The long, tense dance between Donald Trump and the old-guard evangelicals

The long, tense dance between Donald Trump and the old-guard evangelicals

It's impossible to win the GOP presidential nomination without making peace with millions of evangelical Protestants.

Thus, Donald Trump traveled to Liberty University in 2012. If he ever got serious about winning the White House, team Trump knew he would need a solid faith story.

The New York billionaire told students to "work hard" and "love what they do," but raised eyebrows by urging them to "get even" when wronged, and to "get a prenuptial" before marriage. He joked about saying naughty things at Liberty.

"That remarkable speech showed what he did and didn't know" about evangelicals, said Stephen Mansfield, author of the new book "Choosing Donald Trump: God, Anger, Hope and Why Conservative Christians Supported Him."

"Trump basically told Liberty students, 'Follow Jesus' and 'Shoot your enemies between the eyes.' ... He sees no conflict between those two messages."

That 2012 presentation also showed an image of young Donald on the day of his baptism, then a picture of his baptism certificate. Trump seemed to think this flash of faith would buy evangelical credibility, canceling out his Playboy appearances and interviews in which, as Mansfield wrote, his sexual conquests were "tallied like wild game bagged on safari."

The candidate who kept returning to Liberty was, of course, a grown-up edition of the boy who punched his second-grade teacher in the face, the lad whose real-estate magnate father nicknamed "killer." As a teen-ager, Trump was shaped by "The Power of Positive Thinking" sermons of the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, the cultural tastes of Hugh Hefner and the strict disciplines of a military academy.

But Mansfield noted Trump was also the man who couldn't bear to throw away stacks of Bibles given to him by fans, creating a Trump Tower storage room for them.

The online Catholic bishop pays a visit to 'Court of the Gentiles' at Facebook

The online Catholic bishop pays a visit to 'Court of the Gentiles' at Facebook

In Jerusalem's ancient temple of King Herod, there was an outer courtyard in which Greeks, Romans and non-Jews could gather to pray, pose questions and debate with any religious authorities willing to do so.

Whether modern clergy want to admit it or not, Facebook has turned into a "Court of the Gentiles" for two billion-plus users, said Bishop Robert Barron of the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, speaking recently at Facebook headquarters near San Jose, Calif. Social media is where people air their doubts and convictions, hatreds and hopes.

Religion is often a bone of contention on Facebook, said Baron, an auxiliary bishop known for years of work online and in mass media. However, these digital faith fights rarely offer constructive arguments that produce clarity and understanding, as opposed to anger and confusion.

What the Internet needs is better arguments about religion, he said, in a talk that featured numerous lessons from St. Thomas Aquinas, but only one allusion to President Donald Trump.

"Some people say, 'Why are you encouraging people to have arguments?' By 'argument,' I mean something very positive," he said, in a talk that, logically enough, has been posted on Facebook. "If you go on much of social media -- I've been doing this now for much of the past 10 years, doing evangelization through the Internet -- you'll see a lot of energy around religious issues. There'll be a lot of words exchanged, often very angry ones -- a lot of energy, but very little real argument about matters religious. …

"That's a serious problem, because if we don't know how to argue about religion, all we're going to do is fight about religion."

Many Facebook combatants act like they can force other people into agreement, he said. Others "throw up their hands" and assume it's impossible to make progress when dealing with religion. True arguments take place in the middle, among people who believe faith and reason can work together.

Tim Tebow vs. Colin Kaepernick? Not according to centuries of Christian doctrine

Tim Tebow vs. Colin Kaepernick? Not according to centuries of Christian doctrine

Say "Tim Tebow" and Americans imagine a quarterback, kneeling with his head bowed and eyes closed.

For millions this image is inspiring. For others it's a ridiculous joke.

Say "Colin Kaepernick" and Americans imagine another quarterback, kneeling with head bowed or with his determined eyes gazing straight ahead.

For millions this image is inspiring. For others it's infuriating.

"They're both Christian football players, and they're both known for kneeling on the field, although for very different reasons," wrote Michael Frost, an evangelism professor at Morling College, a Baptist school in Sydney, Australia.

"One grew up the son of Baptist missionaries to the Philippines. The other was baptized Methodist, confirmed Lutheran and attended a Baptist church during college. Both have made a public display of their faith. … This is the tale of two Christian sports personalities, one of whom is the darling of the American church while the other is reviled."

According to Frost, these men symbolize two approaches to faith that some believers think cannot be reconciled. When his weblog essay was picked up by The Washington Post the headline proclaimed: "Colin Kaepernick vs. Tim Tebow: A tale of two Christians on their knees."

Around the world, Frost added, Tebow and Kaepernick represent a church "separating into two versions, one that values personal piety, gentleness, respect for cultural mores and an emphasis on moral issues like abortion and homosexuality, and another that values social justice, community development, racial reconciliation and political activism.

After the Nashville Statement -- a blunt response from the Christian left in Denver

After the Nashville Statement -- a blunt response from the Christian left in Denver

On the Christian left, the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber is known for her blasts of profane theology, a wit honed in stand-up comedy, the 6-foot-1 tattooed frame of a bodybuilder and confessions about her old life of drugs and sleeping around.

As founder of Denver's House for All Sinners and Saints, she has emerged as a popular apologist for the liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, yet has also shown she can appeal to evangelical progressives. The Washington Post summed up her message like this: "God doesn't love you more if you do good things, or if you believe certain things."

So it's no surprise that Bolz-Weber took to the Internet to attack the recent Nashville Statement by evangelicals at the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which made headlines with its defense of ancient doctrines on sex, gender and marriage.

For starters, it said: "We did not make ourselves. We are not our own. Our true identity, as male and female persons, is given by God. It is not only foolish, but hopeless, to try to make ourselves what God did not create us to be."

In response, the "Denver Statement" was posted at Bolz-Weber's "Sarcastic Lutheran" website as the work of "some of the queer, trans, gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, gender-queer, asexual, straight, single, married image-bearing Christians" in her flock.

In its preamble, they declared: "Western culture has embarked upon a massive revision of what it means to be a human being by expanding the limits and definitions previously imposed by fundamentalist Christians. By and large, the spirit of our age discerns and delights in the beauty of God's design for human life that is so much richer and more diverse than we have previously understood it to be. ...

"The pathway to full and lasting joy through God's good design for God's creatures is clearly inclusive of a variety of identities of gender and expressions of sexuality that have previously been denied by shortsighted and limited thinking, teaching and preaching that has ruined lives and dishonored God."

It's hard to know where to begin in responding to this, since Bolz-Weber and her cowriters begin with such a sweeping dismissal of centuries of Christian doctrine, said Denny Burk, president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

The challenging task of passing on a Bible story that's bigger than witty vegetables

The challenging task of passing on a Bible story that's bigger than witty vegetables

It's easy to capture a kid's attention with cartoons about Noah and the Ark, Joshua's laps around the walls of Jericho and other colorful stories from scripture.

Phil Vischer ought to know, since for millions of Americans under the age of 25 he is best known as Bob the Tomato and the brain behind the original VeggieTales videos. But over time, he realized that he faced a bigger challenge as a storyteller, one symbolized by the sign on his 1990s office wall that proclaimed: "We will not portray Jesus as a vegetable."

At some point, he said, children need to learn the whole story of faith -- including the hard parts. This has to happen quickly in a culture that barrages them with competing signals as soon as they leave their cribs.

"You have to have the big story of what our faith is all about," said Vischer, in a telephone interview. "Our moral beliefs are like ornaments we hang on a tree. The problem is that we've thrown out the tree and we expect the ornaments to keep hanging in the air on their own.

"You can't just tell kids, 'Behave! Because I told you so!' … Without a big spiritual narrative, some larger worldview, you have nothing to hang moral behavior on."

That was the challenge at the heart of Vischer's talk -- "Beyond VeggieTales: Forming the Moral Imagination of Your Kids" -- during a recent Nashville conference on parenting held by the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Speaker after speaker mentioned a media culture that feeds children clashing concepts of good and evil, success and failure, before they enter kindergarten. Digital screens are everywhere, packed with compelling stories.

Growing LGBT theological tensions keep shaking American evangelicals

Growing LGBT theological tensions keep shaking American evangelicals

Tensions on the left side of American evangelicalism had been building for years and then Christian ethics professor David Gushee drew a bright red line.

Many religious groups reject gay-rights efforts because of ancient doctrines on marriage and sexuality, he noted in a Religion News Service essay last year. Some have tried to do this quietly.

"It turns out that you are either for full and unequivocal social and legal equality for LGBT people, or you are against it," wrote Gushee, who teaches at Mercer University, a hub for Bible Belt progressives. He is the author of numerous books, including, "Changing Our Mind, Kingdom Ethics."

Gushee warned the orthodox: "Neutrality is not an option. Neither is polite half-acceptance. Nor is avoiding the subject. Hide as you might, the issue will come and find you."

This warning was one moment of clarity that led to the August 25 Nashville Statement from the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. The manifesto restates many ancient Christian doctrines, such as: "God designed marriage as a covenantal union of only a man and a woman that is the sole context for sexual intercourse."

However, the preamble addresses new challenges, stating: "Evangelical Christians at the dawn of the twenty-first century find themselves living in a period of historic transition. As Western culture has become increasingly post-Christian, it has embarked upon a massive revision of what it means to be a human being."

Thus, Article 10 states: "WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness. WE DENY that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree."

Country music and the emotional ties that bind Saturday night and Sunday morning

Country music and the emotional ties that bind Saturday night and Sunday morning

Anyone looking for the late Johnny Cash will find him in the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, the Folk Music Hall of Fame and many other American music honor rolls.

 But when asked to describe his musical values, Cash preached country gospel: "I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And mother. And God."

That's the kind of raw, tear-jerking storytelling that country fans embrace, according to author Malcolm Gladwell, in a recent Revisionist History podcast called "The King of Tears." That emotional worldview may be one reason people in different regions and social classes have trouble understanding each other.

"I'm talking about the bright line that divides American society -- not the color line, or the ideological lines. I'm talking about the sad song line," said Gladwell, best known for his work in The New Yorker and bestsellers like "The Tipping Point."

Contrast the worldviews of rock and country, he said. Anyone who studies Rolling Stone Magazine's top 50 rock songs will mainly hear "songs about wanting to have sex, songs about having sex, songs about getting high, presumably after having sex. ... In all of those 50 songs, nobody dies after a long illness, no marriage disintegrates, nobody's killed on a battlefield, no mother grieves for a son."

In terms of raw country emotions, said Gladwell, it's hard to top the epic memorial service after the death of superstar George Jones in 2013. At one point, Vince Gill sobbed his way through the heart of his classic "Go Rest High on that Mountain," with Patty Loveless singing a harmony line alone. That song was inspired by the death of Gill's brother, as well as the death of country star Keith Whitley.

Pastor looking for God-shaped holes in the 24/7 human dramas at Waffle House

Pastor looking for God-shaped holes in the 24/7 human dramas at Waffle House

In every religious sanctuary, there are people who believe they've staked out pews as their very own.

The same thing happens at Waffle House, those very-Southern, 24-hour-a-day diners in 25 American states. Many of the patrons claim their own territory day after day, week after week.

The Rev. Gary Liederbach is a Waffle House regular in Madison, Ala., where he leads the One Direction Community, a circle of house churches, community meals and kid's groups targeting people who may not feel comfortable in regular churches. He's an ordained United Methodist minister, but doesn't wear that on his sleeve when using the Waffle House as his unofficial office.

One recent morning, Liederbach sat down at the diner's middle bar, where the line of side-by-side chairs almost requires diners to chat with waitresses and each other. He didn't see the empty coffee cup of a rough, 50-something regular that, as a matter of pastoral discretion, he called "Chuck."

When Chuck came back inside from smoking a cigarette, he lit into Liederbach with a loud f-bomb, blasting him for taking his seat.

"The two waitresses who were standing there almost jumped over the bar and verbally attacked Chuck," wrote the pastor, in an online reflection. "One said, 'Now you listen here you mother f***er, this man here is a f***ing man of God and if you ever talk to him like that again I will kick your f***ing @ss!' " Another added: "He's my f***ing pastor! … Show some f***ing respect!"

The waitresses exchanged high fives and one shouted an image -- sort of -- from a recent Bible lesson with Liederbach: "Sword of the spirit, b*tch!"

Chuck walked out.

From baseball to decades in a pulpit, with lots of courage along the way

From baseball to decades in a pulpit, with lots of courage along the way

When the Rev. William Greason tells his own story, he stresses that God gave him the ability to throw a baseball, but that gift wasn't what mattered the most -- because his true home was a pulpit.

Of course, that's exactly what a 92-year-old preacher is going to say hours before entering the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame for his trailblazing efforts as -- in the words of sports scribes -- "Oklahoma City's Jackie Robinson," pitching for the Oklahoma City Indians in 1952.

"The Lord laid this on my heart. He said, 'You're going somewhere where you were not wanted. … You gotta go and you gotta represent me,' " said Greason, in a guest sermon at the St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, just before the Aug. 14 hall of fame rites.

"I've been careful about asserting myself, wanting to be in positions where I didn't have any business being. … But it's been a blessing, though, to know you have a God who is able to do all things."

Greason's road to the pulpit was long and, at times, dangerous. Case in point: When the American flag was raised high on Iwo Jima's Mt. Suribachi, Greason was among the young Marines who saluted it from the beach. Watching his buddies die in combat was tougher than facing jeers and sprays of beer from racist fans.

His former Birmingham Black Barons teammate Willie Mays put it this way, in a tribute to Greason: "He was a groundbreaker in Oklahoma City, a World War II veteran honored for his service, a man of God and a good friend to many."

Greason's sermon was a revelatory moment after seven years of work building the case to honor him, said amateur sports historian Mark House. Everyone knew Greason still preaches almost every Sunday at Birmingham's Bethel Baptist Church, where he has served since 1969. But seeing him in action was a shock.