Dec 28, 2015

15 notable religious leaders who died in 2015

To get a visceral sense of the real diversity of religion in America, we can look to the obituaries. Every year, people who gave their lives to one vision or another of transcendent reality and of the next life leave this one.

These 15 religious leaders, all of whom passed away this year, moved many in one way or another. They inspired Americans—and terrified them. They sang and organized, converted and advertised, prayed and preached and, for some, set an example.

And then, in 2015, they were gone.

They were each, in their own way, witnesses. Taken together, they testify to something true about America and about this moment.

Read the rest of the essay at the Washington Post: Andraé Crouch, Wayne Dyer, Clementa Pinckney and 12 other religious figures who died in 2015

Dec 18, 2015

Evangelical-indie Christmas music

More than a half dozen evangelical Christian music groups have released Christmas music on the site NoiseTrade, where they can be downloaded for a donation.

John Mark McMillian has done a version of "Joy to the World." McMillan, best known for the song "How He Loves." His 2015 EP, co-written with his wife, debuted as the number one iTunes download in the Christian & Gospel category.

He's making this Christmas song available for a suggested donation of $2:

Port Harbor, a Harrisonburg, Va., group, also has a Christmas single out on NoiseTrade. They've followed up their first full-length album in 2014 with a modern take on "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."

Josh Wright -- a former Baptist worship leader and American Idol contestant trying to make it in music -- has a released one new Christmas song every year for the last three years. The trio of compositions are available together as a seasonal EP titled "Christmas Dream."

Another EP is by LCBC Worship, the worship band of a multisite Pennsylvania megachurch. LCBC, which stands for Lives Changed By Christ, has weekly attendance of more than 14,000 at its seven locations. Its band has put out "Christmas at LCBC," with four Christmas songs. Each of these compositions is both familiar and new.

The Many, a group based in a Chicago church, has released a whole album, called Christmas & Advent 2015. The album offers a mix of traditional hymns and new material. According to the group, the new songs "came out of reflection on The Magnificat, Mary's song from Luke 1, and the story of Jesus' birth, and how those words from so long ago resonate with our current headlines."

Shoreline, a Knoxville, Tenn. church has chosen to stick with the classics. "Christmas with Shoreline" features the Baptist church's worship team performing four hymns:  "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus," "O Come O Come Emanuel," "Emanuel Has Come," and "Joy to the World." The church hopes making its music available will focus people on "the redemption that only comes through Jesus."

The old Christmas songs sound new on "A Christmas Sing-A-Long." This is the Christmas album from the Gospel Song Union, a group made up of members of five evangelical bands, including Kings Kaleidoscope and Citizens & Saints, two bands that started in Mark Driscoll's Mars Hill Church. The Christmas sampler reportedly is the start of a sustained project.

Dec 17, 2015

Baby Jesus theft

An $80 Baby Jesus figurine has been stolen from a front yard nativity in New Jersey.

According to police, "witnesses reported a black vehicle driven by a male." That isn't much of a lead. The Christmastime crime will likely go unsolved.

Across American, there is a rash of these thefts. Christ child figurines are being stolen from nativity scenes in residential neighborhoods, public parks and church lawns. It's that time of year again.

Peace on earth. Joy to the world. Baby Jesuses getting jacked.

In Pennsylvania, a life-sized papier-mâché baby Jesus was stolen out of a park. That Jesus has been stolen multiple times over the years. The town is looking into new security measures. The council of churches -- the owners of the display -- might pay to have a security camera installed. They have ruled out a padlock and chain, however.

According to the police chief, "Jesus in restraints isn't good."

Washington state has had a lot of baby Jesus thefts. One town, Port Angeles, Wash., had five in a year. A Presbyterian church in Seattle hasn't replaced it's Christ child from 2014, so they can't have the nativity scene this year.

"We can't put out Mary and Joseph," the pastor said, "cause that just looks kind of sad."

On the other side of the state, a man was arrested in Walla Walla, Wash. swiping a sheep from a nativity. He posted video of his own crime on Facebook. The 20-year-old claims he was on meth at the time. He has been charged with theft and he also broke a flower pot and was charged for that too. His bail was set at $5,500.

In California, a Christmas stable was stolen from a Congregationalist church before the church even had the chance to put Jesus in the manger. The pastor speculates someone might use the structure for firewood.

"It is just a sign of the times," he told the Modesto Bee. "It seems there are so many people that feel that it's all about them and they have a right to anything and everything and have no sense of moral or ethics."

A couple in Indiana were not so clear on the motives of the baby Jesus thieves. Their Christ was heisted from in front of their home, apparently while they were away. They put up the nativity because they "believe in the real meaning of Christmas." So do the thieves steal because they don't?

"You know we heard stories about people taking Jesus out of the yard," the Indiana man said. "We wonder does that mean you just don't believe and you don't want us to have it or what?"

My own theory is that it isn't unbelief that underlies this act. It's just a prank. But what makes the prank interesting is what it reveals:
Baby Jesus thieves literally take the Christ out of Christmas. When they do, it becomes apparent that the sacred object is also a piece of property, protected by the law that protects property and this whole apparatus that defends Christmas: fences and lights, tracking devices and private security companies, patrolling police and the courts. The commercialization of Christmas is visible here in a way it might not be, otherwise. That’s the power of the joke. 
Stealing the baby Jesus can seen as a protest against the commercialization of Christmas, which is to say against Christmas, since the theft, as a theft, shows how indistinguishable the commercial and religious aspects of this American holiday really are.

Dec 13, 2015



Dec 4, 2015

Mission hymns in 1941

In the daily struggles of the Great Depression, people gathered at 400 Crawford Street in Portsmouth, Va., at the Helping Hand Mission. They sang hymns. John Vachon, a photographer working for the United States Farm Security Administration to document American life in the, was there in March 1941, capturing the images:

These photos are some of more than 8,000 Vachon took. Many of these photos are made publicly available by Yale.

Nov 25, 2015

Going to Atlanta.

Nov 13, 2015

Baptist Sunday School in 1943

Women gathered at a Baptist church in San Augustine, Texas in April 1943 to learn how to be Sunday School teachers. John Vachon, a photographer working with the United States Farm Security Administration to document American life during the Great Depression, was there to capture the scene:

The instructor is identified in the archives only as Miss May, a "visiting Baptist leader." 

Vachon also returned to the church that same month to document its Sunday School. There, he turned the lens from the teachers to the children:

These photos were among the more than 8,000 Vachon took for the United States Farm Security Administration. Many of these photos are made publicly available by Yale.

Nov 9, 2015

Poco a poco

"I wonder whether I will ever finish this book. And of course I'll finish it. Just work a certain length of time and it will get done poco a poco. Just do the day's work."

-- John Steinbeck, in the journal he kept on his writing process for Grapes of Wrath.

Nov 3, 2015

Tim Keller on Christians in politics

Tim Keller, pastor of a major evangelical Reformed church in New York City, says Christians should be politically engaged, but carefully:

"Get into any party you think you can do the best job in, as Christians, and be very critical. Don't sell your soul."

Oct 7, 2015

Baptist hats in 1940

The vestibule of a Baptist church in Gadsden, Ala., in Dec. 1940. The hats belong to steel and cotton mill workers.

This photo was one of more than 8,000 taken by John Vachon, documenting American life during the Great Depression for the United States Farm Security Administration. Many of these photos are made publicly available by Yale.

Oct 2, 2015


A mural at a "Western City," Dasing, Germany.

Sep 24, 2015

"one of those witnesses who testified to the joy of the Gospel"

Pope Francis canonizes Junipero Serra, a Franciscan missionary to California during Spanish colonization:

The recognition of sainthood is not without controversy. As Sarah Pullman Bailey writes for the Washington Post, many hispanic Catholics are thrilled. But, she writes,
For many Native Americans, however, Serra is no saint. The Indians who joined the missions that Serra built were forced to shed their own culture, including their religion, dress and food. Thousands of them died prematurely from diseases common in Europe ... 
Treated as a hero by many in California, Serra established Catholic missions along its coast as he marched north with Spanish conquistadors. A statue of him stands in the U.S. Capitol, where each state is allowed two statues. Some historians and the Catholic Church focus on Serra’s dedication to Native Americans, while others say he oversaw and even contributed to a system that mistreated tribes.
In the mass, Francis spoke of Junipero Serra as an embodiment of the church that brings the "reconciling tenderness of God" to the world. He also talked about the missionary's efforts to protect the natives from the violence of the colonizers, from the mistreatment and wrong "which today still trouble us."

Serra is the first saint to be canonized in a mass celebrated in the US. The last North American to be recognized as a saint was Kateri Tekakwitha, an Algonquin-Mohawk woman born in what is now New York. She was canonized by Pope Benedixt XVI in 2012.

Sep 21, 2015

A pentecostal foreign policy

Cartoon by Charles Ramsay, a cartoonist for the Pentecostal Evangel for 43 years.

Sep 18, 2015


Photo booth, seen in Berlin.

Sep 17, 2015

Marilynne Robinson on the freedom of a Christian:

Sep 15, 2015

Baptist wrestling in 1940

In May 1940, a Baptist church in Jefferson City, Mo. was offering Bible classes, a special "Roger Williams" class for men -- and wrestling:

Evangelical outreach programs that adapt secular entertainments are frequently critiqued as a modern "dumbing down" of Christianity. They're not that modern, though. The old days, it turns out, were a lot like the present.

This photo was one of more than 8,000 taken by John Vachon documenting American life during the Great Depression for the United States Farm Security Administration. Many of these photos are made publicly available by Yale.

Sep 14, 2015

How Hillary Clinton's faith is a catch-22 on the campaign trail

Speaking from a Methodist pulpit on Sunday morning, Hillary Clinton explained her political vision with a reference to the classic Sunday school song “This Little Light of Mine.”

“Too many people,” she said, “want to let their light shine, but they can’t get out from under that bushel basket. It is way too heavy to lift alone. And that’s where the village comes in.”

It is the 200th anniversary of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, where the Clintons worshiped regularly when Bill Clinton was president. Hillary Clinton spoke during the bicentennial celebration Sunday about how her faith and faith community have shaped her.

She spoke of her mother, who she said taught her the wisdom of John Wesley, the 18th-century founder of the Methodist church, who believed in putting faith into action. She spoke of her youth pastor. She spoke of her college church, her church in Arkansas when her husband was governor of the state, and of walking to Foundry through the snow from the White House in 1993.

“In place after place after place,” Clinton said, “the Methodist church and my fellow Methodists have been a source of support, honest reflection and candid critique.”

Talking about her religious commitments has presented a bit of a quandary for Clinton as she runs for president. There is no obvious way for her to talk about her faith on the campaign trail. But avoiding the topic doesn’t seem like a good idea, either.

Voters consistently say they want politicians to have faith, yet they often don’t believe them when they talk about it. For Clinton, this seems especially true.

Read my latest essay at the Washington Post: Hillary Clinton showed up for church today. Will faith help or hurt her on the campaign?

Sep 12, 2015

Off to a little Bible College in Missouri

Bible College occupies a pivotal place in the single from Josh Ritter's new album:

Mama got a look at you and got a little worried
Papa got a look at you and got a little worried
Pastor got a look and said, 'Ya'll had better hurry'
Send her off to a little Bible College in Missouri  
And now you come back sayin' you know a little bit about
Everything they ever seemed to hope you'd never figure out
Eve ate the apple 'cause the apple was sweet
What kinda God would ever keep a girl
From getting what she needs?

Sep 11, 2015

Free religious practice requires conversation, accommodation

Religious pluralism requires real work. It can only be sustained with careful, studied, face-to-face negotiations, adaptations and accommodations. It depends on pragmatic judgements.

To make religious pluralism work -- freely allowing robust religious practices from diverse minorities that variously offend and befuddle the majority while at the same time disallowing any group's imposition of its beliefs and practices on others -- a society has to be willing to make pragmatic judgements. Judgements have to be made case-by-case. The principle calls for compromise. The ideal, in practice, values actual humans and life and its messiness over the clean and clear pronouncements of ideological abstractions.

US law, as it currently stands, does this.

For example, as Eugene Volohk recently explained in the Washington Post, the law since 1972 has required private and public employers to exempt employees from rules they find religiously objectionable, except when the exemption would cause the employer undue hardship.

The law says, essentially, "work it out."

Sep 9, 2015

Was Freddy Kreuger Baptist?

Other people found Jesus at Hough Avenue Baptist Church, in Cleveland, Ohio.

Wes Craven only found himself profoundly lonely.

"It was this experience," Craven recalled to his biographer, "of being the last one who doesn't feel it or doesn't get it or somehow Jesus can't find a comfortable place in his heart, you know? It was just a feeling of desolate loneliness or mixed with having rejected what had to be embraced."

Wes Craven died late last month at the age of 76. The director of "Nightmare on Elm Street," the "Scream" movies, and a long list of other films, Craven was considered the master of slasher movies, according to the New York Times. He was the "granddaddy" of that horror genre, according to the Washington Post.

Observers have frequently turned to the church of Craven's childhood to explain his dark vision of the world. Freddy Krueger, it has been suggested, is a specifically Baptist nightmare on Elm Street.

Sep 4, 2015

Sep 2, 2015

The childhood of Beverly Lewis

A brief promotional, biographical documentary of Beverly Lewis, the evangelical woman who started the genre of Amish romance fiction:

Aug 28, 2015

New study Bible looks to be best seller

A new study Bible out this week underscores how simmering questions about the accuracy and authority of translations drive demand for new versions of an old text. A mix of firm authority and breezy accessibility seems to be key to the commercial success of many study Bibles.

No official sales projections are publicly available, but if history provides a guide, the “NIV Zondervan Study Bible” could easily sell 100,000 copies by the end of the year -- probably a lot more. The new study Bible by Zondervan, a Christian publishing house in Grand Rapids, Mich., owned by HarperCollins, could follow earlier blockbuster sales. The last NIV study Bible, published by Zondervan in 1985, sold more than 9 million copies.

The Bible business is booming. There are annual sales of 40 million Bibles -- from study Bibles to family Bibles to pocket Bibles. That’s not even counting foreign markets. As journalist Daniel Radosh observed, “The familiar observation that the Bible is the best-selling book of all time obscures a more startling fact: The Bible is the best-selling book of the year, every year.”

The proliferation of Bibles underscores the anxieties people have about whether or not they are reading the right Bible.

Read my latest essay at the Washington Post: The most popular Bible of the year is probably not what you think it is

African Methodist Episcopal Church, Indianapolis, Ind.

Aug 24, 2015

How Donald Trump felt like Billy Graham

Donald Trump, the populist presidential candidate currently leading in the Republican primary polls, has connected himself to Billy Graham, the famed evangelist and pastor to presidents.

At a rally in Alabama last week, it was the first thing Trump said.

He came out on stage and "Sweet Home Alabama" was playing and people--about 20,000 people--cheered and applauded.

Trump said, "Wow wow wow. Unbelievable. Thank You. That's so beautiful. You know now I know how the great Billy Graham felt. Because this is the same feeling. We love Billy Graham. We love Billy Graham."

What does it mean to say he felt like Billy Graham felt?

It doesn't seem obvious, in context.

Aug 21, 2015

United Church of Christ, Chicago, Ill.

Aug 14, 2015

 United Methodist Church, Muncie, Ind.

Aug 12, 2015

The secret of 'The Shack'

William Paul Young, author of the bestselling evangelical fiction The Shack, talks about healing from childhood sexual abuse.

The trick, he says from personal experience, is losing your secrets.

"You cannot keep the secrets," he says. "And we hide our secrets because we're terrified. We're terrified that if we let somebody in there we will lose the little bits of light and grace that we've managed to scrabble together, you know, by working so hard. Because if they know the truth of course, they'll hate us as much as we do. And at the same time if somebody brings into our world the possibility of grace, the possibility of forgiveness, the possibility of kindness, we don't believe them, because they don't know our secrets. So we're absolutely trapped by our secrets."

Aug 10, 2015

A case study of confused conversations over abortions

Howard W. Jones Jr. was expecting controversy.

But not this controversy.

Jones was pioneering the developing science of in vitro fertilization in the United States. He and his wife, Georgeanna Jones, one of the nation’s first specialists in reproductive hormones, had retired from Johns Hopkins University in 1978. They moved to Norfolk, Va., the next year and were trying to start a clinic at Eastern Virginia Medical School to help couples struggling to conceive.

The Joneses were familiar with opposition to fertility treatment and fears about so-called test-tube babies. But they didn’t expect their work to become a flashpoint in the then-burgeoning battle against abortion. After all, they weren’t in the business of unwanted pregnancies. Theirs was the science of helping people who desperately wanted babies.

It was actually supposed to be a fairly straightforward and bureaucratic meeting of the Virginia Statewide Health Coordinating Council. Yet the hearing room filled to capacity on Halloween day, 1979, and pro-life protestors gathered outside making dire predictions about this new science.

“Incredible claims were made,” Howard Jones recalled in his memoir. “Protestors [said] that in vitro fertilization would surely promote incest, human-animal hybrids, and other bizarre scenarios which were both shocking and unbelievable.”

It wasn’t the last time Jones found himself confused in a conversation with the pro-life movement. Jones died July 31 at the age of 104. In the years between that hearing and Jones’s death, little changed in the public conversation over abortion.

Jones’ life provides an interesting case study of confused conversations over abortions. For more than 30 years, he engaged pro-life advocates, who frequently opposed his work helping people conceive.

The science he helped develop was “far too wasteful of human life,” as one pro-life group put it, “resulting in thousands of embryos which are destroyed, either by chance in the womb or on purpose when they are no longer needed for the treatment. The process also encourages a mentality which views people as things to be bought or sold.”

He tried to talk to them out of that opinion. Some conversations he was invited to while others were thrust upon him. None resulted in any sort of consensus or clarity.

Read the easy at the Washington Post: How one doctor tried for 30 years to bring clarity to the abortion conversation

Will super-intelligent AI be religious? Some say yes.

In the world of big-budget, blockbuster comic-book movies, it is plausible: a religiously motivated robot.

As imagined by Joss Whedon, the super-smart artificial intelligence at the center of the most recent Avengers movie turns to villainy because of a religious question. Ultron asks about the meaning and purpose of existence, then, frustrated, committed itself to destruction.

"It's our new Frankenstein myth," Whedon said, doing promos for Avengers: Age of Ultron. "We create something in our own image and the thing turns on us. It has that pain of 'Well, why was I made? I want to kill Daddy.'"

Whedon is an atheist whose many projects have frequently explored religious questions. The most recent Avengers villain raises an unusual one: When humans eventually create super-intelligent artificial life, will it be religious?

Some people think it's plausible even in the real world.

Lincoln Cannon, president of the Mormon Transhumanist Association, says it's definitely possible.

Jul 30, 2015

Faith, light, barbecue

The Thomas Kinkade wall at The Original Ridgewood Barbecue in Bluff City, Tenn.:

Thomas Kinkade wall

Jul 27, 2015

Beth gets ordained


My wife gets ordained at Hopwood Christian Church in Johnson City, Tenn. 

Jul 15, 2015

Episcopalians, swimming against the culture

People talk about how Episcopalians used to stand against the culture. They swam against the current. They weren't so accommodating, then. They did things differently.

This isn't what they meant:

I've written before that I think a lot of the conservative critique of the contemporary Episcopal church is based in a false history of the denomination, which was actually at its zenith when it was most aligned with the status quo. This 1917 Chicago headline goes to show, though, that even back then the minister of a "Fashionable Oak Park Church" could sometimes shock -- or at least titillate -- mainstream American culture.

The paper reported that when the minister was informed of the court testimony, he exclaimed, "Oh, horrors!"

Jul 13, 2015

Dante's modern American spirituality

The conservative Christian blogger Rod Dreher made a discovery about Dante.

Here's how he phrased it in a piece published by the Wall Street Journal:
I always thought "The Divine Comedy" was one of those lofty, doorstop-sized Great Books more admired than read. Its intimidating reputation is likely why few people ever walk with Dante through the fires of the Inferno, climb with him up the seven-story mountain of Purgatory and rocket with him through the stars to Paradise.

What a pity. They will never discover the surprisingly accessible beauty of Dante's verse in modern translation. Nor will they grasp how useful his poem can be to modern people who find themselves caught in a personal crisis from which there seems no escape.
He discovered, that is, that Dante is useful. Specifically: therapeutic. Dante's Divine Comedy is "the ultimate self-help book."

Another way of saying this would be to say that Dreher found out that Dante is not literature. It is, rather, middlebrow religious writing, of the sort that Erin A. Smith writes about in her new book, What Would Jesus Read? Popular Religious Books and Everyday Life in Twentieth-Century America.

Popular religious books, Smith argues, are defined most essentially by how they are read therapeutically. The aesthetic standard for this reading is personal and social transformation. The classic example is Charles Sheldon's book about a town where everyone started to ask themselves in every situation, "What would Jesus do?"

Smith writes:
Although a disaster by conventional literary standards, In His Steps was immensely powerful for communities of nonliterary readers. (Charles) Sheldon made the case for traditional literacy -- the intensive reading of a small set of classic texts -- at the same time that his own mass-produced fiction urged reading godly novels as one read the Bible, with an eye toward immediate application to one's daily life. By valuing what texts do in readers' lives over style, form, aesthetics, or understanding them in their historical context, In His Steps challenges literary historians to restate their own professional practices as one among many possible ways with words. 
In His Steps and other similar works are not merely aesthetically bad books; they are books that seek to succeed on entirely different terms -- the transformation of individual and social life.
Like Dante for Dreher, Sheldon only makes sense when not thought of as literature. Only then can you grasp how useful the text truly is.

This sort of reading practice has been strongly identified with evangelicalism, historically. But it also reflects the ethos of the early 20th-century Protestant Social Gospellers, who thought that true religion should be transformative in practical ways, directing men to immanent rather than transcendent purposes. This sort of reading has also largely defined and arguably shaped liberal spirituality, which is eclectic, like middlebrow religious reading, and therapeutic, like middlebrow religious reading.

It also works fine for an Eastern Orthodox Christian with socially conservative politics, like Dreher.

Jul 8, 2015

The traditional marriage argument for polygamy

Opponents of gay marriage have long argued that the social and legal acceptance of gay marriage will lead to the social and legal acceptance of polygamy. If marriage is not only a relationship between a man and a woman, but can also name a relationship between a man and a man or a woman and a woman, then why not between a man and a five women?

The slippery slope is slippery. So the argument goes. 

This was raised in the Supreme Court during oral arguments in Obergefell vs. Hodges. Justice Samuel Alito brought it up. As did Justice Antonin Scalia.

And Chief Justice John Roberts wrote about the polygamy problem in the dissent to the court's 5-4 ruling. If gay marriage, why not plural marriage?

I don't find this argument persuasive. For one thing, it depends on an insistence that marriage has only ever been defined one way, which is historically, empirically inaccurate. It depends too on the idea that any redefinition means throw-up-your-hands-because-now-it-can-mean-anything. That's not how redefinition actually works, though. Humans, it turns out, are quite capable of expanding their definitions without losing all definition completely. 

For another, the argument that same-sex marriage leads to polygamy seems to misunderstand how same-sex marriage advocates have been advocating for marriage. They have not actually argued that marriage is whatever. Marriage, they have said, as Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in Obergefell vs. Hodge, should be about dignity, identity, commitment and, especially, love.

The slogan, after all, has been "love wins," not, "eh, whatever."

At least some of those defining characteristics -- for example identity and commitment -- would not play the same role in plural marriages that they do in either same- or opposite-sex marriages.

There doesn't seem to be any necessary connection between Anthony Kennedy's view of marriage and polygamy. Perhaps redefining marriage will result in further redefining marriage, which will result in the social and legal acceptance of polygamy, but the argument that that is logical inevitable seems lacking. 

At the same time, the argument can be reversed. Isn't it actually arguments for traditional marriage that will lead to the necessary acceptance of polygamy?

Advocates of traditional marriage say marriage must be procreative. They say marriage is only meaningfully "marriage" when it involves the conception or at least potential conception of children. They also argue that tradition is the most important factor in determining the meaning of this social institution. They argue, further, that it is in the interest of the state to enforce this definition because children do measurably better when they are legally bound to both a biological mother and a father.

But aren't all these things true of polygamy?

Polygamous marriages are procreative. They are very traditional. And children raised in polygamous marriages are raised with both a father and a mother.

Certainly there's nothing about the biological basis of conception that demands the pairing be exclusive.

If marriage is about babies, why not polygamy?

Indeed, if you argue that "the record of human history leaves no doubt that the institution of marriage owes its existence to the undeniable biological reality that opposite-sex unions -- and only such unions -- can produce children" and that "irresponsible procreation and childrearing -- the all-too-frequent result of casual or transient sexual relationships between men and women -- commonly results in hardships, costs, and other ills for children, parents, and society as a whole," it would seem that it is in the state's interest to require marriage between all procreative couples.

Regardless of whether that's a first marriage, a second marriage, a third marriage, or a complex marriage.

What is the traditional-marriage argument against polygamy?

The logic would seem to go the other way.

Jul 6, 2015

What's wrong with Christian movies?

Alissa Wilkinson, the chief film critic for Christianity Today, says Christian film makers are making excuses when they blame budgets for the poor quality of their films. The problem isn't the budget:
Low budgets are never the problem with Christian movies. Low budgets are never the problem with bad movies, full stop. What's the old saying? It's a bad carpenter who blames his tools? Most viewers (and certainly most critics) are discerning enough to make allowances for the limitations of technology. "Well, we did our best with a low budget" is an excuse that Christian filmmakers have used for a long time to excuse what is actually shoddy craftsmanship, and it's disdainful of the audience, to boot.

Typically, the biggest problem in Christian films is something that doesn't require money at all: the writing. (Of course the screenwriter should get paid, but it's not like buying a better camera.) Christian films rarely tell stories with anything like nuance ... The single best thing Christians can do as filmmakers is to spend more time on their stories, to workshop them, to develop and hone the craft of writing.
That doesn't mean it's not an economics issue, though.

A lot of times, nuance doesn't sell. But there's a big market for bad art, whatever its religious commitments. The question of why particular art gets made is not unrelated to the question of how particular artists get paid.

There's a scene in "Andre Rublev," the 1966 Andrei Tarkovsky film, where the icon painter complains he wants to paint a picture of redemption but can only get patrons to finance the apocalypse. That might still be true.

Jun 29, 2015

'God is still on His throne'

David Cloud doesn't think Christians should be upset by the Supreme Court's ruling in favor of same-sex marriage.

This doesn't mean he approves of the decision.

From Cloud's perspective, the Supreme Court was "shaking its puny fist at God" when it ruled last week that gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to marriage. But this shouldn't be upsetting to those who believe the Bible, Cloud says.

"This type of thing only reminds the true child of God that he is a pilgrim in a strange land," writes Cloud, a fundamentalist Baptist who runs a small publishing company in Port Huron, Mich. "We claim to believe God's promises. Let's act like it in the face of adversity and not be a people who wring their hands at the mere thought of trouble and what might come."

In the days after this landmark Supreme Court decision, many conservative evangelical Christians expressed discouragement and frustration. Some said they feared for the United States. On this major issue, the religious right has suffered a serious loss.

Other evangelicals, the minority who support gay rights and marriage equality, celebrated the decision.

Evangelicals make up about a quarter of Americans. Like the country as a whole, they are divided over same-sex marriage. Opinions have notably shifted in recent years and reactions to the ruling are predictably divided. As the headline of one Iowa newspaper put it, "Ruling brings celebrations, sadness." What is true for Iowa is true for evangelicals, too.

Many evangelicals, however, want to pursue a third option besides celebration or sadness.

Read the full essay at the Washington Post: Why a lot of evangelicals aren't actually that upset about the Supreme Court's gay marriage decision

Jun 27, 2015

The grace that leads us home

President Barack Obama, giving the eulogy of Clementa Pinkney, sings Amazing Grace.

Jun 26, 2015

Respecting marriage

"No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right."

-- Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the majority opinion in favor of same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges

Women not at church

A new Barna Group study says American women -- traditionally more religious than men -- are increasingly less likely to go to church. According to the poll, 45 percent of adult women haven't been to a religious service in the last six months. 

Most of these women used to participate in worship services but have stopped. 

"It's not that most of these unchurched women are unfamiliar with or inexperience in church," the report says, "but rather that at one point they decided church was no longer for them."

There has also been an increase in the number of women who self report they are skeptical of religious claims. The number of agnostics and atheists doesn't correlate to the number of women not going to church, however. Only 11 percent of women say they doubt or don't believe in God. 

The cultural movement, here, is not towards unbelief. It's a movement towards disaffiliation. 

Even for many women who are religious, Barna found that church is not a top priority. While 46 percent report they have been to church in the last month, only 11 percent said religious activities were most important in their lives. By comparison, 10 percent said personal time was their top priority. 

By far, the number one top priority named by women was their families: 68 percent said family comes first. 

Jun 24, 2015

Richard Nixon and the Mormon, American spirit

Richard Nixon talks on Pioneer Day, the Mormon holiday celebrating Utah's first settlers, connecting the spirit of the early Mormons with the spirit of American conservatism and the spirit of American astronauts.

Circa 1970:

"It is that kind of spirit," Nixon said, "the kinda spirit that doesn't blame adversity on somebody else, but tries to do something about it himself, that's what built this state. That's what built America."

Jun 22, 2015

Billy Graham, 'like rock 'n' roll personified'

Bob Dylan, talking about Billy Graham in a recent interview:
When I was growing up, Billy Graham was very popular. He was the greatest preacher and evangelist of my time--that guy could save souls and did. I went to two or three of his rallies in the '50s or '60s. This guy was like rock 'n' roll personified--volatile, explosive. He had the hair, the tone, the elocution--when he spoke, he brought the storm down. Clouds parted. Souls got saved, sometimes 30- or 40,000 of them.

If you ever went to a Billy Graham rally back then, you were changed forever. There's never been a preacher like him. He could fill football stadiums before anybody. He could fill Giants Stadium more than even the Giants football team. Seems like a long time ago. Long before Mick Jagger sang his first note or Bruce strapped on his first guitar--that's some of the part of rock 'n' roll that I retained. I had to. I saw Billy Graham in the flesh and heard him loud and clear.

Jun 19, 2015


The world from here.

Jun 18, 2015

Clementa Pinckney on Mother Emanuel church

The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, speaking of the historical importance of the South Carolina church he served as pastor, Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal:

Pinckney was murdered Wednesday during a prayer meeting along with eight members of his congregation. 

The mass shooting appears to be an act of racial terrorism.

This church has long been offensive to white supremacists. It has long served as a site of refuge from and resistance to racist rule.

As the Washington Post reports
This historic congregation, the oldest of its kind in the South, had already seen more than its fair share of tumult and hate. It was founded by worshipers fleeing racism and burned to the ground for its connection with a thwarted slave revolt. For years its meetings were conducted in secret to evade laws that banned all-black services. It was jolted by an earthquake in 1886. Civil rights luminaries spoke from its pulpit and led marches from its steps. For nearly two hundred years it had been the site of struggle, resistance and change.
One piety, commonly expressed in times of tragedy, is that such violence is beyond comprehension. There is always the danger, however, that it is beyond comprehension only because it's easier not to comprehend.

Shock is sometimes a form of denial.

In this case, the violence comes in a context. It follows a long history. Violence against black churches is not new in America; violence against this specific church isn't new either.

"Many are shocked at not only the grisly nature of the shooting, but also its location," writes Benjamin Park for The Junto. "Yet this experience is unfortunately, and infuriatingly, far from new: while black churches have long been seen as a powerful symbol of African American community, they have also served as a flashpoint for hatred from those who fear black solidarity, and as a result these edifices have been the location for many of our nation’s most egregious racial terrorist acts."

As Jamil Smith puts it in The Atlantic, "The black church hasn't been safe since there has been a black church."

Whoever has ears to hear, Jesus said.

Jun 16, 2015

A philosophy joke

From xkcd
More on the ontological argument, here.

Jun 15, 2015

R.J. Rushdoony and theories of historical change

Rebecca Rushdoony once condemned a cat as a heretic.

The eldest child of R.J. Rushdoony, an American theologian dedicated to helping Christians learn to build God’s kingdom on earth, Rebecca was mad the stray cat wouldn’t stay put. So she pronounced the cat damned, much to her father’s amusement.

This is one of only a few family anecdotes in Michael J. McVicar’s book, Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism, the first in-depth history of Rushdoony and the religious movement he started. This might not seem remarkable. McVicar’s highly anticipated work is an intellectual history. It examines Rushdoony’s theology and the influence that theology has had on Christian conservatives. The focus is not on the small, intimate moments of family life.

It is worth remarking on, though, because Rushdoony was deeply invested in the idea of the importance of the family. His life’s work was aimed at changing the world. He thought that change would happen through Christian families.

Read the full essay at the Religious Studies Project.

Jun 11, 2015


The Heidelberg Center for American Studies.

Jun 9, 2015

Preacher Has Failings; Ditto the Congregation

A headline one sees with some frequency, though not normally so bluntly put: "Preacher Has Failings; Ditto the Congregation." This story, a report on a sermon, comes from the Los Angeles Herald, and was published Feb. 12, 1906.

It is not as sharp-edged as the headline.

Jun 4, 2015

Gender construction (in two fundamentalist tracts)

Jack Hyles, an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist who pastored a "superchurch" of more than 20,000 in Hammond, Ind., wrote and published 49 books. These two, about Jesus' masculinity and the evils of homosexuality, are here paired in one volume.

Hyles was known for his bus ministry and his emphasis on Sunday school. He also had a reputation as an authoritarian, exercising extensive control over the lives of members. The environment fostered abuse. There were scandals involving money and, of course, sex.

A Chicago Magazine report tracked a dozen men with ties to Hyles church "who fanned out around the country, preaching at their own churches and racking up a string of arrests and civil lawsuits, including physical abuse of minors, sexual molestation, and rape." Consistently, the church protected the abusers, maintaining its reputation and image however it could.

Hyles died in 2001. The Indiana church was taken over by his son-in-law, Jack Schaap. Schaap is currently spending 12 years in federal prison, convicted of transporting an underage girl across state lines in order to have sex with her. The girl's father told the court "The rule of our house was that the pastor was God's representative on Earth. Always do what the pastor says."

Jun 1, 2015

Michael W. Ryan, 1948-2015

Michael W. Ryan, one-time leader of a racist religious group preparing for the end of the world, has died in a Nebraska prison. He was 66.

Ryan reportedly had brain cancer, though it is not known if that killed him.

He had been on death row since 1986, when he was convicted for torturing and murdering a 26-year-old man and a 5-year-old boy.

Ryan was last scheduled for execution in 2012. The sentence wasn't carried out because of problems obtaining sodium thiopental, one of the three drugs required for Nebraska's lethal injections. Nebraska's governor announced in mid May that the state had finally gotten sufficient quantities of sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride to resume executions. Nebraska legislators, however, voted to abolish the death penalty.

The death penalty was discontinued days before Ryan died.

One of the arguments for ending the death penalty came from religious groups. Eight evangelical ministers, for example, said the state should give prisoners every chance to repentant. "No one is ever beyond redemption," the ministers wrote. "Yet the death penalty risks cutting short the process of redemption in the lives of those imprisoned."

Ryan was apparently unrepentant at his death, however.

He spent some of his time in prison re-writing the Bible, making corrections, he said, at God's instruction. Over the years, Ryan told journalists he rejected the legitimacy of Nebraska law. It wasn't Yahweh's law, he said.

"People say two people died out there, well big fucking deal," Ryan told a public radio reporter in 1989. "Go back to the Old Testament. Moses wiped out a whole god damned family, babies and all. Now that's pretty god damned hard way to go, but he got rid of them."

Before he was a religious leader who believed he received messages from Yahweh, Ryan drove a truck transporting livestock in Kansas.

May 29, 2015

Reconstructionism and the 'normal' place for religion in public

Rushdooney's ultimate, confounding legacy may have little to do with the reform movement he inspired or his intellectual output and that of his followers. Instead, the interest in Christian Reconstructionism prompted by evangelical infighting and secular journalistic reports of the "dominants" sympathies of GOP party leaders or the post-Obama Tea Partiers all suggest that Rushdooney and Reconstructionism have become nodes in a vast, shifting discursive network that codes public imaginings of "good" and "bad" forms of public religiosity. This concern over Reconstructionism -- whether in the 1980s or the 2010s -- is analogous to the media's interest in "cults" during the 1960s and 1970s. As religious studies scholar Sean McCloud has shown, popular journalistic interest in "cults" peaked during the 1960s as Americans came to terms with a shifting religious landscape. Boundaries between "mainstream" and "fringe" religious movements emerged in the press because, McCloud argued, "the American religious fringe functioned for journalists as a 'negative reference group' in a process of identity construction" .... The struggle to identify the limits of Christian Reconstructionism vis-à-vis evangelicalism and conservatism similarly reflects an attempt to identify and differentiate a "negative reference group" against which a more acceptable sort of public religiosity might be constructed.  
This process of negation amounts to a subtle but profound assertion of a normative understanding of the proper limits of religion and citizenship in the United States.  
... Christian Reconstructionism has become a screen upon with critics project competing interpretations of the proper place of religion in American society.

May 27, 2015

'I lost my abuna in Egypt, but I find my father here'

A brief documentary on the Coptic Orthodox in Brooklyn, NY, after the Egyptian revolution:

From Faith in Five Burroughs, a project documenting diverse religious lives in New York. 

May 25, 2015

Church militant

Twin City Baptist, a church from South Bend, Ind., demonstrates at a pro-war rally in Washington, D.C., in April 1970:

Tom Norpell, who took the photographs, said the rally was for people "fed up with the antiwar protests dominating the evening news." Many were religious, and they used their religious identities and Christian imagery to led moral credence to the American war in Vietnam.

Many pro-war advocates believed that American would win or lose the global conflict with Communism based on her moral courage and spiritual steadfastness.

May 18, 2015


Window globes.

May 15, 2015

How the church gave B.B. King the blues

B.B. King first learned music from the African American churches of the Mississippi Delta.

“Church was not only a warm spiritual experience,” the legendary bluesman once said, reflecting on his religious childhood. “It was exciting entertainment. It was where I could sit next to a pretty girl and mostly it was where the music got all over my body and made me wanna jump.”

King died on Thursday at age 89. In his long career, he had a profound influence on generations of rock and blues guitarists, as Terence McArdle reported for the Washington Post. King was considered by many to be the world’s best blues singer and came to be known as “King of the Blues.”

In interviews over the years, King talked about how his first experiences with music were connected to church. He also talked about how his relationship to church was deeply conflicted.

Read the essay at the Washington Post: How the church gave B.B. King the blues

"Nones" used to be nominal

Conrad Hackett, the religion demographer for Pew, on the rise of the religiously unaffiliated:
In the last 20 years there has also been rapid growth in the share of Americans who identify as atheists, agnostics or no religion in particular. To some extent, this seems to be a phenomenon in which people with low levels of religious commitment are now more likely to identify as religiously unaffiliated, whereas in earlier decades such people would have identified as Christian, Jewish or as part of some other religious group.
Hackett also notes that 14 percent of self-identified atheists say they believe in God, and 27 percent of those with no religious affiliation say they sometimes attend religious services.

May 14, 2015

May 13, 2015

Fewer people religious; America religious as ever

A key aspect of American religiosity is how Americans choose religious identities.

Often, they reject the religious identities they were born with. They choose new ones. They make new ones. Sometimes, as with the "nones," but also with some converts to Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, they choose religious identities premised on rejecting the entire regime of religious choice.

In America, even not choosing a religious identity is culturally meaningful as a choice. Religious affiliation is rarely simply inherited. It's a decision. And the decision is personal and meaningful, culturally, about who an individual is and wants to be.

A new Pew Research Center study on America's changing religious landscape mostly confirms what we already knew about the trends in the religious choices that are being made now. Trends continue to trend: the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated "nones" are growing and the Protestant majority is disappearing as the mainline churches decline dramatically. The top line of the report has been widely reported, including by the Washington Post, Religion DispatchesReligion News Service and the New York Times.

One thing that is easy to miss, with these reports, is that the types of religious changes people are making might be less important than the fact of change.

This Pew study is basically an update, but it also deepens our knowledge on this point, providing some useful information on this aspect of American religious culture. The new study has more information than I've ever seen before on religious switching.

The big story of religion in American culture right now is that the default Protestant consensus is disappearing. This has been apparent for a while and this data makes it even more clear. Buried here in the data, however, is another story about an American religiosity that is as vibrant as it ever was.

May 8, 2015

Guy Carawan, 1927 - 2015

Guy Carawan, who taught the song We Shall Overcome to the Civil Rights movement, has died at 87.

The song wasn't his, nor did he claim it to be. In the tradition of American folk music and leftist social activism, Carawan saw himself as serving something greater. He shared freely what had been given to him freely.

The New York Times reports:
The song, variously a religious piece, a labor anthem and a hymn of protest, had woven in and out of American oral tradition for centuries, embodying the country's twinned history of faith and struggle. Over time, it was further polished by professional songwriters.

But in teaching it to hundreds of delegates at the inaugural meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee -- held in Raleigh on April 15, 1960 -- Mr. Carawan fathered the musical manifesto that, more than any other, became "the 'Marseillaise' of the integration movement."
Carawan was the music director of the Highlander Folk School, a social justice training center in East Tennessee, co-founded by Southern students of theologian Reinhold Neibuhr. Carawan was part of the folk revival scene in Greenwich Village, in New York, and was first sent to Highlander by Pete Seeger. He took over as music director in 1959 and, the next year, was present at the founding of the SNCC.

He provided the group with the music that came to define the movement.

The Rev. C.T. Vivian, a Civil Rights leader who worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr., recalled that it wasn't immediately obvious that folk songs and spirituals would play a role in the struggle for racial equality. Even though the movement was led by pastors and made up of deeply religious men and women, old religious music didn't seem particularly relevant to the cause. There wasn't any sense these songs needed to be be taken out of that past and applied to the present.

Hearing Carawan changed that, for Vivian and for others at the SNCC meeting in 1960.

May 7, 2015



Oatmeal and evangelicals

An interview with Timothy Gloege, author of Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism:

Daniel Silliman: If you asked people for a short list of the most important religious figures in the early 20th century, Henry Parsons Crowell probably wouldn’t be on it. Who was Crowell and why was he important?

Timothy Gloege: Henry Parsons Crowell was a purveyor of oatmeal. He is best known by business historians as the president and founder of Quaker Oats, one of the pioneers of the branding revolution. He used a combination of packaging, trademark and massive promotional campaigns and transformed oatmeal from a commodity into a trademarked product.

Crowell took oatmeal that used to be sold out of large barrels in your general store, put it into a sealed package, slapped a picture of a Quaker on it and guaranteed it pure. Now it no longer mattered who you bought your oatmeal from, only what brand you chose.

A company’s reputation was once rooted in its owner, but the trademark created this virtual relationship with consumers that was pure fiction. The trust that is engendered by a Quaker has no relationship to the company itself. There are no Quakers involved in that. Crowell was a Presbyterian. He bought the trademark, a very small mill had the trademark and he said, “oh, this engenders trust, so I’m going to use this to sell my oatmeal.”

This was quite controversial at the time, though today that’s just how things are done. Quakers sell oatmeal and friendly animated lizards sell us car insurance.

One of the key arguments in the book is that he is using similar strategies in religion as well. As president of Moody Bible Institute, Crowell pioneered the techniques of creating trust in a pure religious product, packaging and trademarking, as it were, old-time religion.

Read the interview at Religion Dispatches: How Marketers Invented 'Old Time Religion'

Apr 29, 2015

What church stood for in 1949

There's not a lot of religion in "Unkept Promises," a prohibitionist comic book published in 1949 by a group calling itself the Legion of Truth. 

A lot the energy behind anti-alcohol campaigns in America have come, traditionally, from Protestant groups trying to make society a better place. Yet, in this very late prohibitionist tract, any references to Protestantism or even religion more generally are almost entirely absent. 

There are not even any ministers shown preaching against alcohol -- instead it's secular authorities. The narrator is a social worker. There are two judges, one handling criminal cases and another civil, and they both speak to the social affects of alcohol. There's the director of a women's prison and a representative from the state's "safety council," but no ministers.

There's one notable depiction of religion, though. Before the protagonist's life is ruined by drink, there is a single wordless panel depicting a church:

The church is associated with the American dream of home ownership, that mid-century dream of car ownership, and the middle class family ritual of the family portrait. The church is a white edifice with a steeple and stained glass, with big, broad stairs at the end of a curving walk way under leafy trees.

It is, in this 1949 comic, a bare symbol of middle class respectability.

Culturally, here, the church doesn't stand for a solution to a social problem. It certainly doesn't communicate any particulars of believing. Instead, it's a symbol of belonging -- specifically class belonging. It represents an aspiration, something one can obtain. If you're good enough, the message goes, you can have this. If you have the strength of character, you can earn this good life.

"---AND HAPPINESS," as the comic says.

Is this fact unrelated? In 1949, more than 60 percent of Americans told pollsters they attended church or synagogue every week.

Apr 27, 2015

Where religious arguments against same-sex marriage are secular

Many religious groups worry that secular arguments undercut their ability to participate in public debate, telling the court that their arguments actually are religious. It is, in fact, important to them that their arguments are religious. If the court excludes religious rationales, deeming theological motivations irrational, then religious people cannot speak on the moral, social issues they care about so deeply.

One brief, filed by five Christian conservative groups, including the North Carolina Values Coalition and the Christian Family Coalition, warns that the “American judicial system is becoming allergic to religious expression or influence in the public square.”

The groups say that laws defining marriage are always based on people’s religious beliefs — as are all laws. “Every law has a moral foundation and many are based on ‘moral disapproval,’ ” they tell the court. “The question is whose morality will prevail.”

A similar case is made in a brief filed jointly by the National Association of Evangelicals, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist, more than a dozen conservative Protestant denominations and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. These groups argue that their beliefs about marriage are both religious and practical.

“These beliefs,” they say, “are rooted in our theologies and in centuries of one-to-one counseling and personal experience with intact and broken families, functionally fatherless children, and single mothers.”

The line between religious and secular is not so neat for evangelicals in particular. They reject same-sex marriage because they believe that’s what the Bible says. But they also believe the Bible offers the best and most practical guide to human flourishing, so if the Bible condemns homosexuality it is because it is bad for people and society.

Read the full essay at the Washington Post: Supreme Court briefs reveal religious groups don’t agree on how to oppose same-sex marriage

Apr 24, 2015

Apr 21, 2015

YOU are spiritual but not religious

The decision comes on page 8. The sound of screaming is coming from behind a locked door in a warehouse. You have to do something. What do you do?

If you try to break the door down, you turn to page 20.

If you run to get the warehouse manager, you turn to page 33.

Eighteen years after it was first announced, and 17 years after the original series concluded, a new Choose Your Own Adventure book has found its way to print. The manuscript for Escape from the Haunted Warehouse, which was found in the CYOA archival library, was reworked by the son of one of the series’ creators and released last week, on April 15. Like the classic books loved by children of the 1980s and ’90s, the story starts with a disclaimer: "BEWARE and WARNING," it says. "You and YOU ALONE are in charge of what happens in this story."

And like those classics, the story is built on a key idea of the American mode of spirituality known as "spiritual but not religious."

Read the full essay at Religion Dispatches: YOU are Spiritual but Not Religious: The secret spiritual history of the Choose Your Own Adventure books

St. Konrad of Parzahm

St. Konrad of Parzham

Apr 20, 2015

Billy Ray Hearn, 1929 - 2015

Billy Ray Hearn, a giant of the Contemporary Christian Music business, has died at 85.

Hearn did more than perhaps anyone to make evangelical music into an industry. The business of producing and selling Christian culture has been controversial, though. There was (and is) ongoing tension between the mission of spreading the gospel and the mission of making money. That tension was Hearn's life work.

Hearn believed it was important business to spread the message of Jesus, but for him it was still a business.

Raised Southern Baptist in Texas, Hearn first took his faith seriously, by his own account, while serving in the Navy. He went to Baylor after his discharge in 1948, married his wife Joan and majored in Church Music.

His goal, then, was to be a great choir director. He as a music director for 15 years, ministering in big Baptist churches in Southern California, Texas and Georgia, before going to work for the evangelical publisher Word, Inc., located in Waco, Texas, in 1968. The company hired Hearn to promote music. At that time, that meant children's musicals.

The musicals were designed to be evangelistic. Churches would put on the performance and invite neighborhood children and their families to come, then presenting them with the message of Jesus. One of the first productions Hearn sold was "Tell It Like It Is," a folk-sounding gospel musical, which sold more than 500,000 copies. For many evangelical congregations, it was the first time popular music styles were allowed in church.

It was not the last time Hearn would push evangelicals in this direction.

Steve Curtis Chapman, who got his first record deal with Hearn, said Hearn's importance to Contemporary Christian Music could not be over stated. "I don't think there's a single person who's more responsible for the existence of the form of gospel music I'm a part of," he said.

Apr 14, 2015

Will evangelicals love Hillary Clinton in 2016?

Evangelicals didn't respond to Hillary Clinton with much warmth during her first presidential campaign.

According to Christianity Today in 2008:
From all sides of the political spectrum, evangelicals respond with a surprising amount of disgust upon hearing Hillary's name.  
Clinton, like every big-name political figure, has admittedly said and done things that have polarized, offended, and simply gotten under our skin. Her public persona, a brand of East Coast liberalism with roots in '60s radical politics, strikes many Americans as uppity and unapproachable. Open talk about her personal faith in recent years strikes some as politically convenient.
Will it be different this time?

Clinton and her team have put a lot of energy into appearing more relatable, approachable, and human. Going into the 2016 campaign, there's a major effort to humanize Clinton's image.

"Operatives who have been building her second presidential campaign," Ruby Cramer and Megan Apper report at Buzzfeed, "have conjured up words like 'intimate' and 'informal' to describe the 'tone' of the 'first 100 days.' They talk about retail politicking, the hardworking, old-fashioned way."

Part of what that means, apparently, is news stories about Clinton doing something normal, like eating a burrito in Maumee, Ohio, and not getting noticed. And then getting noticed for not getting noticed.

Another part of that project is showing Clinton as a person of faith, but a faith that is relatable for its quiet everydayness. The suggestion is that if she doesn't talk frequently or openly about her religious commitments, that's because -- exactly like evangelicals and middle class Americans more generally -- she is uncomfortable politicizing it. Faith, she feels, shouldn't be so strategic.

It's a tricky political strategy.

These efforts to emphasize the normalizes of a candidate can have the unintended effect of calling attention to how the "natural" persona is so carefully and politically crafted.

But if Clinton will struggle with the dehumanizing side effects of attempting to hold up and value her basic humanness, she's not the only one. It was evangelicals' commitment to valuing human life that allowed them to think of Clinton an not-really-human. The contradiction there was perhaps best captured in the fortune cookies passed out by the Family Research Council at a Republican convention. The political message inside said, "#1 reason to ban human cloning: Hillary Clinton."

For the editors of Christianity Today, the 2008 Clinton campaign was a moment of evangelical shame:
While pundits see candidates as punching bags, evangelicals are supposed to see candidates as, well, people. As we ponder how candidates are 'fearfully and wonderfully made,' we may haltingly come to realize that the most bold and courageous thing we each could do this election season, no matter who we vote for, is this: Love Hillary.
Will that happen in 2016? Probably not, but time will tell.