Politics

The Top 10 religion news stories of 2017? Alas, it's Donald Trump uper alles

The Top 10 religion news stories of 2017? Alas, it's Donald Trump uper alles

While there was nothing new about someone entering a religious sanctuary and gunning down the faithful, the bloodshed at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, was truly historic.

Was that 2017's most important religion story?

What about Myanmar troops forcing half a million Muslim Rohingya into Bangladesh, with reports of children being beheaded and people burned alive? What about the #MeToo campaign against sexual abuse, which turned into #ChurchToo, with women describing soul-wracking private tragedies.

For me, the year's biggest story took place in Charlottesville, Va., where white supremacist marchers shouted anti-Semitic curses and claimed God was on their side. Meanwhile, clergy prayed and sang hymns in counter-protests. Southern Baptists and other believers proclaimed the alt-right was working for Satan.

But that wasn't the top story, either, according to journalists voting in the Religion News Association poll for 2017. No, once again this was a year dominated by Donald Trump and armies of evangelicals who, in myriad mainstream news reports, marched in lockstep support behind his political agenda.

Trump was named Religion Newsmaker of the Year, after "his inauguration triggered upheaval across a number of religious fronts, among them the role of evangelical support of his administration; fierce debates over Islam, race and religious liberty; the appointment of conservative Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch; and executive orders relating to immigration and terrorism," said the RNA announcement.

Meanwhile, in a variety of public debates, bitter Trump-era rifts among Christian conservatives kept getting deeper and wider. This was perfectly captured in a New York Times forum after the Alabama defeat of old Religious Right hero Roy Moore.

Yes, 'evangelical' is a religious term. No, honest. You can look it up in history books

Yes, 'evangelical' is a religious term. No, honest. You can look it up in history books

For a half-century or more, there has been no question about whose name would top any list of the "Most Influential Evangelicals in America."

Conservatives at Newsmax have produced just such a list for 2017 and, sure enough, the Rev. Billy Graham was No. 1. At 99 years of age, he remains the patriarch of conservative Protestantism, even while living quietly in the family's log-home in the North Carolina mountains. For many, the world's most famous evangelist is the living definition of the word "evangelical."

However, the 100-person Newsmax list also demonstrates that no one really knows what the word "evangelical" means, these days. Should it be defined in terms of political clout, religious doctrines or mass-media popularity?

The rest of the Top 10, for example, includes Graham's son Franklin, prosperity gospel superstar Joel Osteen, talk-show politico Mike Huckabee, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, Rick "Purpose Driven Life" Warren, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., TV host Joyce Meyer, Vice President Mike Pence and the duo of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, religious entertainment mavens in Hollywood.

Disputes about the meaning of "evangelical" are so sharp that "several people on this list would not even agree that some other people on the list are 'Christians,' let alone 'evangelicals' as defined by any set of core doctrines," said historian Thomas Kidd of Baylor University, whose research includes work on American religious movements, including the roots of evangelicalism.

Making this Top 100 list, he added, seems to be linked to "some kind of prominent position in media or politics or both," as opposed to "leading successful churches or Christian organizations. … I would imagine all these people believe that Jesus is the Son of God and they may even share some ideas about the authority of scripture -- but that's about it."

Waking up to new threats to biblical 'sheep,' even in small flocks in Middle America

Waking up to new threats to biblical 'sheep,' even in small flocks in Middle America

When Jimmy Meeks reached Sutherland Springs, Texas, the First Baptist Church was screened off as a crime scene as experts investigated the Sunday morning massacre that claimed 26 lives. 

As a retired police officer, and a Baptist preacher, Meeks didn't need to enter the ravaged sanctuary. As a church-security consultant, he paid special attention to the church's parking lot and the surrounding area.

When the gunman arrived, he parked across the street. He had to cover lots of ground to reach the church.

"It's just a simple little building," said Meeks, who is part of a "Sheepdog Seminars" team, training church leaders how to protect biblical "sheep" from "wolves."

"There are churches like this one all over the country -- there always have been and there always will be. ... So many churches don't have someone outside in the parking lot, standing watch. They don't see the danger coming."

Church-security issues are back in the news, as America faces renewed debates about safety, faith and the Second Amendment.

But some church leaders, like Meeks, have been studiously paying attention to church-security issues ever since the night of Sept. 15, 1999, when an angry outsider entered Wedgwood Baptist in Fort Worth, Texas, and killed seven during a youth-group prayer rally.

Since 1999, at least 800 people have died in church attacks across America, said Meeks, who has 35 years of police experience, including 11 years when he led a Fort Worth church while serving as an officer in nearby Hurst. Two of his areas of expertise are hostage negotiations and crime-prevention techniques.

So far, 108 people have been killed in churches during 2017. The previous record was 77 in one year.

Trumpian synergy: What happens when a Fox News superstar visits First Baptist in Dallas?

Trumpian synergy: What happens when a Fox News superstar visits First Baptist in Dallas?

With an Oval Office-endorsed pastor chatting with a Fox News star, no wonder the evangelical scribes at The Babylon Bee saw last week's rites at First Baptist Church in Dallas as must-see television for Donald Trump supporters.

The Bee headline proclaimed: "Sean Hannity Leads First Baptist Dallas In Sincere Prayer To Donald Trump."

The satire website pretended that Hannity prayed: "We just ask, Father Trump, that you would just, just use this place to advance the good news of right-wing politics, that you would spread your message far and wide. … Amen!"

That's fake news, of course.

The reality was more complex than that. While there were Trumpian overtones, this Sunday service demonstrated how many evangelicals have fused talk-show media, faith and politics to create a unique American niche culture, said a conservative church-state scholar at Baylor University, in Waco, Texas.

"It struck me how different this kind of evangelicalism is, compared with what we've known in the past," said Francis Beckwith, after watching the "America At The Crossroads" event online.

"Evangelicals have always tried to reach out to unbelievers, trying to win them over. … But no outsider is ever going to be persuaded by this. The whole purpose was to rally their base, the people they already have. … Maybe they realize that there's no persuading going on in America, right now. People are just preaching to their choirs."

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.

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.

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.

Rabbi Lord Sacks: Religious believers face harrowing choices in these tense times

Rabbi Lord Sacks: Religious believers face harrowing choices in these tense times

As long as there have been chase scenes -- think Keystone Kops or Indiana Jones -- movie heroes have been caught straddling danger while trying to get from one vehicle to another.

Inevitably, the road splits and the hero has to make a decision.

Religious believers now face a similar challenge after decades of bitter conflict in the postmodern world, said Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in a recent lecture at the Chautauqua Institution in southwestern New York State.

For a long time, "we were able to have our feet in society and our head in religion, or the other way around. … But today the two cars are diverging and they can't be held together any longer," said Sacks, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2005 and made a life peer in the House of Lords.

It's an agonizing dilemma that reminded the rabbi of a classic Woody Allen quote: "More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness; the other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly."

Truth is, there's no way to escape the Internet, which Sacks called the greatest economic, political and social revolution since the invention of the printing press.

"I sum it up in a single phrase -- cultural climate change," said Sacks, who from 1991-2013 led the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. "It's not so much a matter of more religion or less religion, because the truth is that both are happening at once. … The result is a series of storms in the West and even more elsewhere in the Middle East, in Asia and Africa."

For four centuries, European and American elites wrongly assumed the world would get more and more secular.

Donald Trump meets worship wars in controversial Kennedy Center, Dallas rites

Donald Trump meets worship wars in controversial Kennedy Center, Dallas rites

Rare is the Church of England worshipper who needs a pew copy of Hymns Ancient and Modern in order to sing No. 578, which is often performed with great pomp -- trumpets and all -- in the rites that symbolize the old glory of Great Britain.

The first verse: "God save our gracious Queen, long live our noble Queen, God save the Queen! Send her victorious, happy and glorious, long to reign over us: God save the Queen."

That works in England, which has a state church. However, some flashy church-state rites at the Kennedy Center recently raised lots of American eyebrows, inspiring online shouts of "Idolatry!" In particular, critics focused on an anthem performed by the First Baptist Church of Dallas choir and orchestra during the "Celebrate Freedom Rally."

The first verse, sung before a speech by President Donald Trump, proclaimed: "Make America great again! Lift the torch of freedom all across the land. Step into the future joining hand in hand. And make America great again."

The Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist, Dallas, was just as blunt during his remarks during the rally in Washington, D.C.

"God declared that the people, and not the pollsters, were going to choose the next president of the United States and they chose Donald Trump," shouted Jeffress, an early Trump supporter. "Christians understood that he alone had the leadership skills to reverse the downward death spiral our nation was in."

Jeffress later defended the anthem, which was based on the Trump campaign slogan. It was not "sung in a church as a worship song on Sunday morning," he told The Christian Post.

However, others were just as offended by the fireworks, flag-waving and political sermonizing during this year's "Freedom Sunday" services in First Baptist, Dallas. A typical response came at the "Ponder Anew" blog in the Patheos public-square forum.