Baptists

Make America great again? Washington Post essay shows a more complex evangelical viewpoint

Make America great again? Washington Post essay shows a more complex evangelical viewpoint

It’s easy to feel depressed about the state of American journalism these days.

For starters, there is the digital advertising crisis, with Google, Facebook and others sucking up billions of dollars that used to go to local newspapers and broadcast newsrooms to provide coverage of local, regional and state news. To fight back, some of America’s top newspapers have mastered the art of hooking waves of digital subscribers by telling them what they want to hear about national news.

Meanwhile, many news consumers are completely confused about what is “news” and what is “commentary” or analysis writing. People talk about getting their news from television channels (think MSNBC and Fox News) that offer some traditional news reporting, surrounded by oceans of commentary. The Internet? It is a glorious and fallen mix of the good and bad, with many readers choosing to read only what reinforces their core beliefs.

What is news? What is opinion?

Well, the Washington Post recently ran a pair of articles that — in a good way, let me stress — illustrated why some of this confusion exists. Both focused on white evangelicals and their celebrated or cursed support of President Donald Trump. In this case, the news article and the opinion essay are both worth reading, but it was the opinion essay that truly broke new ground. Hold that thought.

First, the news. I am happy to report that the Post, in this case, let the religion desk handle a story about religion and politics. The headline: “He gets it’: Evangelicals aren’t turned off by Trump’s first term.”

There’s only one point I would like to make about this article. Read the following summary material carefully:

Trump enjoyed overwhelming support from white evangelicals in 2016, winning a higher percentage than George W. Bush, John McCain or Mitt Romney. That enthusiasm has scarcely dimmed. Almost 70 percent of white evangelicals approve of Trump’s performance in office, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center poll.

Interviews with 50 evangelical Christians in three battleground states — Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — help explain why. In conversation, evangelical voters paint the portrait of the Trump they see: a president who acts like a bully but is fighting for them. A president who sees America like they do, a menacing place where white Christians feel mocked and threatened for their beliefs. A president who’s against abortion and gay rights and who has the economy humming to boot. …

Evangelical Christians are separated from other Protestants (called mainline Protestants) by their belief in the literal truth of the Bible as well as their conservative politics on gender roles, sexuality, abortion and other subjects.

Wait, do most evangelicals — of all colors — have what are essentially POLITICAL views on abortion, sexual morality, gender, etc.? Wouldn’t be more accurate the say that they have theological views that, like many others, they struggle to defend when they enter voting books?

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NPR: Female missionary to Uganda story brings out 'no white savior' syndrome

NPR: Female missionary to Uganda story brings out 'no white savior' syndrome

There’s a curious story on NPR’s site about an American woman who moved to Uganda years ago, set up a Christian charity to help malnourished kids and now is being sued by two Ugandan women who claimed that her negligence led to their children’s deaths.

Renee Balch, who moved back to west-central Virginia after it was clear things were going south in Africa, is fighting back, claiming she had nothing to do with these deaths.

There’s enough about this story that raises a lot of questions about the high rates of death in certain African countries; about foreigners who travel to Africa to do what they can to help and whether they should be held liable for any of these deaths. The story picks up with an anecdote (which I am skipping) about a critically ill child whom Bach (allegedly) nearly killed through lack of medical knowledge.

Ten years ago, Renee Bach left her home in Virginia to set up a charity to help children in Uganda. … Bach was not a doctor. She was a 20-year-old high school graduate with no medical training. And not only was her center not a hospital — at the time it didn't employ a single doctor.

Yet from 2010 through 2015, Bach says, she took in 940 severely malnourished children. And 105 of them died.

Now Bach is being sued in Ugandan civil court.

One in nine kids dying is not a good ratio. But, would these kids have died anyway? Was Bach’s facility the only one that was available?

Uganda has an infant mortality rate of 49 deaths per 1,000 people, but when Bach moved there, it was around 83.4, which is very high.

How could a young American with no medical training even contemplate caring for critically ill children in a foreign country? To understand, it helps to know that the place where Bach set up her operation — the city of Jinja — had already become a hub of American volunteerism by the time she arrived.

A sprawling city of tens of thousands of people on the shores of Lake Victoria, Jinja is surrounded by rural villages of considerable poverty. U.S. missionaries had set up a host of charities there. And soon American teens raised in mostly evangelical churches were streaming in to volunteer at them.

Bach was one of these teens. On her first trip, in 2007, she worked at a missionary-run orphanage — staying on for nine months.

Once back home in Virginia, Bach — now 19 years old — came to a life-changing conclusion: She should move to Jinja full time and set up her own charity.

I googled “missionary groups in Jinja” and sure enough, there’s a bunch.

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The church vs. the Sexual Revolution: What is 'purity culture' and why is it in the news?

The church vs. the Sexual Revolution: What is 'purity culture' and why is it in the news?

THE QUESTION:

What is “purity culture,” and why is it in the news?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

A particular U.S. Protestant campaign born in the 1990s sought to urge teens and young adults to follow the age-old Christian (also Jewish, Muslim, etc.) teaching against sexual relations before marriage. Outsiders and opponents called this the “purity culture” movement, and it’s currently in the news and the subject of intense online debate.

That “purity” label is confusing because critics of the phenomenon are not just secularists or those who scoff at old-fashioned morality. Conservatives who likewise advocate the sexual “purity’ taught in Christian tradition raise some of the most pointed objections to this movement’s specific theology, techniques, and claims.

The cause originated in 1993 with sex education materials under the “True Love Waits’ banner issued by the publishing arm of America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Within just one year of existence a Washington, D.C. rally drew 25,000 youths and displayed 210,000 sexual abstinence pledge cards on the National Mall.

The movement appealed to many moms and dads who were wounded by the sexual libertinism that began in the 1960s and wanted more wholesome relationships for their own children, fretting over increases in sexually transmitted disease, unwed pregnancy and divorce. The pledges of abstinence until marriage were reinforced by wearing rings popularized from 1995 onward by The Silver Ring Thing organization, reconfigured last year as Unaltered Ministries. Instead of high school proms, some churches held “purity balls” where dads escorted daughters.

The movement is back in the news due to its primary celebrity guru, Joshua Harris, who at a tender age 21 wrote “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.”

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Amid furor over Trump tweets, NPR visits two very different Friendship Baptist Churches in Virginia

Amid furor over Trump tweets, NPR visits two very different Friendship Baptist Churches in Virginia

NPR’s Sarah McCammon visited two Friendship Baptist Churches for a report that aired this week.

I loved the idea behind her story on congregations in the same state with the same name but different perspectives on President Donald Trump. And I mostly loved the implementation.

But before we delve into her feature, let’s start with the online headline: I’m not 100 percent sold on it.

Here it is:

In Virginia, 2 Churches Feel The Aftermath of Trump’s Racist Rhetoric

My problem with the headline is this: It labels Trump’s rhetoric — as a fact — as “racist.” I’m an old-school- enough journalist that I’d prefer the news organization simply report what Trump has said and let listeners/readers characterize it as racist. Or not.

I know I’m probably in the minority on this — evidence of that fact can be found here, here, here and here.

But back to the story itself: It opens this way:

A welcome sign on the way into town reads "Historic Appomattox: Where Our Nation Reunited." But here in Appomattox, where the Civil War ended more than 150 years ago, there are still reminders of division.

Not far away, a sign posted in front of Friendship Baptist Church reads "AMERICA: LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT."

Pastor Earnie Lucas said he posted that message on his church sign several weeks ago. It was around the same time that President Trump tweeted an attack on four Democratic members of Congress — all women of color — saying they should "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came."

Lucas, 85, is white and has been a pastor in this community for decades. He defends his sign and expresses anger about the response it has received online and in news reports.

"Don't talk to me about that flag out yonder, or that sign out yonder!" he thundered from the pulpit. "This is America! And I love America!"

Lucas asks if anyone in the small, all-white congregation is "from Yankee land." No one raises their hand

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Thinking about Liberty University and decades of journalism struggles at private colleges

Thinking about Liberty University and decades of journalism struggles at private colleges

Over the past week or so, I have received a steady stream of email asking me to comment on a recent essay in The Washington Post that focused on an always touchy subject — efforts to do journalism education on private college campuses.

You wouldn’t know that’s what the essay is about if you merely scanned the headline — which offers your typical Donald-Trump-era news hook. The article is better than this headline.

Inside Liberty University’s ‘culture of fear’

How Jerry Falwell Jr. silences students and professors who reject his pro-Trump politics.

Yes, Trump plays a role in this piece and I am sure that Falwell’s over-the-top loyalty to the president is causing lots of tension at Liberty. However, that isn’t the main source of conflict in this article.

The main problem? Like many private schools (and even a few state schools), Liberty — on academic paper — says that it has a “journalism” program. The problem is what top administrators actually want is a public relations program that prepares students to work in Christian nonprofit groups, think tanks and advocacy publications.

This is a problem that is much bigger than Liberty. I have encountered this syndrome on campuses that are left of center as well as those on the right, during a quarter-century of so of teaching students at (or from) Christian colleges. More than a few college leaders — like Falwell — don’t want parents, donors and trustees reading student-written news material about real life on their campuses.

Real life? Here is the issue that I always use as my line in the sand, when studying conflicts about college journalism programs: Will school officials allow news reports about issues that produce public documents, like police reports.

Sure enough, that’s where former Liberty University journalist Will Young begins his Post essay. This is long, but essential:

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The liberal reporter and the conservative pastor: Inside Texas Monthly's big story on 'Trump's Apostle'

The liberal reporter and the conservative pastor: Inside Texas Monthly's big story on 'Trump's Apostle'

Social media went nuts this week — overwhelmingly positive nuts — over the official trailer for “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” a film starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers that will hit theaters just in time for Thanksgiving.

As Esquire notes, “The film is based on a profile of Mr. Rogers that journalist Tom Junod wrote for Esquire in 1998. In the film, Matthew Rhys plays a fictionalized version of the writer, embarking upon the profile of the kids television icon with initial reluctance before forging a friendship with his subject, the true guru of pretty much everything that’s good in the world.”

Hmmmm, a movie about the relationship that develops between a journalist and his subject.

Perhaps this formula could work for a future movie about Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas and a leading evangelical adviser to President Donald Trump.

Except that — when Hollywood tells Jeffress’ story — he’s not likely to be portrayed as “the true guru of pretty much everything that’s good in the world.” Instead, think Dick Cheney in “Vice.”

The basis for the Jeffress screenplay? The big screen could do worse than Texas Monthly’s long August cover story on “Trump’s Apostle.”

Writer Michael J. Mooney sets the scene this way:

Here’s Robert Jeffress, talking to the hundreds of thousands of people watching conservative cable news on a typical Friday evening, and he’s defending President Donald Trump against the latest array of accusations in the news this week. And he isn’t simply defending Trump—he’s defending him with one carefully crafted Bible-wrapped barb after another, and with more passion, more preparation, more devotion than anyone else on television.

As Lou Dobbs finishes his opening remarks, Jeffress laughs and nods. It’s early January, about two weeks into what will prove to be the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. Across the country, hundreds of thousands of federal workers are missing paychecks, worrying about mortgages, car payments, utility bills. Some have started going to food banks. But Dobbs waves his hand up and down and tells Jeffress that he hasn’t heard anyone—“literally no one!”—say they miss the government. The jowly host revels in Trump’s threats that the shutdown could continue “for months, if not years,” if that’s what it takes to get more wall built on America’s border with Mexico.

Jeffress, speaking from a remote studio in downtown Dallas, agrees completely. “Well, he’s doing exactly the right thing in keeping this government shut down until he gets that wall,” he says.

Jeffress is the senior pastor at First Baptist Dallas, a 13,000-member megachurch that’s one of the most influential in the country, but he’s known best for appearances like this one: he’s often on Fox & Friends or Hannity or any number of sound-bitey segments on Fox News or Fox Business. His own religious show airs six days a week on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. He has a daily radio program too, broadcast on more than nine hundred Christian stations across the country, though it’s TV he loves best. Dobbs invites Jeffress onto his show nearly every week.

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Bad vibrations: Riverside Church war offers perfect case study of @NYPost vs. @NYTimes

Bad vibrations: Riverside Church war offers perfect case study of @NYPost vs. @NYTimes

This certainly was not your typical media storm about a Baylor University graduate who achieved fame in the ministry by heading to Washington, D.C., and then to New York City.

However, the fall of the Rev. Amy Butler from the high pulpit of Manhattan’s world-famous Riverside Church offers readers a classic journalism case study illustrating the differences between New York Post readers and New York Times readers. It’s also educational to note that the religious themes in this controversy played little or no role in either report.

Starting with a classic A1 headline, the Post editors knew what would zap readers awake while reading in their subway cars:

The reason for her ouster is far more stimulating than any sermon this pastor could have delivered.

The Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, the first woman to lead Manhattan’s famed Riverside Church, lost her lofty post amid complaints that she brought ministers and a congregant on a sex toy shopping spree and then gave one of them an unwanted vibrator as a birthday gift, The Post has learned.

On May 15, Butler allegedly took two Riverside assistant ministers and a female congregant to a sex shop in Minneapolis called the Smitten Kitten, during a religious conference, according to sources familiar with the out-of-town shopping excursion.

At the store, the pastor bought a $200 bunny-shaped blue vibrator called a Beaded Rabbit for one minister — a single mom of two who was celebrating her 40th birthday — as well as more pleasure gadgets for the congregant and herself, sources said. The female minister didn’t want the sex toy, but accepted it because she was scared not to, sources said.

The great Gray Lady, on the other hand, knew that the readers in its choir would want a story rooted in sexism, patriarchy and workplace politics. The headline, as you would imagine, was a bit more restrained: “Pastor’s Exit Exposes Cultural Rifts at a Leading Liberal Church.”

The sex toys angle made it into the Times story, with a nod to Post coverage, but readers had to wait a few extra paragraphs to find that angle. Here’s the overture:

When the Rev. Dr. Amy K. Butler was hired to lead Riverside Church in Manhattan in 2014, she was hailed as a rising star, the first woman to join a distinguished line of pastors at one of the pre-eminent progressive Protestant congregations in the United States.

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In the 'battle at the border,' evangelical leaders jostle for Trump-era media relevancy

In the 'battle at the border,' evangelical leaders jostle for Trump-era media relevancy

Unless you’ve been under a rock recently, you know much of the country is fixated on the mess at our border.

What’s not as visible is how evangelical Christians are fighting among themselves over all of this. In the latest development, an old foot soldier in evangelical warfare contacted all his followers to say that President Donald Trump is doing the right thing.

That foot soldier would be Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, now 83. He retired from Focus 10 years ago (although HuffPost says he was forced out), then founded “Family Talk,” a nonprofit that produces his radio programs. More on him in a moment.

With thousands of people each day forcing their way into the United States, there has erupted amongst evangelicals what I like to call the “battle at the border.”

Many of you may have heard of the spitting match between Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., and the Rev. Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Moore was mourning the border situation on Twitter — specifically conditions endured by children — and Falwell slammed into him for being unqualified to speak about the matter.

The people following this have mostly been religion beat specialists. Amy Sullivan had one of the better descriptive lines in calling it a “tale of two tweets,” as it showed huge fissures among evangelicals. The secular media didn’t do a whole lot with this inside-baseball battle, but there’s now a term, #SBCdeepstate and a lot of grandstanding on What Would Jesus Do At The Border.

Last Friday, a Catholic bishop thought he had the answer to that one, which is why he personally escorted a family across the border even though they’d been turned back once by the border patrol.

Then you have the Rev. Jack Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, who in this Christian Post story tells of his visit to the border and how everything there is peachy keen.

Of course, the Babylonian Bee had to run a piece on the lunacy of it all.

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In Baptist circles, which is the more powerful position: SBC president or SBC seminary president?

In Baptist circles, which is the more powerful position: SBC president or SBC seminary president?

I have a fair amount of experience reporting on the Southern Baptist Convention, going back two decades when I served as religion editor for The Oklahoman and traveled to the denomination’s annual meetings.

In my time with The Associated Press in Dallas, I did a 2004 series on the 25th anniversary of the 1979 conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. Last year, freelancing for the Washington Post, I covered an all-night meeting at which Paige Patterson was removed as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

But I’ll acknowledge that I’m no expert on the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. For example, I don’t have a clear idea of whether the Southern Baptist Convention’s president — an elected role generally filled by a pastor — is a more powerful, substantial position than serving as president of one of the denomination’s six regional seminaries. It seems to me that perhaps the seminary presidents are bigger, more major players in the long term.

The reason I bring this up is that the ongoing news coverage of the SBC’s sex abuse scandal — in which Patterson keeps making all the wrong kind of headlines — typically cites Patterson’s past SBC presidency before mentioning his tenure as seminary president.

In fact, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram — which should be as informed on this story as anyone — seems somewhat confused about which role Patterson was kicked out of last year.

Here’s the lede of the Star-Telegram’s report on a lawsuit (warning: the details are chilling) filed last week:

A woman who said she was threatened and humiliated after reporting multiple rapes to former Southern Baptist Convention president Paige Patterson has filed a lawsuit against him.

The lawsuit, which was filed by a former student of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminaryin Fort Worth, was unsealed this week. 

It says the woman was the victim of multiple violent sexual assaults on the school’s campus by a fellow student, who also was employed at the seminary, in 2014 and 2015. But even before she became a student, the lawsuit says, the seminary “was not a safe place for young women.”

But here’s the deal: Patterson was president of the SBC in 1999 and 2000. That was 20 years ago.

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