Terry Mattingly

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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You think Southern Baptist life is complicated? Independent Baptist world is really wild

You think Southern Baptist life is complicated? Independent Baptist world is really wild

We should deal with Westboro Baptist Church question right up front.

Was the late Pastor Fred “God Is Your Enemy“ Phelps, Sr., a Baptist?

Certainly. He was a Baptist because his small, independent flock called itself “Baptist “ and he was its leader. So there.

Next question: Is former President Bill Clinton a Baptist? The odds are 100-1 that the answer remains “yes,” since Clinton has been a member of many Southern Baptist churches during his lifetime. In 2018, Clinton made a Charlotte pilgrimage to view the casket of the late Rev. Billy Graham, paying homage to the Southern Baptist evangelist who was one of his heroes — as a Bible Belt boy and as a politico with a complex private life.

So who gets to decide who is a Baptist and who is not? To adapt a saying by the great William F. Buckley, is there a way to definitively prove that Mao Zedong wasn’t a Baptist?

Here’s the newsworthy, but related, question right now: Who gets to say who is a “Southern Baptist”? That’s the topic that dominated this week’s “Crossroads” podcast conversation — click here to tune that in — in the wake of the national Southern Baptist Convention meetings last week. That gathering in Birmingham, Ala., made lots of headlines because of the complicated, often emotional discussions of how to fight sexual abuse in SBC congregations.

Since SBC churches are autonomous, leaders of the national convention — lacking the legal ties associated with the word “denomination” — can’t order folks at the local level to take specific actions, including on issues linked to the ordination, hiring and firing of ministers.

So how can the SBC get local pastors and church leaders to crack down on sexual abuse? That was the topic of a post I wrote called, “Kick 'em out? Southern Baptists seek ways to fight sexual abuse in autonomous local churches.” Apparently, leaders at the national level have decided to adopt tactics that have been used at the “associational” (local or regional) level or in state conventions — “breaking fellowship” with congregations that cross controversial doctrinal lines. In the past, progressive Baptists protested when some associations and states used this tactic to deal with the ordination of women and, more recently, various LGBTQ ministry issues.

Now this strategy will be used with churches that fail to meet certain standards linked to preventing sexual abuse, caring for victims and handling future accusations. Thus, I wrote:

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Big journalism question: Would new U.S. bishops hotline have nabbed 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick?

Big journalism question: Would new U.S. bishops hotline have nabbed 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick?

I have talked to quite a few Catholics in the past year — laypeople and journalists, mainly — and I have read quite a bit of commentary by Catholic clergy and other insiders.

There are two questions that I keep running into over and over. Both are relevant in light of the vote by U.S. Catholic bishops to create a third-party anonymous hotline that will handle accusations of misconduct by bishops, archbishops and cardinals. Here is a Crux summary of that:

The reporting system will be managed by an independent body that will receive complaints that will be reported to the metropolitan (or regional) archbishop who, in accordance with Pope Francis’s new ‘motu proprio’, Vos estis lux mundi (“You are the light of the world”), is responsible for investigating claims against bishops.

Vos estis requires that local bishops’ conferences must establish a “public, stable and easily accessible” system for submitting abuse claims and also that the reports are sent to the metropolitans (or their senior suffragans if the report is against the metropolitan). In the United States, there are 32 territorial archdioceses (or metropolitans).

Here is the lede on the Washington Post story about that vote, which includes a blunt paraphrase of one possible implications of this decision, in terms of enforcement:

The U.S. Catholic bishops voted … to create the first national hotline for reporting sexual abuse committed by or mishandled by bishops. But they specified that the hotline send reports directly to other bishops, essentially demanding that the leaders of the scandal-plagued church police themselves instead of turning toward outside authorities.

Hold that thought.

This brings me back to the two questions that have haunted me over the past year. (1) Would abuse accusations against former cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick have reached the public without the existence of the Lay Review Board in the Archdiocese of New York? (2) Would the New York Times have published its bombshell stories about McCarrick — one of the most powerful U.S. Catholics ever, in terms of media clout — without the knowledge that this Lay Review Board existed and could report its findings?

The bottom line: Why is the involvement of laypeople such an important factor in the McCarrick story?

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Kick 'em out? Southern Baptists seek ways to fight sexual abuse in autonomous local churches

Kick 'em out? Southern Baptists seek ways to fight sexual abuse in autonomous local churches

Before we take a look at what appears to have been the key development at this year’s Southern Baptist Convention, let’s pause and discuss a few matters linked to how America’s largest non-Catholic flock does business.

One of the first things reporters learn (.pdf here), when they show up at national SBC gathering, is that the people attending are not “delegates” — they are “messengers” from local churches. Again, this is a sign of the degree to which Baptist identity is built on church authority residing in autonomous local congregations. The Southern Baptist Convention is a convention that exists when it is in session. It can vote to create a publishing house, or mission boards or an “executive committee” to do specific tasks in between conventions.

But SBC folks get testy when reporters assume that Southern Baptists are supposed to be organized like Presbyterians, Methodists or, heaven forbid, Episcopalians. What makes SBC meetings so wild is that all kinds of people in that big room can grab a floor microphone. With that in mind, let’s look at a crucial part of a New York Times story, focusing on efforts to handle sexual-abuse issues:

Thousands of pastors voted late Tuesday afternoon to address the problem in a concerted way for the first time, enacting two new measures they say are a first step to reform. Outside the arena where they were gathered, victims and their families protested what they considered an inadequate response.

The pastors voted to create a centralized committee that would evaluate allegations against churches accused of mishandling abuse. They also approved an amendment to their constitution that would allow such churches to be expelled from the convention if the allegations were substantiated.

“Protecting God’s children is the mission of the church,” the denomination’s president, J.D. Greear, said on Tuesday morning as he addressed the gathering. “We have to deal with this definitively and decisively.”

Wait a minute. SBC “pastors” voted to take these steps? Since when are all of the SBC “messengers” pastors?

The Times should correct that error immediately. It appears that the same mistake showed up in a 2018 Times story and I missed it at that time. As in:

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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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Yo, New York Times editors: There are several Catholic angles linked to Joe Biden's abortion flip

Yo, New York Times editors: There are several Catholic angles linked to Joe Biden's abortion flip

As many pro-life Democrats and others have noted in social media: That didn’t take long.

After years of opposing the use of taxpayer dollars to fund abortion — supporting the Hyde Amendment — former Vice President Joe Biden bowed the knee to primary-season realities in this “woke” era of Democratic Party life and reversed himself on this issue. Thus, he erased one of his few remaining ties to his old role as a centrist, compromise figure in his party on moral, cultural and religious issues.

Needless to say, the word “Catholic” may have something to do with this story. That term even made it into the New York Times coverage of this policy flip. See this all-politics headline: “Behind Biden’s Reversal on Hyde Amendment: Lobbying, Backlash and an Ally’s Call.

The overture focused on the political forces that yanked Biden’s chain, from members of his staff to rivals in the White Race. The Planned Parenthood team called early and often. Then, down in the body of the story, there was this:

A Roman Catholic, Mr. Biden has spent decades straddling the issue of abortion, asserting his support for individual abortion rights and the codification of Roe v. Wade, while also backing the Hyde Amendment, arguing that it was an inappropriate use of taxpayer money.

But Mr. Biden, his allies acknowledge, had plainly misread what activists on the left would accept on an extraordinarily sensitive issue. For all his reluctance to abandon his long-held position on federal funding for abortion, Mr. Biden ultimately shifted in order to meet the mood of emergency within his party’s electoral base.

The big word, of course, is “base” — which usually means “primary voters.” The question is whether the “base” that turns out in primary season has much to do with the mainstream voters that are crucial in the Rust Belt and the few Southern states that a Democrat has a chance to steal in a general election.

So where, in this Times report, were the voices from pro-life Democrats and progressive and centrist Catholics who wanted to see Biden try to reclaim blue-collar and Catholic votes that, in 2016, ended up — #LesserOfTwoEvils — going to Donald Trump? I would imagine they are hiding between the lines in the following material:

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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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Podcast puzzle: Why do editors send political reporters to cover complex religion stories?

Podcast puzzle: Why do editors send political reporters to cover complex religion stories?

It was the key moment in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast-radio session. Host Todd Wilken asked a relatively simple (you would think) question about mainstream news coverage of the Rev. David Platt’s decision to pray for President Donald Trump during a worship service at McLean Bible Church, a very influential D.C. Beltway megachurch.

This turned into a hot mess on Twitter (#NoSurprise). I wrote a GetReligion piece about the online controversy with this headline: “Praying for presidents? That's normal. Praying for Donald Trump? That fires up Twitter.

The initial coverage, of course, focused on the true religion in most American newsrooms — politics.

This brings me to the substance of Wilken’s question.

Toward the end of the first wave of coverage, Emma Green off The Atlantic wrote an essay — “On Praying for the President” — that paused and examined what actually happened at McLean Bible Church. She considered the history of pastors praying for presidents. She looked at the record of this particular minister. She also (#Amen) wrote about the actual contents of the prayer. In the body of the piece Green concluded:

What’s remarkable about this prayer is not that it happened, but that it shows how thoroughly the Trump era has opened the way for cynicism and outrage over even mundane, predictable Christian behavior. Within the world of evangelicalism, Platt does not roll with the hard-core Trump supporters; his prayer was studiously neutral, clear of boosterism and partisanship. While Trump has certainly amplified divisions among evangelicals over race, gender, and the rightful relationship between Christianity and politics, the choice to pray for a person in leadership is not a meaningful symbol of evangelicalism’s transformation under the 45th president.

Wilken asked this question: Why was Emma Green able to write that? Why did she “get” this story when many others did not?

The short answer is that Green is a religion-beat professional.

I could add, of course, that she is talented, works really hard and tries to accurately report the views of a wide range of religious believers, while working at a mainstream, left-of-center magazine of news and opinion. At this point, all of that goes without saying and Green consistently draws praise from religious conservatives as well as progressives. Anyone who reads GetReligion knows that, while we may debate with Green every now and then, this blog consistently praises her work. She often does more factual reporting in analysis pieces than others do in “hard-news” reports.

That’s the easy answer to Wilken’s question. In the podcast I used a rather long and complex sports metaphor (getting somewhat emotional in the process) that, I hope, went a bit deeper.

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Wait a minute: Catholics have a special 'version' of St. Mary who handles hurricanes?

Wait a minute: Catholics have a special 'version' of St. Mary who handles hurricanes?

I thought I had seen just about everything, in terms of strange news-media takes on ancient-church teachings on prayer and the saints. Apparently not.

Just the other day, I wrote a post praising a news report on this topic, in part because of a short, clear, explanation of the term “venerate,” as opposed to “worship,” when dealing with a relic of a Catholic saint. See this: “Facing the heart of Jean Vianney: Reporters should be careful when covering saints and prayer.”

Now we have this “Oh, no!” headline at CNN.com: “As hurricane season starts, coastal Catholics call on this holy go-between for protection from devastating storms.”

Let’s start with the basics: Do Catholics believe there is some form of divinity, other than the Holy Trinity — God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit — who hears prayers and performs miracles?

In this headline the “holy go-between” is clearly St. Mary, the mother of Jesus. The term “go-between” is a bit brash, but does hint at the early church belief that is is proper to ask saints to join their prayers to God for a miracle or an answer to some other request. Are these believers claiming that the saint — St. Mary in this case — has the power to protect them or is that a God thing?

Truth be told, I have heard Catholics say things like “I prayed to St. Name Here and this or that happened.” In most cases, if you ask, “So you’re saying the saint performed this miracle?”, they will pause and acknowledge that it is God who hears prayers and responds, in one form or another.

So we need to see if this CNN.com report gets that right. But that isn’t the main reason a Catholic journalist sent me this CNN link. Check out this overture and see if you can spot the heresy in this news story:

(CNN) As Hurricane Matthew whipped up Florida's Atlantic coast in 2016, Beth Williby got scared.

"That hurricane, in particular, just got my back up," the Jacksonville mom of four recalled. "So, I did what any modern woman would do, and I Googled: Who do you pray to for protection from hurricanes?"

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