Jan 23, 2015

The doomed bill to repeal a law that keeps churches out of politics

One of the first things North Carolina congressmen Walter Jones, Jr. did on the very first day of the 114th US Congress was file House Resolution 153. The bill would repeal a law that keeps churches out of politics. Pastors would be permitted to endorse political candidates even from the pulpit.

Probably this will come to nothing.

The non-partisan GovTrack, an open government data site, puts the likelihood of HR 153 becoming a law at zero percent. This bill will never come to a vote, probably, disappearing into the Ways and Means committee never to be heard from again.

The question is: why aren’t Republicans supporting it?

Religious conservatives are rallying around religious liberty issues, including the rights of churches to get involved in politics. In October, when a legal dispute over a petition to repeal a non-discrimination ordinance in Houston led a city lawyer to subpoena records from the churches that had organized the petition, religious conservatives went ballistic. That was a unique situation. The Johnson Amendment applies much more broadly, restricting the political activity of every church that takes a tax exemption. (Which is almost all of them).

For people fired up about government infringement on religious liberty, HR 153 would seem like a winner.

Read the full essay at Religion Dispatches: Why Don't Republicans Want to Allow Pastors to Endorse from the Pulpit?

Jan 20, 2015

Kennedy preaches separation of Church and State in West Virginia

A John F. Kennedy campaign ad, targeted at West Virginia, where there were fewer Catholics than in any other state, making the case that Kennedy's Catholicism wouldn't conflict with a presidential oath:

Jan 16, 2015

The most segregated hour

Opinions on church and race, by the numbers:

  • 90 percent of Protestant pastors say racial reconciliation is mandated by the gospel
  • 86 percent of Protestant churches are made up of one dominant racial group
  • 71 percent of evangelical church-goers say their churches are diverse enough
  • 63 percent of white church-goers say their churches are diverse enough
  • 53 percent of all church-goers say their church does not need to be more diverse
  • 50 percent of Americans say churches are too segregated

From "Sunday Morning Segregation: Most Worshipers Feel Their Church Has Enough Diversity," at Christianity Today.

Jan 13, 2015

'And he can take the kingdom from whosoever he wills'

Now friend let me tell you:
God rules in the kingdom of men
And he can take the kingdom from whosoever he wills
And give it to the one he want to give it to
Now you liar
Now you backslider
Now you rich men
Let me tell you that God in heaven
To bring you down, my friend.
Now in conclusion,
If you deserve a God to range over you,
And if you want to home and down with the world,
Get in touch with God right now.

J.C. Burnett's sermon, "Downfall of Nebuchadnezzar," recorded in Oct. 1926 for Columbia, was one of the first in the gospel boom in "race records." Burnett's 10-inch record sold 80,000 copies, four times as many as a Bessie Smith album could be expected to sell at the time, even though Smith was outselling all other "race records" at the time. The next year, sermons made up a third of all recordings featuring African Americans.

One prolific minister, J.M. Gates of Atlanta's Mount Calvary Baptist Church, recorded 40 sermons in one nine-month period. Burnett continued recording sermons until 1945.

Jan 12, 2015

Andraé Crouch, 1942 - 2015

"Every song I've written takes you through the Scriptures and reinforces the word of God," Andraé Crouch told the Los Angeles Times in 1982. "I give people a beautiful message, but I do it with pop, rock, funk, jazz or disco or anything that will make it appealing."

Crouch, gospel musician widely hailed as the best of the modern era and the greatest hymn writer of his time, has died at the age of 72. He had been sick a while and was hospitalized in December.

At Religion Dispatches, Anthea Butler writes that Crouch's connection to Pentecostalism cannot be ignored:
It is the genius of Andraé Crouch's talent that flowed from his Pentecostal upbringing in the Church of God in Christ that made him the powerful songwriter and singer he was. Along with his sister Sandra, his first group, the COGICS (Church of God in Christ Singers) featured Billy Preston. He would then go on to form the group Disciples in 1965. While COGIC churches emphasized holy living and strict discipline, their cutting edge musical styles and choir presentation helped groups like the Disciples to break out into the mainstream music scene. The tension between serving God and singing for the world would put Crouch often at odds with those who felt his music was not “holy” enough. Yet it was in those long church services and constant revival meetings as a child that Crouch’s distinctive musical style and lyrics were formed. His music became a bridge in the late 1960’s and would not only cross racial lines, but form the foundation for contemporary Christian and gospel music.
According to Robert Darden at Christianity Today, "Amy Grant may have made CCM popular; Andrae made it sound great."

Billboard also notes the importance of Crouch's crossover success, reporting, "He was often praised for bridging the gap between popular music and gospel, bringing a contemporary pop and R&B sensibility to his music."

Jan 8, 2015

Jan 6, 2015

God's hell

From the atheist newspaper the Blue Grass Blade, August 1903.

Jan 2, 2015

Mario Cuomo, 1932 - 2015

Mario Cuomo, whose politics were deeply informed by his Catholic faith, for many years seemed to embody the potential of American liberalism. As the New York Times explains in the obit for the man who governed New York state from 1983 to 1994:
In an era when liberal thought was increasingly discredited, Mr. Cuomo, a man of large intellect and often unrestrained personality, celebrated it, challenging Ronald Reagan at the height of his presidency with an expansive and affirmative view of government and a message of compassion, tinged by the Roman Catholicism that was central to Mr. Cuomo's identity.

A man of contradictions who enjoyed Socratic arguments with himself, Mr. Cuomo seemed to disdain politics even as he embraced it. 'What an ugly business this is,' he liked to say. Yet he reveled in it, proving himself an uncommonly skilled politician and sometimes a ruthless one.

He was a tenacious debater and a spellbinding speaker at a time when political oratory seemed to be shrinking to the size of the television set. Delivering the keynote address at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, he eclipsed his party's nominee, former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, seizing on Reagan's description of America as 'a shining city on a hill' to portray the president as unaware of impoverished Americans. 'Mr. President,' he said, 'you ought to know that this nation is more a "tale of two cities" than it is just a "shining city on a hill."'

The speech was the high-water mark of his national political career, making him in many ways a more admired figure outside his state than in it.
His rhetoric was powerful, but Cuomo also represented an alternative to the patrician liberalism of Kennedys and Roosevelts, on the one hand, and New Left identity politics, on the other. A son of immigrants who worked their way toward the American dream, he could communicate to the populace that was increasingly identifying with the populism of Ronald Reagan.

Jan 1, 2015

Books of 2014

Six brief reviews, some notes on a year's reading, and a list:

House of Zondervan, by James E. Ruark

James E. Ruark tells the story of Zondervan from the perspective of the Zondervans. In the process one gets a picture of the emergence of modern evangelicalism, a common identity and subculture forming at least partly as the product of a book market.

There is not yet a good, reliable academic history of American evangelical publishing. Hopefully there will be soon. Right now there are only a few memoirs from those who worked in the industry and a few histories produced by publishing houses about themselves. This book is one of the better examples of that latter.

Fascinating detail: The Zondervans initially sold books on the apocalypse from a variety of theological perspectives. They later decided this was too confusing and they had to choose a theology to publish and promote. They chose premillennialism, which helped to make that the default position for American evangelicalism.

Demon Camp, by Jennifer Percy

This is an achingly beautiful book about trauma, pain, and one religious response to horror. Demon Camp tells the story of a soldier from America's wars on terror who has found a new mission in spiritual warfare. He seeks to be free of his demons, and to free other soldiers of theirs and, maybe, America of hers.

He doesn't think those demons are metaphorical.

Percy's creative non-fiction is deeply sympathetic to her subject, though also skeptical of the supernaturalism and the pentecostal cosmology that pictures the natural world as pervaded by the unseen. The book suffers from a lack of historical perspective. Percy doesn't have much context for what she sees and experiences. The book suffers from a lack of sociological perspective, too. Questions about secularity and taken-for-granted reality are raised, but only with a lot of hesitation and awkward first-formations.

She makes up for it in lyricism and an impressive ability to communicate the beauty in the strangeness of an unfamiliar and even off-putting religious practice.

Amazing quote:
I lean toward the dark.
'Power outage?'
'They're here.' He drums his hands on the table.
'The whole fucking army is here.' He reaches his arms above his head and opens them like a ballerina.