Bill Clinton

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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For your 2020 agenda: The Democrats’ Equality Act sets up a religion-news sleeper issue   

For your 2020 agenda: The Democrats’ Equality Act sets up a religion-news sleeper issue   

Following committee approval last week, the House of Representatives will soon vote on the “Equality Act” (H.R. 5, text here),  which would add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” protections under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Crucially, the proposal would explicitly ban use of the conscience guarantees in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed by President Bill Clinton. Only two Democratic senators voted against that 1993 act, with names like Biden, Daschle, Feinstein, Kennedy, Kerry and Leahy in the yes column.  

That’s a news story — right there. Journalists should compare such bipartisan unanimity with today’s stark party divide in this First Amendment battle, as on so many other issues. 

The clause states that the religion law “shall not provide a claim concerning, or a defense to a claim under, a covered title, or provide a basis for challenging the application or enforcement of a covered title.”

Need a local angle for coverage? Reporters will want to analyze the impact that would have upon federal funding and other benefits for colleges, health facilities and charities that hold to traditional religious teaching. Anticipate years of lawsuits and political infighting. 

The House will pass the Equality Act because it is sponsored by all but one of the majority Democrats. But a narrow defeat looks probable in the Senate, where so far Maine’s Susan Collins is the only member in the Republican majority backing the bill. Adding political fuel, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to rule next year on parallel questions.  

All that will play out as reporters cover voters pondering whether to re-elect President Donald Trump and keep Republican control of the Senate, thus determining appointments of federal judges and whether the Equality Act becomes law. Among Democratic candidates, Joe Biden backed a similar equality bill in 2015, and the 2019 version is endorsed by the seven others atop polls (Booker, Buttigieg, Harris, Klobuchar, O’Rourke, Sanders and Warren). 

The Equality Act would cover a broad array of businesses and agencies that provide goods or services to the public, forbid sexual stereotyping and make bisexuals a protected class. It would require access to rest rooms, locker rooms, dressing rooms and presumably women’s shelters, on the basis of self-identified gender rather than biological gender. 

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When it comes to press coverage, why do some persecuted believers get more ink than others?

When it comes to press coverage, why do some persecuted believers get more ink than others?

When it comes to life inside the D.C. Beltway, veteran scribe Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard (RIP) has seen a thing or two — to say the least.

So when Barnes describes a political scene as one of his favorite Washington vignettes, that’s saying something. In this case, a classic Barnes anecdote is a great way to introduce readers to this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, which focuses on media coverage — or the lack of coverage — of the persecution of religious believers.

Click here to tune that in, or head over to iTunes and sign up to follow our podcasts.

It’s pretty clear that many journalists, perhaps following the lead of government officials, consider some stories about religious persecution to be more important than others. So why do some stories leap into A1 headlines or the top of evening newscasts, while others receive little or no digital ink at all (other than coverage by the religious press)?

So our symbolic mini-drama takes place in 1994, when President Bill Clinton and his political team was working to improve trade, and thus political ties, with the People’s Republic of China. The strategy was to focus less attention on human rights issues and more attention on communication and, well, bartering. I like the wording in this Slate article, noting that the “Clinton administration made a sudden about-face, declaring it would ‘delink’ Chinese trade policy from human rights.”

One would expect political liberals to protest this heresy. Correct? And one would expect that Republicans would welcome anything that improved the lives of American corporate leaders. Correct?

There was, however, a subject that changed the dynamics in this story — religion.

Many conservatives — that’s the Religious Right, in pressthink — opposed these Clinton moves because of rising concerns about the persecution of China’s growing underground churches (Catholic and Protestant). At the same time, many mainstream liberals were not comfortable clashing with a Democrat in the White House, especially if that meant standing next to religious fanatics.

However, there were still idealists on the cultural far left — think Hollywood, in particular — who stood their ground, due to their fury over China’s treatment of Tibetan Buddhists.

So the setting for this Barnes anecdote was a protest rally near the Clinton White House. On the rally stage, activist Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council approached another speaker — actor Richard “Pretty Woman” Gere.

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Did America just undergo a massive pro-life lurch? Reporters should interpret polls carefully

Did America just undergo a massive pro-life lurch? Reporters should interpret polls carefully

Axios, always atop breaking news trends, posted a bold headline Feb. 24 that announced “New Poll Finds ‘Dramatic Shift’ on Abortion Attitudes.”

The February poll showed Americans are evenly split between those identifying as “pro-choice” and as “pro-life,” tied at 47 percent, while only a month before the same pollster reported pro-choicers outnumbered pro-lifers, 55 percent to 38 percent.  

The Axios article recycled a press release from the polls’ sponsor, the Knights of Columbus, that proclaimed "in just one month Americans have made a sudden and dramatic shift away from the prochoice position and toward a pro-life stance.” See January release here and February release here.

Abortion attitudes remain as politically and religiously potent today as they’ve been the past 46 years, so reporters are ever alert to trends. But should the media be reporting that thinking across the fruited plain lurched from a big gap to a tie between Jan. 8-10 and Feb. 12-17, the survey dates? 

What are the odds? Democrats’ recent advocacy for unpopular late-term abortions alongside intimations of infanticide might be driving a modest pro-life uptick, but 17 points? 

With polls, journalists always need to be careful and assess the full context. The Religion Guy’s hunch here is that the fat abortion-rights majority in January was an outlier, and the February tie is pretty much representative of American thinking.  Why? See below. 

Preliminaries: The Knights, who paid for both the January and February polls, are ardently pro-life Catholics. However, they hired the well-regarded Marist Poll to run the survey and crunch the numbers. Despite its Catholic name and origin, sponsoring Marist College is officially non-sectarian. Technical note: the Knights did not reveal the polls’ response rates, an all-important factor. 

The Religion Guy maintains that February’s 47-47 tie is interesting but not the big news as trumpeted.

Enter the Gallup Poll, journalists’ invaluable gold standard for asking consistent religious and moral questions across many years. 

Gallup’s comprehensive compilation on abortion attitudes shows this version of the Marist question, asked 32 times since 1995: “Would you consider yourself to be pro-choice or pro-life?”

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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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Catholic drama is epic tragedy: Why is Willow Creek meltdown so important?

Catholic drama is epic tragedy: Why is Willow Creek meltdown so important?

At this point, two of America's hottest religion-beat stories have become wedded at the hip, at least in my mind.

I am talking about the latest round of the four-decade scandal in the Roman Catholic Church centering on clergy sexual abuse of children and teens -- the vast majority of them male. Now we have a new #MeToo angle, with numerous reports of sexual abuse and harassment of seminarians and young priests, and some of the attackers have ended up in the episcopate.

The poster-male for this story, of course, is former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, one of the American hierarchy's most powerful networkers and media stars over the past 50 years.

Then there is the #ChurchToo fall of the Rev. Bill Hybels, a superstar megachurch leader who helped create the "Seeker Friendly" evangelical movement of the past couple of decades.

But you know all of that, and I wove those subjects together the other day in a post with this headline: "Who you gonna call? New York Times offers a spiritual piece of the Bill Hybels puzzle."

It will not surprise people who listen to "Crossroads" that host Todd Wilkins and I returned to these topics in this week's podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Look, everyone knows why -- in terms of news -- the Catholic crisis is as has hot at Hades. This is the biggest religion game in town. It's the religion-news Olympics. But why is the Willow Creek story so massive?

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Barbara Bush: Last old-school mainline Protestant to serve as America's first lady? (updated)

Barbara Bush: Last old-school mainline Protestant to serve as America's first lady? (updated)

At least once a month, I pop open a search engine and go fishing on the World Wide Web, looking for a quotation or some other reference that I remember from the distant past. Just because you remember something -- as an aging religion-beat scribe -- doesn't mean that you are going to be able to find a reference online (or in the boxes of notes and clippings that line a wall in your basement).

So let me share what I remember about a First Things article I read just before the birth of the Internet. It focused on the differences, in terms of faith and personal style, between President Bill Clinton and the recently ousted President George H.W. Bush.

The basic idea was that Clinton, as a Bible Belt Baptist, was much more comfortable talking about his faith than the more reserved Bush, a Yankee Episcopalian. At one point there was a footnote to a press-conference transcript from the Bush campaign.

As I recall, Bush was asked what he thought about during the hours in which he floated in shark-infested Pacific Ocean waters after his fighter plane was shot down during World War II.

The transcript indicated that Bush said that he thought about Barbara, this family and God -- then there was a strategic pause before he added -- and "the separation of church and state."

Now there's a man who is a mainline Protestant's mainline Protestant.

I thought about article (if anyone can find it online, I'd love a URL) this morning while reading lots of news and commentary about the death of the 92-year-old Barbara Bush, the Bush family's beloved "Silver Fox" who had become a quirky, candid grandmother figure for millions of Americans. Good luck trying to find insights into the family's faith -- which can be sensed in between the lines, but that's as far as journalists were willing to go.

My main question: Were Barbara and George H.W. Bush the last old-school mainline Protestants -- in terms of low-key style and quiet faith -- to occupy the White House?

I mean, George W. Bush was a United Methodist, but he adopted a more outspoken, evangelical style after the religious rebirth that helped him defeat alcohol.

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Bill Hybels resigns at Willow Creek: Thank goodness, real pros got to cover this story

Bill Hybels resigns at Willow Creek: Thank goodness, real pros got to cover this story

Sometimes it takes an outsider to see the most basic facts.

When I was teaching at Denver Seminary in the early 1990s, the Denver area was in the middle of a remarkable boom era for evangelical megachurches. There were congregations that -- in the space of 12 months or so -- attracted several thousand members.

During a classroom discussion one day. a student from overseas (I think it was Russia) asked an interesting question: Why are there no old, unattractive, balding superchurch pastors? Why are they all young, super attractive and really funny? And how can you be a pastor when you have 7,000 members or more? Were these men pastors or celebrities?

The Americans laughed, but the laughter was rather weak.

I thought about that exchange when I was reading some of the early coverage of the latest scene in the ongoing drama of the Rev. Bill Hybels and the massive Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago.

Obviously, Hybels is more than a pastor who founded a giant evangelical megachurch 42 years ago. He is the creator of what amounts to a new Protestant mini-denomination -- more than a mere parachurch network. He has been a hero -- a celebrity -- among moderate evangelicals who want to make sure that the world understands that they aren't like all of those other tacky evangelicals.

There's a reason that GetReligionista Julia Duin's original #ChurchToo post about the accusations against Hybels has attracted nearly 18,000 readers.

With all that in mind, let me say something very obvious about the main news reports about the Hybels resignation.

These stories are, as a rule, long, detailed and full of nuance. In other words, look at the bylines on the following stories in the Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post and the hard-news website at Christianity Today.

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Your weekend think piece: Billy Graham, Jeffrey Bell, Michael Gerson and 'Starbucks' politics

Your weekend think piece: Billy Graham, Jeffrey Bell, Michael Gerson and 'Starbucks' politics

The Rev. Billy Graham worked hard to avoid political questions, at least in public.

But there was one fact about his life that, for decades, he didn't hide. Graham was a registered Democrat.

In other words, the world's most famous evangelist grew up in the old South, pre-Roe vs. Wade, and he didn't grow up rich. Thus, he was a Southern Democrat. Most evangelicals were. Culturally conservative Democrats didn't become an endangered species until quite late in Billy Graham's adult life.

I thought of that fact the day Graham died. I sat down early that morning with an "On Religion" column already finished. All I had left to do was a quick edit and then ship it in. But first, I opened Twitter and there was the news that many religion writers had been expecting for years.

I knew what I was going to write when Graham died, as a sidebar to the major coverage across mainstream media. But I hadn't written it. Thus, I was on a hard deadline for the first time in many years. That column focused on Graham's sermon at civic memorial service for the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 (click here to read it).

It was hard not to think about the current state of American politics, and evangelicalism, while writing that column.

But what about the column that I had already written? It ran this week and, amazingly enough, it focuses on some very similar themes -- looking back to the crucial years when the Democratic Party began cutting it's ties to traditional religious groups.

The key figure in this column was Jeffrey Bell, a political strategist who died on Feb. 10. Bell was a Republican, but he also was known for his work to create a presidential campaign for the late Gov. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, an old-school Catholic Democrat who was also vocally pro-life and pro-religious liberty.

Why did Bell think that conservative evangelicals and Catholics needed the option of backing a Democrat? That question is at the heart of this "think piece" collection for this weekend.

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