The real man behind that sympathetic priest on M*A*S*H

The real man behind that sympathetic priest on M*A*S*H

In the "Dear sis" episode of M*A*S*H, the frustrated Catholic chaplain at the military hospital camp near the Korean front lines writes a candid letter to his sister, a nun.

"I'm almost desperate to be useful, sis," writes Father Francis John Patrick Mulcahy. "No one comes to confession. I have no one to grant absolution to, no one to give comfort to, no one who even wants to bend my ear for 10 minutes."

Later, a patient attacks a nurse and slugs the priest. By reflex, Mulcahy -- a former Catholic-school boxing coach -- punches back. The gentle chaplain is despondent afterwards and doubts that he is making a difference.

"I'm Christ's representative," he tells a surgeon. "Suffer the little children to come unto me. Do unto others. ... I'm not supposed to just say that stuff, I'm supposed to do it."

The actor behind this unique character was William Christopher, who from 1972-83 portrayed one of the most sympathetic priests in pop-culture history.

Here's the bottom line, according to Greg Kandra, a 26-year CBS News veteran who now serves as a permanent Catholic deacon in Brooklyn: "For a time, he played the most visible Catholic priest on American television -- arguably the most recognizable man of the cloth since Archbishop Fulton Sheen."

Christopher, 84, died of cancer on December 31 and is survived by his wife of 60 years and their two sons. His M*A*S*H co-stars hailed him as a professional who -- to an unusual degree -- disappeared into this singular role in a show that, in reruns, remains popular with millions.

Trump dominated 2016 news, but was not named Religion Newsmaker of the Year?

Trump dominated 2016 news, but was not named Religion Newsmaker of the Year?

While Donald Trump's crusade to win the White House was the top story of 2016, journalists in the Religion News Association saluted the brash billionaire's opponents by giving their top honor to the Muslim parents who made headlines by denouncing him.

Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Gold Star parents of U.S. Army Captain Humayun Khan, who died in Iraq, shared the Religion Newsmaker of the Year honor. The Khans made a dramatic Democratic National Convention appearance to proclaim that Trump's proposed temporary ban on Muslims entering the country would be unconstitutional.

The RNA description of the annual poll's No. 1 story stressed that Trump received "strong support from white Christians, especially evangelicals. … Many were alarmed by his vilifying Muslims and illegal immigrants and his backing from white supremacists. GOP keeps majorities in Congress."

The No. 2 story continued: "Post-election assaults and vandalism target Muslims and other minorities. Some assailants cite Donald Trump's victory as validation. Critics denounce the appointment of Stephen Bannon as White House strategist over his ties to white supremacists." News related to Trump appeared in three other RNA Top 10 stories.

While white evangelical votes were crucial, I would have stressed two other religion trends linked to Trump's stunning win.

Conspiring to keep some Advent spirit alive, while waiting for the real Christmas

Conspiring to keep some Advent spirit alive, while waiting for the real Christmas

The children kept asking a logical question in Sunday school, one linked to those "Whose birthday is it?" appeals voiced by "Put Christ back in Christmas" activists.

Leaders of Ecclesia Church in Houston were trying to find ways to encourage members to observe the four solemn weeks of Advent (Latin for "toward the coming"), which precede the Christmas season, which begins on Dec. 25 and then lasts for 12 days.

"The children pushed this thing to another level," said the Rev. Chris Seay, pastor of this nondenominational flock in the trendy Montrose neighborhood near downtown. The church, which draws around 3,000 each weekend, was created by a coalition of Baptists, Presbyterians and others.

The question the children asked, he said, was this: " 'If Christmas is Jesus' birthday, then he should get the best gifts. Right?' … Once you ask that, it has to affect what we do as a church and what we do as families. If you start thinking that way, it changes just about everything we do at Christmas."

That shift led to efforts -- part of a national "Advent Conspiracy" campaign -- to raise money to provide safe water for suffering people around the world. The basic equation: If Americans spent $450 billion a year on Christmas, then why can't believers funnel some of this gift-giving into efforts to save others?

Ecclesia, an urban flock that includes poor and rich, is trying to raise about $1 million. That would be 30 percent of its annual budget, noted Seay, a total that will require major changes for many church members. The bottom line: "Advent Conspiracy" pastors are asking people to find ways to use the four weeks of Advent to prepare for Christmas as a holy day, rather than queuing up for America's blitz of holiday shopping, partying and decorating -- starting around Halloween.

This also means paying attention to ancient traditions that have shaped the church calendar, if not the shopping mall calendar.

Methodist theologian Tom Oden and his journey into ancient Christianity

Methodist theologian Tom Oden and his journey into ancient Christianity

It was a blunt, personal comment, the kind of intellectual elbow in the ribs that scholars share in the faculty lounge.

The Jewish sociologist of religion Will Herberg asked his Drew University colleague Tom Oden how he could call himself a theologian if he kept focusing his work on modern trends -- period.

Herberg told Oden that "he was a parasite on the ancient Christian tradition," who had "never taken seriously the great Christian minds of the past," noted theologian Stephen Seamands, who studied under Oden and uses many of his works while teaching at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky.

This Herberg challenge radically affected Oden's life in the 1970s, as he evolved from backing an edgy liberalism to spreading, in shelves of books, an ecumenical approach to orthodoxy. Oden kept publishing into the final years of his life, until his December 8th death at the age of 85.

"Here was a guy who -- until his mid '40s -- had been a success on that career track in the contemporary academy," said Seamands. Oden had a Yale University doctorate and thrived in an era "built on the idea that new is better and that you looked down on anything old. You were supposed to idealize whatever people called the latest thing. That's how you got ahead."

In the 1950s, Oden embraced Marxism, existentialism and the demythologization of scripture. He was an early leader among Christians supporting abortion rights. In the 1960s he plunged into Transactional Analysis, Gestalt therapy, parapsychology and what, in one of my first encounters with him, he called "mild forms of the occult."

As he dug into early church writings, from the ancient East and West, Oden came to the conclusion that "I had been in love with heresy."

Canadian researchers find that doctrine really does matter, in terms of church growth

Canadian researchers find that doctrine really does matter, in terms of church growth

When they set out to find growing mainline churches, sociologist David Haskell and historian Kevin Flatt did the logical thing -- they asked leaders of four key Canadian denominations to list their successful congregations.

It didn't take long, however, to spot a major problem as the researchers contacted these Anglican, United Church, Presbyterian and Evangelical Lutheran parishes.

"Few, if any, of the congregations these denomination's leaders named were actually growing," said Haskell, who teaches at Wilfrid Laurier University in Branford, Ontario. "A few had experienced a little bit of growth in one or two years in the past, but for the most part they were holding steady, at best, or actually in steady declines."

To find thriving congregations in these historic denominations, Haskell and Flatt, who teaches at Redeemer University College in Hamilton, had to hunt on their own. By word of mouth, they followed tips from pastors and lay leaders to other growing mainline churches.

The bottom line: The faith proclaimed in growing churches was more orthodox -- especially on matters of salvation, biblical authority and the supernatural -- than in typical mainline congregations. These churches were thriving on the doctrinal fringes of shrinking institutions.

"The people running these old, established denominations didn't actually know much about their own growing churches," said Haskell, reached by telephone. "Either that or they didn't want to admit which churches were growing."

The researchers stated their conclusions in the title -- "Theology Matters" -- of a peer-reviewed article in the current Review of Religious Research. In all, they plan five academic papers build on their studies of clergy and laypeople in nine growing and 13 declining congregations in southern Ontario, a region Haskell called church friendly, in the context of modern Canada.

After 70 years, It's (still) a Wonderful (Catholic) Life in Frank Capra's epic

After receiving 30 pieces of silver for betraying Jesus, Judas Iscariot repented, threw the money away and hanged himself.

Religious authorities used the money, according to St. Matthew's Gospel, to buy the "potter's field, to bury strangers in," which became known as the "field of blood."

Anyone who thinks it was a coincidence that the slums owned by bitter banker Henry F. Potter in "It's a Wonderful Life" were called "Potter's Field" isn't paying attention to the gospel according to Frank Capra.

"There's no question that Capra's great enough" to be listed among Hollywood's greatest Catholic filmmakers, said critic Steven D. Greydanus of DecentFilms.com and The National Catholic Register. He also serves as a permanent deacon in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark.

"It's a Wonderful Life," he stressed, is also Capra's greatest film and the one that best captures his Catholic view of life. Capra directed, co-wrote and produced the film, which was released on Christmas Day in 1946. The movie's 70th anniversary will be celebrated Dec. 9-11 in Seneca Falls, N.Y., the model for the fictional Bedford Falls.

"Capra worked harder on this film than any other," said Greydanus. "He was passionate about it and the themes in it. …  I think his worldview was shaped by his Catholic upbringing and, whatever idiosyncrasies he added as an adult, that faith shaped this movie."

Religious liberty experts stand together, on cases inside prison walls

Religious liberty experts stand together, on cases inside prison walls

When it comes to fine cuisine, few gourmands would fight to be served peanut butter, sardines, beans and some other canned goods -- often cold.

While these foods are not very appealing, they are kosher. Thus, they are common items on the menu the Florida Department of Corrections has offered prisoners requesting kosher meals.

First Amendment activists have repeatedly clashed in federal courts with Florida officials who insist a kosher-food option would be too expensive.

"These aren't prisoners who have made up some kind of religion that requires them to eat lobster every day, claiming they're members of the Church of the Lobster," noted attorney Daniel Blomberg of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The Becket team filed an amicus brief backing the prisoners' rights, citing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

"No one goes to a lot of trouble to eat bread and beans," he added. "The prisoners are making these requests because this is what they believe God wants them to do. … The 'religious' diet these prisoners are being served is, frankly, unpalatable."

Federal and Florida officials have been haggling over these dietary details since 2011, leading to six federal-court decisions backing the prisoners. The state says a kosher-foods program costs about $12.3 million a year, compared to a U.S. government estimate of roughly $384,000.

Believe it or not: 2016 was a rather normal election year when it comes to a 'pew gap'

Believe it or not: 2016 was a rather normal election year when it comes to a 'pew gap'

No doubt about it, most mainstream pollsters thought the vote totals that rolled in during Election Night 2016 were intriguing, then stunning and, as dawn approached, almost unimaginable.

How did the chattering-class insiders miss what was clearly widespread heartland support for New York billionaire Donald Trump?

But there was one surprise left in the details of the early exit polls. In a race packed with soap-opera conflict and fiery rhetoric about personal ethics, morality and even faith, the experts looked at the role that religion played in 2016 and discovered -- to their shock -- that it was a rather normal modern election year.

"Actually, that's astonishing news," said Gregory A. Smith, who helps coordinate religion polling at the Pew Research Center. "If you consider all of the tumultuous events during this election year and how much tension there has been and all of the other stuff that's been up in the air, it's amazing that things were so steady" in terms of religion and voting, with "only a few numbers up or down a bit.

"Religious groups that have consistently supported the Republicans gave every indication they would back Donald Trump and that's how things turned out. The religious groups that traditionally back Democrats did so, but the turnout was down a bit. The religious groups that are usually divided were divided."

The so-called "God gap" (also known as the "pew gap") held steady, with religious believers who claimed weekly worship attendance backing Trump over Hillary Clinton, 56 percent to 40 percent. Voters who said they never attend religious services backed Clinton by a 31-point margin, 62 percent to 31 percent.

Let's face it: 2016 felt like the start of a cultural civil war, right?

Let's face it: 2016 felt like the start of a cultural civil war, right?

It's been nearly a quarter of a century since foreign correspondent David Aikman wrote a novel about a second American Civil War, with a government led by urban socialists going to war with heartland conservatives.

Alas, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

About a year ago, the bitter events unfolding on cable-TV political news made it rather clear that it was time for a new edition of that post-Cold War thriller, "When the Almond Tree Blossoms."

"No matter who wins … there are people out there who think we are headed toward some kind of civil war," said Aikman, in an interview just before Election Day.

"It's disappointing that our nation really hasn't come to terms with all of its internal problems. Right now, it feels like it would take a miracle -- some kind of divine intervention -- to heal the divisions we see in American life today."

Aikman was born in Surrey, England, and came to America in the 1960s to do a doctorate in Russian and Chinese history, after his studies at Oxford's Worcester College. After contemplating a career in diplomacy -- he speaks German, French, Chinese and Russian -- he moved into journalism and became senior foreign correspondent at Time magazine. Among his many adventures, Aikman witnessed the 1989 massacre in China's Tiananmen Square and introduced readers to a Russian politico named Boris Yeltsin.

Ironically, Aikman wrote "When the Almond Tree Blossoms" -- the title is rebel code drawn from Ecclesiastes -- while preparing to become a naturalized United States citizen in 1993. In the novel, the liberal "People's Movement" -- backed by Russia -- rules the East and West coast power centers, as well as the industrial Midwest. The "Constitutionalists" control most of the Bible Belt and have dug into the Rocky Mountain West. But who will the pragmatic Chinese support?