Family and faith -- Trying to heal Hillbilly ties that bind in the Hills and Rust Belt

This was one call for water-leak help that the next-door neighbors in Middletown, Ohio, could not ignore.

"The landlord arrived and found Pattie topless, stoned and unconscious on her living room couch. Upstairs the bathtub was overflowing -- hence, the leaking roof," noted J.D. Vance, in his "Hillbilly Elegy" memoir about the crisis in America's working class that shaped his family.

"Pattie had apparently drawn herself a bath, taken a few prescription painkillers and passed out. … This is the reality of our community. It's about a naked druggie destroying what little of value exists in her life."

Vance was in high school at the time and dramas of this kind kept creating a dark cloud over his life. Many of his questions had moral and religious overtones, especially among people with roots back to the Bible Belt culture of the Kentucky mountains.

"Why didn't our neighbor leave that abusive man?", wrote Vance. "Why did she spend her money on drugs? Why didn't she see that her behavior was destroying her daughter?" And ultimately, "Why were all of these things happening … to my mom?"

Economic woes played a part, he said, but the elegy of hillbilly life involves psychology, morality, culture, shattered communities and families that are broken, or that never formed in the first place. Yes, there are religious issues in that mix.

"It's a classic chicken and egg problem," said Vance, reached by telephone. "Which comes first, poverty and economic problems or people making bad moral decisions that wreck marriages and homes? Clearly people -- children especially -- are caught in a vicious cycle."

Islamic State leaders attempt to read Pope Francis a theological riot act

Islamic State leaders attempt to read Pope Francis a theological riot act

Moments before the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians, an Islamic State leader warned "Crusaders" that this rite was being held on a North African beach for a reason.

Previous videos of ISIS fighters "chopping off the heads that have been carrying the cross for a long time" were filmed in Iraq and Syria, he noted, in fluent English. "Today, we are … south of Rome, on the land of Islam, Libya, sending another message."

When the slaughter was over, the lead executioner stressed again: "We will conquer Rome, by Allah's permission."

Time after time, Pope Francis has refused to take this bait -- consistently stating his conviction that true Islam promotes peace, not violence. He said this again when a reporter asked about the murder of the elderly Father Jacques Hamel in France.

"I don't like to speak of Islamic violence," said Francis, flying home from World Youth Day in Poland. "When I browse the newspapers, I see violence, here in Italy -- this one who has murdered his girlfriend, another who has murdered the mother-in-law -- and these are baptized Catholics! …

"If I speak of Islamic violence, I must speak of Catholic violence. … Not all Muslims are violent, not all Catholics are violent. It is like a fruit salad -- there's everything."

The terrorists who slaughtered the Egyptian Christians, he added, were quick to "show us their identity cards" as part of the Islamic State. "But this is a fundamentalist group which is called 'ISIS.' But you cannot say -- I do not believe -- that it is true or right that Islam is terrorist."

The pope's stand has caused debate among Catholics and other Christians, as well as quiet tensions with Christians in the ancient Middle Eastern churches. However, he has drawn praise from mainstream Islamic leaders, who stress the fact that ISIS has massacred countless Muslims who have rejected its radical vision of the faith.

Now, in a new issue of its magazine Dabiq -- entitled "Break the Cross" -- ISIS has responded directly to the pope of Rome, arguing that Francis has been misled by Muslims who are themselves heretics.

Did the terrorists who murdered Father Jacques Hamel know what they were doing?

One after another, news reports about violence at Catholic churches in France kept stacking up.

There was a mysterious fire on a church altar in Provence. Elsewhere, someone attacked the tabernacle containing the unleavened bread used in the Mass, scattering hosts on the floor. Attackers destroyed crosses and crucifixes in graveyards.

None of this surprised the Pro Europa Christiana Federation, which collects French media reports on anti-Christian acts of this kind. In 2015 they found 810 similar attacks in France.

But the murder of Father Jacques Hamel was different. The attackers interrupted a Mass, shouting "Allahu Akbar" and references to the Islamic State. The duo forced the elderly priest to kneel at the altar, where they slit his throat in what may have been an attempted beheading.

A nun who escaped -- Sister Danielle -- told reporters: "They told me, 'you Christians, you kill us.' They forced him to his knees. … That's when the tragedy happened. They recorded themselves. They did a sort of sermon around the altar, in Arabic. It's a horror."

This drama unfolded in the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, named for St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, noted Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Australia, during a "Mass In Time Of Persecution" in Sydney.

"Though we welcome the solidarity of those of other faiths, and while we recognize that this was very much an attack on France, on civilization, on all religions more generally, we cannot ignore the fact that this was also a targeted attack on our Christian faith," he said.

The move to tweak church legal documents in the tense age of same-sex marriage

The move to tweak church legal documents in the tense age of same-sex marriage

Couples looking for a wedding venue in Albuquerque, N.M., used to be able to consider the modern, high-tech facilities at Desert Springs Church.

That was then, before the word "marriage" became a legal landmine.

This is now. This nondenominational flock's leaders recently decided that they needed to update their foundation documents for the age after the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 decision legalizing same-sex marriage. Thus, their written policies now specify that the only weddings held there will be rites requested by church members -- as in believers who have vowed to honor its doctrinal statement.

On marriage, that doctrinal statement now reads: "We believe that God created human beings in his image in two embodied sexual kinds -- male and female (Genesis 1:26-27). We believe that God designed men and women to unite in marriage, which is complementary, involving one of each sexual gender, exclusive, and permanent." A detailed support document adds: "Gender is a part of God's good creation and is bound to its roots as a biological reality. It is identifiable at birth. …"

In other words, the church's leadership realized that, in this litigious day and age, they would have to define, in highly specific terms rooted in doctrine, who could get married in their church. That would be safer than trying to define -- in a legal crunch -- who could not hold a wedding rite there.

"In some ways, all of this is a bummer," explained the Rev. Trent Hunter, the church's pastor for administration and teaching, in a telephone interview. "You don't go into ministry to be restrictive. You don't want to do things that limit the scope of your ministry. But we're learning that you can't take any of this for granted, because the government is forcing us to be very open and specific about what we believe and why. …

Religious liberty, the Sexual Revolution and the importance of the 'Utah compromise'

PROVO, Utah -- From the start, the "Utah compromise" on religious liberty and key gay-rights issues had that special sex appeal that made news.

Journalists knew it was impossible to produce this 2015 Utah bill without the cooperation of leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Mormons in the Republican-dominated state legislature. Powerful LGBT leaders were in these negotiations, as well, and endorsed the final product.

The key -- for politicians using Utah as a template -- was that both sides made important compromises, while defending their core beliefs and goals, said the church's top lawyer, at a recent Brigham Young University conference on "Religious Freedom in an Era of Social Change."

"Some may be shocked to hear this, but not all religious freedoms are equally important," said Elder Lance B. Wickman, general counsel for the LDS church. "Defenders of religious freedom have to decide what is closer to the essential core of religious freedom and what is more peripheral. To do otherwise risks weakening our defense of what is essential.

"If everything that could even loosely be considered 'religious' is treated as equally important, then effectively nothing religious is important."

Thus, the "Utah compromise" banned LGBT discrimination in housing and employment, while including explicit protections for religious organizations and their institutions, along with "carve-out" clauses protecting the beliefs of many individuals. County clerks, for example, are not required to approve gay marriages, but officials had to make other options easily available.

Rural Methodist roots: Pat Summitt never hid her quiet, but deep, faith

Rural Methodist roots: Pat Summitt never hid her quiet, but deep, faith

Once a year, Seymour United Methodist Church held a "Laity Day" in which folks from the pews would handle all the clergy stuff one Sunday -- including the sermon.

The year was 1984, early in the Rev. Charles Maynard's decade at this fledgling congregation near Knoxville, Tenn. He already knew that one active member had a knack for motivational speaking, since she coached the University of Tennessee's Lady Vols basketball team.

"This was before she turned into 'PAT SUMMITT,' you know? For me she was just a lady at church named 'Pat,' " said Maynard, now the district superintendent of the region's Maryville District. "I asked her to speak and she said she didn't feel comfortable doing that sort of thing. …

"But the next year she said, 'Yes.' She talked about teamwork and linked everything to people having their own roles in the Body of Christ. It was all very biblical and she did a great job. I mean, she's Pat Summitt."

Things started changing after she coached the U.S. team to gold at the 1984 Olympics and the "Lady Vols started winning everything in sight," he said.

One thing didn't change. While Summitt's work demanded lots of time and travel, her family stayed as "active at church as the coach of a national powerhouse could possibly be," said Maynard. "It was pretty obvious that she had been raised in a Methodist church in rural Tennessee. It showed. Her faith went down deep."

Summitt's death at age 64, after a five-year fight with Alzheimer's disease, unleashed a national outpouring of tributes.

Volume is rising in closed-door LGBTQ debates among Baptists on the left

If the liberal wing of Baptist life down South started naming saints, one of the first nominees would be former President Jimmy Carter.

But it's crucial to note that the man who put "born again" into the American political dictionary is Baptist, but no longer Southern Baptist. His theological views have evolved, leading to his 2000 exit from the Southern Baptist Convention. Take marriage and sex, for example.

"I think Jesus would encourage any love affair if it was honest and sincere and was not damaging to anyone else, and I don't see that gay marriage damages anyone else," Carter told The Huffington Post last year.

Plenty of Baptists agree, but have not felt free to be that candid, according to Don Durham, a former leader in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. For 25 years the "CBF" has served as a network for Baptists on the losing side of the great Southern Baptist wars of the 1980s. Now, Durham said, the "volume has been turned up" in behind-closed-doors CBF debates about sexuality.

"It's time to have substantive and open conversations about the genuinely difficult disagreements we have over how to organize the institutional expressions of how we will relate to sisters and brothers who happen to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or who
understand themselves as queer," wrote Durham, in an essay circulated by Baptist News Global, an independent website at the heart of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship life.

"I'm not naive. I know we will never have uniform responses to the many questions such conversations will hold -- and we don't have to. However, let's not be institutionally naive either. … There are now too many for whom our institutional expressions around LGBTQ topics are no longer tenable for us to pretend any longer that we can distract one another from that topic by focusing on all of the other things on which we agree."

It's tricky: Donald Trump tries, once again, to nail down a personal Christian testimony

It was a tricky question when Jesus asked his disciples: "Whom say ye that I am?"

This was still a tricky question when conservative columnist Cal Thomas posed a version of it to Donald Trump, while interviewing the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

"You have confessed that you are a Christian," said Thomas.

Trump responded: "And I have also won much evangelical support."

"Yes, I know that," said Thomas. "You have said you never felt the need to ask for God's forgiveness, and yet repentance for one's sins is a precondition to salvation. I ask you the question Jesus asked of Peter: Who do you say He is?"

Trump responded: "I will be asking for forgiveness, but hopefully I won't have to be asking for much forgiveness. As you know, I am Presbyterian and Protestant. … We have tremendous support from the clergy. I think I will be doing very well during the election with evangelicals and with Christians. … I'm going to treat my religion, which is Christian, with great respect and care."

Thomas repeated the question: "Who do you say Jesus is?"

Trump tried again: "Jesus to me is somebody I can think about for security and confidence. Somebody I can revere in terms of bravery and in terms of courage and, because I consider the Christian religion so important, somebody I can totally rely on in my own mind."

Bible Belt Catholic: From Central Texas to Tulsa, his homemade bishop's staff in hand

Bible Belt Catholic: From Central Texas to Tulsa, his homemade bishop's staff in hand

When the newly elected bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Tulsa visited his future residence, one of the first things he checked out was the garage.

Father David Konderla didn't need extra room for a boat or an off-road vehicle or some other tie to the Heart of Texas ranch country that has long been his home. He needed room for his woodworking power tools.

The priest has crafted four crosiers -- the gracefully hooked shepherd's staff that symbolizes a bishop's pastoral work with his flock -- for bishops in Texas and New Mexico. He recently finished one for himself, preparing for the June 29 rites in Oklahoma in which he will be raised to the episcopate.

"I'm sure I don't know everything there is to know about Oklahoma, but it's a place that has a lot in common with Texas when it comes to how people see life," said Konderla, the second of 12 children, and the oldest son, in a Polish-Irish-German family in Bryan, Texas. The future bishop worked as a machinist for seven years after finishing high school, before entering seminary.

While people outside the Sunbelt think about Catholics in Texas, they think about the state's vibrant and growing Latino culture. That's appropriate, he said, but it's also important to remember the legacy of European immigrants in Central Texas from Czechoslovakia, Poland, Germany, Italy and elsewhere. Now those two historic streams of Catholic life are blending with Catholics from Africa, Asia, South America and around the world, as well as converts to the faith.

Bible Belt states like Texas and Oklahoma are changing, but much remains familiar, said Konderla.