O God, Send Me a Sign!

Who thinks up those goofy, pun-laden slogans seen on church marquees and sign boards, anyway? Are phrases like "seven days without prayer makes one weak" or "forbidden fruit creates many jams" the new hermenuetic of a drive-by world?

Slate magazine's Doree Shafir explores the background and development of church signs including an interesting slide show.

There is a web-site where you can create your own church signs. Someone took this and turned into a very funny Church Sign Smackdown.

Of course, there is money to be made. There are books to help busy pastors or sign committees with writers block keep their signs current.

Photographers Pam and Steve Paulsen created a book containing 300 images of church signs across the country "Church Signs Across America." An April 8, 2007 New York Times Book Review says they "have found and documented the uncommon poetry and sly wit used to rouse the flock, and the book is curiously inspirational."

Most of the slogans are decidedly clever — “Free Trip to Heaven, Details Inside,” at the Ascension Lutheran Church in Kansas City, Mo., appears on the cover, though that’s not even the best.

Here’s a sampling: “Rapture, the Only Way to Fly,” at the Venice Baptist Church in Los Angeles; “You’ve Seen the Movie, Now Come Read the Book,” at the Central Parkway Baptist Church in Orlando, Fla.; “The Easter Bunny Didn’t Rise From the Dead,” at the Cypress Lake Baptist Church in Fort Myers, Fla.; and “Swallow Your Pride. It Contains No Calories,” at the Bridgeton Bible Church in Bridgeton, Mo. But the hippest, at the Montgomery Place Church of God in Albuquerque, is “Jesus Is the Rock That Doesn’t Roll.”

Not all are this witty, but even the somber ones, like “Exposure to the Son May Prevent Burning,” “We Are Too Blessed to Be Depressed” and “Pray Until Something Happens,” provoke a smile. Nor must one be a true believer to savor them. The agnostic who merely appreciates the art of snappy advertising copy will know exactly how difficult it is to write something as effective as the motto for the Christian Assembly Ministries in Stewartsville, N.J.: “Give Your Troubles to God. He’s Up All Night Anyway.”

Curiously inspirational or not, the signs point to the challenge and pitfalls of making the gospel comprehensible.

Moyers: Drive out the money changers

In a speech inflamed with passion, anger and an altar call's possibility of hope, Bill Moyers spoke to General Synod on Saturday morning about poverty and justice. His 57-minute keynote address - interrupted by applause more than three dozen times and followed by a two-minute standing ovation - lamented the growing gap between the rich and poor in America and called the UCC to act in the name of the Jesus who was a disturber of the peace and threw the rascals out. Evan Golder reporting for UCC News quotes from Moyers speech:

"I have come to say that America's revolutionary heritage – and America's revolutionary spirit – "life, liberty and the pursuit of justice, through government of, by, and for the people" – is under siege," he said. "And if churches of conscience don't take the lead in their rescue and revival, we can lose our democracy!"

"You have raised a prophetic voice against the militarism, materialism and racism that chokes America's arteries.

"You have placed yourselves in the thick of the fight for social justice.

"You have aligned yourself on the side of liberty, equality and compassion.

"And you have been a church of prominent firsts: first to ordain an African American, first to ordain a woman, and first to ordain an openly gay person."

For 30 years," Moyers said, "we have witnessed a class war fought from the top down against the idea and ideal of equality. It has been a drive by a radical elite to gain ascendancy over politics and to dismantle the political institutions, the legal and statutory canons, and the intellectual and cultural frameworks that checked the excesses of private power."

It's as if you invited 100 persons to a party, divided a pie into five pieces and gave four pieces all to one person, leaving one piece for the remaining 99, he said.

"Don't be surprised if they fight over it," he said, "which is exactly what's happening when people look at their wages and then their taxes and end up hating the government and anything it does.

"The strain on working people and on family life has become intense," he said. "Television sets and cell phones and iPods are cheap, but higher education, health care, public transportation, drugs, housing and cars have risen in price faster than typical family incomes."


Read more here

Watch the speech here

Views on torture not influenced by religion

Virtually every major religious group in the United States has renounced the use of torture. Surprisingly, however, the American public still shows strong support for the use of torture as a tactic in fighting terror. Perhaps even more surprisingly, once other factors are taken into account, one's religious beliefs and frequency of worship appear to have quite modest effects on views about torture.

John G. Green, a professor of political science at the University of Akron and Senior Fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, has an article (PDF) in the Review of Faith & International Affairs that discusses a Pew Research Center for the People and the Press survey on torture and faith. Pew surveyed public opinion on torture and terrorism in 2004, 2005, and 2006, for the entire public and for six large religious groups: white Evangelical Protestants, white Roman Catholics, white Mainline Protestants, Black Protestants, all other religious communities, and the religiously unaffiliated.

The study found evidence of only a modest effect of religious denomination, particulary when political affiliation--a much more important factor--was taken into account:

Overall this survey found that 17.7 percent of the American public said that torture was “often justified” against suspected terrorists and another 27.8 percent said it was “sometimes justified.” Hence, 45.5 percent had what might be called “permissive” views on torture under these circumstances. Meanwhile, 18.8 percent said that torture was “rarely justified” and 32.8 percent said it was “never justified.” Thus, 51.6 percent of Americans held what might be called “restrictive” views on torture as a tactic in security policy. The results from the fall of 2006 survey were very similar to 2004 and 2005.

Moreover, there was only modest variation in opinion among the religious communities. White Evangelical Protestants were the most permissive of the use of torture, at just over one-half (51.6 percent), and White Catholics were almost evenly divided—47.5 percent accepting and 46.3 percent opposed. Black Protestants (52.8 percent) and white Mainline Protestants (53.2 percent) had a slim majority in opposition, while solid majorities of the composite All Others category (56.4 percent) and the unaffiliated (55.9 percent) held restrictive views.

Frequency of worship attendance was modestly associated with restrictive views on torture as well. Note that for the entire public weekly worship attenders were more likely to oppose torture by a few percentage points than the country as a whole.

The largest influence on views of torture was not religion, but political views:

Not surprisingly, party identification was strongly associated with views on torture. For example, 66.8 percent of Republicans held permissive views on torture, while 66.4 percent of Democrats had restrictive views. The independents were arranged in-between, but with a solid majority of the “pure” independents holding restrictive views. A similar pattern held for ideology: 59.0 percent of respondents who said they were “very conservative” reported permissive views, and 66.4 percent of those who said they were “very liberal” had the opposite position on torture. Here, too, a majority of moderates had restrictive views
.
The most interesting aspect of the study, however, was that once political views were taken into account by statistical regression analysis, those who worshiped at least once a week had more restrictive views on torture regardless of denomination:

Once the effects of political attitudes were taken into account, being a weekly attending Evangelical was associated with more restrictive views on torture, while being a less observant Evangelical had no impact on torture attitudes (due to a lack of statistical significance). A similar pattern held for Mainline Protestants, Catholics, and the composite group of all other religious groups. These findings are a bit counter-intuitive because weekly worship attenders tend to be more Republican, conservative, and supportive of the Bush administration than their co-religionists. However, it is precisely the impact of such political attitudes on torture attitudes that the statistical model has take into account.

What explains these patterns for weekly attenders? One possibility is that other demographic
characteristics of regular worship attenders are at work behind these figures. And there is some evidence for this possibility: women and older people tend to have more restrictive views of torture, overall and in each religious category. Of course, women and older people are also more likely to be religiously observant compared to men and younger people, so the order of causality is not entirely clear. However, including gender and age in the statistical analysis does not change the basic patterns . . . . very much.

Another possibility is that the flow of information within denominations and congregations encourages a restrictive view of torture. After all, people who attend worship regularly are much more likely to hear messages from denominational leaders and the parish clergy, and it could be that the leader’s statements against torture have reached receptive ears in many religious communities. A final possibility is that the weekly attenders are more familiar with religious teachings that may raise doubts about the morality of torture. While the specific beliefs may well differ from tradition to tradition, an emphasis in the dignity of human beings is common to many faiths.

Read the entire study here.

Is it surprising the religon plays such a small role in influencing views on a moral issue such as torture? Why is this not true of other issues such as abortion and stem cell research?

A field guide to the "New Atheism"

Much has been written about the success of recent books by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. David C. Steinmetz, the Amos Ragan Kearns Professor of the History of Christianity at the Duke University Divinity School, offers a useful guide to two of the most prominent "New Atheists."

Probably the best-known of the so-called new atheists are the journalist Christopher Hitchens of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker and the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins of Oxford University.

Hitchens was born in Portsmouth, England, and, like Dawkins, educated at Balliol College, Oxford. His book, God Is Not Great, makes it clear that he regards religion as an enemy of civilization, an entirely toxic enterprise that ruins anything it touches.

Religion has its origin in what Hitchens regards as the perfectly understandable human fear of death (since humans are the only animals who know in advance they are going to die) and in the hope, completely unfounded, that there is some way to avoid this grim, but inescapable, fate.

Ever the pugnacious contrarian, Hitchens is witty, combative, sarcastic, intelligent and generally outrageous. He loves to rip out the shirttails of the pious (whatever their religion) and set fire to them.

Dawkins is a somewhat different animal. He was raised as a rather conventional Anglican, but abandoned his faith at 16, when he was persuaded that evolution, and not divine providence, accounted for the rich diversity of the natural world. If purely natural processes provided satisfying explanations for the world as it is, then belief in God became for Dawkins a redundant luxury.

In his book The God Delusion, Dawkins spells out his conviction that reason embraces conclusions based on evidence alone, while faith believes assertions based on no evidence whatever. Worse yet, faith often contradicts evidence that undercuts what it wants to believe.


Professor Steinmetz also offers a summary of the rejoinder to these arguments by Oxford Professor Alister McGrath:
The Oxford theologian Alister McGrath -- himself an adult convert to Christianity from atheism -- challenged Dawkins' view of faith as irrational. McGrath was convinced that Christianity provided him with a richer, more coherent and therefore more intellectually satisfying account of reality than atheism had ever offered. He conceded that his starting point was not reason alone but felt that his position was nevertheless thoroughly rational.

McGrath echoes the argument of St. Augustine that reason needs to be oriented toward the truth so that it can function properly. Faith is not about swallowing as many groundless propositions as possible. It is about an essential alignment with the way things really are. Otherwise, reason is clueless about things that genuinely matter.

Read the entire article here.

The "New Atheism" is not limited to the literary set. A group of enterprising atheists have presented a video "Blasphemy Challenge" on You Tube, urging atheists to show their confidence by denouncing the Holy Spirit. Over one thousand videos have been posted on You Tube in response to this challenge.

One response well worth viewing is that of Father Mathew Moretzs of St. Pauls Episcopal Church in Yonkers, New York. His response can be found here.

Behe trying, once again, to defend Intelligent Design

Professor Michael Behe of the Lehigh University Biological Sciences Department is the intellect behind the Intelligent Design movement, and he has a new book defending his view that Darwinian evolution is incomplete, and that there is evidence of an intelligent designer. Since Intelligent Design is attractive to Christians that believe in a Creator God, we thought that it would be useful to hear from Jerry Coyne, a University of Chicago professor who has a thorough review of Behe's new book in the New Republic.

Professor Coyne begins by summarizing Behe's new argument--as well as Behe's concessions to evolution:

For a start, let us be clear about what Behe now accepts about evolutionary theory. He has no problem with a 4.5-billion-year-old Earth, nor with evolutionary change over time, nor apparently with its ample documentation through the fossil record--the geographical distribution of organisms, the existence of vestigial traits testifying to ancient ancestry, and the finding of fossil "missing links" that show common ancestry among major groups of organisms. Behe admits that most evolution is caused by natural selection, and that all species share common ancestors. He even accepts the one fact that most other IDers would rather die than admit: that humans shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees and other apes.

Why does Behe come clean about all this? The reason is plain. There is simply too much evidence for any scientist to deny these facts without losing all credibility. "Intelligent design" is desperate for scientific respectability, and you do not get that by fighting facts about which everybody agrees. But with most of evolutionary biology accepted, what's left for a good IDer to contest? Behe finds his bugbear in evolutionary theory's view that "random mutation" provides the raw material for evolutionary change.

Professor Coyne then provides a detailed refutation of Behe's scientific argument that quite accessible to the nonscientist, and well worth a careful read by anyone interested in understanding the debate. But perhaps the most important part of Professor Coyne's review comes at the end, when he discusses whether or not Intelligent Design is really a scientific theory:
The first problem is that Behe's "scientific" ideas are offered to the public in a trade book, and have never gone through the usual process of vetting in peer-reviewed scientific journals. This was also the case with Darwin's Black Box. In fact, Behe has never published a paper supporting intelligent design in any scientific journal, despite his assertion in Darwin's Black Box that his own discovery of biochemical design "must be ranked as one of the greatest achievements in the history of science," rivaling "those of Newton and Einstein, Lavoisier and Schrödinger, Pasteur, and Darwin." Surely such an important theory deserves a place in the scientific literature! But the reason for the lack of peer review is obvious: Behe's ideas would never pass muster among scientists, despite the fact that anybody who really could disprove Darwinism would win great renown.

So let us put some empirical questions to Behe, since his theory is supposedly scientific. Which features of life were designed, as opposed to evolved? How exactly did the mutations responsible for design come about? Who was the Designer? To what end did the Designer work? If the goal was perfection, why are some features of life (such as our appendix or prostate gland) palpably imperfect?

. . .

Is Behe's theory testable? Well, not really, since it consists not of positive assertions, but of criticisms of evolutionary theory and solemn declarations that it is powerless to explain complexity. And it is certainly true that scientists will never be able to give Darwinian explanations for the evolution of everything. The origins of many features, such as the bony plates on the back of the Stegosaurus, are lost in the irrecoverable past. But neither can archaeology unearth everything about ancient history. We do not maintain on these grounds that archaeology is not a science.

Behe waffles when confronted with the testability problem of ID and turns it back on evolutionists, saying that "coming from Darwinists, both objections [the lack of predictions and the untestability of ID] are instances of the pot calling the kettle black." He then waffles even more when implying that ID does not even need to be testable: "Both additional demands--for hard-and-fast predictions or for direct evidence of a theory's fundamental principle--are disingenuous. Philosophers have long known that no simple criterion, including prediction, automatically qualifies or disqualifies something as science, and fundamental entities invoked by a theory can remain mysterious for centuries, or indefinitely."

But who is being disingenuous here? Evolution has been tested, and confirmed, many times over. Every time we find an early human fossil dating back several million years, it confirms evolution. Every time a new transitional fossil is found, such as the recently discovered "missing links" between land animals and whales, it confirms evolution. Each time a bacterial strain becomes resistant to an antibiotic, it confirms evolution. And evolutionary biology makes predictions. Here is one that Darwin himself made: that the earliest human ancestors will be found in Africa. (That prediction was confirmed, of course.) Another was made by Neil Shubin at the University of Chicago: that transitional forms between fish and amphibians would be found in 370-million-year-old rocks. Sure enough, he discovered that there were rocks of that age in Canada, went and looked at them, and found the right fossils. Intelligent design, in contrast, makes no predictions. It is infinitely malleable in the face of counterevidence, cannot be refuted, and is therefore not science.


Read the entire review here.

Behe's book can be found here.

Study explores why scientists are not religious

Several studies have noted that scientists, as a group, are much less religious than the general public. Now a survey published in the journal Social Problems finds that this is not the result of scientific training--those who choose science as a career are already less religious before their education.

LiveScience offers a good summary. Here are highlights:

Scientists are less religious than the general population, a new study shows, but the reason has little to do with their study of science or academic pressures.

The findings challenge notions that science is responsible for a lack of faith among researchers, indicating that household upbringing carries the biggest weight in determining religiousness.
"Our study data do not strongly support the idea that scientists simply drop their religious identities upon professional training, due to an inherent conflict between science and faith, or to institutional pressure to conform," said Elaine Howard Ecklund, a sociologist at the University at Buffalo and co-author of the study.

. . .

Detailed in the latest issue of the journal Social Problems, the study is based on a survey of 1,646 scientists at 21 elite research universities and in-depth interviews with 271 of the scientists. Specifically, the survey contacted researchers specializing in physics, chemistry, biology, sociology, economics, political science, psychology and other fields.

Ecklund said nearly 75 percent of the subjects responded, which she said is extremely high for a faculty survey.

So why are scientists less religious? The data indicate that being raised in a religious home is the best predictor of how religious someone will be—scientist or member of the general population.

For general population information, Ecklund used data from the 1998 and 2004 General Social Survey (GSS), which is a national survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Ecklund then compared the data to the scientists’ set, which was modeled after the GSS.

Read the entire article here.

The difference between scientists and the general public is large. 52 percent of scientists surveyed said they had no religious affiliation, compared with only 14 percent of the general population. Interestingly, however, younger scientists were more likely to believe in God and attend religious services than older scientists.

The implication of this study seems to be that those with religious faith are less likely to choose a religious career than those without faith. Why is that? And why has there been a change in this trend with younger scientists?

Religious investments

Faith-based investment products that speak to people's moral and spiritual conscience are following in the footsteps of "socially responsible" investing, which was making headlines some months back as a place that the progressive/liberal affluent could put their money. Now, this morning's Washington Post examines mutual funds with a mission, which have a lot of appeal for the socially conservative evangelical investor:

Religious conservatives are mobilizing to attach a voice to the cash they have on Wall Street. For example, the Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Association is for the first time urging its 2.8 million online members to purge their investment portfolios of companies that support a "gay agenda" or "anti-family" practices.

Yet, as social conservatives increasingly tether their agendas to their investments, they're hardly walking in lockstep. On the contrary, they're choosing among a range of religious financial products -- including 16 families of faith-based mutual funds -- that vary in how they define corporate responsibility.

Evangelicals, for instance, are getting behind more than one vision. Some have contributed to the $600 million Timothy Plan, a family of mutual funds with evangelical roots and a pledge to avoid "securities of any company that is actively contributing to the moral decline of our society." Translation: screening out companies -- including many in the benchmark S&P 500 Index -- affiliated with pornography, abortion, gambling, tobacco, alcohol and non-married lifestyles.

However, evangelicals are also behind much of the $900 million invested with the politically enigmatic Mennonite Mutual Aid Praxis Mutual Funds. This group avoids companies such as Pfizer, which fund managers regard as manufacturers of abortion products. But it also lobbies on behalf of shareholders for eco-friendly corporate policies, and its pacifist orientation screens out stocks in defense contractors and bonds issued by the U.S. Treasury.

It's not just the Christian evangelicals hopping on the God-money bus. Catholics, on the one hand, have their funds, and so do Muslims. But it's important to note their buzzword is "morally responsible" investing, according to the article--as if they did in fact take their cue from the progressive movement, and they say as much.

Until now, the American Family Association, for instance, has focused on consumer action, such as a successful 2006 boycott that led to the demise of NBC's racy "The Book of Daniel." Consumer pressure is easier than investor pressure to explain and to use in rallying a broad base of supporters, according to AFA President Tim Wildmon.

But he says his organization has been remiss in letting agenda-driven investing be the near-exclusive province of left-leaning mutual funds with a "socially responsible" label.

"We just dropped the ball on that," he said. "We haven't been very smart in that regard. But now that's about to start changing."

The entire article is here.

"Faith Night" at baseball games

The headline "The Church of Baseball," evoking a line from the Bull Durham movie, will be familiar to Daily Episcopalian readers who saw Heidi Shott's reflection on the parallels between devotion to one's baseball team and the Episcopal Church earlier this year (here, if you missed it). But Religion and Ethics Weekly, in a piece with the same title, this week is examining a new marketing campaign designed to attract church groups to baseball games:

Fans and families cheered in the parking lot of Prince George's Stadium in Bowie, Maryland, as Jason Dunn, lead singer of the Christian Canadian punk band Hawk Nelson, with his mohawk haircut and cut-off-shirt sleeves revealing the tattoos on his arms, took a break from jumping around stage to explain how the song "Everything You Ever Wanted" was about trying to live up to the expectations of his father.

"But I am here to tell you that Jesus Christ is better than any father any of us could have," said Dunn.

Pre-game Christian concerts like this one, held on a humid summer evening at the home of the Bowie Baysox, a Class AA affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, are part of a rapidly growing promotional -- some would say controversial -- event called Faith Night being offered at major and minor league baseball stadiums around the country.

...

But baseball, still widely regarded as America's national pastime, seems to have embarked on something of a new era with Faith Night, searching for higher ticket sales and different fan markets. As baseball groupie and spiritual seeker Annie Savoy, played by Susan Sarandon, said in the 1988 movie Bull Durham, "I've tried 'em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball."

Faith Night "has gone from one team in Nashville in 2002 to 46 this year," according to Brent High, president and partner of Third Coast Sports Inc., the self-described "foremost authority in church marketing and event planning for sports teams."

"This rolling tour is now literally coast-to-coast," said High, who produces the Faith Night tour.

It's all here.

Is the New Atheism New?

As readers of The Lead are well aware, there has been a rush of best selling books challenging religion by several noted atheists. Are these books saying anythng different from atheist tracks of the past? Harvard Professor Harvey Mansfield thinks that the New Atheism really is new. While atheists in the past attacked the church, these new atheists are attacking religion itself:

As if we were back in eighteenth-century France, atheist tracts are abroad in our land, their flamboyant titles defiant. The God Delusion, God Is Not Great, Letter to a Christian Nation, Atheist Manifesto, Atheist Universe: These are not subtle insinuations against God, requiring inferences from readers, but open opposition inviting readers to join in thumbing their noses. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, newly published, offers comfort and scholarly reassurance, if not consolation, to atheists who might otherwise feel lonely--as, believing what they do, they surely must.

Atheism isn't what it was in the eighteenth century. Now, the focus of the attack is not the Church, which is no longer dominant, but religion itself. The disdain one used to hear for "organized religion" extends now to the individual believer's faith. Despite the change, politics is still the thrust of the attack. It's just that the delusion of religion is now allowed to be the responsibility of the believer, not of some group that is deluding him. A more direct approach is required.

In our time, religion, having lost its power to censor and dominate, still retains its ability, in America especially, to compete for adherents in our democracy of ideas. So to reduce the influence of religion, it is politically necessary to attack it in the private sphere as well as in the public square. This suggests that the distinction between public and private, dear to our common liberalism, is sometimes a challenge to maintain.

Read it all here.

Is Mansfield correct? Is the focus of the New Atheism different than in the past?

Sacrament of cookies and apple juice

In Wandering Around an Albuquerque Airport Terminal poet Naomi Shihab Nye tells of an encounter that revealed to her, "This is the world I want to live in. The shared world."

After learning my flight was detained 4 hours, I heard the announcement: "If anyone in the vicinity of gate 4-A understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately."

Well -- one pauses these days. Gate 4-A was my own gate. I went there.

An older woman in full traditional Palestinian dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly. "Help," said the flight service person. "Talk to her. What is her problem? we told her the flight was going to be four hours late and she did this."

I put my arm around her and spoke to her haltingly. "Shu dow-a, shu- biduck habibti, stani stani schway, min fadlick, Sho bit se-wee?"

The minute she heard any words she knew -- however poorly used -- she stopped crying.

She thought our flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for some major medical treatment the following day. I said "No, no, we're fine, you'll get there, just late. Who is picking you up? Let's call him and tell him."

We called her son and I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and would ride next to her -- SouthWest.

---------------

Soon after, she pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies -- little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts -- out of her bag and was offering them to all the women at the gate.

To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the traveler from California, the lovely woman from Laredo -- we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There are no better cookies.

And then the airline broke out the free (non-alcoholic) beverages from huge coolers and the two little girls for our flight -- one African American, one Mexican American -- ran around serving us all Apple Juice and Lemonade. And they were covered with powdered sugar too.

Read it all here

Faith programs change prisoners' outlook

In an effort to help ease prison overcrowding by providing opportunities for inmates to improve their behavior and reduce recidivism, faith-based criminal justice programs are springing up in correctional institutions around the country. An Associated Press series on prison overcrowding shines a spotlight on this phenomenon, highlighting several programs in the Oklahoma region that encourage inmates to turn to God.


The one-year motivational course is among a growing list of alternative and diversionary criminal justice programs designed to either direct offenders away from costly prison stays through specialized drug and mental health courts or change the behavior of inmates — changes that can lead to less misconduct in prison, fewer repeat offenders and lower prison costs.

“That’s what we’re all about — changing criminal thinking,” said Millicent Newton-Embry, warden at Mabel Bassett.

Since a robbery conviction four years ago, Mabel Bassett inmate Jimmie Jones said she has struggled to cope with her anger. “Personal issues that I didn’t want to accept,” said Jones, 34, of McAlester, who is enrolled in the faith-based program.

Jones said her anger used to boil over into fights with other inmates at the women’s prison. Participation in the prison’s faith program has helped her become calmer.

“Before this program I wanted to change but I had no direction,” Jones said. “I’ve learned that it’s all right to be angry. You’ve just got to control it. You’ve got to find a way to channel.

The programs are not without their detractors, with some groups saying it's a breach of the establishment clause in the First Amendment:

Critics of the legislation have said it may violate the constitutional separation between church and state and give faith-based groups some of lawmakers’ oversight authority over the state Department of Corrections.

Last year, a federal judge ruled that a Bible-based prison program at a prison in Iowa violated the First Amendment’s freedom of religion clause by using state funds to promote Christianity to inmates.

Read more about the programs here.

When you are in jail, watch what you can't read

The Federal Bureau of Prisons has directed the departments chaplains to purge their libraries of all religious books which are not on list approved developed by the Bureau. According to a New York Times report by Laurie Goodstein, the move is supposed to prevent inmates from getting relgiously-based terrorist ideas.

Traci Billingsley, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Prisons, said the agency was acting in response to a 2004 report by the Office of the Inspector General in the Justice Department. The report recommended steps that prisons should take, in light of the Sept. 11 attacks, to avoid becoming recruiting grounds for militant Islamic and other religious groups. The bureau, an agency of the Justice Department, defended its effort, which it calls the Standardized Chapel Library Project, as a way of barring access to materials that could, in its words, “discriminate, disparage, advocate violence or radicalize.”

The list, which has reduced religious libraries to a list of 150 approved books and 150 multi-media for each of 20 religions or religious categories, does not ban liturgical texts, prayer books or scriptures.

The lists are broad, but reveal eccentricities and omissions. There are nine titles by C. S. Lewis, for example, and none from the theologians Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth and Cardinal Avery Dulles, and the influential pastor Robert H. Schuller.

Chaplains already watch out for materials that promote violence or disparage groups or classes of people, so, they say, the effort is unnecessary. The department has not provided funds for Chaplains to purchase the approved materials. This means that many prison library have simply been cleared of materials.

This effort has managed to displease nearly everyone: evangelical Christian groups have found their materials banned as well as Jewish and Muslim groups. Already some prisoners have filed suit.

If bureaucrats are concerned about radical ideas that are infectious, they may want to have another look at those Gospels.

Read the rest here including a multi-media description of the banned materials.

This week in Church history

While the Bishops meeting in New Orleans may well be making some history of their own, we thought that a little historical perspective about the history of faith in America would be appropriate. This week was actually a fairly important week in American church history according to Christian History & Biography:

September 23, 1595: Led by Fray Juan de Silva, the Spanish begin an intensive missionary campaign in the American southeast. In the following two years, 1,500 Native Americans in the area of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina convert to the Catholic faith.

September 23, 1857: Layman-turned-evangelist Jeremiah C. Lanphier holds a lunchtime prayer meeting for businessmen on Fulton Street in New York City. At first, no one shows up, but by the program's third week, the 40 participants requested daily meetings. Other cities begin similar programs, and a revival—sometimes called "The Third Great Awakening"—catches fire across America

September 24, 1757: Jonathan Edwards, perhaps America's most brilliant theologian and a father of American revivalism, becomes president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton). He served as president until his death in 1758

September 24, 1794: Russian Orthodox priest-monk Father Juvenaly, his brother Stephen, and eight other monks arrive at Kodiak Island, Alaska. After two years of ministry, the team had led 12,000 Alaskans to embrace the gospel. Juvenaly then extended his mission to the mainland, where he was reportedly martyred in 1796.

September 25, 1789: Congress amends The U.S. Constitution to prohibit establishment of a state church or governmental interference with the free exercise of religion.

September 27, 1944: Aimee Semple McPherson, founder of the Church of the Foursquare Gospel and the most famous female evangelist of her day, dies

Read it all here.

Image problem or crisis?

If you have ever seen "Jesus, save me from your followers" as a bumper sticker, then you've seen a symptom of a real problem. David Kinnaman's new book (co-authored with Gabe Lyons), UnChristian, paints the picture revealing what may be the true cause of declining mainline church attendance in the 21st Century. Time takes a thoughtful look at "Christianity's Image Problem."

Back in 1996, a poll taken by Kinnaman's organization, the Barna Group, found that 83% of Americans identified themselves as Christians, and that fewer than 20% of non-Christians held an unfavorable view of Christianity. But, as Kinnaman puts it, "That was then."

New polls sampling 440 non-Christians (and a similar number of Christians, according to the report) between 16 and 29 found that 38 percent had a "bad impression" of present-day Christianity.

Kinnaman says non-Christians' biggest complaints about the faith are not immediately theological: Jesus and the Bible get relatively good marks. Rather, he sees resentment as focused on perceived Christian attitudes. Nine out of ten outsiders found Christians too "anti-homosexual," and nearly as many perceived it as "hypocritical" and "judgmental." Seventy-five percent found it "too involved in politics."

Not only has the decline in non-Christians' regard for Christianity been severe, but Barna results also show a rapid increase in the number of people describing themselves as non- Christian. One reason may be that the study used a stricter definition of "Christian" that applied to only 73% of Americans. Still, Kinnaman claims that however defined, the number of non- Christians is growing with each succeeding generation: His study found that 23% of Americans over 61 were non-Christians; 27% among people ages 42-60; and 40% among 16-29 year olds. Younger Christians, he concludes, are therefore likely to live in an environment where two out of every five of their peers is not a Christian.

Here's where it gets really interesting. According to this, you might well find that bumper sticker on the car of a young Christian, too:

Christians have always been aware of image problems with non-believers. Says Kinnaman: "The question is whether to care." But given the increasing non-Christian population and the fact that many of the concerns raised by non-believers are shared by young Christians, he says, there really is no option but to address the crisis.

The article is here, and other stories in the feature include an interview with the author, David Kinnaman, titled "Facing Christianity's Crisis" and older commentary by noted gay conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan--who suggests "that we take back the word Christian while giving the religious right a new adjective: Christianist. Christianity, in this view, is simply a faith. Christianism is an ideology, politics, an ism."

Updated: Because I reference the decline in church attendance, it's interesting to note that the Rev. Mike Kinman of Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation seems to have reflected on it as well today on his blog and drawn a different but fascinating conclusion that again points to our shrinking world:

Besides people of every theological/political bent succumbing to the "post hoc ergo propter hoc" fallacy, which assumes that just because something preceded an event it caused that event (i.e. -- the church has declined since GenCon 2003 so that's what caused the decline), the debate is generally confined to finding "THE cause" for the decline. The world is much more complex than that (praise God!). And as much as we might not like to think so, individually and corporately we are all heavilly influenced by many societal factors. There is no ONE marker event cause for the decline. There are enormous global forces at work.

Read more here.

Evangelical? Progressive? Both!

Revolution in Jesusland is a plea for secular and mainline progressives to understand a growing evangelical movement. The author, Zack, writes in his blog profile:


... (and we know how difficult this is to believe) there is an incredibly large and beautiful social movement exploding among evangelicals right now that stands for nearly all of the same causes and goals that secular progressives do. Those goals include: eliminating poverty, saving the environment, promoting justice and equality along racial, gender and class lines and for immigrants—and even separation of church and state.

Zack is currently attending the Christian Community Development Association Conference in Missouri. His coverage is worth a look:

From "Prayer, Service, Development":

Right now I’m at one of the first CCDA classes. This one is on “Empowerment,” led by Bob Lupton, who’s done incredible neighborhood economic development work over decades in his city of Atlanta—and has taught others all over the country. (Thanks to UrbanMinistry.org, you can listen to many different classes and lectures by Bob here. I highly recommend listening to one of those talks. He’s a great speaker and he’s speaking from decades of humble and brilliant trial and error.)

He just told a story about a talk he was invited to give recently at a “very, very biblical” college.

He asked the students, “What is the number one mandate in the Bible?”

One student answered, “Evangelize!”

He pressed them, and finally another answered, “You mean ‘love God and Love your neighbor’?”

Bob answered, “Yes. And so, who teaches the courses on neighbor loving here?”

Blank stares.

“You have a whole department here on evangelism,” Bob said to them, “But you’re telling me that you don’t have a single course on neighbor loving? No ‘Love Your Neighbor 101′ here?” And then he joked with them: “You know the problem with this place? You’re not biblical enough.”

He told us (I’m paraphrasing): “You get what they were doing? They were skipping over the great command on their way to the great commission. You can’t do that. The commission flows through the command—it’s a by product of the great command.”

And from "I'm doing this for God, not for you," notes on how to help the poor without becoming paternalistic:


I haven’t seen any counterproductive white guilt here yet. I think there is something about these folks’ spirituality that cancels it out. It’s already part of their theology to accept and confess that they are utterly flawed sinners—broken people living in a broken world. That’s a pretty humble platform from which the Haves can go make relationships with the Have Nots. It seems to work pretty well for them (despite the mishaps they’re confessing, there’s a foundation of unmistakable, astounding success at helping huge numbers of people and developing communities).

The leadership of the Christian Community Development Association is multi-racial. The founder is black. The new executive director is Latino. At least a few of the top leaders in the movement are white. They all live in poor urban communities.

I’ve had friends who were the children of the Catholic Worker movement—whose parents moved into poor urban areas in the 60’s. I remember thinking that must have been some dying gasp of the Christian progressive (then, socialist) movement.

But, as it turns out, (conservative!) evangelical Christians picked up where that movement left off. A lot of these leaders moved in to their neighborhoods starting in the 80’s and 90’s. And now the movement to move into “broken” neighborhoods seems to be reaching a fever pitch. I don’t have any stats to back that up, and I doubt anyone does. But it’s the new must-do thing for Christians who are “on fire for Jesus.”

...

A year ago, I would have thought that sounded crazy. But I’ve seen that having God as the primary intellectual motivating factor in service has advantages. For example, it solves the biggest problem with The Haves trying to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem—it can help overcome the paternalism problem.

Hear me out. When that kid moves into some poor neighborhood, he’ll have a better defense against paternalism than most, because—as he helps set up after school tutoring programs, job training programs, etc…—his stance will NOT be, “I’m the great white hope come to save you,” (normally, the default) but instead: “I’m not here to help you. I’m here to serve God. My God wants to alleviate poverty, and I’m doing his will.”

Lots more here.

Faith and political stumping bad mix, say voters

A recent poll of American voters indicates a distaste for, as they perceive it, candidates' use of their faith to influence the electorate. Sixty-eight percent of respondents agreed with this statement: "Presidential candidates should not use their religion or faith to influence voters to support them." The poll, conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research for the Interfaith Alliance, surveyed 1,000 adults and had a margin of error of ±3.1 percentage points. And it wasn't just the atheists and agnostics who responded in the affirmative, according to a report from Religion News Service:

Even regular churchgoers think presidential hopefuls should not use their faith as a campaign tool: Almost 60 percent of survey respondents who regularly attend religious services agreed with the statement.

The Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, said candidates went "too far" at the Value Voters summit as they tried to "out-Christian" each other.

"We're not electing a pastor-in-chief, we're electing a commander-in-chief," he told reporters on Tuesday.

Candidates can certainly speak about their religion and beliefs as "points of identification for who they are," Gaddy said, but they push the limits when they imply that voters should support them because of their religion.

The whole article is available at the Pew Forum.

Souls at stake in elections, say Roman Catholic bishops

Roman Catholic bishops have been providing guidance to their flock on political issues for ages, and for the past thirty-odd years they've even explicitly sounded off about various matters at stake in the voting booth. But this year, the bishops have taken it further by addressing how what voters tick on their ballot ties in with their salvation, according to an article in today's Chicago Tribune. But what those issues are may surprise you:

... The guidelines issued Wednesday for the first time spelled out possible consequences as well as giving much more nuanced instruction to the Catholic electorate than in years past.

Voters are implored not to support abortion-rights political candidates but also advised that views on abortion should not be the sole factor. Catholics should also weigh church teaching on such moral issues as immigration, just war and poverty, bishops said.

"It was groundbreaking not in the sense that it changed any doctrine or added any doctrine," said Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn. "What we did provide for the first time in this document is some concrete guidance in how a voter goes about making prudential judgments."

The article notes that this may be a sign that the church is emerging from its sexual abuse crisis, moving beyond the abortion argument and emerging to lead on issues such as peace and immigration. You can read the whole thing here.

Morning Edition on NPR also did a short piece on it here.

The end of the tithe?

Calling for tithing is becoming a subject of some controversy in a number of congregations according to an article today in the Wall Street Journal. While the Episcopal Church has called for a tithe to be the "minimum standard of giving" since 1982, and most Episcopalians are not tithers, many other congregations are reevaluating whether the tithe is a biblical pillar of the faith.

"Can you put a price on faith? That is the question churchgoers are asking as the tradition of tithing -- giving 10% of your income to the church -- is increasingly challenged. Opponents of tithing say it is a misreading of the Bible, a practice created by man, not God. They say they should be free to donate whatever amount they choose, and they are arguing with pastors, writing letters and quitting congregations in protest. In response, some pastors have changed their teaching and rejected what has been a favored form of fund raising for decades.

The backlash comes as some churches step up their efforts to encourage tithing. Some are setting up 'giving kiosks' that allow congregants to donate using their debit cards when they attend services. Others are offering financial seminars that teach people in debt how they can continue tithing even while paying off their loans. Media-savvy pastors, such as Ed Young in Grapevine, Texas, sell sermons online about tithing. And in a shift, more Catholic parishes are asking churchgoers to tithe, says Paul Forbes, administrator of McKenna Stewardship Ministry, a nonprofit that says it has encouraged more than 500 parishes to tithe in the last decade. Popes haven't requested tithes in recent decades."

Read the rest here.

The Advent Conspiracy

Starting in 2006 a number of clergy and congregations began to push back against the increasing commercialization of Christmas by inviting their members to consider giving gifts to charity instead. In the first year hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised.

An article on Ethics Daily describes how the movement gained steam and expanded across the nation and beyond from its start in the Portland Oregon area:

"...pastor friends from around the country hatched what they called the Advent Conspiracy. They challenged their congregations: Spend less on Christmas, give relational gifts and donate the money saved to the poor.  

...In the following few months, word of the Advent Conspiracy spread over the Internet. McKinley and like-minded people such as 'Purpose Driven Life' author Rick Warren talked about it every chance they got.

This year, about 491 churches from 10 nations have joined the conspiracy, says Jeanne McKinley, who directs the program from Imago Dei Community with her husband Rick. World Relief, an evangelical mission group, has recruited 500 more churches to participate. About 1,700 individuals have joined on the Internet, she says.

Rick McKinley asks one thing of his co-conspirators--that they donate at least 25 percent of their Christmas savings to clean water projects. The United Nations Development Program estimates that $10 billion a year would help solve the shortage of clean water.

'The church needs to be on the leading edge of solving this problem,' he says."

Read the rest here.

Talking Jesus nearly sold out

The Dallas Morning News reports that stores are almost out of a best selling Talking Jesus Messenger of Faith doll. The 12-inch doll is made by one2believe of Valencia, Calif., which also sells Nativity scenes and other Bible action figures such as Samson and Goliath Spirit Warriors.

The toys were sold at about 600 Wal-Mart stores and online at Target.com, and almost 20 percent of the Wal-Mart stores that sell Talking Jesus are in Texas.

"We sold out at Wal-Mart, and the toys are still available in a very limited supply at Target.com," said spokesman Joshua Livingston. The company won't restock again before Christmas.

Read all about it here

A brief history of Christmas

Christmas famously "comes but once a year." In fact, however, it comes twice. The Christmas of the Nativity, the manger and Christ child, the wise men and the star of Bethlehem, "Silent Night" and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" is one holiday. The Christmas of parties, Santa Claus, evergreens, presents, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Jingle Bells" is quite another.

But because both celebrations fall on Dec. 25, the two are constantly confused.

The Wall Street Journal tells all here.

The History Channel has more here.

And a letter from those internet chains follows:

Read more »

Thinking outside the box

The Associated Baptist Press is reporting on an architectural revival, of sorts, among Christians trying to get away from sterile, stadium-like box-shaped megachurches. Tim Blonkvist, an Episcopalian and one of the architects profiled in the piece, says that church buildings are "God's calling card," and, as the article continues:

Almost everybody who commutes to work or school drives by one or a dozen churches every day. Those structures either grab the attention of passersby - and, like the Gothic cathedrals of old, perhaps steer their thoughts heavenward - or they blend into an increasingly nondescript urban landscape.

Christian architects like Blonkvist and Cook are passionate about their work with churches. But they are troubled by what many congregations have been building lately - "big box" churches that look like warehouses or office buildings, denominational cookie-cutter models, and prefabricated buildings built as fast and cheaply as possible.

But after 300 years of mostly plain, utilitarian buildings - capped by three decades of what Cook calls megachurch "monster barns" devoid of Christian symbols - American Christians are poised for a revival in their church architecture. The architects say there is a hunger for spiritually expressive buildings that recapture a sense of sacred space, are rooted in a congregation's specific location and lifestyle, use indigenous artwork and symbolism, and are environmentally sensitive.

The architects agreed the tide is turning - both in the church and culture - toward more overt spiritual values, and the days of spiritually neutral churches may be ending.

Read the whole thing here.

New Gallup poll on faith in America

Gallup released the results of a poll on faith in America done earlier this month, and has a useful analysis of the importance of faith in the United States over the last few decades:

The percentage of Americans who identify with a Christian religion is down some over the decades. This is not so much because Americans have shifted to other religions, but because a significantly higher percentage of Americans today say they don't have a religious identity. In the late 1940s, when Gallup began summarizing these data, a very small percentage explicitly told interviewers they did not identify with any religion. But of those who did have a religion, Gallup classified -- in 1948, for example -- 69% as Protestant and 22% as Roman Catholic, or about 91% Christian.

. . .

Sixty-two percent of Americans in Gallup's latest poll, conducted in December, say they are members of a "church or synagogue," a question Gallup has been asking since 1937.

It's down in the recent years of this decade and down a little more compared to the time period prior to the late 1970s. In the 1937 Gallup Poll, for example, 73% of Americans said they were church members. That number stayed in the 70% range in polls conducted in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. By the 1970s, however, the number began to slip below 70% in some polls, although as recently as 1999, 70% said they were church members. Since 2002, self-reported church membership has been between 63% and 65%.

. . .

One measure Gallup has tracked over time asks respondents to indicate how important religion is in their own lives -- very, fairly, or not very important.

This year, 56% of Americans have said religion is very important. Only 17% say religion is not very important.

. . . A couple of measures of this question from the 1950s and 1960s indicated that at that time, over 70% of Americans said religion was very important in their daily lives. That percentage dropped into the 50% range by the 1970s, and since then it has fluctuated somewhat, but has generally been in the 55% to 65% range.


. . .

[S]ince 1957 Gallup has periodically asked this question: "At the present time, do you think religion as a whole is increasing its influence on American life or losing its influence?"

In December of this year, 32% said religion was increasing its influence, and 61% losing its influence, with the rest volunteering that it was staying the same or not giving an answer.

There's been a lot of variance in these responses over the decades. Back in 1957 -- during the halcyon days of the Eisenhower administration -- 69% of Americans said religion was increasing its influence. And in December 2001 -- just months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States -- 71% said religion was increasing its influence in American life, which is the highest reading on that measure in Gallup Poll history. But by 2003, the percentage saying religion was increasing its influence had dropped back into the 30% range and though it has been as high as 50% since then, it is just 32% today.

On the other hand, in a couple of polls conducted in 1969 and 1970, only 14% said religion was increasing its influence -- the lowest readings on record. That of course was during an era replete with hippies, protests, Woodstock, drug use, and other indications of a less than devout, religious population. Another time period with a low "increasing its influence" percentage was in the early 1990s.

Read it all here.

Economy, govt. cleanup, poverty top issues among Evangelicals

Last week, Beliefnet conducted an online poll of 980 self-identified "evangelical/born again" respondents, and it showed that 85 percent of respondents marked the economy and "cleaning up government" as top issues. While most still identify as conservative and express their views of the Bible as being "the inerrant word of God," many would be surprised by what comes next:

Generally speaking, however, evangelicals ranked traditionally progressive or Democratic causes as more important than traditionally conservative or Republican ones. Twenty three percent said their views had become less positive about Republicans, twice the number who said they'd soured on Democrats, though half of respondents said they had become less positive about both parties. Almost 60-percent said they favored a more progressive evangelical agenda focused more on protecting the environment, tackling HIV/AIDs, and alleviating poverty and less on abortion and homosexuality.

Combining those who labeled an issue "most important" or “very important,” the results were:

The economy (85%)
Cleaning up government (85%)
Reducing poverty (80%)
Improving public education/access to health care (78%)
Protecting the environment (70%)
Ending torture (68%)
Ending Iraq war (67%)
Ending abortion (61%)
Combating sex and violence in the media and entertainment (59%)
Illegal immigration (59%)
Stopping gay marriage (49%)
Helping Africa (48%)
Winning Iraq war (46%)
Fighting Islamic radicalism (58%)


Additionally, more than half of the respondents answered yes to this question:
"Lots of media attention has been paid to a progressive evangelical agenda focused more on protecting the environment, tackling HIV/AIDS, alleviating poverty, and promoting human rights and less on abortion and homosexuality. Does this more progressive agenda reflect your political priorities?"

68 percent of evangelicals polled felt that the best way to reduce the number of abortions is by changing the culture through education and other means, as opposed to the 26 percent that think the best way is by limiting abortion rights, such as by overturning Roe v. Wade.

The story is here, and the complete poll results are here.

Casting out sinners

A small but growing portion of evangelical churches practice shunning and expulsion as a routine part of a common life which increasingly emphasizes discipline and conformity.

Alexandra Alter of the Wall Street Journal reported on January 18 about the practice. These pastors and congregations attempt to apply Matthew 18:15-1. When they hear of a person who is accused of sin, either by confession or through the report of another, the person is confronted in private and then publicly castigating and possibly expelling the person if they do not repent. But in modern times churches that follow this practice face controversy, rebellion, and even lawsuits.

Scholars estimate that 10% to 15% of Protestant evangelical churches practice church discipline -- about 14,000 to 21,000 U.S. congregations in total. Increasingly, clashes within churches are spilling into communities, splitting congregations and occasionally landing church leaders in court after congregants, who believed they were confessing in private, were publicly shamed.

This reflects...

a growing movement among some conservative Protestant pastors to bring back church discipline, an ancient practice in which suspected sinners are privately confronted and then publicly castigated and excommunicated if they refuse to repent. While many Christians find such practices outdated, pastors in large and small churches across the country are expelling members for offenses ranging from adultery and theft to gossiping, skipping service and criticizing church leaders.

The revival is part of a broader movement to restore churches to their traditional role as moral enforcers, Christian leaders say. Some say that contemporary churches have grown soft on sinners, citing the rise of suburban megachurches where pastors preach self-affirming messages rather than focusing on sin and redemption. Others point to a passage in the gospel of Matthew that says unrepentant sinners must be shunned.

Some members who have been expelled have pushed back, sometimes through the courts.

In the past decade, more than two dozen lawsuits related to church discipline have been filed as congregants sue pastors for defamation, negligent counseling and emotional injury, according to the Religion Case Reporter, a legal-research database. Peggy Penley, a Fort Worth, Texas, woman whose pastor revealed her extramarital affair to the congregation after she confessed it in confidence, waged a six-year battle against the pastor, charging him with negligence. Last summer, the Texas Supreme Court dismissed her suit, ruling that the pastor was exercising his religious beliefs by publicizing the affair.

Courts have often refused to hear such cases on the grounds that churches are protected by the constitutional right to free religious exercise, but some have sided with alleged sinners. In 2003, a woman and her husband won a defamation suit against the Iowa Methodist conference and its superintendent after he publicly accused her of "spreading the spirit of Satan" because she gossiped about her pastor. A district court rejected the case, but the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the woman's appeal on the grounds that the letter labeling her a sinner was circulated beyond the church.

Within the congregations that practice expulsion and shunning, there is no general agreement on how it should be carried out, says Gregory Wills, a theologian at Southern Baptist Theological seminary. He says that some pastors remove members on their own, while other churches require agreement among deacons or a majority vote from the congregation.

Read: The Wall Street Journal: Banned from Church

The ups and downs of New Monasticism

Given the interest in emergent movements and how they might apply to Anglicans, The LA Times' article on New Monasticism gives an unromanticized take on a movement that piques peoples' imaginations over how to live more Christlike. Following two couples who spend a year together in a Billings, Mont. home, the article shows the highs and lows of aiming for simplicity and not knowing what to give up or how to reach out:


A few months into the experiment, at a weekly house meeting, Jake Neufeld framed the vision this way: "Church is not something we attend. It's something we are."

But even lofty rhetoric could not lift the mood that sleety evening in early April. A quarter of their year together had passed, and the friends felt they had failed. They had not met a single neighbor. They had not given any aid. Everyday life seemed to suck up all their energy; it was draining just to figure out whose turn it was to mop the kitchen floor.

"We're trying to live so every dimension of our lives is different," Jeromy said. Then he admitted: "We don't know what that will look like."

The household consisted of Jeromy, a fundraiser for a Christian nonprofit, and his wife, Debbie, who stays home with their toddler and newborn son; Kyle Porrett, an architect, and his wife, Phyllis, who cares for their baby daughter and two young foster children; and Jake, a builder.

Theirs was a radical vision, but also a trendy one, part of the New Monastic movement sweeping white, suburban evangelicals. In the last few years, perhaps 100 communities like the Billings house have been founded across the country, and hundreds of Christians have attended workshops to learn of the concept.

And like many movements that are rooted in authenticity but too broadly evangelized, It's easy to get swept up in the notion of giving up a life of privilege, but it can be harder to actually do. Jane Carol Redmont, blogging over at Acts of Hope, notes that as a movement, New Monasticism is reinventing the wheel and perhaps leaving adherents to fend for themselves (perhaps DIY Monasticism is a more-apt tag) when there are ample movements already in place grounded in history and ecumenism:


If they just connected with other similar communities past and present -- Catholic Worker houses, various communes and religious houses, Amish, more mainstream Mennonites and Brethren, Quaker communities (Quaker testimonies include "simplicity") and retreat/resource centers, Jesuit Volunteer Corps communities and Mercy Volunteer Corps (not to be confused with the Mercy Corps) and their Presbyterian counterparts (yes, the Presbys have a volunteer corps, doing border work in and around Tucson), the Sojourners folks (the original ones, anyway) and any number of others -- they could get some practical tips and talk to people who've been at it for a while, in the case of the present-day communities in the U.S. The Rule of Benedict isn't made for married people, but checking in with Catholic and Anglican communities who have associates or oblates might also be helpful. Community and simplicity aren't new impulses in Christianity, though in any era they are tremendously challenging.

...

Of course the fault may be partly ours in the institutional churches that have wonderful and rich resources. We've hidden them or not made them attractive or failed to help people outside our immediate communities see how they could renew their lives and nourish them. And folk are suspicious of established churches for all kinds of very good reasons. So, there's work for us to do too.

The LA Times feature is here: "What Chores Would Jesus Do?"

Redmont's commentary, with lots of links, is here.

Carter supports reconciliation

Former President Jimmy Carter has enthusiastically embraced the goals of an upcoming "New Baptist Covenant" conference in Atlanta which has the goal of reconciling various branches of baptist congregations. The conference is intended to be a unified response to the removal from the Southern Baptist Convention of many of the groups over recent years.

According to the report:

"[Carter] believes it reflects a desire for unity across racial, theological and political lines and an end to their internal divisions.

'For the first time in more than 160 years, we are convening a major gathering of Baptists throughout an entire continent, without any threat to our unity caused by differences of our race or politics or geography or the legalistic interpretation of Scripture,' declared Carter.

Up to 20,000 Baptists are registered for the gathering, called the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant, in Atlanta, Georgia. There are representatives of some 30 organisations representing 20 million believers in the Baptist tradition.

'We do a bold and glorious thing: we attempt to express the oneness which was our Lord's desire for his people,' declared William Shaw, president of the National Baptist Convention, USA, one of the four prominent African-American Baptists conventions participating in the meeting."

Read the rest here.

Christian traditions converging

Across the America today you can find local newspaper articles on churches in sacrament-oriented denominations celebrating Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent.

More in the realm of news, however, is that churches in other denominations are, too:

Lent is not typically observed in evangelical churches.

"Easter is huge in evangelical churches," but they do not observe "Lent as Lent," noted the Rev. Sam Shaw of Hope Church in Tupelo, Mo., according to the Daily Journal.

Still, "Easter must have preparation," Shaw said. And some non-liturgical churches are embracing Lenten disciplines.

"There is a trend ... toward more sacramental forms and it is not surprising to see the recovery of imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday," said the Rev. Daniel K. Dunlap, vice president of Houston Graduate School of Theology and a liturgy expert, according to the Houston Chronicle.

The Rev. Jeremy Rutledge, pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in Houston, said he will administer ashes at a service Wednesday night, as reported by the local Chronicle.

Most Baptists do not observe Lent. Many of them prepare for Easter by contemplating on the Word rather than through ritual, said the Rev. Kermit McGregor of Calvary Baptist Church in Missouri, as reported by the Daily Journal.

Read it here in the Christian Post.

The most influential black spiritual leaders

In recognition of Black History Month, Beliefnet has prepared its list of the most influential black spiritual leaders. As it explains:

In black communities, religious leaders have historically occupied a powerful position as gurus, advocates, stewards and preachers. Whether inspiring their congregations to stand up against social injustice or urging a focus on God-centered family values, black religious leaders are a crucial component of a rich and diverse spiritual landscape. In honor of Black History Month, Beliefnet has compiled a list of some of the nation's most influential black spiritual leaders in 2008. While by no means comprehensive, the list includes some of today's most prominent--and controversial--spiritual figures, some up-and-coming figures of note, and several individuals whose lifelong efforts have earned them a place in history.

The list is a diverse one, and includes both a rabbi and an imam. What is curious about the list--which purports to list this nation's spiritual leaders--is that it includes Archbishop Peter Akinola:

Peter Akinola is the Anglican Archbishop of Nigeria, but he has become a major player in the division in the U.S. Episcopal Church, as well as a catalyst for change in the worldwide Anglican Communion of which the Episcopal Church is a part. He is a leader among those opposed to the ordination of homosexuals in the 77-million member Anglican Communion. In the U.S., when a small group of churches voted to split from the Episcopal Church over this and other issues, they asked Akinola to be their archbishop. He has become a force within his own tradition, but his prominence is also symbolic of an overall global shift, as many Christian churches see a rise in both numbers and influence of what some call the Global South-Africa, Asia, and South America.

Read it all here. Beliefnet also has a "Black Spiritual History" quiz here.

This is a very short list. Who is missing?

Adam Smith and Evangelicals

The March issue of The Atlantic is devoted to the topic "Which Religion Will Win", with a wide ranging series of articles and comments on religion in America and across the world. It begins with a comment by Walter Russell Mead about the apparant moderation of American evanglicals, in which Mead borrows some analysis from Adam Smith:

Smith saw what we see: the progress of modernity, he noted, was not undermining religion in the Britain of his day. Instead, religious revivals were blooming. These new religious movements often rejected the liberal values of a free society. They favored absolute moral codes, conservative interpretations of religious doctrines, and political activism to enact their values into law.

Smith observed a relationship between these revivals and the process that we now call urbanization. Young people, arriving in cities in search of work, faced new opportunities and temptations without the structure that village life—with its communities of relatives and others that watched and guided young people—had provided. “A single week’s thoughtlessness and dissipation is often sufficient to undo a poor workman forever,” wrote Smith about life in London. But the city’s small sectarian religious congregations gave rural immigrants a social-support network and a moral code that could keep them on the straight and narrow as they built new lives. These movements were a response to the dislocations of modernity; there was no reason to expect them to fade away.

Yet in the teeming religious marketplace of Britain’s cities, Smith also saw pressures that would limit the political impact of religious beliefs and prevent theocracy. With so many competing denominations, he noted, religious leaders could acquire political influence only by finding allies outside their own version of the faith—and the process of forming those alliances would drive them toward agendas that could appeal to a wider, multi-faith audience. To be politically significant, he wrote, religious extremists had to move toward broader and necessarily more-moderate coalitions. Their entry into politics would, itself, moderate them.

The symbiotic relationship between alienating, amoral modernity and fervent religion can still be seen in the United States today. In a rapidly changing world, strong religious movements and convictions help many Americans cope—and not just the uprooted or the poor. In the coming years, we may well see religious devotion increase among society’s elite: admission to top colleges has broadened beyond the handful of feeder schools and legacy families who dominated the process in past generations; the intense competition for top university spots favors adolescents with steady homework habits, harmonious relations with school authorities, and the ability to please adults. A variety of surveys and anecdotes suggest that the freshmen entering colleges such as Harvard, Yale, and Brown these days are more likely to have strong religious convictions than their wilder, less conformist predecessors of decades past. Evangelicals (as well as devout kids from other backgrounds) are entering the halls where America’s future leaders often sit.

Yet American religious movements are also still following a path toward pluralism and moderation, along the lines that Smith described in 1776.

Read it all here.

Fastest declining faith in America?

The National Council of Churches has published its 2008 Yearbook of Canadian and American Churches. It reports that the fastest growing denomination in the United States and Canada is Jehovah's Witnesses. The denomination with the sharpest decline was the Episcopal Church. The Religion News Services offered this report:

Jehovah's Witnesses are the fastest-growing church body in the U.S. and Canada, now with more than 1 million members, according to new figures that track church membership in the U.S. and Canada.

Although Jehovah's Witnesses ranked 24th on the list of 25 largest churches, they reported the largest growth rate -- 2.25 percent -- of all churches. The badly divided Episcopal Church, meanwhile, reported the largest drop, at 4.15 percent.

The 2008 Yearbook of Canadian and American Churches, produced by the New York-based National Council of Churches, recorded growth trends in 224 national church bodies, with a combined membership of 147 million Americans.

The 2008 Yearbook is based on self-reported membership figures for 2006, the most recent year available.

The Roman Catholic Church, with 67.5 million members, remains the largest U.S. church body, with a 2006 increase of 0.87 percent. The second largest church, the Southern Baptist Convention (16.3 million) has more than twice the number of members as the United Methodist Church, the third largest, which documented 7.9 million U.S. members.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at 5.7 million U.S. members (1.56 percent increase) and the Church of God in Christ, with a steady 5.5 million, round out the top five.

Only the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Catholic Church, Southern Baptists, Mormons, the Assemblies of God (2.8 million) and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (1.4 million) reported increases; all others either posted declines or flat membership from 2005.

Read it all here.

Religious and civil courts in the US

Two recent stories in the New York Times describe how conflicts in religious law and civil law are being handled in the USA, especially in family law.

There are differences between the American situation and the British, but the separation of church and state do not necessarily make the issues simple or easy to adjudicate.

Adam Liptak writes:

The larger question, legal experts in the United States said, is whether government courts should ever defer to religious ones. The answer may depend on whether the people involved authentically consented to religious adjudication, whether they are allowed to change their minds and whether the decisions of those tribunals are offensive to fundamental conceptions of justice.

All of that, said John Witte Jr., a law professor at Emory University, “is the big frontier question for religious liberty.”

But judges are hesitant to bring in religious questions when deciding on issues of child custody and divorce, even when the religious difference is at the heart of the dispute.

Neela Banerjee wrote:

Across the country, child-custody disputes in which religion is the flash point are increasing, part of a broader rise in custody conflicts over the last 30 years, lawyers, judges and mediators say.

“There has definitely been an increase in conflict over religious issues,” said Ronald William Nelson, a Kansas family lawyer who is chairman of the custody committee of the American Bar Association’s family law section. “Part of that is there has been an increase of conflicts between parents across the board, and with parents looking for reasons to justify their own actions.” Another factor, he said, is the rise of intermarriage and greater willingness by Americans to convert.

Nobody keeps track of who wins in these religious disputes, but lawyers say that judges are just as likely to rule in favor of the more religiously engaged parent as the other way around. That is because, for constitutional reasons, judges are reluctant to base their rulings primarily on the religious preferences of parents.

Judges do not want to take on custody disputes rooted in religion, said lawyers like Gaetano Ferro, who until recently served as president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. Mr. Ferro said, “How will a judge say in any rational fashion that Islam is better than Buddhism, Catholicism better than Judaism, or Methodism better than Pentecostalism?”

As a result, more and more states have tried to keep custody disputes out of court by mandating mediation. But the effect has been piecemeal, and religious disputes have proven to be among the most difficult to resolve, lawyers said.

Some of the chief questions that remains unanswered relate to the competing interests of the particular faith community and societies interest in protecting individual liberty. For example, if a person may frelly choose to join and leave a religious group, should the decisions of a religious tribunal be enforced upon a person who has left the religious body? Another question is how to balance religious laws, that are based on customs and norms of a culture and time far removed from our own, against legitimate societal interests today. Which societal interest takes precedence: the cultural and religious integrity of a faith group, or issues of gender equality, not to mention the safety of women and children?

Almost no one suggests that criminal law should take into account the defendant’s religion in meting out punishment. At the other extreme, few people object to allowing purely commercial disputes between sophisticated businesspeople to be adjudicated through private arbitrations. The hard questions...arise in the area of family law, where the agreement to arbitrate may be uninformed or obtained by duress. State courts have occasionally refused to enforce separation agreements reached through bet din arbitrations on the ground that the woman involved had been pressured into participating.

Once consent is given, moreover, questions arise about whether and when it may be withdrawn. “People have a right in Western systems to change religions,” said Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Michigan. “Can they opt out after the dispute arises or after the judgment is given?”

Most fundamentally, some judgments from religious tribunals may be at odds with constitutional protections, human rights and basic notions of fairness.

In an article to be published shortly in The Washington and Lee Law Review, Robin Fretwell Wilson, a law professor at Washington and Lee University, wrote that Muslim women who decide to seek a divorce can face harsh financial consequences under Islamic law. “Threatened with the prospect of certain poverty,” she wrote, “some women will surely be forced to stay in an abusive relationship.”

Professor Wilson said in an interview that government courts should refuse to enforce any ruling from a religious tribunal that leaves a woman worse off than she would have been in a conventional divorce.

“Society has a stake in the outcome,” she said. “Some religions are tilted against women.”

Read the rest: New York Times: When God and the Law Don't Square

See also: New York Times: Religion joins custody cases, to judges unease.

Massive new study on Religion in American released

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has released a landmark survey this morning. The survey represents the largest study ever done on denominational demographics in the United States. Over 35,000 people participated in the study and it apparently is able to see groups and affiliations down to 0.3%

From the summary of the report:

"While those Americans who are unaffiliated with any particular religion have seen the greatest growth in numbers as a result of changes in affiliation, Catholicism has experienced the greatest net losses as a result of affiliation changes. While nearly one-in-three Americans (31%) were raised in the Catholic faith, today fewer than one-in-four (24%) describe themselves as Catholic. These losses would have been even more pronounced were it not for the offsetting impact of immigration. The Landscape Survey finds that among the foreign-born adult population, Catholics outnumber Protestants by nearly a two-to-one margin (46% Catholic vs. 24% Protestant); among native-born Americans, on the other hand, Protestants outnumber Catholics by an even larger margin (55% Protestant vs. 21% Catholic). Immigrants are also disproportionately represented among several world religions in the U.S., including Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

Although there are about half as many Catholics in the U.S. as Protestants, the number of Catholics nearly rivals the number of members of evangelical Protestant churches and far exceeds the number of members of both mainline Protestant churches and historically black Protestant churches. The U.S. also includes a significant number of members of the third major branch of global Christianity - Orthodoxy - whose adherents now account for 0.6% of the U.S. adult population. American Christianity also includes sizeable numbers of Mormons (1.7% of the adult population), Jehovah's Witnesses (0.7%) and other Christian groups (0.3%).

Like the other major groups, people who are unaffiliated with any particular religion (16.1%) also exhibit remarkable internal diversity. Although one-quarter of this group consists of those who describe themselves as either atheist or agnostic (1.6% and 2.4% of the adult population overall, respectively), the majority of the unaffiliated population (12.1% of the adult population overall) is made up of people who simply describe their religion as 'nothing in particular.' This group, in turn, is fairly evenly divided between the 'secular unaffiliated,' that is, those who say that religion is not important in their lives (6.3% of the adult population), and the 'religious unaffiliated,' that is, those who say that religion is either somewhat important or very important in their lives (5.8% of the overall adult population)."

Read the report here.

Just a couple of quick impressions, the report distinguishes between Episcopalians, Anglican (CoE) and Anglicans in the Mainline tradition. It's unclear what the distinctions mean in practice, though they are detailed in Appendix 2. Glancing at the data table the strongest difference seems to be the age distribution with "Anglican" skewing to the older age groups and Episcopalians to somewhat younger demographic groups.

The New York Times article on the Study is here.

The Washington Post's coverage is here. Their lede:

Forty-four percent of Americans have either switched their religious affiliation since childhood or dropped out of any formal religious group, according to the largest recent survey on American religious identification.

USA Today coverage is here.

TIME here. Christian Science Monitor here. For AFP the highlight is that Protestants are verging on becoming a minority. For the Washington Times the highlight is that Evangelicals outnumber Catholics. For Jewish Telegraphic Agency it's that Jews are wealthy, educated, and old.

What do you find most interesting in the study?

(We'll be adding to this post as we make our way through the information, but there's enough data in this study to launch a flotilla of Masters theses and Doctoral dissertations so it will probably be a while before all the implications are recognized.)

Pew religion survey interpreted

Following major news media reporting, others are beginning to weigh in,

The Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, 11th President of Chicago Theological Seminary, concludes the U.S. is post-denominational:

Protestant churches cannot count on their members knowing anything about the history and faith commitments of their particular tradition. These folks who are migrating from Catholic to Protestant or from liberal to evangelical or evangelical to progressive or whatever the pattern know more what they don’t want in a church than what they do want or believe.
...
[W]hile the Pew study indicates that the “United States is on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country,” these trends toward self-direction in faith is the distinctly, even uniquely Protestant ethos. We may be declining in numbers, we Protestants, but sociologically speaking, in the U.S. we won.

Chester Gillis, Amaturo Chair of Catholic Studies at Georgetown University, says Americans are seekers and shoppers:

Such fluidity has implications for those who administer churches and denominations, of course, who can no longer count on lifelong loyalty of their members. They must be aware that many Americans (probably more than they thought) change their religious afflation/identity. They must be open and welcoming to those who are inclined to switch. They should also be prepared to part with a significant portion of their adherents on a regular basis. They should also take comfort in the fact that Americans are more religiously identified than their European counterparts and that they have more religious flexibility than most of the world. Nevertheless, America remains one of the most religious of the developed nations.

Last night's PBS Newshour included a segment with two analysts. Listen here. One theme: the more things change, the more they stay the same. America has had a fluid religious marketplace since its creation.
Our earlier roundups of the Pew survey on religion in the US are here and here.

Reconciliation in Louisiana

Charles Jenkins, the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana, has been searching for a different way of trying to reconcile the people of New Orleans who's racial and economic divisions have been increasing since the Hurricane.

Jenkins is particularly interested in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission model.

According to the an article by Bruce Nolan carried by the Religious News Service:

"Jenkins said he has been quietly discussing the idea among colleagues since last fall. And although he said he thinks New Orleans badly needs to repair its social fabric, he is not yet committed to a particular plan of action.   'An issue for me is that I don't want to do something that's going to do more harm than good, and I acknowledge that's a possibility,' Jenkins said before the meeting.   He described the reception his idea has received in private conversations as less than lukewarm. 'Cool' was more accurate, he said.   Still, he said, 'We have worked on race relations in the city for years, and there's not a whole lot of change. I don't think we can continue doing the same things and expect different results.'   Jenkins said he has been quietly talking for months with clergy friends and activists about the idea. He brought the Seokas from South Africa to his diocese's annual convention, where Seoka preached about reconciliation before several hundred Episcopalian clergy and lay people"

Read the rest here.

New Orleans: The Jeremiah Project

For years a group of committed community activists in New Orleans have been working cooperatively with local residents to better their neighborhoods and city. But after Hurricane Katrina devastated large swaths of the city, the focus of the organization has changed to focus on the rebuilding effort and its unintended effects.

From an article by Greg Allen posted on the NPR website:

"The group was founded nearly 15 years ago as part of the Industrial Areas Foundation, a national group started by community organizer Saul Alinsky.

Jeremiah Group member Nell Bolton, who's with the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana, says the organization took its name from a passage in the Bible.

'The prophet Jeremiah is telling the Israelites, who are in exile in Babylon, to 'seek the welfare of the city, for in its welfare you will find your own.' And that's the motto of the Jeremiah group locally,' Bolton says.

[...]after Katrina, the Jeremiah Group found a new focus as people returned to New Orleans and tried to pick up their lives, says Jaime Oviedo of Christ Temple Church.

"We started to hear that rent was doubling and tripling in some cases. And we started to hear this, and there was nobody fighting against it. And we started to have public meetings, and we started to hear this cry of 'the rent, the rent, the rent,'" Oviedo says. "And we said we need to get into the fight."

Renters, in large part, have been all but forgotten in the rebuilding process. The LRA does have a small program to help landlords rebuild. But after the storm, rents in New Orleans have shot up — in some cases nearly doubling.

In small house meetings across the city, Jeremiah Group leaders heard from residents who felt that the government had let them down. Group member Janet Barnwell says for many, it was natural that they turned to their churches and to people they trusted to share their stories.

"When Jeremiah was available to churches and to community organizations, people spoke up. And perhaps people who had never spoken before, who'd never wanted to be political activists, spoke up," Barnwell says.

Out of those stories, the Jeremiah Group developed a plan."

The plan creates soft mortgages and provides the financial resources for people who have been renting to buy their own homes at affordable monthly payments.

Read the details and additional background here.

Lincoln and the will of God

Andrew Ferguson has an interesting essay on Lincoln's faith in the Wall Street Journal this week. He begins by noting that every faith and belief tries to claim Lincoln as one of their own:

A booster of spiritualism, Nettie considered it vitally important to enlist Lincoln in her cause, even if only posthumously. In other contexts, the Lincoln biographer David Donald has called this ambition "getting right with Lincoln," and since April 1865 it has been pursued by Americans of every imaginable persuasion: Leninists and vivisectionists, pacifists and vegans, gold bugs and free-marketers, imperialists and one-worlders, even Democrats and Republicans--all have tried, at different times and with varying degrees of plausibility, to claim Lincoln as one of their own. For generations, Americans have liked to say they wanted their children to be like Lincoln: principled, resolute, patient, kind. But what we've really wanted is for Lincoln to be like us, whoever we are.

Nowhere has the appropriation been as relentless as in the matters of religion and Lincoln's spiritual life. Mary Baker Eddy claimed the martyred president as an early proponent of Christian Science, though her discovery of Divine Healing came a year after his death. In the early 1900s, the California guru Paramahansa Yogananda announced that Lincoln had once been a yogi in the Himalayas.

Closer to earth, the evangelizing atheist Robert Ingersoll tagged him as a model of the freethinking skeptic, and the founders of the Ethical Culture Society agreed. In the 1920s, Cardinal Mundelein of Chicago asserted that Lincoln--who was reared by Baptists, married by an Episcopalian, and subjected in his adulthood to endless hours sitting in straight-backed pews being preached at by Presbyterians--was nevertheless a man of closeted Catholic faith, who delighted in laying out an altar for Mass whenever his Catholic aunt came to visit.

Fergusen then explores the sad fact that Lincoln's faith has always been difficult to ascertain, and notes that following his death several ministers claimed that Lincoln was an orthodox Christian:

When it comes to a larger and historically more important subject like Lincoln's religion, the problems only ramify. We know that Lincoln attended a Baptist church with his parents as a boy in Kentucky and Indiana, because some church records survive. But from there his religious identity fragments in the conflicting testimony of those who knew him.

One view satisfied the hunger, widespread in the country after his martyrdom, to believe that the president had been a devout and orthodox Christian. Though it was widely known that he never joined a church--he sometimes appeared at the Springfield Presbyterian church where his wife was a member--at least two respected clergymen stepped forward to claim that he was ready to become a member of their congregations before the assassin's bullet interfered with his plans. One particularly influential source was Noah Brooks, a journalist who had befriended Lincoln in Illinois during the 1850s, followed him to Washington, visited with him frequently at the White House, and had been appointed Lincoln's secretary shortly before the assassination. In a best-selling memoir, Brooks confirmed what many wanted to believe: Lincoln, he said, "talked always of Christ, his cross, his atonement" and drew comfort from--and these words, Brooks said, were Lincoln's own--"the hope of blessed immortality through Jesus Christ."

Another clergyman who knew the Lincoln family confirmed Brooks's account of Lincoln's orthodox Christianity and added a piquant detail: his last words to Mary Lincoln that night at Ford's Theater, which the clergyman heard from Mrs. Lincoln herself. Lincoln had reportedly said that, as soon as his presidency was over, "we will visit the Holy Land and see those places hallowed by the footsteps of the Savior." There was, he told his wife (according to the clergyman), "no city on earth he so much desired to see as Jerusalem." Then the bullet hit him. The thought that Lincoln's last word was "Jerusalem" was greatly reassuring to his devout countrymen.

The thought would be much more plausible, however, were such devout sentiments not allegedly spoken while Lincoln was spending the evening of Good Friday watching a trashy play at a slightly disreputable theater.

Fergusen ends with a discussion of Lincoln's own "Reflections on the Divine Will" written during the most disheartening moments of the Civil War:

From 15 years later, we have another, much better known fragment. Like the Niagara note, Lincoln wrote this to himself and stashed it away. It too reveals Lincoln's religious sense but in a different, more profound phase. From an awed appreciation of the physical world, it had deepened into a much darker apprehension of a Providence that haunts human affairs. The catalyst for this change, of course, was the Civil War--the torrent of suffering and blood that threatened to destroy the country and that Lincoln himself had played a part in unleashing. His secretaries, who found the scrap among his private papers, dated it September 1862, though it could have been written later. They called it "Meditation on the Divine Will."

It is written with a logician's care, in the categories of a lawyer. "The will of God prevails," it begins. "In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for and against the same thing at the same time."

Yet the bloody back-and-forth of the war gives no hint as to which of the two parties God has chosen to side with. That very inconclusiveness raises the terrible possibility that God is on neither side--or, rather, that God is simply in favor of the war itself for reasons unknowable. "I am almost ready to say this is probably true--that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet." The will of God, after all, prevails; his sovereignty, Lincoln has come to believe, is the necessary condition of human affairs. "He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds."

Note the bloodless phrasing: "I am almost ready to say this is probably true." Almost . . . probably. It is the expression of a cautious, legalistic mind being shaken up--confronting something too large to fit the intellectual compartments he has used to understand experience. But he is also being led, or leading himself, to a definite conclusion: This is no ordinary war, because this is no ordinary country.

The question of why Providence should have willed such a calamity is foreshadowed in one final fragment to consider, written (most likely) in the early days of the war. In it Lincoln plays with the figure from Proverbs 25:11: "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver."

. . .

Read together, the fragments show Lincoln's mind as it matures toward his two greatest utterances, the fullest expressions of his most fundamental ideas. These are, of course, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural. They are not merely works of statecraft but homilies in a civil religion of his own devising, steeped in the cadences and rhetoric of the King James Bible. They were the consequence of Lincoln's deepest contemplation and belief, arrived at with some care and (we may suppose) discomfort. At Gettysburg, Lincoln explained why the country--the Union--was worth preserving. It was not any Union that was being preserved, it was a particular kind of Union: a Union dedicated to a timeless proposition that existed before the Union was even conceived.

Read it all here.


Crossmas?

Why is it that there is such a difference in the way the secular world celebrates the two major Christian holidays of Easter and Christmas? Christmas is so universally observed among people that preachers frequently worry about the secular elements creeping into the celebration. The Triduum (and Easter in particular) have resisted this secular appropriation. Why?

James Martin, writing online in Slate, believes that the reason is that, unlike the Nativity, the Triduum invites us to journey to the very limits of our comfort zones:

"[W]hat enables Easter to maintain its religious purity and not devolve into the consumerist nightmare that is Christmas? Well, for one thing, it's hard to make a palatable consumerist holiday out of Easter when its back story is, at least in part, so gruesome. Christmas is cuddly. Easter, despite the bunnies, is not.

[...A] card bearing the image of a near-naked man being stripped, beaten, tortured, and nailed through his hands and feet onto a wooden crucifix is a markedly less pleasant piece of mail [than your typical Christmas card].

The Easter story is relentlessly disconcerting and, in a way, is the antithesis of the Christmas story. No matter how much you try to water down its particulars, Easter retains some of the shock it had for those who first participated in the events during the first century. The man who spent the final three years of his life preaching a message of love and forgiveness (and, along the way, healing the sick and raising the dead) is betrayed by one of his closest friends, turned over to the representatives of a brutal occupying power, and is tortured, mocked, and executed in the manner that Rome reserved for the worst of its criminals.

We may even sense resonances with some painful political issues still before us. Jesus of Nazareth was not only physically brutalized but also casually humiliated during his torture, echoing the abuses at Abu Ghraib. In 21st-century Iraq, some American soldiers posed prisoners with women's underwear on their heads as a way of scorning their manhood. In first-century Palestine, some Roman soldiers pressed down a crown of thorns onto Jesus' head and clothed him in a purple robe to scorn the kingship his followers claimed for him. After this, Jesus suffered the most degrading of all Roman deaths: crucifixion. Jesus remains the world's most famous victim of capital punishment."

Read the rest of his essayhere.

Racism and Religion in America

(UPDATED - see bottom of article)

There have been a number of essays posted in the secular media over the past two weeks which have attempted to put the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright's sermons about racism in the United States into some sort of broader context. But there have also been a few helpful essays written from within the religious community.

One of the first of these essays to appear was written by Craig Uffman and posted on the Covenant-Communion website:

"Much has been made in the U.S. political campaign on the issue of race. The harsh anti-American rhetoric of Barack Obama’s former pastor, attributed by some to liberation theology, has been used by both sides of the aisle as an opportunity to gain political points in support of the three surviving campaigns.

I was particularly disappointed this morning to read William Kristol’s column in the New York Times entitled ‘Let’s Not, and Say We Did.’ In particular, I shuddered in reading his view that ‘The last thing we need now is a heated national conversation about race.’ He goes on to explain:

Racial progress has in fact continued in America. A new national conversation about race isn’t necessary to end what Obama calls the ‘racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years’ — because we’re not stuck in such a stalemate.

While I recognize the pragmatic point he strives to make with his rhetoric, I disagree. You can see one reason why I disagree by downloading this alarming statistical perspective of the economic gap between blacks and whites that is the current reality in the U.S. Yet racial injustice is not merely an American concern. Independently of the U.S. political campaigns, the Church needs to wrestle seriously to achieve and teach a theological account of race.

This is a serious issue that demands serious dialogue. To that end, I share below extensive excerpts from an important essay (published in Theology Today) from theologian, J. Kameron Carter, whose recent opinion piece in response to the debate over Dr. Wright’s sermons I posted recently. Those who know the work of Rowan Williams on race will recognize deep resonances in Carter’s penetrating discussion of race and the meaning of baptism. Note that he is responding to a theologian whose account of race, like Dr. Wright’s, is rooted in liberation theology. So you find here a theological account of race that contrasts sharply with that which funds Dr. Wright’s sermons, at least as far as I can tell from those published in recent days by our media"

Read the rest of his essay here.

Mark Harris wrote an initial response to Craig's piece and wonders if Craig has correctly described a connection between Liberation Theology and the theological underpinnings of Wright's sermons.

Rosemary Ruether has also posted an essay on the topic, in which she points out that those decrying the criticism of America found in Wright's sermon are forgetting (perhaps conveniently) the similar statements made by people on the religious right immediately following the events of 9/11

Few of the pundits who were so outraged by such language from Obama’s pastor bothered to note that Christian fundamentalists are in the habit of regularly opining that God is punishing America for some sins. Only their list of sins for which America deserves punishment is different from those of Wright. In the words of Christian fundamentalist Jerry Falwell, “I really believe the pagans, the abortionists, the feminists, the gays and lesbians who are actively trying to make an alternative life style, the ACLU, the People for the American Way, all of them who tried to secularize America, I point the finger at them and say you helped 9/11 happen.”

Similarly Pat Robertson attributed the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 to divine vengeance brought about because of the Supreme Court forbidding Bible reading and prayer in the schools. “We have insulted God at the highest level of government and then we say why is it happening. Well, it is happening because God almighty is lifting his protection from us.” Both Robertson and Christian conservative John Hagee claimed that hurricane Katrina was a punishment of God for the sins of New Orleans. Hagee said, “All hurricanes are acts of God. I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God (citing a planned gay parade in the city). I believe the Bible teaches that when you violate the law of God, God brings punishment sometimes before the day of judgment and I believe that hurricane Katrina was in fact the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans.”

Although some Americans may claim to be shocked by Wright’s words, while ignoring those of Falwell, Robertson and Hagee, such damning is indeed typical of Biblical prophetic thought. The prophet Jeremiah, for whom Jeremiah Wright is aptly named, filled his book with condemnation of Israel for its sins, both sexual and social, proclaiming God’s intention to pour out divine wrath against it. “Let my wrath go forth like fire and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your doing.” “I will make Jerusalem a heap of ruins, a lair of jackals, and I will make the cities of Judah a desolation, without an inhabitant.” (Jer. 4:4; 9:11).

You can read the rest of Ruether's essay here.

(UPDATE) The Christian Science Monitor has an excellent overview of the whole controversy here.

What do you think? Were Wright's comments "out of bounds"? Were they firmly within the ancient prophetic tradition? How should they be heard within the context of a contested political race?


Clergy protest by refusing to bless marriages

An article in the Baltimore Sun this morning reports on clergy in a number of denominations and religions who are beginning to refuse to solemnize weddings between men and women as a form of protest against what the clergy perceive as discrimination by the state in not allowing legal forms of same-gender blessings to be recognized.

From the article:

"Some rabbis and ministers in states including Virginia, Minnesota, Michigan and Connecticut have told their congregants that when it comes to weddings they are in the business of religious ceremonies - only - and they have redirected couples to the local courthouse for the paperwork.

'There's sort of a steady drip, drip, drip of people starting to do this,' said the Rev. Donald Stroud, minister of outreach and reconciliation at That All May Freely Serve Baltimore, an organization that advocates for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the Presbyterian Church.

'I think it does raise people's consciousness - that's one element. But I think a lot of ministers who do this do this first because their conscience compels them,' said Stroud. The Presbyterian Church does not sanction same-sex marriage, but it also does not compel pastors to sign licenses, he said. And like some of his colleagues, he would decline to do so if the issue arose because of what he sees as the state's discriminatory laws.."

The article continues with quotes from a number of clergy around the country who discuss the reasons for their actions and the various ways their congregations and communities have responded.

Read the rest here.

The faith of a village

Minto, Alaska, is home to about 180 people. While it's situated less than 80 miles northwest of Fairbank as a bird flies, it takes nearly five hours to get there by car. As Christy McKerny of the Washington Post describes, accompanying the Rev. Bessie C. Titus on the drive to visit Minto's new worship center was a breathtaking experience:

On the way to Minto, we went over some particulars. Some 180 people live in the village, said Bessie. Most who live there are descendants of Athabaskan Indians. The elders speak Athabaskan as well as English.

The journey to Minto climbs through mountain passes, along snowy ridges, through marshes, and past stubbly fields of stunted pine trees. About two hours out of Fairbanks, you turn off the highway and head for the hills on a gravel road for 40 minutes. Along the way, men can be seen unloading dogs from a vented truck and hitching them to a sled. Occasionally, Bessie would point out a trailhead or a hot spring.

Rolling into town, we passed the cemetery where Bessie’s parents are buried, the air strip, log cabins, and then the new Worship Center.

The worship center was built to satisfy the needs of the village residents, many of whom attended both village churches—the Episcopal Church in the morning, and the Assembly of God church in the evening. In an accompanying video, one resident explains that they are not interested in denominational boundaries (owing partly, she says, to their lack of access to education), but rather their relationship with Jesus Christ. But when the Assembly of God minister left, the worship center became the solution.

You can read the article and see the accompanying video here.

Born Again Christians and divorce

A new Barna study finds that the divorce rate among born again Christians, including evangelicals, is about the same as the national average. The Christian Post has this report:

After months of revived debate over divorce and its increasing acceptance among Americans, a new study affirmed born again Christians are just as likely as the average American couple to divorce.

The Barna Group found in its latest study that born again Christians who are not evangelical were indistinguishable from the national average on the matter of divorce with 33 percent having married and divorced at least once. Among all born again Christians, which includes evangelicals, the divorce figure is 32 percent, which is statistically identical to the 33 percent figure among non-born again adults, the research group noted.

"There no longer seems to be much of a stigma attached to divorce; it is now seen as an unavoidable rite of passage," George Barna, who directed the study, stated in the study, which was released Monday.

. . .

While a higher proportion of born again Christians marry (84 percent) compared to the national average (78 percent), recent trends indicate that Americans are growing more comfortable with divorce.

"Interviews with young adults suggest that they want their initial marriage to last, but are not particularly optimistic about that possibility," Barna noted. "There is also evidence that many young people are moving toward embracing the idea of serial marriage, in which a person gets married two or three times, seeking a different partner for each phase of their adult life."

Still, the divorce rate among evangelical Christians – who are defined as meeting the born again criteria plus other conditions – was lower (26 percent) than the national average. Meanwhile, those associated with a non-Christian faith were more likely to divorce (38 percent), the study showed.

Read it all here.

Virginia Tech anniversary

Today is the first anniversary of the Virginia Tech campus shootings that left 33 students and faculty dead and an entire community traumatized.

The day is being observed in Blacksburg in a number of ways. Some students are gathering in small groups and remembering. The University community held a ceremony to mark the moments the shootings occured.

Scott Russell, the Episcopal Campus Chaplain at the University has written a reflection on the experience.

"There is no manual. I checked. There is no manual that could have told me how to deal with a day like April 16, 2007, or the days and weeks and months that have followed. After five years of ministry with the students, faculty, staff and administration of Virginia Tech, I knew this campus and this town quite well. But on that cold, blustery April morning, none of us knew exactly how to respond.

When tragedies happen without warning, we often are left feeling unprepared and powerless. April 16 was more akin to an earthquake than a hurricane. We had no advance warning, no forecasters to tell us what to expect. Even worse, what we in Blacksburg experienced was at its very core an un-natural disaster. As the news of 10, then 20 and finally 33 dead came out, I didn't know how to pray, except for grace, lots of grace."

Read the rest of Russell's essayhere.

Southern Baptists in decline

The decline in Episcopal Church membership relative to America's population growth is often attributed to our "lack of biblical faith". Interestingly today, the Southern Baptist Convention, which prides itself on a focus on biblical faith above all else has announced that it must recognize that it is a "denomination in decline".

According to an article published on EthicsDaily.com;

"New statistics released by LifeWay Christian Resources listed total SBC membership in 2007 as 16,266,920, a 0.24 percent decrease from the 16,306,246 reported in 2006. Baptisms, long used as a marker of Baptist vitality, dropped more than 5 percent to their lowest level since 1987.

LifeWay President Thom Rainer called the report 'truly disheartening.'

Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research, said membership growth has been moving toward a plateau for some time.

'Many have predicted that membership (an inflated statistic anyway) would soon began to decline, but the statement, 'Southern Baptists are a declining denomination' was not 'officially' accurate,' Stetzer wrote in a LifeWay blog. 'Until today.'

'For now, Southern Baptists are a denomination in decline,' Stetzer wrote."

Stetzer goes in the article to say that membership in the SBC has peaked and the long term trends indicate a decrease that should continue for the foreseeable future given that baptisms are at their all time low.

Read the rest here.

The National Day of Prayer and the Religious Right

We haven't had a chance to keep up with the controversy surrounding the National Day of Prayer, but Frederick Clarkson of the blog Talk2Action has. He writes:

The congressionally authorized event is held annually, and the franchise to host official, and often controversial Day- related events is held by Shirley Dobson, wife of James. The official National Day of Prayer Taskforce operates out of the HQ of Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs. The legislation authorizing also reveals the role of the secretive network known as The Family, in shaping our national culture and political conversation, as detailed in the forthcoming book by Jeff Sharlet, who gave me permission to reveal some important facts from the manuscript of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.

Have a look.

Professing one's faith

It's common enough that Christian universities hire Christian faculty, according to a front page article in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education. Some places even require that one sign off on a "statement of faith" that includes doctrinal declarations about such things as Original Sin or the inerrancy of Scripture. But one Presbyterian university, Whitworth, in Spokane, Wash., tries to find a balance between the extremes of being a nominally Christian institution and dictating faith to its faculty, and requires that applicants write their own statement of faith as part of the application process.

One applicant to Whitworth University is Jennifer Stafford Brown, who talks about her experiences teaching at secular university and why she's attracted to Whitworth:

In Ms. Brown's experience, at secular colleges "there's a suspicion of people who are Christian." And that gave her pause in the classroom. If, for example, she happened to mention to students her plans to go to church that Sunday, she would be sure to toss in an explanation about her "culture" or how she was raised. "You learn to tiptoe around the subject," she says.

Yet Ms. Brown, a scholar of French literature, felt she couldn't teach her field without discussing religion. "You can't understand the literature of the Middle Ages without understanding faith intellectually," she says. "The church governed everything in the Middle Ages. Unless you can see that point of view, you can't understand why someone would go on a crusade or write a poem about their faith." Ms. Brown expects to be more able to integrate discussion of religion into her lectures at Whitworth.

The faith statement is actually about inclusivity and diversity, say university officials. Faculty range the spectrum from liberal to conservative and from mainline to evangelical. The statement also allows them to hire people who genuinely want to work there, they say. But it's not always an easy fit: some folks aren't as comfortable talking about their faith. Others are clearly not Christians, and still others think Whitworth isn't Christian enough.

Brown, however, found it a good fit, and will begin teaching at Whitworth in the fall. Her faith statement "began with a quote from C.S. Lewis and went on to discuss the Anglican/Episcopalian theology of the 'three-legged stool' of faith: Scripture, reason, and tradition":

As she moved through the hiring process, Ms. Brown was surprised at how many people had read her statement — the search committee, the French department, the dean, the president — and how often it came up. "It's clearly very important to them," she says.

Those discussions not only helped Whitworth evaluate Ms. Brown, but they also helped her determine whether or not she would fit in there. In particular, Ms. Brown says, she wanted to be sure the institution didn't encourage homophobia or discourage feminism. In the end, she was persuaded on both counts.

You can read the article, for as long as it as available free, here.

Between relativism and fundamentalism

Peter Berger, an eminent sociologist of religion and a lifelong Lutheran:

Under modern conditions, where almost everyone lives in communities in which diversity has taken the place of consensus, certainty is much more difficult to come by. Relativism can be described as a world view that not only acknowledges but celebrates the absence of consensus. So-called post-modernist theorists like to speak of narratives and, in principle, every narrative is as valued as any other. The moral end result of this world view can be captured by imagining a television interview with a cannibal. “You believe that people should be cooked and eaten. I certainly don’t want to be judgmental, but the audience will be interested. Tell us more.” (Laughter.) This is not all that fictitious.

Fundamentalists respond to the same situation of certainty-scarcity by seeking to regain absolute certainty about every aspect of their world view. No doubt is permitted. Whoever disagrees is an enemy to be converted, shunned or, in the extreme case, removed. The last two centuries of history have made it very clear that there are secular as well as religious fundamentalisms. Both relativism and fundamentalism threaten the basic moral order without which no society, least of all a liberal democracy, can exist: relativism because it makes morality a capricious game, fundamentalism because it balkanizes society into mutually hostile camps that cannot communicate with each other.


Read more at the Pew Forum's event transcript for "Between Relativism and Fundamentalism: Is There a Middle Ground?"

Evangelical political power overstated

There's an article on the Religion Blog of the Dallas News that reports on a new book by Christine Wicker.

The book is an examination of how the political power of the Evangelical movement in the US was overestimated, and is now falling back from even what it was at it's height.

There's an excerpt from her column for the Religion News Service:

"The truth is that the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest evangelical Protestant church, has seen its growth ebb. The convention recently announced its total membership declined by 40,000 in 2007. The number of baptisms has fallen for the seventh year out of eight. ...

The truth is that evangelical Christianity has had almost no influence on the country at large. Fifty years ago, the moral stances taken by evangelicals that now seem so reactionary were then commonly accepted. Abortion was abhorred. Children were rarely born out of wedlock. Homosexual behavior was hidden and considered not only morally wrong but also an indication of mental illness. Unmarried couples rarely lived together.

All that has changed.

The truth is that after more than 20 years of political action and many electoral victories, the so-called religious right has achieved few of its objectives. Abortion is still legal. The idea that gays and lesbians are normal people, behaving normally and entitled to equal rights is widely accepted."

Read the full column here.

Christian Environmental coalition broadens

A new coalition of voices within the American Christian community is beginning to lobby in concert for a change in US environmental policy.

The newest voices that are joining to the call for this change are coming from the traditionally politically conservative evangelical wing.

From an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

"The once-tiny Christian environmental movement began accelerating quickly in 2006, when 85 prominent evangelical leaders signed on to the Evangelical Climate Initiative calling for action on global warming. The number has climbed to more than 100.

'It's a bit out of the ordinary for evangelicals to be involved with this issue,' said Jim Jewell, chief operating officer of the Evangelical Environmental Network, a group that educates and mobilizes Christians on environmental issues. 'The evangelical involvement with climate has kind of shaken the political landscape a bit.'

In March, dozens of prominent Southern Baptist leaders called on followers to acknowledge human contributions to global warming, and demanded bold action to address climate change.

They said the church's cautious approach was 'too timid' in promoting stewardship of God's creation.

'To abandon these issues to the secular world is to shirk from our responsibility...' they declared. 'The time for timidity regarding God's creation is no more.'

Jonathan Merritt, the 25-year-old seminary student from Atlanta who organized the Baptist environmental declaration, said younger Baptists in particular were relieved to see church leaders take a bold public stance."

Read the full article here.

According the article this new coalition is expected to have a significant effect on next month's debate over legislation moving through the Senate that is designed to confront global warming.

IRD board changes?

There seems to have been a small change in the board of directors of the Institute on Religion & Democracy (IRD). The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner, who joined the board a few years ago, is no longer listed as a member. Radner's membership stirred controversy because he was simultaneously allied with the IRD, which works to destablize mainline Protestant churches while serving on the drafting team for an Anglican Covenant.

View the present board here.

Here's an earlier version with Dr. Radner listed as a member of the IRD board. (Taken from Google's cache of the page).

There was no announcement of this change as far as we know here at the Lead.

NB: there are still three members of the IRD staff who are attending congregations that are breaking away from the Episcopal Church in Virginia.

Pastors recruited to defy IRS

The Wall Street Journal reports on an effort by a Scottsdale based conservative advocacy group to create a legal test to the IRS's interpretation of the limits of political speech within churches.

The plan is to recruit 50 or so clergy and their congregations that will intentionally cross the line drawn by the IRS. It is hoped that the publicity surrounding the actions will force the IRS's hand to prosecute the participating pastors.

From the article:

"The action marks the latest attempt by a conservative organization to help clergy harness their congregations to sway elections. The protest is scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 28, a little more than a month before the general election, in a year when religious concerns and preachers have been a regular part of the political debate.

It also comes as the IRS has increased its investigations of churches accused of engaging in politics. Sen. Barack Obama's denomination, the United Church of Christ, has said it was under investigation after it allowed the Democratic presidential candidate to address 10,000 church members last year. Last summer, the tax agency said it was reviewing complaints against 44 churches for activities in the 2006 election cycle. Churches found to be in violation can be fined or lose their tax exemptions.

[...]In recent years, attempts by members of Congress to change the law have failed. 'Tax exemption is a benefit, and it comes with conditions,' says Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a nonprofit that has filed more than a dozen complaints in the past year with the IRS, accusing nonprofits of tax-code violations. 'So if any pastor out there feels he is gagged or can't speak on partisan politics...forgo the tax exemption and say what you want.'

[...]Some legal scholars are hoping for a new test case. Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, says a church might make a successful claim that the federal government is burdening the free exercise of religion and cannot do so without a compelling state interest."

Read the full article here.

The rhythm of prayer beads

More and more people are making their own sets of prayer beads and using them to structure their prayers. An article in the Grand Rapids Press, in Michigan, examines the phenomenon by talking to some of the beading faithful, including two Grand Rapids sisters who were running a small beading business. They watched demand for the beads grow exponentially after they started their shop in 2001, possibly as a result of the events of that September. Another of the women in the article, author Kimberly Wilson, recently wrote a book about prayer beads that traces the origins of rosary prayers as well as noting the near-universality of prayer beads as traditions in other faiths.

Says Wilson, in the article:

"I always had difficulty making everything stop," she said of her prayer life. "The physical nature of them, when I held them, I found I could concentrate on the intention of my prayer, rather than be distracted by the million things that distract me in a day."

Like Jenista, Winston doesn't use Catholic prayers. She doesn't even use a Catholic version of the rosary. She uses an Anglican rosary, which has four seven-bead "weeks" instead of five 10-bead "decades," as in the Catholic version. And while there are set Anglican prayers for that rosary, Winston goes free form.

Sometimes she just holds one bead per each deep breath. Lately, she's been using Scripture: "I lift up my eyes unto the hills," said on every bead.

The key shift was in her attitude. With traditional intercessory prayer, "you put yourself in the position of begging. With prayer beads, I can come to God with myself and my intention of just being with God. I'm not asking for anything, but I'm aware of his strength."

With prayer beads, "the goal is to focus your mind on communicating with the divine."

You can read the whole thing here.

A new take on mainline's decline

Commentary from USA Today this week posits that mainline megachurches might be the solution to declining mainline churches—or does it? Once you read past the lede, you'll find the piece takes a closer look at the phenomenon and doesn't buy the oft-touted explanation that all our mainline people have run away to more conservative havens. In fact, with all the attention raining down on mainline churches as a result of renewed focus on faith on the Democratic side of the political process, signs are pointing to hope for these churches.

But sociologists led by Michael Hout, at the University of California-Berkeley, have found that the problem for the mainliners is not that people are souring on their theology and ideology and defecting to conservative and evangelical churches. A primary reason for mainline decline is lower fertility rates among their predominately white, native-born members, researchers say. Unlike evangelicals, Mormons and Catholics, the low birth rate among mainliners has not been offset by streams of immigrants.

Culture has also played a role. As American Christians became more prosperous and educated, they tended in the past to join higher-status denominations such as the Presbyterians and Episcopalians. But researchers have found that this historic infusion of members has dried up as evangelicals have become a suburban, middle-class and even affluent demographic. Evangelicals are now remaining loyal to their churches.

Demographic trend lines notwithstanding, there are still a lot of Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, American (Northern) Baptists and other smaller churches — and mainline membership is at nearly 20% of the U.S. population. Yet evangelical megachurch pastors have stolen the theological show in recent years, perhaps because of the role they've played for the GOP in close presidential elections — and the fact that they have one they claim as their own in the White House.

Yet mainline Protestants' moral capital remains undiminished. Their passionate commitment to social and economic justice; their long-standing support for racial and gender equality; and their opposition to what they see as unjust wars should give them standing in the national discourse. Just because they are unaccustomed to raising their voice doesn't mean they should be ignored.

Read more, including significant commentary from the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance, here.

The solace of centrism

Jeff Sharlett says Steve Waldman has succumbed to "the solace of centrism" in his new book on the faith of the founding fathers.

Meanwhile, Founding Faith--a new book by Steven Waldman, a former religion reporter--is the sort of carefully crafted crowd pleaser that trades Williams's liberty of conscience for the solace of centrism. "The Founding Faith," Waldman writes, "was not Christianity, and it was not secularism. It was religious liberty--a revolutionary formula for promoting faith by leaving it alone." Here we see the implications of the fine line Nussbaum draws between "freedom" and "equality." The former, on its own, can collapse into the sort of bland theism announced by an original catchphrase of Beliefnet, an online religion portal created by Waldman in 1999 and recently sold to Rupert Murdoch's News Corp: "Everyone believes in something." In political terms, such a sentiment results in the banal cold war faith of President Eisenhower, who dispensed with the Constitution's Establishment Clause with the curt declaration that "our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith--and I don't care what it is."

The Nation has his review.

Obama, rhetoric and civil religion

Andrea Useem thinks she may have identified the wellspring of Barack Obama's broadly acknowledged rhetorical brilliance. It isn't so much that he is superb speaker but rather that he seems to have an instinctive ability to speak the patois of American Civil religion.

From an article on her blog at "Religion Writer":

"[L]istening to Hillary Clinton speak last night at Baruch College, where she did not concede defeat, and then listening moments later to Obama offer his nomination victory speech in a St. Paul stadium, I wondered if Obama’s ability to speak the language of ‘American civil religion’ is what makes him such a powerful speech giver. (And what are candidates besides speech-givers?)

American Civil Religion is at once a concept that’s been ripped to shreds in academia and a concept so embedded in everyday culture that many people find it quite obvious. The idea, first presented by sociologist Robert Bellah in 1967, said that America has a special civil religion, one that is rooted in Christianity but national and democratic in its expression.

[...]To put it in [non] academic terms, Bellah quoted Eisenhower: ‘Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.’ Freedom of religion and conscience — combined with America’s long-standing religious diverisity — means that private expressions of belief, such as saying ‘Jesus is Lord’ during a presidential speech, are not appropriate for political leaders, but that political leaders must still be able to speak this language of civic faith. Bellah points to John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech, which was laced with references to God and the greater purpose of humanity, without any reference to his specific Catholic faith. And same for Lincoln’s magnificent Second Inaugural address, and the Gettysburg address. And ‘In God We Trust’ on our coins, etc. etc."

You'll need to read the article below to see the examples that Useem gives of Obama's use of the genre. She goes on to compare it that of other candidates and suggests that Obama's comfort with the genre may explain the effectiveness of his speeches when heard by American ears.

Read the full article here.

Pew Survey on Religion & Public Life, Part II

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life releases the second report of a landmark survey today. The survey examines the tremendous diversity of Americans' religious beliefs and practices as well as their social and political views. This new analysis follows the first report of the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, which was published in February 2008 and detailed the size and demographic characteristics of religious groups in the U.S.

The Dallas News has one of the first mainstream media articles on the latest Pew report.

On the way to salvation:

About seven in 10 of those surveyed said they believed that many religions can lead to eternal life and that there is more than one true interpretation of the teachings of their own religion.

A majority of the members of almost every religious tradition agreed with those positions: More than 60 percent of those who said they were Southern Baptists said they believed that many religions can be right about how to get to the hereafter. And about eight in 10 Catholics said they believed there was more than one true interpretation of their faith.

In both of those cases, the majority seems to be at odds with official teachings.


About the size of the Religious Right:
Depending on the question, from a third to half of those who said they belong to Evangelical churches took religious and political positions generally associated with the religious right. If those results are accurate, 10 percent to 15 percent of voting-age Americans would be in that group.

Based on interviews conducted in English and Spanish with a representative sample of more than 35,000 adults, part two of the Landscape Survey includes a wealth of information on the religious beliefs and practices of the American public. It also explores the social and political attitudes of religious groups, including groups that are as small as three-tenths of 1 percent of the adult population.

Topics explored in the report include the importance of religion in people's lives; belief in God and the afterlife; attitudes toward the authority of sacred writings; frequency of worship attendance, prayer and meditation; and views of religion and morality, among others. The report also examines ideological and partisan orientation; attitudes on abortion, homosexuality, evolution and other social issues; views on helping the needy, the environment, and the size and proper role of government; and opinions on foreign affairs.

Some of the initial findings say that 70 percent of Americans don’t think it is important that you assent to certain dogma in order to be saved. Among Evangelicals, the figure was 50 percent.

While 92 percent believe in God, about 30 percent of those don’t believe in a “personal God” but in more of a force or being of some undefined sort. The percentage is somewhat higher among Catholics than the rest of the population.

More media reports:

Highlights from Pew U.S. religion survey

Are U.S. atheists from Venus and Mormons from Mars? (Reuters)

Some U.S. atheists seem to be confused (Reuters)

Survey Shows U.S. Religious Tolerance (NYT)

Christians: No One Path to Salvation (TIME)

My faith isn't the only way (AP)

Believers OK with many paths (USA Today)

More Than 90 Percent Believe in God (Washington Post)

On the intersection of politics, religion and race (Newsweek)

Happy Feast of Independence Day

In the Episcopal Church's Book of Common Prayer, July 4th is an appointed Feast Day, though in truth it's probably not observed by Episcopalians who aren't American citizens, or frankly, by most Episcopalians. But for those that are keeping this Feast Day, may it be a blessed one for you.

Most news outlets are closed here in the United States today, and news from America should be thin. But The Lead will stay open because the Anglican Communion and even the Episcopal Church will be doing God's work in many disparate places today and readers from around the Communion and this Province might be checking in.

Jesus for President

Grace Cathedral in San Francisco is one of the sites this summer of the "Jesus for President" tour. The event starts at Grace Friday next week.

From the description on Grace Cathedral's webpage:

Prominent social activists Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw stir the Christian political imagination and offer an alternative to divisive two-party politics. Christian discipleship is politically and socially engaged, but in a way that confounds and transcends parties. The Jesus for President tour will feature teaching from both authors as well as storytelling, art, music and worship that provokes the political imagination.

There are links to brochures and more information about the program itself off of the page above.

The Jefferson Bible

Imagine, if you will, says Lori Anne Ferrell, a professor of early modern history and literature at Claremont Graduate University, the furor that might arise if a president decided to re-edit the Bible to suit his own beliefs. That is exactly what Thomas Jefferson did: excising the miracles and inconsistencies he found within the four gospels and pasting the rest of Jesus' "ethical teachings" into a single narrative. From a feature in the L.A. Times:

In a letter sent from Monticello to John Adams in 1813, Jefferson said his "wee little book" of 46 pages was based on a lifetime of inquiry and reflection and contained "the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man."

He called the book "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth." Friends dubbed it the Jefferson Bible. It remains perhaps the most comprehensive expression of what the nation's third president and principal author of the Declaration of Independence found ethically interesting about the Gospels and their depiction of Jesus.

"I have performed the operation for my own use," he continued, "by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter, which is evidently his and which is as easily distinguished as diamonds in a dunghill."

The little leather-bound tome, several facsimiles of which are kept at the Huntington Library in San Marino, continues to fascinate scholars exploring the powerful and varied relationships between the Founding Fathers and the most sacred book of the Western World.

Read more about it here.

The role of doubt in religion

Peter Steinfels has a provocative column in the New York Times that discusses the importance of doubt to our modern faith. The question he raises is this: is our doubt a transition to a life without faith? Or is modern faith simply more comfortable with doubt? While inconclusive, the data seems to point to the first option:

Read more »

Immigration's effect on Evangelicalism

The demographic makeup of the evangelical movement within American christendom is changing. The driver of this change appears to be the assimilation into evangelicalism of large numbers of immigrants from around the world. Their presence is effecting the way evangelicals as whole view the relationship between Church and State, but it's also serving to reinforce many of the existing social views of present evangelicalism.

Read more »

The most segregated hour

The main stream media is beginning to pay attention to the fact that the faithful are racially segregated during Sunday morning services. CNN offered this sobering account:

Read more »

Research project on right-wing attacks on mainline churches

Political Research Associates (PRA) has launched an investigation into right-wing efforts to destabilize mainline Protestant denominations and their LGBT rights programs and policies with the hiring of Project Director Kapya John Kaoma. A news release from PRA continues:

Read more »

Praying for rain on his parade

A former pastor and former meteorologist is working to drum up interest in a nation-wide effort to pray to God to let rain fall on the day and at the place where Barack Obama is scheduled to make his acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination for president.

According to news reports, Stuart Shepard, presently working for Focus on the Family (James Dobson's group) is leading the effort because of his concerns about what might happen to the country if Obama is elected president.

From here.

Obama "the most pro-life candidate"?

Joel Hunter, a major voice in the evangelical movement in the United States has agreed to offer up the closing prayer at the Democratic convention. He's doing this, in part because, in his mind, Obama is the most pro-life candidate running for president this year.

According to Steve Waldman, writing on Beliefnet.com reports how Hunter is responding the charges that Obama is the most pro-choice candidate ever:

"Hunter makes a practical argument: providing women with economic help in carrying babies to term can actually reduce the number of abortions more, and more quickly, than focusing on overturning Roe v. Wade. 'With eight years of Bush the abortion rates have not declined. Every indication is that with financial support and different forms of supporting pregnant mother and then some post birth help also we could come close to 50% reduction in abortions. That's huge. That's huge.'

Continuing with the same culture war paradigm is therefore morally dubious. 'If we insist on keeping this an ideological war we're literally not saving the babies we could save. The Democrats have a huge opportunity here to really steal the thunder from those who are seen as traditionally pro life.'"


No indication yet as to whether or not Hunter will be praying for good weather.

h/t to Zack over at Revolution in Jesus Land.

The next Billy Graham

The Economist offers an interesting profile of Rick Warren, the sponsor of this weekend's faith forum:

On August 16th John McCain and Barack Obama will both appear at one of America’s great mega-churches, Saddleback, in Lake Forest, California, to discuss “leadership and compassion”. The result of the “discussion”—it is not a formal debate because the candidates will be appearing in sequence rather than side by side—will not only help “values voters” decide which man they support. It could also determine whether the host of the event, Rick Warren, can lay claim to one of the most sought-after titles in America, that of “the next Billy Graham”.

. . .

There are plenty of candidates for Mr Graham’s unofficial job, such as Mr Graham’s son, Franklin, who has inherited his father’s striking looks as well as his organisational abilities, and mega-preachers such as T.D. Jakes and Joel Osteen. But all have drawbacks. The younger Mr Graham has described Islam as “a very evil and wicked religion” and Messrs Jakes and Osteen are too attached, both personally and theologically, to the “prosperity Gospel”. None of them has Mr Warren’s combination of qualities.

Mr Warren could hardly look less like Mr Graham—he has a beard rather than a lantern jaw and sports open-necked shirts, mostly of the Hawaiian variety, rather than a suit and tie. But the two have a remarkable amount in common, from their Southern Baptist faith to their entrepreneurial skills.

Both men have proved to be geniuses at adapting religion to their times. Mr Graham took the barbed-wire fundamentalism of his youth and reshaped it for the post-war era of two-car garages and upward mobility. Mr Warren took post-war evangelicalism and reshaped it, yet again, for the world of suburban anomie and the search for meaning.

This required entrepreneurial skills of a high order. Mr Graham founded two of the most powerful organisations in post-war evangelicalism, Christianity Today and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Mr Warren has become a one-man dispenser of “purpose”. More than 400,000 pastors have attended his seminars on the “purpose-driven church”, and more than 30m people have bought his book, “The Purpose-Driven Life”. Mr Graham has preached to some 215m people in 185 countries. Mr Warren, though not yet in that league, is also going global, not only with his preaching but also with his charitable work.

Both men also share political skills of a high order. Like Mr Graham, Mr Warren allowed himself to get too close to the Republican Party. In 2004 he supported Mr Bush behind the scenes, taking part in White House conference calls and informing thousands of pastors that they should regard issues such as abortion and gay marriage as “non-negotiable”. But like Mr Graham, he has realised that you need to tread lightly on those non-negotiables if you want to preserve your influence. He is now emphasising poverty, HIV-AIDS, global warming and overseas aid.

Read it all here. The Christian Science Monitor profiles Rick Warren here.

On doctors who deny treatment

Richard Sloan, writing an op-ed column in today's LA Times, waxes trenchant over the California Supreme Court ruling earlier this week that it was discriminatory for a medical group to refuse a woman treatment for her inability to get pregnant. At issue wasn't the artificial insemination procedure itself, but rather the fact that the woman in question is a lesbian. I had to read Sloan's commentary twice to determine what was the "welcome, if unusual, turnabout in a disturbing trend that has characterized American medicine over the last three or so decades" even though I'd heard about the decision on the radio--is anyone else accustomed to hearing "disturbing American trend" in a completely different context?

At any rate, Sloan reminds readers that "Freedom of religion is a cherished value in American society. So is the right to be free of religious domination by others," and it turns out the disturbing trend is this one:

Recent studies have shown that 14% of U.S. doctors, when confronted by possibly objectionable but legal medical treatments, not only would refuse to deliver such care but also would refuse to inform their patients about it or refer them to physicians who would deliver the care. That translates to about 40 million people who would receive substandard care from these physicians, who believe that their religious convictions are more important than the well-being of their patients.

The tradition of religious freedom in the United States is one of the founding ideals of this country. But as our framers envisioned it, religious freedom referred to a right to practice one's own religion free of interference from others. It did not refer to religiously based interference with the rights of others, who may have their own and different religious traditions. Even in the relatively religiously homogeneous era of the framers, such interference was not acceptable. It is even less so in 21st century America. With religious heterogeneity growing, the devotional demands of one group may be increasingly at odds with those of others.

And of course you don't need to be in a different religion or even a different denomination to see that kind of heterogeneity in action.

Story is here.

The new Ebionites

The Washington Post reports on a new trend. Home circumcisions. For Christians. Are these modern day Ebionites?

Mark Kushner pulled up to the Watson family's suburban Philadelphia home a week after the birth of their first son, Colin. In the dining room, he unpacked the tools of his trade: sterilized surgical instruments, topical anesthetic, prayer shawls and a small bottle of kosher wine.

The shawls went back into his black bag. But to Megan and Christopher Watson's happy surprise, the mohel -- pronounced "moyle," the title for a Jewish ritual circumciser -- had copies of several prayers appropriate for the Presbyterian parents to read for the occasion.

"We thank You for the miracle of human experience in the birth of our child," they recited while Kushner gently rocked their infant before the procedure.

Kushner, who is based in Philadelphia, and Philip Sherman, a mohel in the New York City area, say they have performed more than 30,000 circumcisions since training together in Israel in the 1970s. Most of their business comes from traditional brith milah ceremonies for 8-day-old Jewish boys. But in recent years, they have increasingly catered to Christian families who eschew a hospital procedure in favor of a $300 to $800 house call, a trend Sherman has dubbed "holistic circumcision."

Many Christian clients, including the Watsons, liked what they saw at a friend's brith milah, also known as a bris. Others are conservative Christians who want to follow Old Testament tradition or learned about holistic circumcisions from the Internet, their doctors or others, Kushner said.

Does this indicate a trend among some Christians who might want follow Jewish customs...or is it simply a fad among people looking for meaningful symbols in the marketplace?

Read the rest here.

All creatures great and small

The Humane Society of the United States is announcing its 2008 “All Creatures Great and Small” campaign, which involves a pledge to either switch to cage-free eggs or egg substitutes for the month of October. Nearly 280 million laying hens in the United States are confined in barren, wire cages so small the birds can’t even spread their wings, and consumers can reduce animal suffering by making a few simple changes in their purchasing.

The HSUS is joining with religious leaders to ask people of faith to pledge for one month to either switch to cage-free eggs or egg substitutes as a way to end the cruelest confinement systems employed by the egg industry.

October was chosen because October 2nd is the end of Ramadan, October 4th is the Feast of St. Francis and October 8 & 9 is Yom Kippur.

Here is a link to a 25 minute video called "Factory Farming" which makes the connection between food and faith.

Sign up here.

No rain last night in Denver

As a couple of commentators have pointed out, despite a half-serious attempt to call down rain on Barack Obama's "parade" last night, the sky was clear of the stadium where he gave his acceptance speech.

Read Brian Kaylor's take here.

McCain picks post-denominational Palin

John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter says that John McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin is an example of a post-denominational Christian. No longer identified by particular practices or beliefs of separate Christian traditions, a post-denominational Christian has a style of believing that draws from many sources and is highly individualized.

The initial confusion surrounding Palin’s denominational identity, therefore, has a simple explanation: She doesn’t have one. Instead, Palin appears to be part of that rapidly expanding galaxy of “post-denominational” Christianity, where elements of Evangelical and Pentecostal styles of faith and worship fuse into a myriad of unique local combinations, and where old denominational loyalties are essentially dead.

Though post-denominationalists are, by definition, difficult to catalog and index, they’re unquestionably numerous. 2007 survey conducted by LifeWay found that fully one-third of American Protestants were contemplating attending a different church in the future, and of that group, only one in four said it would be important that their future church belong to the same denomination as the one they currently attend.

Indeed, Ron Dreher over at Crunchy Con has noticed the same thing about Palin, asking "What kind of Christian is Sarah Palin?"

It's hard to say. People say she's an Evangelical, but what does that mean, really? Is she a Pentecostal? A Bible churcher? Christianity Today reports that she was baptized a Catholic as an infant, but her parents raised her in Bible churches. She has attended Pentecostal churches in recent years. It sounds like she's like a lot of US Christians today: a little of this, a little of that.

Allen says to that we should not confuse post-denominationals for Evangelicals.

Not all post-denominationalists are conservative Evangelicals. The “emergent church” movement, for example, is often considered an expression of independent Christianity, and the relatively loose and flexible approach to creedal matters of some emerging churches – sometimes called “generous orthodoxy” – is regarded as unacceptably fuzzy by many Evangelicals. Globally, however, the largest share of the post-denominational universe is occupied by various forms of Evangelical and Pentecostal spirituality, with a strong emphasis on Biblical literalism and a lively sense of the supernatural.

Some of these independent Christians are even hesitant to adopt descriptive labels such as “Evangelical” or “Pentecostal,” for fear that such terminology could breed a new form of denominationalism. This is part of what makes estimating the total Evangelical or Pentecostal population in America, or the world, such a maddening exercise, because depending upon the day of the week and what mood they’re in, many believers these days (including, perhaps, Palin) might consider themselves both, or neither.

Post-denominational Christians share a common identity and have formed their own culture. They may look like generic evangelicals to us main-liners, but they know each other when they meet:

Although independent Christians spurn membership cards, they typically have little difficulty recognizing one other – in part, because there’s a shared culture formed by music, conventions in praise and worship, and spiritual language, which different congregations dip in and out of to varying degrees.

For example, those who watched Palin’s announcement speech yesterday in Dayton, Ohio, might have noticed a throaty roar from the crowd when she said, “We are expected to govern with integrity and goodwill and clear convictions and a servant’s heart.”

That reaction wasn’t simply about approval of good government; the phrase “servant’s heart” is a popular bit of Evangelical terminology, used as a short-hand for Christian humility. A quick web search reveals thousands of churches, ministries, and bands that use some variation of “servant’s heart” in the title; there’s even a residential cleaning service in Calgary called “Servant’s Heart.”

Ironically, traditional Catholics may leans toward Palin while many post-denominationals will tend to identify with Biden:

There’s a bit of political irony for [Roman] Catholics. Given Palin’s strong pro-life credentials, it’s likely she will appeal to the most strongly “denominational” Catholics, those most devoted to traditional Catholic identity and teaching. Meanwhile, what one might call “post-denominational Catholics,” meaning those for whom religious branding carries less theological significance, may embrace Palin’s Democratic rival, Delaware Senator Joseph Biden, the lone Roman Catholic on either ticket, because of his progressive stands on social and political matters. In other words, the denominationalists on the Catholic side will back the post-denominationalist, while the Catholic post-denominationalists will probably pick the candidate who bears the Catholic denominational label.

Read the rest of Allen's column here.

HT to Diocese of Bethlehem blog newSpin.

What is emergent?

I've sat in on the occasional "what is emergent" conversation at various events, and it's interesting to note that even Publisher's Weekly is stymied by the term. Marcia Ford, writing in this week's issue, points to the confusion that the term engenders for publishers and booksellers as much as it does for readers interested in learning more about emerging church, emergent theology and Emergent Village—three terms that are used interchangeably as "emergent."

But more significant, Ford continues, is that nontraditional expressions of Christianity that do not fit into these three areas but are still, perhaps mistakenly, considered emergent.

“The term 'emerging church' is so loose that one moment you can apply it to a specific book, and the next moment, you can just as easily decide it isn't emergent at all,” says Dudley Delffs, Zondervan's v-p and publisher of trade books.

One author who has separated the emergent from the nonemergent is Tom Sine, whose InterVarsity book, The New Conspirators, released earlier this year. In it he makes a clear distinction among four streams of alternative Christianity: emerging church (emphasizing the gospel as story, community, experiential worship, the arts, and much more); missional (an outward focus on mission); mosaic (intentionally multicultural); and monastic (a radical communal lifestyle, often lived out among the poor).

Many in the emerging church “conversation,” the preferred self-descriptor, distinguish among three terms: emerging church, an umbrella term for the category; emergent, referring to an unorthodox interpretation of scripture; and Emergent, shorthand for Emergent Village (EV), a largely online community. Most of the publishers PW spoke with used the terms interchangeably, as does the Christian community at large.

Other forms of alternative Christianity are often mistaken for emerging/emergent, but are not. One cause for confusion, says Al Hsu, associate editor at InterVarsity Press, is that many books that are not theologically emergent still resonate with emergent readers, such as IVP's The Circle of Seasons (Nov.), a title about the liturgical year from Presbyterian writer Kimberlee Conway Ireton.

And then there's the mistaken assumption that to be young and edgy is to be emergent. “A traditionalist in a younger body is not emergent,” Hsu says, pointing to Shane Claiborne as an author who is frequently referred to as emergent but is not. Claiborne, who with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove coauthored Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers (IVP, Oct.), lives in an intentional community in inner-city Philadelphia.

The rest is here.

Women in secular and church leadership

The On Faith blog at the Washington Post posed this question to a panel of fifty religious leaders: "Women are not allowed to become clergy in many conservative religious groups. Is it hypocritical to think that a woman can lead a nation and not a congregation?"

Read more »

Hocus pocus for Jesus

Some people like a little razzle-dazzle with their proclamation. The Fellowship of Christian Magicians attempt to bring together the theatricality of their craft as illusionists with the call to proclaim the Gospel. The results can sometimes be tacky, sometimes moving, often fun, but is it also distracting?

Read more »

Church attendance and voter turnout

A paper published at the National Bureau of Economic Research has found a definite and measurable link between decreasing church attendance and decreasing voter turnout in elections.

From the abstract:

"Regular church attendance is strongly associated with a higher probability of voting. It is an open question as to whether this association, which has been confirmed in numerous surveys, is causal. We use the repeal of the laws restricting Sunday retail activity ('Blue laws') to measure the effects of church-going on political participation. The repeal of Blue Laws caused a 5 percent decrease in church attendance. We measure the effect of Blue Laws' repeal on political participation and find that following the repeal turnout falls by approximately 1 percentage point. This turnout decline, which is statistically significant and fairly robust across model specifications, is consistent with the large effect of church attendance on turnout reported in the literature, and suggests that church attendance may have significant causal influence on voter turnout."

Read the abstract here. You can buy a copy of the paper for $5 US if you'd like as well.

There's a discussion of the paper on the Wall Street Journal's website here. The discussion makes an interesting point that the decrease in church attendance might hit democrats harder since statistically speaking, church attendance is higher among lower-income voters (who have traditionally voted Democratic).

Beyond Gideon

The Associated Press's religion feature this week is on a trend among "boutique" hotels to offer a menu of spiritual food. Page around in the folder with your room service offerings in one of these hotels, and among them you're likely to find a selection of spiritual texts you can have sent up to your room:


Niki Leondakis, chief operating officer with Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants based in San Francisco, said the chain's 42 boutique hotels began to offer a range of spiritual texts in addition to the Bible nearly a year ago. Every hotel has at least four spiritual texts: the Old and New Testaments, the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Mormon, and Buddhist text. Many other hotels in the chain offer close to a dozen options.

Leondakis said the hotels have received only a few requests for the books so far. Still, she said that, "offering a menu that includes as many philosophies and beliefs and spiritual perspectives was much more in keeping with the culture of our company."

At Hotel Preston, among the other books offered are the Book of Mormon, Buddhist texts, the Chinese Tao Te Ching and the Hebrew Bible. Guests can choose from the works on a laminated "menu" in their rooms and then call the front desk to request a copy.

The article notes and briefly traces the history of the influence the Gideons, who have been placing Bibles in hotel rooms for a century or so, and pegs the vast increase in religious diversity to changes in immigration policy that happened in 1965.

The Washington Post has the story here.

Prayers on Wall Street

Christianity Today has an interesting essay about how executives and workers at Wall Street turned to faith as many saw their work life crumble:

Last Sunday night many Wall Streeters could not get to sleep. After midnight, an executive at one of Wall Street's leading investment banks, who requested that his name and his company's not be used, lay in bed watching CNBC report that his competitors were going by the wayside. "I was surprised how quickly it had come. By 8 P.M. we knew how Monday would open. I prayed, very selfishly, that my company would not be on the list." He worried "about my family, the economic environment, my church, and community."

His wife rolled over and asked, "Are you really worried?"

"No," he told her. "I am just interested in the news. I work for a really good company."

She asked again, "Are you stressed?"

He weighed what was important to them and answered, "Even if the worst happens, we will still be together as a family and have Christ who loves and cares for us." Reassured, his wife turned back over; 30 minutes later her husband turned off the television. He needed to be at work very early the next morning.

On Monday, Christians on Wall Street set up special prayer meetings for the week. First came the special prayer conference calls on Monday and Tuesday nights. Then, starting Wednesday, extraordinary prayer meetings were scheduled at Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Deloitte, and elsewhere. Pastors began planning to gather for a sidewalk prayer meeting outside of the stock exchange.

Mac Pier of the New York Leadership Center started getting calls from friends who were losing their jobs. "Of course, I prayed with them that God would give them the spiritual and financial resources they need." Pier says that the Wall Streeters who called him were stunned. "It was unnerving to them because of the speed [at which] it happened."

. . .

Rice says the emotional impact of the current crisis on Wall Streeters is amplified by attitudes like those described by the chief operating officer. "There is an element of, 'I am master of my fate. I put in 18-hour days and am making it.' Then, this crisis pulls the rug out from under them. This may be the first dislocation of their lives. Their savings have disappeared in 15 minutes."

. . .

Some Christians in NYC hope that God can use the crisis for good. Pier says, "God can use this situation as he did in the 1857 Layman's Prayer Revival that started on Wall Street to draw people to a fresh recognition of our absolute dependence on his grace and love."

Mike Faulkner, pastor of New Horizon Church, says, "Honestly, I am praying God will bring healing and revival." He recalls how during the 1930s Wall Street crash, Central Baptist Church on Manhattan housed people who had lost their homes. "The church should be available in every way for people on Wall Street who maybe didn't think much about God before."

Bethel's Caesar hopes that "the two-hour-per-week Christians will get faith in their bones" so that it will last. "When you are in a fox hole, people make crazy promises. Afterward, they ask God, 'Can we renegotiate?' " Harry Tucker, a longtime strategic adviser to Wall Street executives, believes that God has put "us in crisis to grow our courage."

Read it all here

A wry look at "Christian culture"

Stephanie from Seattle keeps an interesting blog called "Stuff Christian Culture Likes." It is a wry look at (mainly evangelical) Christian sub-culture.

She describes an aspect of Christian Culture that is pretty difficult for those immersed in it, namely relating to people outside of the sub-culture:

People in Christian culture surround themselves almost exclusively with other like-minded people. They do have some acquaintances who are non-Christians but these are not close friends. These acquaintances are most often neighbors, co-workers, and other people who aren't easily avoided.

areyouachristian.jpg

A person immersed in Christian culture feels some tension during every interaction with a non-Christian. This is because they feel they must represent Jesus and win that person for Christ. They feel they should overtly and literally present the gospel during almost every interaction and they feel a certain amount of personal responsibility for that person's salvation. It's an enormous amount of pressure.

thehellbound.jpg

This is not to say that Christians will not seek out conversation with a non-Christian. They will. But it is usually for the ultimate purpose of "witnessing" and avid pursuit of presenting the gospel to them in no uncertain terms. They feel that merely being that person's friend isn't quite enough. As a result the Christian culture person feels much more comfortable with fellow Bible-believing Christians. (Catholics don't count. Are you kidding?)

dontletlovedonesburn-2.jpg

Christian culture in large part glosses over the fact that Jesus hung out with the grossest, most immoral people in his society and that the people considered to be the most holy people of his time, the Pharisees, looked down on this. Even still, Christian culture feels unsure about having friends who are agnostic, atheist, undecided, gay, strippers, drinkers, smokers, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Muslims, or maybe just kind of skanky. These people could also be saved for all we know but in the eyes of Christian culture their lifestyle trumps this possiblity. (Where is the fruit in their life? asks the Christian, unwitting to his own sin in judging that person.) Christian culture indeed knows that the Pharisees missed the point of the gospel of Christ, but Christian culture members generally are not able to entertain the possibility that they themselves could be modern-day Pharisees.*

*Disclaimer: anyone can have Phariseeical attitudes and thus be sinning, even/especially people with silly blogs.

Check out her blog here.

Too much of a good thing?

The New York Times reports about the small town of Roosevelt, New York that has so many churches that locals wonder if so many tax-exempt properties in one town is a good thing.

Residents here have long wished for a thriving downtown where they could shop and work — a business district that would also help shoulder their heavy school taxes. Instead, there are exactly one supermarket and one bank, zero drugstores and nary a 7-Eleven or Starbucks in sight.

What Roosevelt has in abundance, however, is churches. By one unofficial count, 68 houses of worship have taken root in this small community, which is a bit over a mile in width and in length and has a population of about 16,000.

This trend has produced concern among some community, business and political leaders that the concentration of churches is impeding business. Public officials say the situation leaves them in a quandary, acknowledging the right of churches to open here but lamenting the loss of potential tax revenue.

“It’s like a forbidden subject, but I wish to God I could find a way to stop churches from coming into this community,” said Wilhelmina Funderburke, chairwoman of the Roosevelt Community Revitalization Group, a nonprofit coalition of local organizations.

Read the rest here.

Is the financial collapse a sign of moral collapse?

Conservative evangelicals believe that the crisis on Wall Street is the direct result of the moral crisis on Main Street.

Ed Stoddard, writing for Reuters, explains:

The narrative goes roughly like this: the "collapse" of the traditional family, widespread divorce and a "permissive" culture have led to a disregard for personal responsibility.

A culture focused on instant gratification -- through the overuse of credit cards to buy consumer goods, for example -- has also lost other "traditional values" such as thrift and hard work.

"You can't have a strong, vibrant society when you don't have strong, vibrant families. It's a crisis of commitment, it's a crisis of responsibility," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative lobby group with strong evangelical ties.

"If you don't live up to your responsibility you are going to see that in the broader culture. You see this on Wall Street," he told Reuters.

It is a view that has been echoed by other conservative commentators, on Christian radio stations and on popular "Talk Radio" programs.

"To spend more than you've got is not the way we brought up our kids ... You have a whole credit industry that grew up around people wanting what their parents had without working 20 years to get it," said Gary Ledbetter, spokesman for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

The immediate significance of this narrative may show up in the House of Representatives on Friday when they vote on the latest version of the financial "bailout/rescue" package passed by the Senate last night.

The next place this narrative may show up is in the voting booth. It remains unclear how conservative Christians and evangelical Protestants will react to McCain's support of the package, even though they've been energized by his pick of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Tying "values" to economic problems is one way that religious conservatives can keep some focus on the "culture" issues they have long fought over as public attention is riveted on Wall Street, job security and house prices.

Upholding "traditional" values which they say have been under assault since the 1960s informs much of their outlook, ranging from their opposition to abortion and gay rights to a professed aversion to heavy debt loads.

"Although debt is not a sin, it also is not a normal way of life, according to Scripture ... debt is a dangerous tool that must be used, if at all, with extreme caution and much prayer," says the conservative evangelical advocacy group "Focus on the Family" on its web site.

While, at first blush, it may appear that the narrative of moral decay leading to credit frenzy appears to co-exist nicely with the views of, say, the Archbishop of Canterbury, it is not so simple. Long ago, these same preachers conflated their theology with a politics that valued deregulation and embraced unfettered capitalism.

"Essentially the Christian Right did not do serious biblical reflection on economics, it just borrowed its model from the Republicans," said David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta.

"Conservative Christians who accepted the unregulated free market ethos must bear some of the responsibility for its consequences," said Gushee.

Washington Post: Evangelicals see moral decline in Wall St. woes.

Survey of American global impact

A new survey by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research Inc. for WNET's Religion and Ethics Newsweekly and the United Nations Foundation says that Americans who routinely attend worship have a divided view of America’s impact on the world. On the one hand the vast majority those surveyed believe the United States has a moral obligation to be engaged on the international stage, they also believe that there are times when such involvement can cause more harm than good.

The September 2008 survey found that nearly a quarter of Americans (24%) say the U.S. should be very actively engaged in world affairs and 70 percent believe America should be at least moderately involved. Most believe the nation should be actively involved in world affairs because of an explicit responsibility or moral obligation to take a leadership role in the world. At the same time, nearly eight-in-ten (79%) of Americans agree that sometimes U.S. involvement in world affairs causes more harm than good. Overall, Americans are equally split about whether the U.S. has a positive or negative impact on the world.

Other findings include:

• Eighty percent of people who attend religious services regularly believe that America is blessed by God and that America should set an example to the world as a Christian nation (77% agree). Only 48 percent of people who attend services less regularly agree that America is uniquely blessed by God, and 49 percent of them agree America should set an example as a Christian nation. • A substantial minority of Americans (41%) say they consider America’s culture to be better than others, agreeing with the statement “our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others” (21% strongly agree). • The most important foreign policy priority across the religious spectrum is controlling the proliferation of nuclear weapons (80% of Americans, 86% of white evangelicals, 82% of Catholics, and 76% of mainline Protestants extremely/very important). • Evangelical Protestants express the greatest support for an interventionist role on the part of the U.S., while more moderate religious groups such as mainline Protestants and Catholics take a less interventionist posture. • Evangelicals and traditional Catholics are more likely to believe the US is a positive presence in the world (58% and 53% positive respectively) than liberal Catholics, mainline Protestants and Americans who attend religious services only irregularly (37%, 45%, and 44% positive, respectively). • Young evangelicals have a broader definition of pro-life issues than older evangelicals. Sixty- three percent of young evangelicals (ages 18-29) agree that poverty, disease, and torture are pro-life issues, compared to 56 percent of older evangelicals.

Read the rest here.

The Halloween costume that went too far

News reports abounded yesterday about Halloween costumes that were age-inappropriate or too "sexy." So perhaps it wasn't surprising that one New Jersey 8th grader was sent home to change when his costume was deemed too distracting. What caused the Associated Press to pick up the story for national circulation, however, was the fact that Alex Woinski, an honor-roll student from an interfaith family, had chosen to wear a white robe, a red sash, sandals, and a crown of thorns.

“We're a little stupified by this whole thing,” said the boy's mother, Kim Woinski.

Jesus Christ was “one of the greatest men that ever lived," she added. "If he went as Abe Lincoln would they say he couldn't do that?"

...

Woinski said her son complied with the requests of teachers and administrators, without complaint, and called his mother to pick him up. He was home for an hour and a half before returning to school.

When she went to pick her son up from school, administrators were unavailable to speak with her regarding the matter. But in an effort to comply with their requests she took her son home, she said.

“It's not like he’s not a good student. The kid’s on the high honor roll,” she said.

Woinski is Catholic while her husband is Jewish. Their son, who had recently celebrated his Bar Mitzvah and has been studying Bible scripture, is interested in Jesus as an historical and religious figure, according to his mother.

He wanted to translate that interest into a Halloween costume.

From the hometown report at the Bergen Record, here.

CBS 2 also covered the story here.

Bringing the saints to life

Sister Gemma Legel wanted to help her students in Westland, Mich., learn about the saints in a more interactive way earlier this week. So, instead of her usual catechism class at Divine Savior Catholic Church, the students brought the parade of saints to life. They each dressed up as their chosen saint (there were several Joan of Arcs in attendance, for instance) and gave a presentation about that saint.

"We're here to honor saints and God and celebrating All Saints," said Sister Legel. She went on to explain the Feast of All Saints is usually observed on Nov. 1, but is not a holy day of obligation this year because it falls a day before Sunday. Instead Catholics celebrate All Souls Day Nov. 1-2, to remember the dead.

"How do you become a saint?" asked Sister Legel. "Most were ordinary people. They loved God and showed that love by loving their neighbor. We're saints in the making."

One by one the children came to the front of the room to tell about their saint. Kyle Broffitt, 9, of Plymouth, was St. Martin of Tours, the patron of soldiers.

"He gave it up (being a soldier)," Kyle said. "He didn't want to do violent acts."

Later, Kyle said he learned to honor saints and that saints can be pretty cool.

...

Jodi Engler thinks the process will help her children retain their lesson on the saints longer. Katie, 9, was St. Margaret of Scotland, the queen who fed orphans and the poor before she would eat. Jenny, 7, was dressed as the North American Indian, Kateri Tekakwitha, patroness of ecology and the environment.

"I liked how it brought the saints to life, put a face with the name," Engler said.

From here.

Also along this line, in case you missed it, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori's All Saints Day message exhorts us to "celebrate the [saints] whose names you know and the ones whose names you haven’t yet learned."

As you gather to celebrate on the feast of All Saints, take with you the name of a saint whose example you have seen in action, and one whose name you don’t know, and give thanks. The appropriate companion prayer to one of thanks for the witness of other saints is that we, too, might be holy examples to those whom we meet.

From here.

Five myths about values

Dick Meyer the author of "Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium" says that much of what believe about the role of "values" in American politics is wrong.

He writes in the Washington Post that,

Values became a popular term in America mostly in describing the kinds of ideas and customs that are specific or relative to different societies or cultures, as distinct from absolute or universal. Conservatives are supposed to prefer absolutes, of course, but they've done a good job co-opting values talk. Political battles aside, much of what we think we know about values in America isn't really of much value.

There are five essential myths about values that are widely held but are wrong.

1. "Moral values" determine who wins elections . The myth of the values voter became 21st-century conventional wisdom because of the exit polls conducted for the 2004 election. ..."moral values" means different things to different people. Some voters undoubtedly meant to express that they voted for the candidate who they thought had better values and character.

2. Americans have broadly rejected "traditional values." Actually, Americans retain our traditional values more than just about any other developed country in the world.

3. Americans are polarized and fighting a culture war over values. "Americans are not divided into two opposed camps based on incompatible views of moral authority," (University of Michigan sociologist Wayne) Baker wrote.... "In fact, Americans tend to share attitudes, values, and beliefs, and to be united when it comes to the most important values."

4. Traditional values are "family values" or "moral values." Nope. We use the term "values" to talk about deep things -- what is most important to people, what organizes their lives. "Family values," by contrast, is the term for a collection of transient political positions that began their prominent political life as "wedge issues" in the campaigns of the 1980s: opposition to abortion and gay marriage or support for prayer in school and teaching creationism.

5. Basic values, properly understood, are compatible and harmonious. "This is what most of the world's religions and great systematic philosophies teach. The harmony of ultimate values is a comforting thing to believe in. But it is a dangerous political philosophy in real, live societies because it fosters wishful thinking and rationalizes the irrational. For example, liberty and equality are basic ideals in American democracy, but they often clash."

Myers concludes:

The bottom line on values is that there is no crisis: Americans have not rejected traditional values. They are not deeply divided over questions of values. Noisy, persistent conflicts aren't a sign of civic rot, but of humans being human. Americans are indeed frustrated and challenged by a lack of community, by rapid social and technological change and by economic pessimism. But our values are not the problem.

Read more here.

Peace be upon us.

Muslims got rough treatment during the last election. One campaign tried to smear their opponent by claiming Islam is a shorthand for terrorism. The other campaign virtually ignored the Islamic community so that those smears would not stick. Journalist Jonathan Curiel wants to change that.

Paul Barret of the Washington Post reviewed Curiel's book "Al' America."

Jonathan Curiel intends his book Al' America as an antidote to the fear. Ignorance, unsurprisingly, lies at the heart of it. Start with basic demographics: Most Arab-Americans are Christian, not Muslim, and most American Muslims are not Arab. Private surveys show that the largest segment of the American Muslim population -- about one-third -- traces its roots to South Asia, primarily Pakistan and India. Arabs make up only about a quarter of the Muslims in this country; African Americans, mostly converts and their children, another fifth.

Muslims in America are more varied in background and outlook than their non-Muslim neighbors realize and in many cases have been in the United States longer than is generally understood. Two-thirds of Muslims here are immigrants. Fully one-third are American-born and -schooled. The U.S. Census doesn't count by religion, so there is no reliable Muslim headcount. Private surveys yield estimates ranging from 2.4 million to 6 million.

The reviewer is correct is pointing out that equating fraternal organizations like the Shriners with Islam is shaky at best. Still it is worth the effort to cut through the spin and see Islam and American culture differently. It is also worth nothing that what happens when Islam and Christianity meet in America is a very different experience than when the two religions meet in other parts of the world.

Priest calls for penance for presidential vote

The Roman Catholic bishops of the US have come out pretty clearly against supporting any candidate they deem to be "pro-choice". The problem has been though that many Roman Catholic voters have ignored that advice. Now a priest is suggesting a way for wayward RC's to repair the damage to their souls for voting for Obama last week.

"The Rev. Jay Scott Newman told The Greenville News on Wednesday that church teaching doesn't allow him to refuse Holy Communion to anyone based on political choices, but that he'll continue to deliver the church's strong teaching on the 'intrinsic and grave evil of abortion' as a hidden form of murder.

Both Obama and Joe Biden, the vice president-elect, support legal abortions. Obama has called it a 'divisive issue' with a 'moral dimension,' and has pledged to make women's rights under Roe v. Wade a 'priority' as president. He opposes a constitutional amendment overturning the Supreme Court decision.

At issue for the church locally and nationwide are exit polls showing 54 percent of self-described Catholics voted for Obama, as well as a growing rift in the lifestyle and voting patterns between practicing and non-practicing Catholics."

Read the full in the Greensville News here.

"Online religion" becoming more common

Facebook and other online platforms are becoming more prevalent in American religious culture. Religion and Ethics Newsweekly (complete with a shiny new web design) looks at the phenomenon with a particular focus on a Boston pastor's challenge to his congregation to live by the rules of Leviticus for a month and then blog about it at their Facebook group and then looks at the pluses and minuses of online religion.

SEVERSON: Critics of online religion say it might work for an individual, but it doesn’t foster family togetherness.

...

SEVERSON: Charles Henderson, who is now the editor of CrossCurrents Quarterly, says the Internet should not replace the real thing.

Mr. HENDERSON: I think that the experience online has to be considered as a supplement to real friendships and real community life in local congregations. It’s not a replacement for that kind of real community, although some people do use it as a substitute for religious community. I don’t think that is the ideal.

SEVERSON: But for Cathleen Falsani and others like her, the old-time church is being replaced, for now, by religion on the Internet.

Ms. FALSANI: You know, I was finding that I was getting more hurt by congregational life than I was being fed and that I could find that elsewhere and still be safe spiritually. And so this is a beautiful thing for someone like me to have, and I’m not the only one who’s experienced that in the group.

SEVERSON: Although most churchgoers still prefer religion the old-fashioned way, an increasing number, especially those under 30, are exploring religion online. A study in 2001 by the Pew Research Center found that one-in-four adults use the Internet for religious and spiritual purposes. That was seven years ago. Today, the number is probably considerably higher.

The whole transcript, and video, is here.

The Anglican Cathedral in Second Life has an uncredited cameo at 1:58 in the piece, by the way. And the Episcopal Cafe group on Facebook, now 925 members strong, is here.

Networking leads to prayer

The Washington Post reports on a prayer breakfast that attracted business leaders, investors, lawyers, headhunters and other professionals. But this was not your parent's prayer breakfast.

Driving nearly 800 local professionals to wake up early was the High Tech Prayer Breakfast, an annual event that brings together a wide range of local business players -- from investors and lawyers to executives and headhunters. Now in its seventh year, the breakfast attracts regular churchgoers as well as those who prefer a synagogue, a mosque or no church at all.

Read more »

NAE official resigns over remarks

Richard Cizik, the Vice-President for Governmental Affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, has been forced to resign as a result of his comments that he is "shifting" his views on same-sex marriage.

According to an article on Christianity Today:

Read more »

Yet more reaction to Warren's pick

Updated - Integrity statement added at end

President-elect Obama's choice of Rick Warren to offer a prayer as part of his inauguration ceremonies has provoked strong negative reaction since its announcement earlier this week. Today brings more reactions of anger both on the political left and on the political right.

Daniel Eisenberg, writing a blog on Time Magazine's website points that the choice of Warren is really, at its heart, pretty boring.

Read more »

Americans believe in multiple paths to salvation

A Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that a majority of American Christians believe that some non-Christian faiths can lead to eternal life:

Even among evangelicals, a branch of Protestant Christianity identified with the idea that an individual must be "born again" into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ in order to be saved, nearly as many Christians said many religions can lead to eternal life (47 percent) as those who believe theirs is the one true faith (49 percent).

The survey, released Dec. 18, followed up an earlier poll that found that seven Americans in 10 believe many religions can lead to salvation while less than one quarter say their faith is the only one that is true. Critics of that study questioned those findings, suggesting that for many Christians, "other religion" might have meant a different Christian denomination instead of a non-Christian faith.

The new study asks those who say many religions can lead to eternal life questions about specific faiths. Sixty-nine percent said Judaism can lead to eternal life, compared to 52 percent for Islam, 53 percent for Hinduism, 42 percent for atheists and 56 percent for people with no religious faith.

"Responses to these questions show that most American Christians are not thinking only of other Christian denominations when they say many religions provide a path to eternal life," the study found. "To the contrary, among those who say many religions provide a path to eternal life, strong majorities believe that both Christian and non-Christian faiths can lead to eternal life."

Read it all here. The survey itself can be found here.

Remembering the real St. Nick

Kim Lawton of Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly is reporting that many churches are trying to keep a focus on the real St. Nicholas, a focus that Canon Jim Rosenthal helped to start:

'Tis the season of Christmas and Santa Claus, it seems, is everywhere. Children anxiously await his gift-bearing arrival, but some Christians are worried that most of those children — and their parents — don't know who "jolly old Saint Nicholas" really was.

"St. Nicholas was a real person. Not a fairy, not someone who's flying through the sky with reindeer, but an actual person who lived and worked and died and had a full life," said Canon Jim Rosenthal. "He had a Christian life because he was actually a bishop, a pastor."

Rosenthal, director of communications for the worldwide Anglican Communion office, is founder of the St. Nicholas Society UK/USA, an international movement urging churches to reclaim St. Nicholas.

Every year, Rosenthal dresses up like St. Nicholas, complete with a bishop's staff, called a crozier, and hat, called a miter. He visits churches to help spread the St. Nicholas message.

. . .

More and more churches in the United States and the United Kingdom are finding ways to keep the St. Nicholas story alive. In Chicago, for example, St. James Cathedral recently hosted a special St. Nicholas exhibit.

"The stories of St. Nicholas are wonderful stories of a bishop who cared about his people, who cared very much about the poor," said the Rev. Joy E. Rogers, provost of the cathedral.

. . .

Church leaders emphasize that Nicholas' generosity was motivated by his Christian faith, that he was following Jesus' command to love others, to help those who are suffering and to do one's good deeds in secret.

"The problem with Santa Claus as it stands now is that it's a substitute for Christmas — Santa Claus instead of the crèche, instead of the manger, instead of the nativity scene," said Rosenthal. "This man we would find kneeling at the nativity scene saying, 'This is what I'm here to celebrate as well."'

Read it all here.

A video of the program, as well as the dull transcript, can be found here.

Communion bread: the business side

Ever wonder where the communion wafer most Episcopalians consume every weekend comes from? Turns out that most of them are made by a family business in Rhode Island.

The New York Times had an article about Cavanagh featured on Christmas Day. It's still fresh enough to read on the second day of Christmas:

"The family-owned company makes about 80 percent of the communion bread used by the Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran and Southern Baptist churches in the United States. It has a similar market share in Australia, Canada and Britain, and is now looking to expand to West Africa.

‘We feel as though we’re a bakery, and all we’re making is bread,’ said Andy Cavanagh, the company’s general manager, and part of the fourth generation of Cavanaghs to work here. ‘It’s not that we don’t have respect for what happens to it, but that transformation is out of our hands and takes place in a church. The best thing we can do is make sure the bread is perfect in every way possible.’

Some customers say the Cavanaghs have such a big market share because their product is about as close to perfect as earthly possible. ‘It doesn’t crumb, and I don’t like fragments of our Lord scattering all over the floor,’ said the Rev. Bob Dietel, an Episcopal priest."

Read the full article here.

More on the Pew Survey and Salvation

Last week we reported on the new Pew Survey, which reported that a majority of American Christians believe that adherents of other faiths will be saved. As might be expected, this survey has caused quite a bit of discussion, including an op-ed in yesterday's New York Times by Charles Blow:

In June, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a controversial survey in which 70 percent of Americans said that they believed religions other than theirs could lead to eternal life.

This threw evangelicals into a tizzy. . . .

The evangelicals complained that people must not have understood the question. The respondents couldn’t actually believe what they were saying, could they?

So in August, Pew asked the question again. (They released the results last week.) Sixty-five percent of respondents said — again — that other religions could lead to eternal life. But this time, to clear up any confusion, Pew asked them to specify which religions. The respondents essentially said all of them.

And they didn’t stop there. Nearly half also thought that atheists could go to heaven — dragged there kicking and screaming, no doubt — and most thought that people with no religious faith also could go.

What on earth does this mean?

One very plausible explanation is that Americans just want good things to come to good people, regardless of their faith. As Alan Segal, a professor of religion at Barnard College told me: “We are a multicultural society, and people expect this American life to continue the same way in heaven.” He explained that in our society, we meet so many good people of different faiths that it’s hard for us to imagine God letting them go to hell. In fact, in the most recent survey, Pew asked people what they thought determined whether a person would achieve eternal life. Nearly as many Christians said you could achieve eternal life by just being a good person as said that you had to believe in Jesus.

Read it all here.

Albert Mohler is not happy:

This survey cannot easily be dismissed. The specificity of the responses and the quality of the research sample indicate that we face a serious decline in confidence in the Gospel. When 34% of white evangelicals reject the truth that Jesus is the only Savior, we are witnessing a virtual collapse of evangelical theology.

There is also additional cause for concern. As Cathy Lynn Grossman reports, "Pew's new survey also found that many Christians (29%) say they are saved by their good actions; 30% say salvation is through belief in Jesus, God or a higher power alone, which is the core teaching of evangelical Protestantism; and 10% say salvation is found through a combination of behavior and belief, a view closer to Catholic teachings."


Read it all here.

Are Christians Stingy?

Slate offered a provocative essay on whether American Christians give too little to charity. The answer appears to depend on what benchmark is used. Christians are generous compared to nonbelievers, but perhaps stingy compared to what our affluence can afford and what our churches tell us to contribute:


The run-up to Christmas, with its street-corner Salvation Army kettles and church food drives, would seem a lousy time to find out that Christian charity in America is not what it's supposed to be. But in the recently released Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don't Give Away More Money, sociologists Christian Smith, Michael O. Emerson, and Patricia Snell argue that too many American Christians—"the most affluent single group of Christians in two thousand years of church history"—are guilty of Scrooge-like stinginess. At least one in five American Christians, they write, gives no money at all to charities. In some churches, the miserliness rate is even higher. More than 28 percent of Catholics, for example, don't donate to charity. Bah, humbug, indeed.

. . .

But are Christians really so stingy? Looked at comparatively, Christians could be commended for their relative generosity instead of rebuked as misers. Their charitable giving stacks up pretty well against that of nonbelievers, who appear to be even tighter with their charitable dollars. More than half of nonreligious Americans contributed no money or property to charity, according to Passing the Plate, and the percentage of income donated to charity by the average nonbeliever was less than 1 percent, compared with nearly 3 percent for American Christians. And some categories of Christians distinguished themselves as givers. The average evangelical Protestant, for example, gave a sturdy 8.2 percent of annual income, according to surveys cited in the book.

. . .

Despite all the exhortations, though, it seems that relatively few Christians—even those who give regularly—have followed church teachings on exactly how much to give. Most American Christians belong to churches that promote tithing—giving 10 percent of income to the church. Tithing's roots extend back to the Old Testament commandment to give one-tenth of agricultural produce as a sacred offering. Though it's often associated with conservative and evangelical Protestant churches, tithing is also taught, for example, in the more liberal Episcopal Church, which teaches members "to practice tithing as a minimum standard of giving." Yet fewer than one in 10 Christians gives as much as a tithe of their income. The 2.9 percent of income given by the average Christian may seem reasonably generous, but it falls significantly short of what many Christian churches desire.

If tithing is so widely taught, why is it so seldom practiced?

Read it all here.

Suit filed to stop Inauguration prayers

Perhaps this news will lower the temperature of the controversy surrounding the President-elect's invitation to Pastor Rick Warren to give the Invocation at his Inaugural celebration. A group of atheists have filed to block the ceremony from including any prayers at all.

beliefnet reports:

Michael Newdow, along with 17 other individuals and 10 groups representing atheists, named Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., officials in charge of inaugural festivities, the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery and pastor Rick Warren in their complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Washington Tuesday, The Washington Post reported Wednesday.

Roberts will administer the oath of office to Obama at the Jan. 20 event. Warren and Lowery are scheduled to deliver the invocation and benediction, respectively.

The lawsuit says the prayers are exclusionary, "showing absolute disrespect to plaintiffs and others of similar religious views ... ."

Newdow and others also said the phrase "so help me God" should be stricken because it is not part of the oath as specified in the Constitution.


Obama's team taking religion seriously?

In spite of some suing to prevent prayers during the Inauguration and thus mixing the spiritual realm with that of the state, Obama's transition team is engaged in an unparalleled reaching out to religious organizations in the United States. According to reports there have already been about a dozen meetings of various groups with the transition team.

Dan Gilgoff, writing in US News and World Report quotes David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism;

""This is the most extensive outreach and listening tour that I've ever seen a new administration take, and that is certainly true of their outreach to the faith community," says Saperstein, who has worked with presidential transition teams going back to Jimmy Carter's. "It's quite remarkable."

Gilgoff continues:

The effort is noteworthy not only for the number of Obama transition team meetings with religious groups—about 15 so far—but also because top Obama policy aides have joined the powwows. Melody Barnes, who will be director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, and Heather Higginbottom, who will be the council's deputy director, have participated in some of the meetings.

"There is the feeling that these are not perfunctory meetings but serious meetings with people in policymaking roles who know the process well," says James Winkler, general secretary of the public policy arm of the United Methodist Church, who says that he or his staff have attended nearly a dozen meetings with the Obama transition team so far. "This is not something meant to bring in the faith community to keep them happy but to solicit our views and ideas."

Military Freedom of Religion lawsuit expanded

An ongoing lawsuit that claims the US military isn't willing to take appropriate action in cases of religious discrimination and is overly lax in allowing certain groups of Christians to proselytize imprisoned Muslims, has been expanded to include charges of a pervasive bias toward evangelical Christianity in the Armed Forces.

Dustin Chalker, a Kansas based soldier is one of the parties that brought the suit:

Chalker, a combat medic, is an atheist whose original complaints included being forced to attend military formations where Christian prayers were given. The foundation, based in Albuquerque, N.M., says it represents about 11,000 military personnel, almost all of them Christians upset about what they view as discrimination by more conservative and evangelical personnel.

"Our amended complaint is specifically designed to further stab at the throbbing unconstitutional heart of darkness that comprises the systemic fundamentalist Christianity so pervasive and pernicious in today's American armed forces," said Mikey Weinstein, the foundation's president.

Defense Department spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said the agency doesn't comment on pending lawsuits. But she said it has identified fewer than 50 complaints about alleged violations of religious freedoms during the past three years, with 1.4 million personnel in uniform.

Read the full article here.

Richard John Neuhaus died yesterday

Father Neuhaus, a Roman Catholic convert from the Lutheran Church died on January 8th of complications from his cancer treatments. Neuhaus was best known as a formative voice for the religious right in the United States.

From the obituary on the National Catholic Reporter's website:

From the early 1970s forward, Neuhaus was a key architect of two alliances with profound consequences for American politics, both of which overcame histories of mutual antagonism: one between conservative Catholics and Protestant Evangelicals, and the other between free market neo-conservatives and “faith and values” social conservatives.

Cafeteria Christians?

Consistent with a recent Pew Survey that showed that American Christians believe that other faiths can lead to salvation, a new Barna Survey finds that Christians in the United States do not blindly accept the theological teachings of their faith:

A sizable majority of the country's faithful no longer hew closely to orthodox teachings, and look more to themselves than to churches or denominations to define their religious convictions, according to two recent surveys. More than half of all Christians also believe that some non-Christians can get into heaven.

"Growing numbers of people now serve as their own theologian-in-residence," said George Barna, president of Barna Group, on releasing findings of one of the polls on Jan. 12.

In the Barna survey, 71 percent of American adults say they are more likely to develop their own set of religious beliefs than to accept a defined set of teachings from a particular church. Even among born-again Christians, 61 percent pick and choose from the beliefs of different denominations. For people under the age of 25, the number rises to 82 percent.

Many "cafeteria Christians" go beyond the teachings of Christian denominations to embrace parts of other world religions.

Half of Americans also believe that Christianity is now just one of many faith options people can choose from (44 percent disagree with that perception). Residents of the Northeast and West were more likely than those in the South and Midwest to say Christianity has lost its status as the favored American religion.

Christians expressed a variety of unorthodox beliefs in the poll. Nearly half of those interviewed do not believe in the existence of Satan, one-third believe Jesus sinned while on earth, and two-fifths say they don't have a responsibility to share their faith with others.

Read it all here.

Obama and the Covenant

British Rabbi Sir Jonathon Sacks astutely observed in his Times column this week that President Barack Obama's speech was consistent with the very American concept that we are a covenanted nation:

Virtually every US president since Washington in 1789 has renewed the covenant in his inaugural address, often in biblical terms. Obama’s was a textbook example. There was the reference to the Exodus, a journey through the wilderness that involved crossing a sea: “They packed up their few worldly possessions and travelled across oceans.” There was the covenant itself: “Our Founding Fathers . . . drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man.”

There was the key covenantal virtue, faithfulness: “We the people have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears and true to our founding documents.” There was the idea, central to covenant, of a commitment handed on by parents to children: “That noble idea, passed on from generation to generation.” There was the principle that nations flourish not by the power of the state but by the duty and dedication of their citizens: “It is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies.”

Obama’s ending was little less than biblical: “Let it be said by our children’s children . . . that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”

. . .

What Barack Obama has understood is that covenant creates the politics of hope. Never has the future of freedom needed it more.

Read it all here.

Southeast is most religious region of US

The Gallup polling organization reports:

An analysis of more than 350,000 interviews conducted by Gallup in 2008 finds Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Arkansas to be the most religious states in the nation. Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts are the least religious states.

and

The question of why residents of some states (e.g., Mississippi and other Southern states) are highly likely to report that religion is an important part of their lives, while residents of other states (e.g., Vermont and other New England states) are much less likely to report the same is fascinating, but difficult to answer simply.

Differing religious traditions and denominations tend to dominate historically in specific states, and religious groups have significantly different patterns of religious intensity among their adherents. The states have differing racial and ethnic compositions, which in turn are associated with differing degrees of religiosity. Certain states may attract in-migrants with specific types of religious intensity. In addition, there may be differing "state cultures" that are themselves associated with life approaches that give varying degrees of credence to religion as a guiding force.

It would be interesting to compare the list of fastest growing dioceses in the Episcopal Church against this list to determine which diocese benefit from a favorable demographic climate, and which are preaching to less receptive ears.

Butler Bass takes questions on USA Today's 'faith forum'

Diana Butler Bass is the guest host at the USA Today forum on Faith and Reason today. Your can ask her questions about her research and what she is thinking about now. She says she will haunt the site and answer questions all day. She says her main topics are vital mainline churches and "beyond liberal and conservative" but people can ask about anything they want.

Here is the USA Today write up:

Is mainline Protestant Christianity -- which includes denominations such as the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Episcopal Church -- dying away in America?

Statistically, the mainline has declined by the millions in recent decades. But church historian Diana Butler Bass makes a contrary case: That it is thriving despite the odds. She once told me,

Mainline congregations have a beautiful world where they are enacting service, doing justice, learning to pray and caring for one another. And no one seems to realize they are there.

Do you agree? Ask Bass yourself -- and learn more about the dimensions of faith in practice in the USA now. I've invited Bass to be today's guest host on the Faith & Reason Forum. She's the first of several guest experts who will host the Forum while I’m away this week.

Here's the link.

Obama speaks of faiths' shared beliefs

President Obama kept the tradition of US Presidents attending and speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast. Obama chose to emphasize the common experiences shared by people of all faiths rather than speak out of his own perspective as a Christian.

From his remarks:

There is no doubt that the very nature of faith means that some of our beliefs will never be the same. We read from different texts. We follow different edicts. We subscribe to different accounts of how we came to be here and where we’re going next – and some subscribe to no faith at all.

But no matter what we choose to believe, let us remember that there is no religion whose central tenet is hate. There is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being. This much we know.

We know too that whatever our differences, there is one law that binds all great religions together. Jesus told us to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” The Torah commands, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” In Islam, there is a hadith that reads “None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” And the same is true for Buddhists and Hindus; for followers of Confucius and for humanists. It is, of course, the Golden Rule – the call to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth.

Faith-based initiatives get revamped

Yesterday President Obama took action to reorganize the White House Office for Faith-Based Initiatives by changing the name, the way the office is structured and the way it will function. The office will no longer just deal with faith-based groups. Now neighborhood organizations and non-profits will have equal access to the funds.

From the White House press release:

"‘Over the past few days and weeks, there has been much talk about what our government’s role should be during this period of economic emergency. That is as it should be – because there is much that government can and must do to help people in need,’ said President Obama. ‘But no matter how much money we invest or how sensibly we design our policies, the change that Americans are looking for will not come from government alone. There is a force for good greater than government. It is an expression of faith, this yearning to give back, this hungering for a purpose larger than our own, that reveals itself not simply in places of worship, but in senior centers and shelters, schools and hospitals, and any place an American decides.’

The White House Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships will be a resource for nonprofits and community organizations, both secular and faith based, looking for ways to make a bigger impact in their communities, learn their obligations under the law, cut through red tape, and make the most of what the federal government has to offer."

Read the full article here.

You can find the full list of the appointees to the reconstituted organization at the link above.

One of the big changes that Obama has made is that there will be careful scrutiny now to make sure that government funding is used only for programs that provide service. Using the money in a way that could be seen as having an evangelistic focus is strictly forbidden.

Do evolution and faith have to fight?

Today is the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin and 2009 is 150th anniversary of the publication of his Origin of the Species. The debate between evolution and religious faith appears to be as American as apple pie.

Religion Dispatches has three interesting articles reflecting on the religious consequences of evolution, focusing on the ongoing debate often framed as a fight between science and religion.

Lauri Lebo takes a look at American attitudes toward Darwin while attending a British conference on science and the public interest:

I am standing at a podium in England, invited to speak by of the British Council, because I am American. To be even more specific, because I resided at Ground Zero of my country’s cultural battle over science and religion, in an event that took place four years ago in Dover, Pa. when the local school board tried to force religion into science class.

I have been aware of this British fascination with us ever since the BBC came to my town in the fall of 2004, right after the Dover Area School Board inserted the phrase intelligent design for the first time in the US into a public school biology curriculum....I remember the BBC crew looked at me much the same way that these people are looking at me now. Trying to determine on which side of the cultural divide I stand. The British don’t understand, I’ve been told, why Americans are so divided.

They find this issue fascinating. And they watch me curiously. In a way, I suspect, they find our fundamentalism kind of cute. Just like the meerkats.

I know they’re thinking: What is it with you Americans? Why are you so hung up on this religion vs. science thing?

It can be said that Darwin and the theory of evolution begat American Christian fundamentalism. Lebo points out that through much of the 19th century, Biblical literalism was on the decline. Science was accepted, even in the churches, and the idea that the earth is very old was widely accepted. "A typical interpretation of the Genesis account," she says, "viewed the six days not as literal 24-hour periods, but as separate, lengthy spans of time."

This is an interpretation that probably feels familiar to many Episcopalians. The rector of St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church in northwest Atlanta, The Rev. Patricia Templeton, says in today's Atlanta Journal-Constitution that "the problem begins with those questions, the pairing of religion and science as polar opposites."

Although I believe that the Bible contains the words of the living God, I also think that looking to the Bible for modern scientific knowledge requires denying the use of one of God’s greatest gifts, our minds.

“I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also,” the apostle Paul says. “I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also.”

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” Jesus says. “This is the greatest and first commandment.”

A faith that requires you to close your mind in order to believe is not much of a faith at all.

The Bible was never meant to be a science textbook.

Instead, it tells the story of the relationship between God and human beings, between the Creator and creation.

Read more »

New polling on importance of religion by nation

gallupworld.png

The Gallup poll this week surveyed the importance of religion across the world. The survey finds that, as a nation, the United States is below the medium for religious belief, but that some states (like Alabama) rival nationals like Iran:

Are Americans among the most religious people in the world? The answer depends on which "world" you're talking about. If you're referring to the entire planet, the answer is plainly "no." In 2006, 2007, and 2008, Gallup asked representative samples in 143 countries and territories whether religion was an important part of their daily lives. The accompanying map shows religiosity by country, ranging from the least religious to the most religious on a relative basis. Across all populations, the median proportion of residents who said religion is important in their daily lives is 82%. Americans fall well below this midpoint, at 65%.

. . .

Social scientists have noted that one thing that makes Americans distinctive is our high level of religiosity relative to other rich-world populations. Among 27 countries commonly seen as part of the developed world, the median proportion of those who say religion is important in their daily lives is just 38%. From this perspective, the fact two-thirds of Americans respond this way makes us look extremely devout.

What's more, as Gallup's Frank Newport recently pointed out, there is wide regional variation in religiosity across the 50 American states. The proportion of those who say religion is important in their daily lives is highest in Mississippi, at 85% -- a figure that is slightly higher than the worldwide median (among all countries, rich and poor). Two others, Alabama (82%) and South Carolina (80%) are on par with the worldwide median.

The entire survey is fascinating. Read it all here.

Churches start giving financial advice

With the downturn in the economy people are struggling to learn how to manage their finances in a new and difficult setting. A somewhat surprising turn of events has significant numbers turning to their local churches to find support and advice.

CNN is reporting:

"Programs that teach debt elimination, financial literacy and money management are gaining popularity among the faithful who are seeking some stability in the midst of uncertain times.

[...]Khalfani-Cox, who provides [such a] program free for churches, said she is hearing from places of worship, both big and small, nationwide who want to offer resources to their members.

'In faith-based communities, if you ask pastors across the country, many will tell you that attendance is up; however donations are down,' said Khalfani-Cox, who is known as the Money Coach. 'People are turning to the church for help, whether it's help making their mortgage payment, putting in a prayer request, assistance in finding a job or just getting practical, day-to-day strategies for managing debt.'"

Read the full article here.

Is your local congregation using these sorts of programs to help folks who are suddenly struggling? (Ours is one of a number here in Phoenix so doing.) How has the response effectiveness been so far for you?

NCC Yearbook reports decline in RC & Southern Baptist membership

The National Council of Churches Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches reported a decline in Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist membership for first time in recent experience. The Episcopal Church declined less than United Church of Christ but slightly more than the Evangelical Lutherans.

The 77th annual edition of the Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches, long a highly regarded chronicler of growth and financial trends of religious institutions, records a slight but startling decline in membership of the nation's largest Christian communions.

Membership in the Roman Catholic Church declined 0.59 percent and the Southern Baptist Convention declined 0.24 percent, according to the 2009 edition of the Yearbook, edited by the National Council of Churches and published by Abingdon.

The figures indicate that the Catholic church lost 398,000 members since the appearance of the 2008 Yearbook. Southern Baptists lost nearly 40,000 members.

Both membership figures were compiled by the churches in 2007 and reported to the Yearbook in 2008. The 2009 Yearbook also includes an essay by the editor, the Rev. Dr. Eileen W. Lindner, on the various ways churches count their members.

Neither figure is earth-shattering given the size of the churches. Roman Catholics comprise the nation's largest church with a membership of 67,117,016, and Southern Baptists rank second in the nation at 16,266,920.

But this year's reported decline raises eyebrows because Catholic and Southern Baptist membership has grown dependably over the years. Now they join virtually every mainline church in reporting a membership decline....

...There are no clear-cut theological or sociological reasons for church growth or decline, says Editor Lindner. "Many churches are feeling the impact of the lifestyles of younger generations of church-goers -- the 'Gen X'ers' or "Millenials' in their 20s and 30s who attend and support local congregations but resist joining them."

Read the rest here.

Church shopping is nothing new

The Obama's search for a new church home for their family has opened up a conversation in some quarters about the American phenomenon of "church shopping". Every pastor and priest says they deplore it, but most of them do what they feel they need to do in response to it. It's been a part of the American religious experience for generations.

Andrew Santella looks at why we do what we do:

Part of the discomfort with church shopping has to do with the way growing churches attempt to attract spiritual shoppers. That simple marquee in front of a church with the cheerfully homely motto ("Prevent truth decay: Brush up on your Bible") doesn't suffice to recruit worshippers. Web sites stream audio and video of sermons and music to let prospective members shop from home, and consultants help congregations market themselves to the "unchurched" and the merely unsatisfied by deploying focus groups, surveys, product giveaways (free church-branded Frisbees, anyone?), and other tactics borrowed from the commercial realm. The Wall Street Journal reported recently on churches employing mystery worshippers, "a new breed of church consultant," who covertly attend services and evaluate them (Were the bathrooms clean? Was the vibe friendly?) as if they were first-timers looking for a new church.

Marrying the sacred to the secular inevitably provokes criticism. In First Things, Anthony Sacramone called church shopping "potentially spiritually corrupting" and warned against the "ecclesiological chaos" of the religious marketplace. The practice is particularly troublesome for the more established churches that find themselves in competition with growth-minded, nondenominational congregations. Pope Benedict XVI, speaking at a World Youth Day Mass in 2005, noted "a new explosion of religion" but warned that "if it's pushed too far, religion becomes almost a consumer product. People choose what they like and some are even able to make a profit from it." His concern is understandable: About 10 percent of American adults describe themselves as ex-Catholics—a figure that, if ex-Catholicism were its own religion, would make it one of the nation's largest religious groups—and they are a huge target market for growing churches.

Church shopping, marketing, and the not-so-sanctified practices that go with them make easy targets for criticism. But competition among churches for worshippers has always been fierce in the United States, to the benefit of American religion and individual churchgoers. The prohibition against establishing an official state religion helped give us the shoppers' paradise that is our religious marketplace. Disestablishment (Massachusetts was the last state to cut ties to its official church, in 1833) meant that preachers had to learn to get along without support from the state. It made the ability to recruit and keep a flock—and get them to give generously—crucial to a church's survival. In 1992, Roger Finke and Rodney Stark argued in The Churching of America, 1776-1990 that this produced a ministry modeled on capitalism, with pastors acting as the church's sales force.

Congregation aging? Attendance shrinking? Try a relocation bonus!

The Associated Press reports that Temple Emanu-El, the only synagogue in Dothan, Alabama, has found a way to reverse their shrinking attendance and aging membership trends: offer "Jewish families as much as $50,000 to relocate and get involved" in the congregation.

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A survey on technology and the church

The Barna Group, best known for its surveys on faith attitudes, has a new survey that focuses on the use of technology by different generations, and the implications for churches:

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A nation of religious free-lancers

The latest American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) shows that more and more Americans claim no religious affiliation and that fewer Americans call themselves Christian than a generation ago.

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"Left Behind" authors say Obama is not the anti-Christ but close

Mark Hulsether over at Religion Dispatches looks at the whole interview that Tim LaHaye and Jim Jenkins, co-authors of the Left Behind series, had on the Rachel Maddow show last week, when she asked them if they understood President Obama to be the anti-Christ.

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The culture wars are ending?

Frank Rich points out some interesting implications of the lack of controversy over President Obama's lifting of President Bush's stem-cell research ban. He sees an American public less tolerant of being manipulated by moral "scolding".

From his Op-Ed piece in the New York Times this weekend:

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Controversy spreads over Obama speech at Notre Dame commencement

President Obama's invitation to speak at Notre Dame this spring is causing a number of Roman Catholic leaders to boycott the ceremony, including the Bishop of the local diocese. The problem is centered in the President's support for keeping abortion legally available in the United States. According to Daniel Burke, the Jesuits at Notre Dame, among others, are coming out in support:
"'People need to recognize that Catholic universities have to be places where freedom of speech and discussion is recognized and valued. Not to allow a diversity of speakers on campus is to put Catholic universities into a ghetto,' says Reese. Meanwhile, National Catholic Reporter takes the gloves off, calling Patrick Reilly, whose Cardinal Newman Society incites a lot of commencement outrage, a 'self-appointed ayatollah' and 'overseer of false orthodoxy.'  '...as Cardinal Newman rolls over in his recently relocated grave, Reilly uses the cardinal's good name to promote the idea of university as Catholic madrassa,' says Joe Feuerherd, NCR'spublisher and editor-in-chief."
Read the full article here.

Brueggemann presentation to the House of Bishops available

Walter Brueggeman was one of the invited speakers at last month's House of Bishop's meeting in Kanuga. His presentation starts by observing that the Old Testament intentionally juxtaposes a priestly account of the story of salvation and a prophetic one. Assuming that this was done for a reason, he then asks the Church in this moment what we can learn from this.

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Gallup Poll on Catholics on social issues

A new Gallup poll finds no difference between the views of American Catholics and non-Catholics on issues such as abortion, stem cell research and homosexuality. And, while the most devout Catholics have views more in line with church doctrine than their less devout counterparts, they too have views that diverge from church doctrine:

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The end of the Christian nation of America

Newsweek has an extended essay focusing on the implications of a recent Pew finding that fewer Americans than ever are reporting they are religious. While this comes as no surprise to clergy who are constantly meeting folks who are "spiritual but not religious", there are some very significant political ramifications.

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The rise of the Cowboy Church

Cowboy church isn't the punch line to a joke, it's an old tradition in the Southwest that is starting to grow on folks. Created as a way to reach out to people who might not otherwise be comfortable in Sunday worship, the movement is starting buck the trend of decreasing church attendance being seen by other styles of worship.

The Dallas Morning News reports:

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Twittering the Passion

Trinity Church, Wall Street tried an interesting experiment this past Good Friday; twittering the Passion narrative. Twitter, a rapidly growing social microblogging service allowed the story to be posted in small chunks throughout the traditional three hour observance.

Religion Dispatches has an excellent account of the reporter's own reactions to the service:

"It all got going around 12:10 p.m. on Friday, ten minutes late, after some technical troubles. The first post: ‘via @ServingGirl: is so tired. Caiaphas and the priests have been up all night questioning a man who claims to be the Messiah. And I wait on them.’ Yes, the text itself was under 140 chars, but with the ‘via @ServingGirl:’ part it went a bit over. By 1:27, a few such posts prompted ‘@jgderuvo’ to shout out, for all watching twspassionplay’s Twitter page to see, ‘Guys, stay within the 140 character limit… it’s truncating, ruining the effect!’ It’s basically the equivalent of someone standing up in the theater and shouting that the script wasn’t in perfect iambic pentameter.

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Church politics gone viral

Daniel Burke of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life notes how church politics has gone viral, mirroring many of the trends and tecniques of secular politics, and he holds out the election of Kevin Thew Forrester as Bishop of Northern Michigan as the latest example.

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Bishop Robinson calls for Episcopal Church to stop performing marriages

Bishop Gene Robinson, visiting a parish in Los Angeles, has suggested that a way forward for churches split on the question of same-gender marriages would be for the clergy to stop officiating at the marriage, and focus on the blessing instead.

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Modernize or die?

Candace Chellew-Hodge at Religion Dispatches writes of Faith and Flux, a recent Pew Forum study on religious affiliation:

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When the cradle nonreligious go to church

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life studied the lifelong religious membership habits of 3000 people. Most of us in the faith community noticed a growing number of people who move from membership in some religion to non-membership. That growing number of so-called "unaffiliateds" both caught our attention and confirmed our observations.

Most commentators looked at the growing stream of people leaving the churches of their youth and eventually becoming people not connected with any religious tradition at all. Few noticed the ones who grew up nonreligious and joined a church later in life.

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From bowling alone to churching alone?

Robert Putnam is back with a forthcoming book, "American Grace" in which he presents the results of his research on the increase in the number of young "nones". He spoke to reporters Tuesday at a conference on religion organized by the Pew Forum on Faith in Public Life.

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Blame the Jews

Neil Malhotra and Yotam Margalit writing in the Boston Review:

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Danforth on Faith, Evangelicals and the GOP

This story came out few weeks ago, but we just saw it here on the Lead:

"Many know John Danforth as a former three-term U.S. Senator from Missouri, and former Ambassador to the United Nations. But the Midwestern Republican's interests stretch far beyond politics. Danforth is also an ordained Episcopal priest. The public servant talks openly about his faith and why he believes right-wing evangelicals have done more harm than good for the GOP."

Listen to the interview here.

Hat tip to Fr. Jeff.

Obama calls for civil discourse

There are numerous stories popping up today about the President's address to the graduating class of Notre Dame yesterday. The invitation was offensive to some in the Catholic Church because of the President's pro-choice stand.

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Parents fuming over distribution of Bibles at school

According to FoxNews:

Some parents in Frisco, Texas, are fuming because their public school district allowed Christian evangelists to provide Bibles to students on school grounds, which administrators say was done to stop even more proselytizing outside the schools.

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Theological schools seek mergers

There are nine Christian theological graduate schools and seminaries in the Boston area and many of them are exploring mergers and other ways to deal their financial challenges.

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God isn't going anywhere

The New Humanist on God is Back: How the Revival of Religion is Changing the World, by Economist journalists John Micklethwait (pictured right) and Adrian Wooldridge:

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Morals schmorals

Dan Gilgoff of US News reports on a Pew Survey in which the percentage of respondents who listed "moral values" as their top concern plummeted from 27 percent (and first place) in 2004 to 10 percent (and a tie for third). E. J. Dionne thinks he knows why. Mark Silk has also chimed in.

Learnings from New Hampshire

Recently the State of New Hampshire legislature and governor agreed to include certain protections for religious leaders before they would both agree to enact a law recognizing same-sex marriage. Robert Jones and Daniel Cox have taken a close look at that decision to see what sorts of lessons can be drawn.

They write in part:

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Charitable giving down, religious giving is up

The National Catholic Reporter, citing a study by Giving USA Foundation, says that religious organizations reported a 5.5-percent increase in donations last year, a marked contrast from the nationwide 2-percent decline in charitable giving.

Religious congregations, which accounted for 35 percent of the total $307 billion in charitable contributions, exceeded $100 billion in donations for the second year in a row.

Though public-society benefit and international affairs organizations also cited increases in charitable contributions, two-thirds of public charities reported a decrease for only the second time in the report's 54-year history.

The economic recession spurred this decline, Del Martin, the chairwoman of the foundation, said in a statement. "We definitely did see belt-tightening ... but it could have been a lot worse," Martin said.

Even with the cutbacks, the total still exceeded the $300 billion mark for the second consecutive year.

The survey showed that 54 percent of human services charities saw an increase in need for their services in 2008, and 60 percent were forced to cut expenses. Organizations serving youth development were hit the hardest, with 74 percent reporting funding shortages.

The majority of donations came from individual contributors, who gave more than $229 billion. Gifts to religious organizations made up half of all individual contributors. Corporate donations totaled $14 billion, a 4.5 percent decrease from the year before.

Read the rest here.

Straight believers in "gay" churches

Tiffany Stanley reports on the experience of straight people who are worshiping in congregations that are predominantly gay or lesbian. The report describes the experience of people in synagogues, main-line congregations and even in the predominantly LBGT Metropolitan Community Church denomination.

There's a mention of St. Thomas's Dupont Circle in Washington DC:

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How will your church adjust to demographic realities?

The Dallas Morning News Religion Blog:

What about religion? How do demographics shape the thinking of you who are in the pulpit, theology schools or the pew?

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Prosperity gospel in hard times

Clint Rainey, writing at Slate asks hard questions for the purveyors of the prosperity gospel:

In times of record-high foreclosures and Treasury Department scrambling to shore up loan-refinancing initiatives, the Prosperity Gospel can sound as if it comes from preachers who live under rocks, not in mansions: "God wants to give you your own house," big-cheese pitchman Joel Osteen announced in 2007's Your Best Life Now, which he penned in an economic Indian summer of a bull market and excited homebuyers. " 'How could that ever happen to me?' you ask. 'I don't make enough money.' Perhaps not, but our God is well able."

Osteen is everywhere these days. You see his coiffed pate smiling on Good Morning America, at the new Yankee Stadium for its first nonbaseball event, on the cover of Texas Monthly's ideas issue—all in one week. Yet he artfully disappears for housing-crisis questions like "Why, if God wants to reward the faithful with material possessions, are so many believers in foreclosure?"


Read more here.

A test of faith

President Obama wants to appoint Dr. Francis Collins to be the next director of the National Institutes of Health. Collins is a physical chemist, a medical geneticist and the former head of the Human Genome Project and also wrote the book The Language of God. Pop Atheist Sam Harris says that's a bad idea because, as good as Collins' credentials may be, he is fundamentally unqualified because he believes in God and describes himself as an evangelical.

So which is worse? Appointing a person to a post solely because of their religious faith or denying a post to a person because it appears to some that religious faith is compatible with the job?

Harris applies a religious test in his understanding of the NIH director position because, as he writes,

As someone who believes that our understanding of human nature can be derived from neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science and behavioral economics, among others, I am troubled by Dr. Collins’s line of thinking. I also believe it would seriously undercut fields like neuroscience and our growing understanding of the human mind. If we must look to religion to explain our moral sense, what should we make of the deficits of moral reasoning associated with conditions like frontal lobe syndrome and psychopathy? Are these disorders best addressed by theology?

Dr. Collins has written that “science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence” and that “the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted.”

One can only hope that these convictions will not affect his judgment at the institutes of health. After all, understanding human well-being at the level of the brain might very well offer some “answers to the most pressing questions of human existence” — questions like, Why do we suffer? Or, indeed, is it possible to love one’s neighbor as oneself? And wouldn’t any effort to explain human nature without reference to a soul, and to explain morality without reference to God, necessarily constitute “atheistic materialism”?

Ari Eisen at Religious Dispatches disagrees with Harris and says that in this case the atheist is being unreasonable.

First of all, and most importantly, (as Harris himself points out), Collins is a well-known and well-respected scientist, who among other significant achievements helped lead the NIH project to completely sequence the human genome. No one questions Francis Collins’ science or administrative credentials.

But, as we see regularly now in so many nomination proceedings, that’s not enough. The next question: Will the nominee be biased by their personal beliefs? Which is really another way of asking Does he or she believe in the same things I do?

So, here’s my reasoning on Collins. First, the NIH spends American tax dollars to help make Americans leaders in scientific and medical discovery and innovation. At last count , more than 90% of Americans believe in God or a higher power; more than half of us pray regularly. Now, this doesn’t prove, of course, that God exists, but given these statistics, isn’t it reasonable that the American representing and making decisions as NIH Director be both—of course a good thinker and scientist, but also someone who understands religion and believes in God?

Second, again as Harris points out, "there is an epidemic of scientific ignorance in the United States." Now, much of what Harris calls ‘ignorance’ I would call "lack of open discussion and education" and much of this lack occurs between scientists and people of faith who often simply yell past each other.

So, who then could possibly make more sense to help address this ‘epidemic’ than a well-respected scientist who also claims himself among the 100 million evangelical Christians in America? What better person to lead, decide, think, bridge, and help us think better and more cooperatively on science and religion than Francis Collins?

What many atheists forget is they practice theology even when they deny God's existence, warn people about the dangers of belief, and promote the virtues of unbelief. If it is wrong to apply a religious test to assure that only evangelicals can hold government posts, it is equally wrong to apply a religious test that only atheists can make governmental decisions about scientific policy.

Read Harris' Op-Ed here and Eisen's essay here.

Religiousity and the college major

From the National Bureau of Economic Research:

Two key questions, based on the differences in college experience across majors, are whether either (a) the Scientific worldview or (b) Postmodernism has negative effects on religiosity as these streams of thought are actually transmitted at the college level. The results show a decline in religiosity of students majoring in the social sciences and humanities, but a rise in religiosity for those in education and business. After initial choices, those respondents with high levels of religiosity are more likely to enter college. Of those who are in college, people with high levels of religiosity tend to go into the humanities and education over other majors.
InsideHigherEd has more on the findings.

Activists using Texas School Board committee to shape national teaching standards

Conservative activists have begun a push to change the textbook standards used in schools across the state of Texas to express their particular views of American History in a way similar to what anti-evolutionists accomplished in the '80's and '90's.

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Seaside communities of faith

Neela Banerjee of the New York Times visits some seaside congregations, two of them Episcopal, and find vibrant, welcoming communities of faith.

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Women targeted by faith leaders

Many Women Targeted by Faith Leaders, Survey Says
By Jacqueline L. Salmon writing in The Washington Post's "On Faith" blog

One in every 33 women who attend worship services regularly has been the target of sexual advances by a religious leader, a survey released Wednesday says.

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Protecting oneself in worship, weapons or helmets?

Weapons

"On Faith" at the Washington Post/Newsweek blog notes that some worshipers are bringing weapons to worship in order to protect themselves.

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Hartford study: new reports of slippage in conventional American religion

Hartford Seminary's Institute for Religion Research released a first-look report Wednesday of a 2008 survey, "Faith Communities Today" (the third such report in the ongoing FACT study series), and the numbers weren't great.

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Whither religion reporting?

Ten years ago or so major daily newspapers were in the process of beefing up their religion reporting. The role of the Moral Majority and the newly activist religious voices in everyday politics meant that what religious voices were saying was important to cover. That was then. Now, not so much.

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Number of female senior pastors increases

Barna Group, a research company that specializes in church trends, reports that the number of female senior pastors has doubled in the past 10 years:

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7 Deadly Sins mapped

Wired maps the seven deadly sins:

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American politics and extreme religion

This week, the Guardian asked the question "Have extremists retaken American Christianity?"

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Religious voices cooperating on Climate Change

In a somewhat surprising development, given the secular world's decision to use climate change as a political "sorting hat" of people into camps of good and bad party members, the religious community seems to have found broad based agreement and is now working in concert to lobby in Washington.

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OK law not okay with church leaders

Roman Catholic and Episcopal Bishops and leaders of the Presbyterian and Pentecostal Holiness churches told the Oklahoma House yesterday that legislation that would require the owners of church properties and trusts to state clearly on their deeds the exact terms ownership is a bad idea.They said it would violate long-held legal principles and lead the state into court entangling them in the minutiae of church polity and theology.

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Churches seeking security

Churches used to be open all day and sometimes all night so that people could come in and pray. Then they began to lock them up so that no one would steal the silver or vandalize the premises. Now some congregations employ guards and security cameras to prevent attacks from happening during public worship.

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Guns, God and places of worship

JaNae Francis in the Ogden Standard-Examiner:

Two local church leaders have very different views about whether guns should be allowed in churches.

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Don't ask. Don't tell. Doesn't work.

You know that society is moving toward the acceptance of gay relationships when Joint Force Quarterly , a prestigious journal published by the National Defense University Press for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff gives the top prize in its 2009 essay contest to a systematic dissection of the U. S. Military's policy of Don't Ask. Don't tell.

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St. John's, a church down the street, does fine by the Obamas

President Obama and his family attended the service this morning at St. John's Church (Episcopal), a leisurely stroll across Lafayette Square.

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Reframing Columbus Day

The Rev. Dr. Richard Tardiff, co-chair of the Episcopal Committee on Indian Relations in the Diocese of Maine, has a Columbus Day column in the Bangor Daily News,

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Clergy taking leadership in immigration debate

An article in the Arizona Republic points out that more and more it is the voices of the clergy that are dominating the ethical discussions surrounding comprehensive immigration reform in the United States. And most of those voices are coming from mainline clergy.

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The resurgent political power of the Roman Catholic bishops

The US Conference of Catholic bishops are exercising an increasing amount of political clout here due in part to the election of a President and the rise to power of a political party they opposed. Their strong reactions to programs suggested by the President and Democratic Party controlled Congress have changed the nature of the Health Care reform bill. They are using strategic donations of money from around the country to defeat state based initiatives to recognize same-sex marriages.

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Feeding ministries abound and offend

Typically at this time of year there are many stories about how churches are responding to hunger in their communities. St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Natik is doing heroic work in their community. But the need has grown so great that their food pantry has outgrown their parish building. Luckily the community around them came to the rescue:

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Atheists organize

The Baltimore Sun reports on atheists who are beginning to organize into something that looks like an organized religion. They are even meeting in a church.

The Baltimore Coalition of Reason seeks to gather atheists, agnostics and others, by advertising through billboards targetting nonbelievers. Their message is that it is possible to be good without God.

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Forget the hungry! How about my parking ticket?

USA Today reports on a church in Idaho -- the aptly named Treasure Valley Church of Christ -- whose representatives will be standing in front of City Hall on Dec. 12th with an offer to pay traffic and parking fines up to $10,000.

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Danforth gives $30M for Religion in Politics Center

Former United States Senator (and retired Episcopal priest) John C. Danforth's foundation gives $30 million dollars to establish a center which will explore the role of religion in politics:

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Oral Roberts launched the "Prosperity Gospel"

Oral Roberts helped to launch what has become known as the "Prosperity Gospel," a belief that if you have enough faith you will become rich and healthy. In Slate.com, Hanna Rosin points out some of the more obvious inconsistencies with this theology, using Roberts' life as a case in point.

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Did the Prosperity Gospel cause the market crash?

This month's issue of The Atlantic has a provocative article by Hannah Rosin suggesting that the Prosperity Gospel, with its belief that those whom God loves, God blesses with material wealth may have had a significant role to play in the economic meltdown the world experienced last year.

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Vote for USAToday's top stories

It seems just about everyone is making up their top lists for the year. Didn't they know that Santa already made his list?

USA Today offers their readers to vote for the "top religion newsmaker of 2009". Check it out. If you don't vote, you can't complain about who wins.

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63% of Americans know little of Muslims; 50% don't like them

Voice of America gets us rolling:

Two-thirds of Americans say they have little or no knowledge of Islam. But a new survey finds that more than half of Americans have an unfavorable view of the faith, with nearly as many people expressing negative feelings toward its followers.

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Mechanics (and pitfalls) of text-based giving

In the wake of relief efforts coming to the fore in Haiti, you have probably heard over the past week about the option to donate by sending a text message, or through social media channels. Such options are now available due to organizations like the Mobile Giving Foundation.

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Roger Ebert on God

"At the Movies" reviewer Roger Ebert reflects on God. No, not the George Burns "Oh God," or the Jim Carrey "Bruce Almighty," actually his belief in God:

How I believe in God
By Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times

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Grocery store pastor

Today has been "religion in the public square" day at The Episcopal Cafe. From stories of Ashes on the run, to chaplains at the Olympics and Tiger Woods public apology. Now comes this story from The Washington Post about a DC area Pentecostal pastor whose congregation meets in a grocery store.

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Ignatian Spirituality for Inmates

Having entered the season of Lent last week, many Christians are taking up the challenge and opportunity of a deepened prayer life to cultivate the awareness of God's presence in our lives. In one LA correctional facility, seminarian Karri Backer, is leading Ignatian Spirituality groups in the midst of a most distracting and challenging context.

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Obama's private faith---and ours.

A year ago, the big question was "where would the Obamas go to church?" From a human interest angle, it was right up there with what kind of dog they'd get and where the girls would go to school. Everyone had ideas about what church community they would join. A year later, the Obamas have not joined a church and have taken a private approach to their faith expression and formation, one that does not routinely include a faith community.

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The reports of our death are greatly exaggerated

Writing for USA Today, Oliver Thomas: sees signs of life in mainline Protestant churches:

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What is Easter?

The Barna group studied the meaning of Easter in the U.S. with some surprising results:

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Is there religion in heaven?

Religion Dispatches interviews Lisa Miller about her new book, Is There Religion in Heaven?

RD: What inspired you to write Heaven?

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Many unchurched hurt by church

A Barna survey says many of the unchurched avoid church because of past negative experiences in church:

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Millennials don't go to church or pray

A new survey by Lifeway Christian Resources reports that most young adults, the "Millennials," don't pray, don't worship and don't read the Bible according to an article in USAToday :

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Lift high the Rorschach blot

Cathy Grossman of USA Today has written an excellent summary of the issues involved in the Supreme Court's peculiar ruling yesterday that the cross is not exclusively a Christian symbol.

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Scenes from the American religious landscape

Here are some post cards from the American religious scene.

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Church and economics, part one

It used to be that when times were hard, people turned to God, or at least went to seminary. Not this time. The Christian Century says that both mainline and evangelical Protestant seminaries have not seen the same bounce in enrollment that they saw in past economic downturns.

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Church and economics, part two

One reason that seminaries might not see a bounce in enrollment during this recession is that there are many more ordained persons than there are available churches--depending on where you look.

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Consultation to meet to discuss Indigenous Leadership in TEC

Indigenous Episcopal Church leaders whose ministry includes native peoples will gather in May in Sewanee, Tennesee for the Oklahoma IV 2010 Consultation: "The Present and Future of Indigenous Leadership in the Episcopal Church."

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Lady Gaga and the religion of style

Jeremy Biles on Religion Dispatches thinks that the conspiracy theorist are right, just not in the way they think. Lady Gaga uses religious symbols and occult imagery deliberately to say...nothing.

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Not "Miss Religion USA"

Rima Fakih who recently won the Miss USA pageant is from Michigan where there is a sizable Arab-American population. Still her win caught a lot of people by surprise, and was followed by the usual thoughtless and bigoted comments.

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Rick Warren will spit you out of his mouth

Apparently Rick Warren has been reading Revelation lately, as last Sunday he informed his followers he would spit them out for being lukewarm.

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Brand loyalty and your church

Ron Sellers writes in The Clergy Journal about the "brand loyalty" problem facing mainline churches:

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Praying with the office chaplain

From The Wall Street Journal:

A growing number of companies are offering the services of chaplains in the workplace. Managers say many employees who wouldn't think of calling a therapist or an employee-assistance program will willingly turn to a chaplain.

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Conscience over big coal: Wendell Berry says no to his alma mater

Has the work of the university, over the last generation, increased or decreased literacy and knowledge of the classics? Has it increased or decreased the general understanding of the sciences? Has it increased or decreased pollution and soil erosion? Has it increased or decreased the ability and the willingness of public servants to tell the truth? Such questions are not, of course, precisely answerable.

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Diocese of New York at Pride

Becky Garrison, writing at Killing the Buddha, posts news of the Episcopal Diocese of New York at NYC Pride:

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e-xorcism

A so-called evangelist tries to cast a demon out of a friend on Facebook.

The blog "Jesus Needs New PR" shows how Joseph Huffman tries to exorcise the demon from Marrissa Johnson who apparently disagreed with Huffman about something.

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YMCA drops last three letters. But Y?

At the National Press Club on July 12, the YMCA announced its new official name: "The Y."

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Send Bibles to Glenn Beck

Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, writes in The Huffington Post that she is sending Bibles to Glenn Beck, with the social justice passages marked for him.

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Religious Right: losing their children?

CNN Belief Blog reports on the religious right's loss of their children from their ranks:

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Another fight over "the plain reading of scripture"

When Church and society fought over the institution of slavery, one the main battlegrounds was how to read the Bible on the subject. A plain reading of scripture seemed to support slavery but an application of Christian ethics derived from the Bible spoke against slavery. We see the same dynamic today as mainline Churches debate human sexuality.

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A house church near you

A study by the Barna Group estimates that 6 million to 12 million Americans attend house churches with some regularity and the Pew Forum found last year that 9 percent of American Protestants only attended home services. The AP reports on the phenomenon.

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Anti-Muslim sentiment swelling on American right

In his This Week in God feature, Steve Benen, who blogs for The Washington Monthly notes that the right wing of the Republican party is stepping up its anti-Muslim activities:

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Church versus strippers

Kevin D. Hendricks at Church Marketing Sucks talks about the strange case of the Christians from an Ohio church picketing a local strip club. The owner of the club returned the favor when the dancers picketed the congregation during Sunday services.

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Anne Rice keeps herself rippling, others riffing

When last we checked in with Anne Rice, she was using Facebook to walk away from Christianity while saying she still loved Jesus. This, we thought, seemed understandable - as indeed the wave of sympathetic responses on the web evinced - but perhaps the old saw about the baby and the bathwater applied.

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Fighting anti-Muslim bigotry

From Faith in Public Life comes this news:

More than 40 prominent Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders and religion scholars issued a statement today condemning the "xenophobia and religious bigotry" fueling the increasingly strident opposition to a proposed Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero.

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Obama is a pluralistic Old Testament kinda guy

How does Barack Obama use Bible passages? Jeffrey Siker, a theology professor at Loyola Marymount University has studied the question using Obama's two autobiographical books, and his key speeches.

The L A Times reports,

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Episcopalians' views on the NYC Islamic Cultural Center

The Episcopal Church is a member of the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches which issued a statement defending the right of Muslims to build a center near the World Trade Center,

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John Calvin… he's back!

The Anglican churches are often described as having a Catholic liturgy welded to a Calvinist 39 Articles. In the last few centuries the drift within much of the Episcopal Church has been to the catholic strands found in the liturgy. But the Christian Science Monitor is reporting that Calvinism, in its purest form, is starting to make a comeback in America.

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No new messiah in The City By the Bay

There are the occasional accidental saviors of history, and then there are the accidental non-saviors. San Francisco based author and economist Raj Patel was pegged with the title of savior recently and rejected the title outright.

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Glenn Beck has a dream, too ... of speaking for God

Didn't have the time/will yesterday for Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally? Neither did we.

Someone did, and found that Beck is positioning himself to receive a mantle he may not be prepared to bear.

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Five myths about mosques

Edward E. Curtis IV, a professor at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis, punctures a few misconceptions about mosques in an article in The Washington Post.

It includes this on sharia:

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Abercrombie sued for religious discrimination. Again.

Religion Clause reports that clothing retailer Abercrombie and Fitch is once again being sued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for rejecting a potential employee because of her religious. The applicant was an 18 year old Muslim woman and, according to the manager that interviewed her, her hijab does not conform to the A&F "look."

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The new Know-Nothing-ism

Paul Moses of dot.Commonweal notes an interesting parallel between the resistance Catholics faced in building churches in the 19th century, and the opposition Muslims are facing today.

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Did Jesus create a mini-church?

David Brooks in the Op-Ed of the New York Times writes on the challenge of David Platt's Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream, a book that challenges the Gospel of Wealth with the reality of the Gospel of Jesus.

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The rise of the new Geocentrism

Geocentrism, or the idea that the Earth does not move, and is the center of the created Universe featured as the center point of the disagreement between Galileo and the Pope at the dawn of the Enlightenment. Galileo argued that Copernicus' ideas that the Earth was the third planet from the Sun was a better explanation of what we see in the sky than the Church's then traditional teaching that the Earth was motionless and the Universe revolved around it.

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Historical parallels: American Catholics and Muslims

Writing in The New York Review of Books, Catholic scholars John T. McGreevy and R. Scott Appleby point out that American Catholics were regarded in the late 19th century very much the way in which American Muslims are regarded to today:

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We're all congregationalists now

Andy Rowell interviews Stanley Hauerwas in Christianity Today. Hauerwas discusses his new memoir and explains why he thinks "We're all congregationalists now."

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Baptists address gay issue

Reporternews.com, of Abilene, Texas, reports on how a Baptist congregation has separated itself from their state's Baptist conference because the local church welcomes gay and lesbians contrary to the policy of their denomination.

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Gaps between rich and poor

Tom Ehrich reflects on the upcoming week's gospel about Lazarus and the Rich man in light of the conflicts between people today.

A test of faith for Jesus, and for us

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Is mobility of clergy destructive?

The Rev. Ben Campbell has a big idea: the mobility of clergy contributes to the inability of communities to solve problems of justice.

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Reports of death of religious of tolerance in America greatly exaggerated

Writing in the October issue of Smithsonian Kenneth C. Davis says those who claim the angst over the NYC Islamic Center is an illustration of a decline in religious tolerance in the U.S. are starting from a faulty premise. Religious tolerance has never been as extensive as some would have us believe:

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Marking St. Francis day by supporting the bereaved

The first two weekends in October have been traditionally the time when Episcopal parishes hold their annual "Blessing of the Animals" as a particular way of marking the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. Generally that involves blessing people and their pets and praying for many happy years together. But what sort of support does the Church have for people who are grieving the loss of their animal companions?

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Who is your God?

In America's Four Gods, authors Paul Froese and Christopher Bader argue that disputes between believers can be traced to differences in beliefs about what God is like. Froese and Bader identify four Gods: the Authoritative God, the Benevolent God, the Critical God, and the Distant God.

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US public opinion on same sex marriages continues to shift

Last year a Pew Research study of American opinions on support for same-sex showed that 37% were in favor of legal marriage recognition and 54% were opposed. But that study was significant because it showed movement from the year prior. This year a similar study shows that the movement is moving toward a broad majority acceptance of same-sex marriage with now 42% in favor and 48% opposed.

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Momentum continues to address Doctrine of Discovery

What better time than the Sunday before Columbus Day to bring attention to the Doctrine of Discovery - the concept that colonial powers own the land they find despite who's been there already for thousands of years.

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Presiding Bishop's name appears on 'powerful women' list

Appearing on a Fortune list that includes Oprah, Lady GaGa, Ellen DeGeneres, and Michelle Obama, we find the name of The Episcopal Church's Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, listed as a powerful female voice in the category of religion.

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God in America on PBS

PBS's series God in America begins tonight, and Hank Steuver of The Washington Post says it is worth watching:

"God in America," a three-night joint production from "Frontline" and "American Experience" that begins Monday night, blends two subjects that most folks avoid in polite company -- religion and politics. It compellingly presents an American history that has been alternately ruined and elevated by faith.

Even though the title suggests a subject that is far too broad, the series is commendably evenhanded and sober, as one would expect. If there were urgent-care centers for people who've flipped their lids watching too much Fox News or MSNBC, the nurses there would strap these frantic citizens to gurneys and administer "God in America" via a nice, slow IV drip, like a powerful PBS antibiotic. (As a side effect, "God in America" can also make the viewer a little drowsy.)


Collapse of the church is nigh?

Our times; perhaps post-modern, perhaps post-Christendom, perhaps even "anti-Christian" according to this opinion piece in the Christian Science Monitor. And so, with collapse, what will grow?

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Synagogue dues don't raise more than church pledges

A survey conducted by the Forward finds that although synagogues rely on dues and churches on pledges their income on a per member basis is similar.

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A chapel for all

A hospital chapel at San Francisco General Hospital has been transformed into an open, comforting space for people of every faith...or of no faith.

The New York Times reports:

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Loyal but unenthustiastic

Andrew Greeley has written in final book and in it he says that Chicago Catholics like the Pope, respect the church but don't like being told how to conduct their sex lives and think the mass is deadly dull.

The Chicago Sun-Times writes:

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Does early pledging
depress pledging?

The question in the headline is only partly in jest.

In many states there has a trend to making early voting easier. The idea is that by making voting easier turnout will increase. As economists are found of saying, people respond to incentives. So by lowering the cost of voting more of us will vote, right? Not necessarily.

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Giving to religious charities up, to churches down

According to data collected by Empty Tomb, Americans are giving more to religious charities while also giving less to churches.

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US Constitution claimed to be of divine origin

Lester Pearce, the brother of Russell Pearce, the Arizona State Senator who was the primary legislative author of the infamous SB1070 legislation, is leading a series of seminars around the United States that teach that the US Constitution is ultimately God's word revealed.

Garrett Epps, former Washington Post reporter and legal scholar reports:

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Church leaders meet with President on eve of election

UPDATED: see below

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and other church leaders met with President Obama on the eve of the election.

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God and Country are in a hydraulic relation

Speaking of waves....

From the November issue of The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,

It has been recently proposed that people can flexibly rely on sources of control that are both internal and external to the self to satisfy the need to believe that their world is under control (i.e., that events do not unfold randomly or haphazardly).

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Religion's role in Tuesday's election

Analysts are sorting through the results of last weeks election looking for any trends that might tell us about where we're headed as an electorate. One of the first observations to emerge is that religious attacks are tending to boomerang back on the attackers. Case in point, the "Aqua-Budha" attacks on Senator-elect Rand Paul of Kentucky:

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Living, and dying, by the culture

The Crystal Cathedral, home at one time to the "Be Happy Attitudes" has fallen into receivership. Apparently the ministry which was once such an influential voice in connecting the best of modern therapy with the teachings of New Testament, isn't speaking to people any more.

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Begun the Christmas war has

Every year we've come to count on someone arguing that the secular world is taking Christ out of Christmas - and calling on true Christians to stand up *this* year. But this year something else is happening. Atheists are actually reaching out to Humanists by targeting Christians (and Muslims) with the hope that people will turn away from aggressive religious messages and to a more mellow sort of spirituality.

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Man dressed like Jesus kicked out of church - again

Read below, hold your breath, and click on this video link to see whether it was an Episcopal congregation.

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Jeweler has Second Coming Sale

Suppose it had to happen in America at some point, and we'd be a little surprised if it hasn't already, but one jeweler has found an eschatological marketing niche.

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Calls rise to probe Capitol Hill Muslim prayer session

When zero takes the plural (r.e., zero calls) it's grammatically correct for Pat Robertson's CBN uses the headline "Calls Rise to Probe Capitol Hill Muslim Prayer Session" when Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice issues the only call. Did we mention Jordan Sekulow, the ACLJ's Director of International Operations, is a panelist the Washington Post's On Faith blog?

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Only 16% of Americans believe in "pure" evolution

According to new poll data, just about 40% of Americans believe in the strictest form of Creationism, that God created the world about 10,000 years ago and that evolution had no part in the presently observed bio-diversity. A roughly equal percentage of Americans believe in a middle position which holds that the world we see today is a result of evolutionary development with God's involvement. Approximately 16% believe that human beings evolved through a process of natural selection without divine action.

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Is Jesus the reason for your season?

USA Today reports on a LifeWay survey about the reasons people like to celebrate at Christmas.

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Banning Christmas

Paul Flesher, professor at the University of Wyoming, author of Religion Today writes of when Christmas was banned:

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Does Religion cause healthy behavior?

Religiosity and healthy behavior are correlated according to a recent Gallup poll.

Economix explains:

The nation’s most pious tend to lead healthier lives, according to new findings from the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.

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Analyzing religion in America, 2010 edition

We've seen a veritable cornucopia of "top 10 lists" over the past weeks (including ours here on the Café). But there's not been much analysis of what the lists tell us about religion in America. There's been even less discussion of what we can learn by looking at which group puts which story in the top 10.

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Anger at God is common ...

... even among atheists.

In studies on college students, atheists and agnostics reported more anger at God during their lifetimes than believers. A separate study also found this pattern among bereaved individuals. This phenomenon is something Exline [lead study author Julie Exline, Case Western Reserve University psychologist] and colleagues will explore more in future research, which is open to more participants.

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The Christmas rush

Cindi Scoppe in The State:

On the third day of Christmas, I awoke to the sound of a “Morning Edition” host ridiculing the grocery stores that were still — still — playing Christmas music.

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Episcopalians overrepresented in Congress

According to a Pew Forum survey, Anglicans/Episcopalians are the most overrepresented denomination in the 112th Congress: They hold 7.7% of the seats yet are 1.5% of the adult population. No other Christian denomination is close in terms of over representation although Presbyterians are also heavily over represented.

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Army walks into a spiritual minefield

The Army is under fire for attempting to promote and assess the emotional and psychological resilience of soldiers who experience repeated traumas and extended deployments. Their goal is to deal with sky-rocketing rates of post-traumatic stress disorder. They have run into trouble in trying to assess and describe the "spiritual" aspects of emotional resilience.

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Why she's not going to church anymore

A victim of abuse who was mistreated within a religious setting as a young adult, Elizabeth Esther fesses up: she's tried church as an adult, and the healing just isn't there.

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The end of American exceptionalism?

The editors of The Christian Century have written perceptively about American exceptionalism:

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Last Supper in Lint

Yes, Lint not Lent! NPR reports on a woman who created a picture of the Last Supper from dryer lint.

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Obama tells faith journey at breakfast

My Christian faith then has been a sustaining force for me over these last few years. All the more so, when Michelle and I hear our faith questioned from time to time, we are reminded that ultimately what matters is not what other people say about us but whether we're being true to our conscience and true to our God. “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.” - President Obama

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Be careful what you wish for

The Salt Lake Tribune reports on Utah's HB109, "Religious Liberty Recognition and Protection Act" and how it may have unintended consequences:

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The evolution of religion

Faiths change over time. They bring different parts of their experience of God into sharper focus and allow previous certainties to fade. Whether you call that new truth, or rediscovered truth, either way it can argued that it's a form of evolutionary behavior.

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Anonymous targets Westboro Baptist

The loosely affiliated group known as "Anonymous", a group of Internet users that have been described as vigilantes, have announced their intention to target the Westboro Baptist Church websites and congregation members. Westboro is notorious online for their website "GodHatesFags.com", their actions picketing churches that support GLBT rights and, of late, funerals of American war dead.

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Religious and political leaders reflect on shifts in marriage law this week

Yesterday the Maryland Senate voted to allow same-sex marriages. The Governor of Hawaii signed legislation making it legal in Hawaii. And this week the Obama administration announced that it would change course and no longer defend the Defense of Marriage act passed under previous administrations.

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Digital Sabbath

It's late Friday afternoon. Lent is a bit more than a week away. It's an excellent time to start thinking about Sabbath; what we might give up and how we might slow down. There's a call for "digital natives" (generally people who grew up with the computers and the Internet) to take a day off next Friday.

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Why evangelicals hate Jesus?

Hmm, some food for thought here.


Why Evangelicals Hate Jesus
From The Huffington Post

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What goes around comes around, or so we can hope

The Alban Institute features Carol Howard Merritt's analysis of the challenge mainline congregations face, and how they should respond, adapted from her book Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation:

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Are "nones" attracted to TEC?

In a lengthy interview, Richard Madsen talks with Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell about their book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. One of the topics are the "nones", largely made up of people who were once members of a church but remain believers.

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The Virgin Mary makes "confirmed visit" to the US


First U.S. Visit of the Virgin Mary Confirmed in Wisconsin
A small-town shrine is on the verge of becoming a mass attraction.

By LEWIS WALLACE in Religion Dispatches

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Confessions of an unlikely Anglican

Deird writing at The Slacktiverse confesses there is something about praying with the whole body:

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Supreme Court narrows standing for Establishment Clause cases

Agreeing with the Obama administration's solicitor general, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that taxpayers have no right to challenge a tax credit for violating the Establishment Clause. The high court split 5-4 along idealogical lines with conservatives in the majority.

A tax credit reduces your tax bill dollar for dollar. $500 in credits reduces your tax bill by $500, in turn reducing the state's tax revenue by the same amount.

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Padré Alberto: Churches need to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell, too

In column for AOL Noticias, Father Alberto Cutíe praises the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and says:

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Can social media save a monastery?

From The New York Times:

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How the storms in Arkansas brought people together

Bishop Larry Benfield of the Diocese of Arkansas points out there are some small slivers of hope in the midst of the devastation that the tornadoes caused late this week.

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A circle of protection for the poor

There's a new statement circulating and gaining thousands of signatures by religious leaders. This time it's being signed by people who are disquieted by the government's willingness to balance budgets on the backs of the poor.

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Religious denominations face a looming financial crisis

Lovett H. Weems, director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership sounds the alarm:

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Jim Wallis speaks for whom?

After his Sojourners rejected an ad from a gay church group, progressive Christians are asking whether Jim Wallis of Sojourners be "THE" spokesperson for the Christian Left?

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Teaching the test

Noticed in a sidebar illustration: Sarah Posner's full story at Religion Dispatches on curricular intent and academic freedom at the Liberty University School of Law's "Foundations of Law" course is well worth a read, but our specific attention was drawn by the content of one of the course's actual test questions from 2008 - one that, it turns out, wasn't merely hypothetical.

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Letting the air out - slowly - at the Crystal Cathedral

The once-mighty Crystal Cathedral constructed in the pastorate of Robert Schuller as a landmark of twentieth-century American religious idealism will be sold as part of a plan for the Cathedral to get out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The LA Times:

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Some hard questions about the church's tax-exempt status

Writing for the Alban Institute, Dan Hotchkiss asks some hard questions about the tax breaks that churches receive from the government.

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Mennonite college backs away from national anthem ban

Given all the other news right now not many people have been following the story this week that Goshen College, a small historically Mennonite college decided to ban the playing of the US national anthem because it was "too violent".

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Studying church decline via evolution

David Sloan Wilson started studying the varieties of human living environments by trying to understand why some city neighborhoods are "good" and some are "bad". He quickly determined that good or bad have nothing to do economic status, at least not directly. Some neighborhoods are just, as he calls it, "prosocial" and some aren't. The ones that are have people who look after each other and are "good" places to live. The ones that don't, aren't.

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An experiment in creedless religion turns 50

Daniel Burke of RNS describes the Unitarian-Universalist Church as a "creedless church" and wonders if this "virtually unprecedented experiment" of advancing a religion without doctrine can survive another 50 years.

He writes:

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Cathedral packs 'em in for the 4th

Grace Cathedral in Topeka had a traditional, sparsely attended Fourth of July service for years. And then their new Organist and Choirmaster arrived. A few changes, and now the service draws people from all over the state.

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Happy Independence Day

Happy Independence Day, everyone. Expect light posting today. But if you are looking for some good reading, visit America's Sacred Ground, the Huffington Post's July 4 collection.

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Politics and the church

How much involvement should clergy have in politics? It depends what you mean by politics.

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Think faith - but very generally - said the ad man

On the AdWeek site there's a piece by Paul Jankowski exhorting the ranks of AdWeek's merchandisers, marketers, and advertisers to keep people's faith practices in mind when designing marketing materials for people in the "Heartland" of America. Not any one faith, he says, and not the faith (or lack therof) of the advertiser himself. Just ... well, faith, generally.

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Loss of religion in Hispanic culture

We reported on the latest Barna research earlier this week. But one of the most surprising observations of this year's update to the survey was recognition that latinos are losing their connections with organized religion faster than any other major ethnic group in the U.S.

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The death of American Protestantism?

The always provocative Stanley Hauerwas, in an essay for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Religion and Ethics website, argues that American Protestantism is dying in part because it conflates God and country, although not in a straightforward nationalistic sort of way:

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Preaching to their own choirs

Rob Bell's recent book "Love Wins" stirred up controversy mainly in Evangelical circles in the US, when he questioned the existence of hell. Other books have popped up in response. According to Ken Chitwood, blogging at Sacred Duty on Chron.com, no matter which side the writers are on, they are pretty much preaching to their own choir.

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How to think yourself out of - or into - religious affiliation

More hard news today from the handwringing number-crunchers down at the Department of Declining American Protestantism: It isn't that Americans are necessarily less religious as a whole, so much as that they conceive of themselves as existing wholly apart from religious belonging in an age in which affiliation seems to count for little.

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The effect of 9/11 on the perception of religion

Cathy Grossman of USA Today is covering Templeton-Cambridge seminars on Science and Religion convened by the Templeton Foundation. A recent article focuses on a presentation by R. Scott Appleby, a Catholic scholar at the University of Notre Dame, who who directs, "Contending Modernities," a program examining the interaction of Catholic, Muslim and secular forces in modern world.

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An icon for gay Catholics

Father Mychal Judge, the Franciscan priest and NYFD Chaplain who died in the line of duty at the foot of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001has become an icon for gay Roman Catholics. For example, a parish in Syracuse, New York, is erecting a statue to both honor Judge's witness and to demonstrate to the community that this parish chooses to continue that witness.

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Why are there more divorces in the Bible Belt?

CNN wonders what fuels the relatively high divorce rate in the "Bible Belt" compared with the relatively secular Northeastern US?

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Controversy erupts over lack of formal prayer at 9/11 ceremony in NYC

Some Christian religious groups are protesting Mayor Michael Bloomberg's decision to not include formal religious prayer as part of the ceremonies marking the 10th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Towers.

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Religious experiences viewed through Burning Man

This weekend the desert in Nevada hosts a veritable Brigadoon as the Burning Man festival rises from the shimmering heat in its annual manifestation. There's been much written over the years decrying the hedonism and anarchist impulse that, at least on the surface, typifies so much of the event. But Jay Michaelson sees a deeper truth in the event, a truth which has deep connections to the way religious life is experienced today.

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The working class gone missing

There was news last month that contrary to most people's expectation, the more educated an American is, the more likely that person is to attend church regularly. So why are the mainstream churches in the U.S. losing membership across the board? Apparently it's because the working class Americans are less and less likely to be found in congregations.

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Interfaith worship grows but religious isolation persists

Interfaith worship services have doubled in the decade since the 9/11 attacks, even as more than seven in 10 U.S. congregations do not associate with other faiths.

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9/11 sermon reflections

UPDATED 9/15: 9/11 sermons from bloggers Nick Knisley and Kurt Wiesner are now available online.

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Monday morning often brings new light to yesterday's sermon, both for the preacher and the listener. Then, for the preacher, inevitable wonderment about the coming week's lessons begins, and the cycle starts over, while the listener-participant can keep chewing on a substantial homily.

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Religion and pop-culture mash up

Some glimpses at the interesting ways that religion and culture meet up in America.

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Presbyterians to ordain first openly gay man

A Wisconsin Presbyterian church is planning to ordain the first openly gay minister in the history of the denomination early next month. This is the first such ordination since the vote this summer that opened the Presbyterian Church to gay and lesbian clergy.

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Choosing church over jail

Would you choose to attend church every Sunday for a year if it meant you didn't have to serve your jail sentence? Some offenders in an Alabama town are having this option offered.

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Faith and the Republican race

Yesterday an important Evangelical leader in Texas, Robert Jeffress, introduced Rick Perry (his governor) as a "genuine follower of Jesus Christ" and then went outside to meet with reporters to state that Perry's opponent Mitt Romney is "not a Christian". This represents the first real attack on Romney's faith background of this election year, and the pastor made the charges at an event organized by the Family Research Council, the American Family Association and other evangelical Christian groups.

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Young Christians leaving church and why

The Barna Group, an evangelical Christian research group, looks at why young people are leaving church.

USA Today published the Religion News Service report:

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Being (an evangelical) Christian and gay

If you are an active Christian in an evangelical church, a graduate of a major American evangelical college, and gay, where would go to tell other students and graduates of your school that it is possible to be both gay and Christian?

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Warning: Bible reading may make you more liberal

Reading the Bible can make you more liberal. So says a survey reported by Christianity Today.

More accurately, frequent Bible readers will, over time, tend to care more about the welfare of people, issues of social and economic justice.

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Giving as percentage of income at new low

Donations to mainline Protestant churches as a percentage of income is at its lowest level in at least 41 years, according to an RNS report published in the Huffington Post.

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How Christians might learn from the First Nations people

In an article that begins by describing how doing something as simple as lighting a smudging pot could risk imprisonment for North American aboriginal people, there's a discussion about where the present relations between the First Nation people and Christian majority are today. Bishop Marc MacDonald, formerly of the Diocese of Alaska and now of the Anglican Church in Canada is featured.

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Crystal Cathedral soon to be Catholic Cathedral

The Roman Catholic diocese of Orange in California just found a way to create an iconic cathedral center for its ministry at about 75% off. It bought the financially busted Crystal Cathedral campus created by Robert Shuller back in the heyday of his "Hour of Power" ministry.

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Religious lobbying a growth industry

The Pew Forum reports on lobbying by faith groups:

The number of organizations engaged in religious lobbying or religion-related advocacy in Washington, D.C., has increased roughly fivefold in the past four decades, from fewer than 40 in 1970 to more than 200 today.

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Black Friday; maybe we should chill?

If you follow Anglican and Episcopalian blogs right now, or you have clergy Facebook friends, you're probably seeing calls for a simpler Christmas. The Advent Conspiracy is leading the charge asking people to refrain from buying too much as way of keeping Christmas. The secular media is picking up on the idea too; someone from a TV station called me last night looking for a quote decrying the latest Black Friday mayhem.

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Original design for the National Cathedral

The iconic National Cathedral in Washington DC is such a striking structure when you see it on the skyline that it's hard to imagine that anyone could have conceived of a different form for the building that was financed by the Episcopal Church. But in an article on the Smithsonian website on DC monuments that were designed but never built, you can see that original plan was very different than what we have now.

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The "Hindu-ization" of American belief

Cremation is on the rise in the United States, especially during the present economic downturn. Cremating the remains of a loved one is generally much cheaper than have them embalmed and buried in a casket. But there may be more to this trend than simple economics.

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Bishop Packard says he will occupy Trinity Wall Street property

An interesting confrontation is brewing between Bishop George Packard, retired Episcopal Bishop to the Armed Forces and Chaplaincies, and the leadership of Trinity Church, Wall Street.

In his most recent blog entry, Packard writes:

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Gift, giver, receiver: more is less, less is more

Building on yesterday's conversations about gifts and the memes and counter-memes of Christmas, consider the following.

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Can any sitting President join a church in DC?

It's been widely noted that President Obama has not managed to join a congregation in DC since arriving there three years ago. He attends church at Camp David, occasionally at St. John's Lafayette Square, and other places. But he's not settled in, nor did his predecessor George W. Bush.

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Neither spiritual nor religious

Cathy Grossman of USA Today looks at some recent polling data and finds that a fast-growing segment of the American population is just not all that interested in religion one way or another.

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Faith-based predictions for 2012

CNN's Belief blog invited pundits and scholars to contribute to a list of 15 faith-based predictions for 2012. As a collection, they are pretty self-serving, but here are three that caught our eye:

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Where should the bread of heaven be made?

Most Episcopalians open their hands and receive the "body of Christ, the bread of heaven" on a weekly basis. But not many of us know much about the actual bread pressed into our palm. It turns out, the for congregations that purchase their wafers rather than make them, the majority of the wafers say something interesting about the Church as a business.

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Worship brings no transformational change for many

There's a new study out from Barna. In the study it is reported that roughly a quarter of the people attending church on Sundays are experiencing profound life changing connections. A quarter are finding something is different. But almost half the people who go to church on a Sunday are feeling like nothing is different. For half the church going public, the experience of a transformational experience with God isn't happening on Sunday morning.

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Who makes what; clergy salaries compared

Many Episcopal congregations are in the midst of the final decisions from their annual budgets and getting ready for the Annual meeting. What to pay the clergy is always a major question, given the clergy salaries are usually the single largest line item in a congregation's budget. There's a wide variance in most dioceses between what clergy make and there are different ways of working out guidelines, if they exist at all. But what about clergy in other denominations? What do their average salaries look like?

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Megadeth bassist becomes a seminarian

David Ellefson, bassist for the band Megadeth, is entering seminary according to Reverb, Denver Post:

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"The End of Church"

There's a sobering fact being recognized right now. All denominations in the United States of America are in decline. In a time as dire as the Church of England experienced in the mid-18th century, we are starting to see a collapse in the formal structures of religion as it has been practiced in the last century.

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The changing evangelical view of abortion

When the Supreme Court ruled that women had, because of the constitutional right to privacy, to be guaranteed access to safe and legal abortion providers, it wasn't a huge issue for the conservative American Evangelical churches. Their leaders had taken the position for years that the fetus was an "undeveloped human" and didn't therefore have rights.

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The world was "brought to church" at Houston's funeral

Stephen Prothero watched Whitney Houston's funeral on television and reflects how this service allowed America to witness the black church and its influence on our culture.

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A short lived reformation?

In the turmoil of the present moment in Mainline Christian life, it's common to hear people talking about the start of a new Reformation. For most of the more conservative voices, the new Reformation has the issue of human sexuality and/or gender as the "flash-point". But that particular issue might cause problems in the near future for break-away groups choosing it as their litmus test.

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No need for Jesus? Not so fast...

There's a bit of a dust up this week over a tweet by singer Miley Cyrus (also known to my daughter's generation as Hannah Montana)

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Card-counting evangelism?

A group of young Christians from Seattle formed the nucleus of an organization that worked to raise money by winning casino games of blackjack. Using a technique called "card counting" they traveled across the country racking up millions in winnings.

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A presidential study bible

Former US president Jimmy Carter has published a study bible filled with his personal reflections on the meaning of scripture and how it has influenced his life. Carter was noted as an active Sunday School teacher prior to his election and returned to that ministry following his retirement. He spoke frequently of his experience of being "born again" in the run up to his election. Carter is also well known for his work with Habitat for Humanity and the reconciliation and peace efforts of his Presidential library.

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Church in a bar

Worship in a bar? It's become commonplace to hear of congregations holding meetings or bible study groups in coffee shop, but Sunday service in working bar? While the bar is still open?

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Coming home again

Cathy Lynn Grossman at USA Today looks at the people who go back to the church of their youth. They are not converts, she calls them "reverts."

RNS:

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Religiosity by state

Gallup has issed a new poll measuring religious activity by residents of various states:

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Susan Russell: our missing voices

In a response to a study that finds that the an overwhelming majority of religious voices in the media come from groups opposed to marriage equality or any tacit acceptance of LGBT people into the Church, Susan Russell writes that it matters that the voices of the acceptance are missing.

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Who can speak for the Church?

Lionel Deimel writes of his concern that the provisional bishop of Pittsburgh, Ken Price, has signed onto a document that opposes a federal mandate regarding universal access to contraceptives.

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