds a renaissance in 2020 Democratic scramble.” Here is the totally political overture:

ATLANTA (AP) — Jimmy Carter carved an unlikely path to the White House in 1976 and endured humbling defeat after one term. Now, six administrations later, the longest-living chief executive in American history is re-emerging from political obscurity at age 94 to win over his fellow Democrats once again.

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If an evangelical crisis is truly on horizon, journalists should spring into action right now

If an evangelical crisis is truly on horizon, journalists should spring into action right now

How often have we been informed that the religious left is about to revive with new power, or that the Religious Right will fade?

That sort of political punditry occurs alongside periodic warnings — or hopes, among politicos and many journalists — that America’s sprawling network of evangelical Protestant congregations and agencies is destined for big decline.

If this is true, journalists should spring into action immediately.

Evangelicalism was often the most dynamic force in U.S. religion over recent decades, with impact worldwide, and generally managed to resist the serious slide that afflicted the evangelicals’ more liberal “Mainline” Protestant rivals beginning in the mid-1960s. (This article will bypass changes among Roman Catholicism, historically black Protestant denominations, and other religious sectors.)

A notable example of negativism was “My Prediction: The Coming Evangelical Collapse,” posted a decade ago by the late Michael Spencer, a popular blogger and self-described “post-evangelical Christian.” He predicted “a major collapse of evangelical Christianity” within 10 years, which means just about now, that would “fundamentally alter” the culture of the West.

Further, Spencer prophesied that within two generations this Bible-based empire would shrink to half its present scope, with scads of dropouts, sagging budgets, shuttered doors, and ruined careers, and “nothing” would restore former glory. Etc. Read it all for yourself

Some of this has in fact occurred, though not (yet) so dramatically, as reporters easily see in statistics of the largest evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Evangelicalism’s health is relatively stable despite cultural pressures. This brings to mind Mark Twain’s jest that “the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

But then last week — media pay close attention — pessimism was suddenly proclaimed by one of the most important voices in the evangelical establishment, Mark Galli, editor in chief ofChristianity Today magazine.

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Miracle? Aussie rugby star sacked when Bible quote offends gays; Conservatives win shocker at polls

Miracle? Aussie rugby star sacked when Bible quote offends gays; Conservatives win shocker at polls

Australia is often referred to as a “secular” nation, but the reality is more complex than that. Let’s just say that, when it comes to the practice of religious faith, researchers are more likely to find modern Australians at the beach or in pubs than in church pews.

Australia isn’t post-Christian Western Europe, but religious faith is rarely a major player in public life. (If my reading on this topic is out of date, please leave comments and point me to new sources.)

Thus, it’s interesting that religion is currently making big headlines down under, in part because religious issues are affecting politics and another topic that ordinary Australians view with religious fervor — rugby.

The question in this post is whether these two stories might be connected: First, there was Rugby Australia sacking the land’s most popular star, after he included homosexuality in a social-media post on sin, hell and the Bible. Then, days later, conservatives — led by an evangelical Protestant — shocked the world by winning a national election.

Once again we see a familiar questions: Are worries about religious liberty and free speech playing a role, in many cases, in this “populist” political wave that journalists around the world are struggling to cover?

First, let’s talk rugby, with this story from News.com.au, days before the national election:

An understandably gutted Israel Folau has issued a parting jab at Rugby Australia shortly after his official axing from the Wallabies.

The 30-year-old had his $4 million contract scrapped … following the nuclear fallout to his anti-gay Instagram post.

“It has been a privilege and honour to represent Australia and my home state of New South Wales, playing the game I love,” he said.

That social media post, which Folau has refused to take down, quoted the fifth chapter of St. Paul’s epistle to the Galatians.

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