evangelicals

In a politically polarized era (think red and blue), what does it mean to be a purple church?

In a politically polarized era (think red and blue), what does it mean to be a purple church?

A daily Google email alerts me to headlines about “evangelicals.” Most days, at least one publication delves into some version of this question: Why do most evangelicals support President Donald Trump?

I know, I know: Haven’t we figured that one out yet?

On the flip side, the supposed “rise of the religious left” in response to Trump is a favorite storyline for some journalists and talking heads.

Ho-hum. Isn’t there anything new on the religion and politics beat?

For anyone as tired as I am of the same old, same old, NPR religion and beliefs correspondent Tom Gjelten’s recent feature on a “purple church” in North Carolina was a refreshing change.

What’s a purple church? It’s a congregation that draws members from both sides of America’s vast Grand Canyon between red and blue, as Gjelten explains:

At a time when Americans are moving apart in their political and religious views, worshippers at White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, N.C., have learned to avoid some subjects for the sake of maintaining congregational harmony.

"You wouldn't run up to a stove and touch a hot burner," says DeLana Anderson, a church deacon. "So, I'm certainly not going to do that here."

White Memorial is thriving, with about 4,000 members, while other mainline Protestant congregations are struggling. Just as impressively, it brings together worshippers with disparate political views, both red and blue.

"Raleigh is a purple city. North Carolina is a purple state," notes Christopher Edmonston, the church's senior pastor. "Many of the people who have come to church here in the last 25 years are from other parts of the country, and they bring their ideas, their politics, their viewpoints, with them. So we almost have to be purple if we're going to continue to be open and welcome to any person that wants to come."

The news peg for the NPR report is a recent Barna Group report on the communication challenges that pastors face in a divided culture.

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Whoa! You mean Southern Baptist 'messengers' are not of one mind on Trump-era life?

Whoa! You mean Southern Baptist 'messengers' are not of one mind on Trump-era life?

Well now. It appears we have a 2018 Southern Baptist Convention angle that will draw news coverage, maybe even from TV networks, since many newsroom managers weren't interested in America's largest Protestant flock wrestling with domestic violence and sexual abuse.

In other words, the Donald Trump angle has arrived -- with Vice President Mike Pence's appearance at the gathering in Dallas. And here is the shocker! It appears that not all Southern Baptists are united when it comes to baptizing their faith in partisan politics. You mean there are divisions among evangelicals in the age of Trump? 

There must be, because I read it in The Washington Post. But hold that thought, because I have a bit of picky religion-beat business to handle first.

If you've covered SBC life for a couple of decades, you know that SBC leaders really need to post a sign over the press facilities at this event that screams: "HEY! The people at this convention are MESSENGERS, not DELEGATES! Please get that right."

Why is this particular burr under the journalism saddle bother Southern Baptists so much? 

The bottom line: The Southern Baptist Convention is a convention, not a denomination. It exists when it's in session, with "messengers" from its rather freewheeling local congregations. In other words, this "convention" is not a formal "denomination" structured like those dang (Baptist speak there) Episcopalians, Presbyterians, United Methodists and what not.

There's even a FAQ book to help reporters handle these kinds of questions, for sale right here. Item No. 1? 

Who are the messengers? They are the folks who actually compose the convention when it meets. Why “messengers” and not “delegates”? Read the book. 

A decade or so ago, Baptist Press published an "Understanding the SBC" piece that noted:

Southern Baptist churches meet annually in convention. They do so by electing “messengers” who attend the Convention, and participate in the business of the Convention. In Southern Baptist parlance, representatives from churches are “messengers,” not “delegates.” Theoretically, they bring no authority from the churches over the Convention, and they take no authority from the Convention back to the churches. ...

Each Southern Baptist church can send as many as ten messengers to this annual convention meeting. The cap on the number of voting messengers is intended to ensure equality of small and large congregations alike.

Now, back to what really matters these days -- Trump-era political shouting. The headline on the relevant Washington Post piece proclaims: "Why Southern Baptists giving Mike Pence a platform is so controversial."

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Here we go again: New York Times says White House door wide open for all 'evangelicals'

Here we go again: New York Times says White House door wide open for all 'evangelicals'

Before we dive -- yes, it's time to try again -- into another example of "Gosh, all those evangelicals sure do love Donald Trump" coverage, let's pause to, uh, separate the sheep from the goats.

If you understand that image, the odds are good that you are an evangelical or some other brand of Christian who has cracked open a Bible more than once.

Whatever. A few months ago, Sarah Pulliam Bailey of The Washington Post tweeted out a fun little link to a MereOrthodoxy.com "Are you an evangelical?" quiz that is kind of fun. Click here to take the test. (Or click here for her original tweet, which has some interesting comments.)

So I took the test, as a former Southern Baptist preacher's kid from the Jesus Movement era, and scored 10 out of 31. The site's judgement:

Spiritual but not religious: You are definitely not evangelical, but you might still have feelings that you associate with Jesus in some way when you are standing on a mountaintop or contemplating the ocean. 

Well, at least I know where I stand when writing about the press and its struggles to realize the complexities of evangelical identity in this day and age. I would have done better if it included a question asking how many Bruce Cockburn CDs are in my collection (I think I own every note the man has recorded).

Anyway, the New York Times recently (pre-National Prayer Breakfast) weighed in with another report on you know what. The headline: "Evangelicals, Having Backed Trump, Find White House ‘Front Door Is Open’." Once again, readers are told that all "evangelicals" backed Trump and, today, all of them are welcome at the White House." I am sure that will come as a shock to many.

However, this story is slightly better than that headline. At the very least, it acknowledges that even the early, core evangelical supporters of The Donald are a bit more complex than many would think. Hold that thought. First, here is a solid paragraph on why evangelical poll numbers remain high, when it comes to this White House. It starts with the prayer breakfast crowd, saying that the president stood:

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Evangelical rebel Jen Hatmaker deserved more from Politico than a puff piece

Evangelical rebel Jen Hatmaker deserved more from Politico than a puff piece

Up until recently, I'd never heard of Jen Hatmaker, an evangelical wunderkind who is a one-woman columnist, book-writing machine, conference speaker and all-around mom of five kids and pastor's wife. This has been a winning combo in terms of book deals and speaking engagements for some time. 

Maybe it's because she inhabited a corner of Christianity that most of my single, childless or married-to-a-guy-who-isn't-into-God-at-all female friends could never enter. This is not a criticism of Hatmaker, as none of us were into Beth Moore, either. These Christian superstar women inhabited a universe that us lesser beings couldn't hope to aspire to.

Plus, I wasn't writing about women like her. I was more after cutting-edge Christianity that sent people to India or led then to share all their possessions in a Christian community or do chain-themselves-to-the-clinic-doors activism against abortion clinics. 

Hatmaker is an ordinary person who got where she is by monetizing her life experiences into an evangelical Christian paradigm. Her more recent foray into politics -- linked to her shift on issues linked to sexuality and marriage -- got discovered by secular media, most recently by Politico, which published the following profile:

Last fall, Jen Hatmaker, a popular evangelical author and speaker, started getting death threats. Readers mailed back her books to her home address, but not before some burned the pages or tore them into shreds. LifeWay Christian Stores, the behemoth retailer of the Southern Baptist Convention, pulled her titles off the shelves. Hatmaker was devastated. Up until that point, she had been a wildly influential and welcome presence in the evangelical world, a Christian author whose writings made the New York Times best-seller list and whose home renovation got its own HGTV series. But then 2016 happened, and, well, of course everything changed.

Then it tells how she came out against Donald Trump some time in 2016. This might have been a minority opinion, but she was hardly alone in it and she was not the only person taking heat for it (or even the only woman in that niche).

A lot of evangelicals were unhappy with Trump, whom they saw as crazy, but who was up against Hillary Clinton, who they saw as evil. The fact that 81 percent of evangelical Christians said they voted for Trump doesn’t mean that all of them liked doing so.

So what was the key factor in the Hatmaker story?

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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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Washington Post skips key questions in covering doctor's transgender surgery dissent

Washington Post skips key questions in covering doctor's transgender surgery dissent

Pullman, Washington, doesn't get much attention: Trivia buffs might know the city was named for railroad industrialist George Pullman, in the hope that he'd run a rail line through the city. (It went to Spokane instead.) Those deep in the weeds of President Donald Trump's cabinet might know that Secretary of Defense James Mattis was born in Pullman. Apart from those who know that Washington State University is there, Pullman is pretty much under the radar.

Comes now The Washington Post to help change that. Pullman, you see, has jumped into the vanguard of sex-change surgery, technically known as "Vaginoplasty," in which a male's genitals (and nerve endings thereof) are rearranged into a, well, you know.

I'll cut to the journalistic chase: The Washington Post has effectively decided who's right and who's wrong in this story. We can tell from the headline: "A small-town doctor wanted to perform surgeries for transgender women. He faced an uphill battle." Read the opening paragraphs, and the "angle" should be clear:

The surgeon had spent several years preparing -- reading medical journals, finding someone to train him, practicing on cadavers -- until only one hurdle remained: getting permission for the medical procedure he wanted to bring to this small community on the Washington-Idaho border.
“Vaginoplasties,” Geoff Stiller remembered telling the CEO of Pullman Regional Hospital, referring to the surgical construction of vaginas for transgender women. “I want to do them at your hospital.”
Nine months later, Stiller looks back on that conversation as a final moment when his request still seemed like an easy one. Nobody yet had cited Bible verses or argued that culture was blurring the line between men and women. Another doctor at Pullman hadn’t yet sent an email to eight co-workers, who forwarded it around the hospital, with the subject line “Opposition to Transgender Surgery at PRH.” The hospital hadn’t yet received hundreds of letters from the community. Stiller hadn’t yet lost 20 pounds from the stress, nor had he yet anticipated that his request might turn for him into something more -- a fight not just over a surgery, but over what he’d later call a “moral issue.”

This is a long article, even by Post standards.

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Hey, New York Times: Maybe there's more to that Christian-backed school in North Korea

Hey, New York Times: Maybe there's more to that Christian-backed school in North Korea

If there's a nation on this planet harder to understand than the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK, I don't know it -- and you probably don't, either.

More commonly known as North Korea, it's been a family-led Communist dynasty for longer than any other. It's secretive, wracked by poverty and the government keeps trying to launch a missile that is capable of hitting Japan, or Guam or even Hawaii.

There have been (and are) all sorts of religion-angle "ghosts" in news surrounding the DPRK. Our our own Ira Rifkin last year noted the missing elements when The New York Times examined the country's "Juche" philosophy.

Now, the Times's correspondent who skipped the spiritual "ghosts" in the Juche piece has, er, passed over some key faith-related questions in another story. Choe Sang-Hun tells us about a Christian-led university in the officially atheist DPRK, with only a passing glance at the religion angle. Read this multi-paragraph introduction to see what I mean:

Set on 250 sprawling acres in North Korea’s capital, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology abides by the cult of the Kim family.
Atop its main building, large red characters praise “General Kim Jong-un,” the country’s provocative young leader. At the front of lecture halls hang smiling portraits of his father and grandfather, who led the nation before him.
Yet the school is different in one striking way. In a country that bans religion, it is run by evangelical Christians.

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The Economist explains 2016: Evangelicals sure love money and Donald Trump

The Economist explains 2016: Evangelicals sure love money and Donald Trump

It's certainly one of the iconic images from the early 2016 rallies that, to the shock of the all-wise politicos everywhere, helped push Citizen Donald Trump into the White House.

I am referring to the viral image at the top of this post, a picture -- with mocking variations -- that can be found all over the place in cyberspace.

What made this image so perfect? Perhaps it was something about the combination of reality-TV ecstasy on certain faces and that "Thank You Lord Jesus for President Trump" sign.

For many journalists it perfectly captured what they wanted to believe, which was that Trump was the official candidate of white evangelical Protestants. The most deplorable of the deplorables.

After the election, this simplistic view of the primaries evolved into a similar verdict on election 2016, which was that if you wanted to know who to blame (yes, yes, yes) for President Trump that would be angry white men in blue collars and/or white evangelicals. From a true-blue cultural perspective, what's the difference?

Actually, there are lots of differences. As one pollster told me, there's a big difference between Saturday night conservatives and Sunday morning conservatives. There are bar conservatives and church conservatives. In the primaries, the church crowd was really divided and highly conflicted, in terms of backing (to one degree or another) Trump. He had some key old-right religious backers, in the primaries, but there was zero evangelical unity.

This brings me to a stunningly simplistic essay in a source where you aren't supposed to find simplistic journalism -- The Economist. The headline: "Why evangelicals love Donald Trump."

So right there you have trouble. You know that this really means white evangelicals. Or how about Latino evangelicals, who may have given Trump Florida?

Never mind. Here's the overture:

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Thinking about that whole 'evangelical' definition thing, with historian Mark Noll

Thinking about that whole 'evangelical' definition thing, with historian Mark Noll

So how many times has GetReligion published posts about people -- journalists, academics, politicos, you name it -- struggling to define the term "evangelical"?

That's hard to say, because the question keeps evolving as the term grows more and more political, at least as it is used in the mainstream press. Here is a GetReligion search page that offers you 16 of these post in one handy collection.

This issue shows up in all kinds of settings, but it's clear that the political angle -- #DUH -- is the key here. Here is how I expressed that in a post a few years ago focusing on a familiar question: Why do journalists keep getting confused about the faith practiced by former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum?

A decade ago, the editors of Time magazine decided -- during one of the many "Who the heck are these born-gain people?" moments in the recent life of the mainstream press -- to do a cover story focusing on the 25 most influential evangelical Protestants in American life.
It was an interesting list. However, one name in particular raised many eyebrows -- Sen. Rick Santorum. The issue? Santorum was and is a very conservative Roman Catholic.
This struck me as interesting, so I did some background research on this issue. The consensus was that the Time team realized that Santorum was not a Protestant -- and thus, not an evangelical -- but the larger truth was that he, well, "voted evangelical."

That "voted evangelical" came from a magazine spokesperson. It's a classic.

Now, if I was going to point journalists toward an authoritative voice on this topic, historian Mark Noll would be right at the top of this list. Here is the intro to a Q&A interview with Noll published by the The Record, the student newspaper at Wheaton College.

For 27 years, Dr. Mark Noll served on the History Department faculty, ending his tenure as McManis Professor of Christian Thought in 2006. In 2016, he retired from The University of Notre Dame after teaching for 10 years. Mark Noll’s book “The Scandal of The Evangelical Mind” (1994) earned him a lasting place in evangelical scholarship. In 2005, Time Magazine named Noll one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America.

You knew the following question had to come up. Right?

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