Americans remain confused about the many Islams in today's world

A week after 9/11, President George W. Bush told a hurting nation: "The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace."

Faced with a tsunami of hellish news about the Islamic State in Syria, Iraq and the Levant, President Barack Obama updated that soundbite this past fall: "ISIL is not 'Islamic.' No religion condones the killing of innocents. ... ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple."

The problem, of course, is that Islamic State leaders keep serving up quotes such as the following, part of the judgments rendered by the leader of recent rites to behead 21 Coptic Christians, filmed on a beach in Libya.

"The sea you have hidden Sheik Osama Bin Laden's body in, we swear to Allah we will mix it with your blood," said the executioner, as he pointed his knife at the camera. "Oh, people, recently you have seen us on the hills of as-Sham and Dabiq's plain, chopping off the heads that have been carrying the cross for a long time. ...

"Today, we are on the south of Rome, on the land of Islam, Libya, sending another message."

No wonder many Americans remain uncertain when asked questions about Islam -- such as whether the Islamic State represents one approach, or even the dominant approach, to Islam today. 

NASCAR America collides with NPR America at the National Prayer Breakfast

In terms of the worldviews that drive American life, the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast was a head-on collision between NASCAR and NPR.

Both President Barack Obama and NASCAR legend Darrell Waltrip were the speakers and both were sure the world would be a better place if many sinners climbed down off their high horses and ate some humble pie.

First, Waltrip bared his own soul and described how he found what he believes is the one true path to eternal salvation. Then, moments later, the president told the same flock that religious believers who embrace precisely that kind of religious certainty are threatening the peace and harmony of the modern world.

This was, in other words, a morning for red religion and blue religion.

While the president's remarks comparing the modern Islamic State with Medieval Christian crusaders made headlines, Waltrip's blunt testimony contained words that -- for many in the interfaith audience -- were just as controversial.

The Azusa Street revival and other big trends in a century of Protestantism

Whatever was happening inside that "tumble-down shack" of a church at 321 Azusa Street in Los Angeles, the local newspaper's editorial powers that be were neither amused nor impressed.

"Devotees of the weird doctrine practice the most fanatical rites, preach the wildest theories and work themselves into a state of mad excitement in their peculiar zeal," said a Los Angeles Times report. "Colored people and a sprinkling of whites compose the congregation, and night is made hideous in the neighborhood by the howling of the worshipers, who spend hours swaying forth and back in a nerve-racking attitude of prayer and supplication."

Worshipers were "speaking in tongues" and claimed spiritual gifts to translate this unknown language, including words of prophecy uttered by women and men alike. Journalists noted that the Rev. William Joseph Seymour -- son of former slaves -- preached that this revival was a sign of the end times and that a great earthquake would soon shake California.

The revival began on April 14, 1906, four days before the great San Francisco earthquake. A century later, the Pentecostal holiness movement that began in the Apostolic Faith Mission on Azusa Street continues to shake global Christianity.

Ignore religion's role in real news in the real world? That can be dangerous

For more than a century, Western diplomats and scholars were sure of one thing -- that religion's role in world affairs would decline as humanity evolved toward a future rooted in logic and science.

 Those who didn't accept this vision were considered naive, irrational or perhaps even dangerous.

 The problem? There is little evidence that this secularization theory is true. In fact, it has become increasingly obvious that journalists and diplomats must pay more attention to religious traditions and practices if they want to understand many of the conflicts shaping and shaking our world, argued historian John Wolffe of the Open University in England.

 "Precisely because mainstream Western society is predominantly secular, a positive effort needs to be made to enable those who do not have a religious faith to have a better understanding both of the significant minorities in the West itself who have a religious commitment and of a continuing, and arguably growing, influence of religion in much of the rest of the world," he said, during the recent "Getting Religion" conference in Westminster, England, led by the Open University and Lapido Media.

 To be blunt, he said, confusion about the role that religion plays in the real world is dangerous. But how will religious believers and unbelievers learn to understand each other if journalists don't learn to cover religion accurately and fairly?

Ignore religion's role in real news in the real world? That's 'anti-journalism'

When British media critic Jenny Taylor talks to journalists about why they need to take religion seriously, she tells them stories about news stories -- mostly stories many journalists try to avoid.

"The majority world is deeply religious. That small bit of it that still dominates the world's agenda -- the secular West -- is deeply unaware of what drives the rest," she said, during the recent "Getting Religion" conference in Westminster, England, led by the Open University and her own Lapido Media network.

Thus, she argued, "The world is in grave danger from the West's own conceits and complacency. ... In Britain we have been trained through cultural prejudice and ideological pressure not to 'do God.' I was told by a BBC press officer that 'we leave our religion at the door when we come to work.'

"The intention may be the scrupulous avoidance of perceived bias, but misunderstood it leads to blindness and an inability to report the facts."

One story has been unfolding in East London, where controversy has long swirled around plans to build the massive Abbey Mills Mosque near Olympic Stadium. How massive? It would hold 9,000 people, roughly four times the size of the iconic St. Paul's Cathedral.

The sad, sobering sermon of the DUI bishop in Maryland

The bishop was candid with the small flock at All Saint's Episcopal Church, just outside of Baltimore: She had a sobering sermon for them.

"There are things that happen in life that we can't control, that we didn't predict, that perhaps we don't welcome at all," said Bishop Heather Elizabeth Cook of the Diocese of Maryland.

Believers must be prepared for the worst, including wrestling with bad habits that can lead to destruction, she said in a Nov. 9 sermon that was posted online.

"If we routinely drive 55 in a 30-mile-an-hour zone, we won't be able to stop on a dime if driving conditions get dangerous or if an animal or, God forbid, a human being should step out in front of us," said Cook. "Things happen suddenly, and we're either prepared in the moment or we're not, and we face the consequences.

"We can't go back. We can't do it over. In real life there are no instant replays."

This sermon was delivered weeks before the accident -- two days after Christmas -- in which police report that Cook's car veered into a wide bike lane and hit a 41-year-old father of two, sending the cyclist crashing onto her hood and windshield. A breath test after she returned to the crash scene, and after she had been taken to a police station, found a blood-alcohol level of 0.22. The legal limit in Maryland is 0.08.

The broken soul at the heart of the 'Unbroken' movie

For decades, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's World Wide Pictures unit produced many films with titles like "Souls in Conflict," "The Heart is a Rebel," "The Restless Ones" and "The Prodigal."

Critics relentlessly noted the formula that drove most of these films: The sins of the main character would cause a crisis, then -- somehow -- he would hear a Graham sermon and be born again. Roll credits.

That was cinema. But the drama was real in 1949 when a shattered sinner named Louis Zamperini attended Graham's historic "canvas cathedral" crusade in Los Angeles.

Come judgment day, warned the evangelist, "they are going to pull down the screen and they are going to shoot the moving picture of your life from the cradle to the grave, and you are going to hear every thought that was going on in your mind every minute of the day ... and you're going to hear the words that you said. And your own words, and your own thoughts, and your own deeds, are going to condemn you as you stand before God on that day."

When Zamperini told his life story -- a rebellious childhood, Olympic glory, then the horrors of World War II, including 47 days adrift in the shark-infested Pacific, followed by two hellish years in prison -- this was the climactic scene.

Religion news 2014: The pope, ISIS, persecution and the rest of the Top 10 stories

Soon after his elevation to the Chair of St. Peter, Pope Francis warned that the world was entering a time when Satan would increasingly show his power, especially in lands in which believers were being crushed.

Looking toward a rising storm in the Middle East, he warned that the persecution of religious minorities is a sign of the end times.

"It will be like the triumph of the prince of this world: the defeat of God. It seems that in that final moment of calamity, he will take possession of this world, that he will be the master of this world," said Pope Francis. "Religion cannot be spoken of, it is something private, no?"

A year later, the pope was even more specific in a letter to churches in the ancient lands of the Bible.

"I write to you just before Christmas, knowing that for many of you the music of your Christmas hymns will also be accompanied by tears and sighs. Nonetheless, the birth of the Son of God in our human flesh is an indescribable mystery of consolation," said Pope Francis.

Facing the Hanukkah-Holidays puzzle, one American family at a time

Anyone passing the Hoffman home in the Cincinnati suburbs during the holidays will see festive blue and white lights and an inflatable bear in the front yard -- a bear wearing a Santa cap and holding a candy cane.

 This is where things got complicated, with a typically blunt question from a child: Should Jews have a bear in the yard during Hanukkah?

 "I said it was a Jewish bear," said Neal Hoffman, a marketing executive. "One of our boys came right back with: 'What about the candy cane? Don't candy canes have something to do with Christmas?' I said I didn't think there was anything specifically Christian about a candy cane. Is there?"

 Well, that's complicated, too, since the candy cane often shown with Santa Claus is a symbol that links the shopping-mall superstar back through the mists of history to the 4th Century St. Nicholas of Myra, in Asia Minor. The saint was a bishop and, thus, this spiritual shepherd carried a crook staff -- which in Western church tradition is shaped like a large candy cane.