Gallup Poll team offers an update on faith and our divided states of America

Gallup Poll team offers an update on faith and our divided states of America

The cartoon map of North America began appearing after the bitter "hanging chads" election of 2000, when the U.S. Supreme Court put Republican George W. Bush in the White House.

In most Internet variations, part of the map is blue, combining Canada and states along America's left coast and the urban Northeast and Midwest into "The United States of Liberty and Education." The rest is red, with America's Southern and Heartland states united into the "Republic of Jesusland" or tagged with a nasty name beginning with "dumb" and ending with "istan" that cannot be used in a family newspaper.

Variations on the "Jesusland" map have been relevant after nearly every national election in the past two decades. The map's basic shape can also be seen in the latest Gallup survey probing "religiosity" levels in all 50 American states.

Once again, Gallup found that Mississippi was No. 1, with 59 percent of its people claiming "very religious" status, in terms of faith intensity and worship attendance. Vermont was the least religious state, even in the secular New England region, with 21 percent of the population choosing the "very religious" label.

"You can see the 'R&R' connection, which means that -- among white Americans -- the more actively people practice their religion, the more likely they are to vote Republican," said Frank Newport, editor in chief at Gallup.

After Mississippi, the rest of the Top 10 "most religious" states were Alabama, Utah, South Dakota, South Carolina, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Georgia. After Vermont, the next nine least religious states were Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Nevada, Alaska, Oregon, Connecticut, Hawaii and New Hampshire.

"Religion isn't always a perfect guide to politics at the state level," said Newport, reached by telephone. "After all, New Hampshire is a swing state and Alaska is just its own thing."

Nevertheless, a reporter with decades of religion-beat experience took these Gallup numbers to the next level, overlapping them with state results in the hard-fought 2016 campaign. In terms of the "pew gap" phenomenon, there are few surprises.

Complex facts on persecution hiding behind that Muslim Ban hashtag

The late 1980s were dark times for Jews trying to flee persecution in the fading Soviet Union.

Finally, the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) acted, adding language to a massive 1990 appropriations bill to offer special assistance to refugees in persecuted religious minorities. Year after year, the Lautenberg amendment has been extended to provide a lifeline to Jews, Baha'is, Christians and others fleeing persecution in Iran, the former Soviet bloc and parts of Asia.

"There's nothing new about the United States taking religion into account when it's clear that refugees are part of persecuted minority groups," said Samuel Tadros, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom. He also teaches at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

"Tragically, religion is part of the refugee crises we see around the world right now and that certainly includes what's happening in Syria and Iraq."

Thus, Tadros and a few other religious-freedom activists paid close attention -- during the #MuslimBan firestorm surrounding President Donald Trump's first actions on immigration -- when they saw language in the executive order that was more nuanced than the fiery rhetoric in the headlines.

In social media, critics were framing everything in reaction to this blunt presidential tweet: "Christians in the Middle-East have been executed in large numbers. We cannot allow this horror to continue!" Trump also told the Christian Broadcasting Network: "If you were a Christian in Syria, it was impossible, at least very tough, to get into the United States. … If you were a Muslim, you could come in."

However, the wording of the executive order proposed a different agenda, stating that the "Secretary of State, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, is further directed to make changes, to the extent permitted by law, to prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual's country of nationality."

The New York Times, however, summarized this part of the order by saying it "gives preferential treatment to Christians who try to enter the United States from majority-Muslim nations."

Quran in the cathedral: A symbolic window into soul of multicultural England

In Christian tradition, the Epiphany feast marks the end of the 12-day Christmas season and celebrates the revelation -- to the whole world -- that Jesus is the Son of God.

Thus, it was highly symbolic when a Muslim participating in an Epiphany rite at St. Mary's (Episcopal) Cathedral in Glasgow, Scotland, chanted verses from the Quran, Surah 19, in which the infant Jesus proclaims:

"Lo! I am the slave of Allah. He hath given me the Scripture and hath appointed me a Prophet. … Peace is on me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I shall be raised alive!" The text then adds: "Such was Jesus, son of Mary: a statement of the truth concerning which they doubt. It befitteth not Allah that He should take unto Himself a son."

Cathedral leaders took to social media to hail this as a lovely moment. But in the Church of England, one of the chaplains of Queen Elizabeth II was dismayed by what many would consider an act of blasphemy -- a reading of this clear Islamic denial of Jesus being the Son of God.

The Glasgow rite was justified as "a way of building bridges and a way of educating people," the Rev. Gavin Ashenden told the BBC.

Nevertheless, he argued that it was wrong to insert such a reading into "the Holy Eucharist and particularly a Eucharist whose main intention is to celebrate Christ the word made flesh come into the world. … To choose the reading they chose doubled the error. Of all passages you might have read likely to cause offence, that was one of the most problematic."

After hearing from Buckingham Palace, Ashenden resigned as one the queen's chaplains. Thus, he surrendered his unique status in a land in which the Church of England has been weakened by almost every cultural trend, yet retains a unique niche in the national psyche.

This was, Ashenden said, a matter of personal principle and ancient doctrine.

Searching for 'subtweets' in prayers offered during the Trump inauguration rites

While the Beltway establishment gathered on the U.S. Capitol's West side with legions of Middle Americans in "Make America Great Again" hats, the House of Representatives approved the final pre-inauguration details.

The quick session opened with a prayer by the chaplain, Father Patrick J. Conroy.

"God of the universe, we give you thanks for giving us another day. You are the father of us all, and your divine providence has led this nation in the past," he said, before offering prayers for "your servant, Donald Trump." The Jesuit prayed for the new president to "see things as you see things" and strive to hold "all of us to higher standards of equal justice, true goodness and peaceful union."

Conroy closed with a poignant prayer for the blunt and ever-controversial New York City billionaire: "We pray that he become his best self."

Add that to the file of January 20 prayers to analyze.

As always with inauguration ceremonies -- the high-church rites of American civil religion -- references to God were almost as common as those to the nation's new leader. This ceremony included six clergy offering their own chosen prayers and scriptures and was framed by private and public worship services.

Journalists and activists then read between the lines seeking messages aimed at Trump and his fans, as well as at God. The bottom line: In cyberspace, combatants now "subtweet" their adversaries, offering subtle criticisms behind their social-media backs. This inauguration offered plenty of opportunities for participants to engage in some theological subtweeting. The eyebrow-raising messages included:

Putting the brilliant, tormented, flawed Martin Luther on trial -- one more time

Putting the brilliant, tormented, flawed Martin Luther on trial -- one more time

NEW YORK -- The drama unfolds in a Gothic sanctuary in a limbo zone between heaven and hell.

In this new Off-Broadway play -- "Martin Luther On Trial" -- Lucifer requests new proceedings against the Catholic monk turned Protestant reformer, with St. Peter acting as judge and Luther's wife, former nun Katharina von Bora, as defense counsel.

The first witness is Adolf Hitler, who hails Luther as a "great German patriot" who saved Germany "by uniting all Germans against a common enemy -- the pope. … Luther's 95 Theses freed the German conscience from the clutches of Rome, creating space for a new moral system, one that would be distinctly German."

Luther's wife shouts: "Objection. Luther wasn't a nationalist. He wanted people to follow Christ first, nation second."

St. Peter sadly replies: "Overruled."

So the debate begins. Luther's defenders stress his struggles against worldly Medieval church structures, his work translating the Bible into German and his messages stressing that salvation was found through repentance and faith. It was a world-changing event when, on Oct. 31, 1517, the theology professor posted his 95 theses in Wittenberg, Germany.

The Devil says Luther's goal was to "Reform the Christian church. His result: fracturing it into a thousand pieces." Luther's work also unleashed a violent storm of change in Europe. Facing public failure, as well as success, the aging Luther lashed out at Rome and the Jews in language and logic later recycled by Nazi leaders.

"There is the mad genius thing here. Not in the sense that Luther ever went mad, but there were times when he gave into his anger," said Chris Cragin-Day, who co-wrote the play with Max McLean, founder of the Fellowship for Performing Arts, which is producing "Martin Luther On Trial."

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."