Billy Graham Center

Thinking about missionaries: Arrogant fools or believers obeying core Christian doctrines?

Thinking about missionaries: Arrogant fools or believers obeying core Christian doctrines?

It didn’t take long for the John Allen Chau affair (see previous Julia Duin post) to make the leap from hard-news coverage to newspaper op-ed pages and other “Culture War” venues.

Before looking at two examples, from the cultural left and then the right, let’s pause for a second for a bit of background.

Faithful GetReligion readers may remember the “tmatt trio,” a set of doctrinal questions that I have, for several decades now, found useful when exploring debates inside Christian flocks or cultural conflicts about the Christian faith. I am convinced that the Chau affair is linked to one of these hot-button questions.

Please remember that the purpose of these questions is journalistic. I have learned that asking them always leads to answers that contain all kinds of interesting information. Here is the “tmatt trio” once again:

(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

Now, the Chau story is, in my opinion, linked to question No. 2.

To illustrate this point, let’s look at a Boston Globe piece that ran with this killer headline: “Missionary didn’t die from tribesmen’s arrows. He was killed by his own arrogance.” The author is Globe associate editor and columnist Renee Graham. Here is a crucial early thesis statement:

In the Old Testament, Proverbs 16:18 warns, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Haughty pride caused John Allen Chau’s destruction and fall.

He’s the young man from Washington state who decided that what a small tribe on a remote island needed was his personally delivered taste of that ol’ time religion. What he found was an early grave.

Chau didn’t die from the tribesmen’s arrows. He was killed by his own arrogance.

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Election day drinking game? Maybe. But here's another evangelical politics stat for news stories

Election day drinking game? Maybe. But here's another evangelical politics stat for news stories

Hey, it’s election day.

Want to have a drinking game? Most evangelicals and Baptists can use Dr Pepper or some other appropriate beverage.

Take a drink tonight when, during cable-news gabfests, you hear a reference to white evangelical voters and their love of Donald Trump.

You can take a DOUBLE SHOT if someone quotes the magic “81 percent” number from 2016.

Oh, wait. I am making an assumption here. So let me say this: You have heard, I assume, that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump and that they still just love that man more than life itself?

The reality, of course, is more complex than that.

Thus, those who love nuanced, accurate journalism can only hope that editors and producers will hand out copies of the recent Christianity Today essay by Ed Stetzer, director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, that ran with this headline: “Why Evangelicals Voted Trump: Debunking the 81%.” The survey info in that essay is important.

Here is some additional information to toss into the mix, care of the National Association of Evangelicals and Baptist Press. The big numbers are right at the top:

WASHINGTON (BP) -- Most leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals identified as independents in an NAE poll preceding the 2018 U.S. midterm elections. …

Two-thirds of those surveyed, 66 percent, described themselves as independents rather than a member of a major political party in the NAE poll of its 106-member board of directors, the NAE said. While the sampling is narrow and not scientific, the NAE said the results "track with" those of a 2017 Gallup poll of the general U.S. population.

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Late, but still timely: Complex realities hidden in '81 percent of evangelicals' love Trump myth

Late, but still timely: Complex realities hidden in '81 percent of evangelicals' love Trump myth

So, did you ever think that American evangelicals would — in terms of their public, mass-media “face” — have an option worse than the Rev. Pat Robertson?

I know, I know. That’s a high bar to clear, or a low one — depending on your point of view.

It seems that lots of journalists — no, not ALL of them — get an idea stuck in their heads every decade or so and they start acting like some vast, complex group of Americans can be accurately represented by one person (Robertson, for example) or even one statistic (81 percent of white evangelicals voted for You Know Who).

Here’s the irony: It’s kind of like what Donald Trump has done with America’s journalists, taking biases and inaccuracies that can be found in a few cases and turning them into a simplistic vision of the whole. Thus, Trump often stomps on the First Amendment-protected role that journalism is supposed to play in American public discourse.

Oh, I do realize that Robertson is still out there, cranking out soundbites (like this).

But that’s really not the topic we covered during this week’s Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in). The goal was to discuss WHY some journalists seem so anxious to play this game. With that in mind, let’s flash back to a journalism think piece that I wrote in 2005 for the Poynter Institute. The headline: “Excommunicating Pat Robertson.” Here’s the overture:

Let's pretend it is Oct. 1, 2005.

After a long, long September of storms, Hurricane Wilma misses the Keys and veers into the Gulf of Mexico. It heads straight for Louisiana.

After a long, long day in the newsroom, you sit on the couch flipping from one cable news channel to another. Then you see a familiar face in an MSNBC tease and hear, "We'll be back, live, with the Rev. Pat Robertson, who says that this new hurricane is more evidence that God is angry at New Orleans because ..."

Pause for a minute. When you hear these words do you experience (a) an acidic surge of joy because you are 99.9 percent sure that you know what Robertson is going to say, or (b) a sense of sorrow for precisely the same reason?

If you answered (a), then I would bet the moon and the stars that you are someone who doesn't think highly of Christian conservatives and their beliefs. If you answered (b), you are probably one of those Christians.

In other words, we have reached the point where some journalists are happy to see Robertson's face on television screens, because every time he opens his mouth he reinforces their stereotype of a conservative Christian.

Wow. The more things change, the more that they stay the same.

So, GetReligion readers, how do you feel when a news organization hits you with yet another reference to the fact that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election?

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Turtle on a fence post? Concerning Billy Graham, St. Pope John Paul II, Bob Dylan and journalism

Turtle on a fence post? Concerning Billy Graham, St. Pope John Paul II, Bob Dylan and journalism

The Rev. Billy Graham must have told the turtle story a million times, so surely -- somewhere in the tsunami of analog and digital news ink we will see tomorrow -- there will be journalists who include it in their features marking the great evangelist's death.

Graham, 99, died Wednesday morning at the family's rambling log home in the mountains outside Asheville, N.C. They bought the land 60 years or so ago, when it cost next to nothing and that's where Billy and Ruth stayed. What will happen to it now? Getting to spend part of a day there while interviewing him was certainly one of the highlights of my reporting career.

But I digress. Members of the GetReligion team will start looking at the actual coverage of his life and career tomorrow. With only a few hours before deadline, I wrote my own piece on Graham and you can read it right here (with the permission of my Universal syndicate editors).

Please send us links to the good and the bad. Obviously, there is a massive package already at Christianity Today, which Graham founded long ago, and at The Charlotte Observer (main story here). Here is the  main Associated Press story.

But let's return to the turtle and the fence post. Here is how I retold that story soon after the creation of this blog:

For decades, Graham has been asked -- thousands of times, I am sure -- why he has been so remarkably successful, preaching to more people in person than anyone else in history. Why have so many people, from the earliest days of his career, responded to his call to accept Jesus Christ as Savior? What's so special about Billy Graham?
At this point, Graham almost always offers the following explanation. If you are walking down a road, he says, and you happen to see a turtle sitting on top of a tall fence post, what would you assume? You would, of course, assume that the turtle did not climb up there on his own. You would assume that someone far larger than the turtle picked him up and then placed him atop the tall post for some mysterious reason.
Get the point? Clearly Graham did not get on top by his own merits.

That's a perfect example of Graham being folksy and safe, but there is content there if you think about it.

Obviously, Graham was a skilled media personality, with decades of experience in the trenches facing journalists who knew his life and work inside out as well as general-assignment reporters who, believe it or not, were sent to cover him after reading little more than a sheet of PR material.

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When it comes to Roy Moore, the reality on 'evangelical' opinion is just as complex as ever

When it comes to Roy Moore, the reality on 'evangelical' opinion is just as complex as ever

Right now, it's hard to pause the raging waterfall of news (almost all of it, methinks, justified) about Roy Moore and his U.S. Senate candidacy long enough for rational thought. Good grief, just image the amount of ink he'd be getting if he was a married senator accused of hiring under-aged prostitutes or obtaining visas for his various girlfriends?

However, as always, there are interesting issues to discuss linked to a much abused and increasingly worthless religious label now used many times every day in American politics -- "evangelical."

The inspiration for this post on this familiar subject? That would be the recent Washington Post "Acts of Faith" headline that said: "Some Alabama evangelicals see Roy Moore as a man of Christian values. Others are torn."

Suffice it to say, "Alabama evangelicals" probably means white churchgoers on the doctrinally conservative side of the evangelical spectrum.

But never mind. That Post headline -- by noting a wide division among evangelicals, when it comes to Moore's fitness as a candidate -- is already miles ahead most of the chatter that I have seen on this issue in print and television coverage.

Sure, the piece opens with the usual more and more Moore shenanigans, when it comes to religion and courting his base. But there is also this:

Other evangelicals, though, feel the allegations force them to make an uncomfortable decision.

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Weekend thinking about old-line Protestant demographics, doctrine and future Easters

Weekend thinking about old-line Protestant demographics, doctrine and future Easters

If you follow religion news closely (which would make you the kind of person who frequents this website), then you know that there are two major, overarching trends taking place in modern America that are affecting all kinds of religious organizations.

This is certainly true in Christianity and also in Judaism. The same trends may be affecting Muslims and members of other major world religions, but I am not sure -- in part because I have not seen enough research in those communities.

The first major trend -- which has generated massive amounts of coverage -- is the rapidly rising tide of Americans identifying themselves as "religiously unaffiliated," meaning that they claim no ties to any particular religious tradition. Yes, these are the "Nones." This does not mean that they are pure secularists, although many are (while some are "spiritual but not religious"). The stats for atheists and agnostics are on the rise, as well.

The second trend, in tension with the first, is that the large slice of the American population that practices traditional forms of religious faith does not appear to be declining, or not at a rapid rate. True, some of these believers have been switching from one sanctuary to another.

It is also significant, in terms of demographics, that people in more doctrinally conservative forms of faith tend to (a) have more children and (b) take part in efforts to win converts to their faith. See, for example, the numbers for Pentecostal Christians and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Compare the birth rates for Orthodox and Reform Jews.

What is shrinking is the "mushy middle" of the spectrum, the lukewarm believers and those in faiths that make weaker demands on their time and convictions. Yes, this same theme showed up in that recent flurry of online discussions about the future of the religious left.

This brings us to a trend that researchers have been discussing for nearly 50 years -- the statistical decline of the "seven sisters" denominations in old-line Protestantism. And that, in turn, brings us to this weekend's think piece on a topic close to the religion beat -- an "Acts of Faith" essay in The Washington Post by Ed Stetzer, the executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. 

The headline is a grabber: "If it doesn’t stem its decline, mainline Protestantism has just 23 Easters left."

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