Barack Obama

And now a word from Oprah, the pope (and president?) of America's 'nones'

And now a word from Oprah, the pope (and president?) of America's 'nones'

No one has to tell Marcia Nelson about America's rising number of "nones" -- people claiming zero ties to a religious tradition -- because she meets them day after day while working as a hospital chaplain in Chicago.

"Lots of people want you to pray with them, but they'll also make comments that let you know they really don't like the institutional church," said Nelson. "They want you to pray, but they don't want traditional religious language. ... When you're in that situation, what you have to do is try to pray like Oprah."

America had another Oprah Winfrey moment the other day, when the 63-year-old billionaire media maven delivered a Golden Globes sermon that created rapture in Hollywood and a heady buzz among journalists and politicos.

NBC gushed on Twitter: "Nothing but respect for OUR future president."

During her remarks, Winfrey pushed many buttons that have defined her career, noted Nelson, author of the 2005 book, "The Gospel According to Oprah." Surrounded by a media storm about sexual abuse of women, Winfrey also offered praise for journalists, appeals for social justice and criticism of corrupt tyrants. She didn't need to mention the former talk-show host in the White House.

It was a secular speech, noted Nelson, but had the "pastoral touch" that the young Winfrey displayed in services at the Faith United Mississippi Baptist Church, where other girls called her "Miss Jesus."

"Oprah has always had a gift for reading what's on people's minds and this was one of those times," said Nelson.

Winfrey raced from the birth of the Civil Rights Moment to today's headlines, while focusing on the pains and triumphs of abused women.

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 gentle, evangelical insider religious satire of The Babylon Bee

The gentle, evangelical insider religious satire of The Babylon Bee

Anyone who visits a typical American megachurch worship service will get a quick education on the mechanics of contemporary praise music.

First, the band rocks into action, while swaying worshipers raise their hands high, singing lyrics displayed on giant screens. There may be lasers and smoke. A guitarist or keyboard player guides everyone through worship songs -- loud then soft, softer then louder -- linked by dramatic key changes and musical "bridges." Eventually, there's a sermon or worship video.

What if something goes wrong? This Babylon Bee headline was an online classic: "Worship Leader Caught In Infinite Loop Between Bridge And Chorus."

In this fake "news report," a weeping member of the worship band adds: "It's scary, honestly. … This is our third worship leader who's been sucked into a PCBV (Perpetual Chorus-Bridge Vortex) in the past year."

After the 14th chorus-to-bridge transition, deacons called 911 and the victim was rushed to an emergency room. "Physicians are subjecting him," readers learn, "to a barrage of classic hymns in hopes that he will recover."

This is an inside-baseball brand of satire that allows Babylon Bee creator Adam Ford to gently explore the yins and yangs of evangelical Christianity.

"While we satirize our own camp quite a bit, we don't limit ourselves to evangelicalism. We write about culture, politics, other religions, current events, etc., regularly," said Ford, who does email interviews since he struggles with anxiety attacks. He shares more of his personal story in his own Adam4d.com web-comics site.

Most Babylon Bee newcomers, however, are almost certainly be drawn there by social-media references to the site's popular items dissecting modern evangelical life.

'Amazing Grace' tests faith in the modern Broadway marketplace

NEW YORK -- During his eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pickney, one of nine worshipers killed at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., a visibly moved President Barack Obama paused as he pondered mysteries of grief and forgiveness.

"Blinded by hatred," he said, the gunman could not comprehend the "power of God's grace. … Amazing grace. Amazing grace." The president then began singing: "Amazing grace! How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see."

The congregation joined in during that June 26 service, which was not a surprise since researchers say believers worldwide sing the Rev. John Newton's classic at least 10 million times a year.

But the president's solo had an unexpected impact in New York, where the cast of the Broadway musical "Amazing Grace" was doing preview performances before its July 16 opening in a tough town for a show about sin, repentance and salvation.

Some theater insiders, for example, had suggested changing the show's name.

"When Obama sang the song it was like heaven for us. If the president knew this song, that meant it was acceptable, that it wasn't just something for church people," said veteran playwright Arthur Giron, who wrote the musical's book -- dialogue and many lyrics -- along with self-taught composer Christopher Smith.

"You see, many Broadway people didn't know 'Amazing Grace,' let alone what the song was about. They obviously didn't know the story of the song and that was the whole point of our show."

Hot words in top 2012 religion stories

'Twas the Sunday night before the election and the Rev. Robert Jeffress was offering a message that, from his point of view, was both shocking and rather nuanced. His bottom line: If Barack Obama won a second White House term, this would be another sign that the reign of the Antichrist is near.

Inquiring minds wanted to know: Was the leader of the highly symbolic First Baptist Church of Dallas suggesting the president was truly You Know Anti-who?

"I am not saying that President Obama is the Antichrist, I am not saying that at all," said Jeffress, who previously made headlines during a national rally of conservative politicos by calling Mormonism a "theological cult."

"What I am saying is this: the course he is choosing to lead our nation is paving the way for the future reign of the Antichrist."

That's some pretty strong rhetoric, until one considers how hot things got on the religion beat in 2012. After all, one Gallup poll found that an amazing 44 percent of Americans surveyed responded "don't know" when asked to name the president's faith. The good news was that a mere 11 percent said Obama is a Muslim -- down from 18 percent in a Pew Research Center poll in 2010.

Could church-state affairs get any hotter? Amazingly the answer was "yes," with a White House order requiring most religious institutions to offer health-care plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved forms of contraception, including "morning-after pills." The key: The Health and Human Services mandate only recognizes the conscience rights of a nonprofit group if it has the "inculcation of religious values as its purpose," primarily employs "persons who share its religious tenets" and primarily "serves persons who share its religious tenets."

America's Catholic bishops and other traditional religious leaders cried "foul," claiming that the Obama team was separating mere "freedom of worship" from the First Amendment's sweeping "free exercise of religion." In a year packed with church-state fireworks, the members of Religion Newswriters Association selected this religious-liberty clash as the year's top religion-news story. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the point man for Catholic opposition to the mandate, was selected as the year’s top religion newsmaker – with Obama not included on the ballot.

The story I ranked No. 2 didn’t make the Top 10 list. I was convinced that the 9-0 U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming a Missouri Synod Lutheran church’s right to hire and fire employees based on doctrine could be crucial in the years – or even months -- ahead.

Here’s the rest of the RNA Top 10 list:

* The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that religiously unaffiliated people – the so-called "nones” -- is America’s fastest-growing religious group, approaching 20 percent of the population.

* The online trailer of an anti-Islam film, "Innocence of Muslims,” allegedly causes violence in several countries, including a fatal attack on U.S. consulate in Libya.

* GOP White House candidate Mitt Romney's Mormon faith turns out to be a virtual non-issue for white evangelical voters.

* Monsignor William Lynn of Philadelphia becomes first senior U.S. Catholic official found guilty of hiding priestly child abuse, followed by Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Mo.

* Vatican officials harshly criticize liberal U.S. nuns, citing the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for its history of criticism of church teachings on sexuality and the all-male priesthood.

* Voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington affirm same-sex marriage. Minnesota defeats a ban on same-sex marriage, while North Carolina approves one.

* Episcopal Church leaders adopt ritual for blessing same-sex couples.

* A gunman described as a neo-Nazi kills six Sikhs and wounds three others in a suburban Milwaukee temple.

* Southern Baptist Convention unanimously elects its first African-American president, the Rev. Fred Luter of New Orleans.

Billy Graham & Co. push the values voters

The television talking heads all agreed that the election was over, which ignited celebrations among the staff and supporters of winner Richard Nixon -- including the world's most famous evangelist. "We did it," proclaimed the Rev. Billy Graham, according to iconoclastic journalist Joe McGinniss in "The Selling of the President 1968." Graham, he added, went "directly into Nixon's room, without explaining whether 'we' meant Billy Graham and Richard Nixon or Billy Graham and God or perhaps all three together."

Years later, a repentant Graham said he wept and became ill when he heard Nixon's paranoid, profanity-laced chatter on the Watergate tapes. While "America's pastor" kept meeting with presidents -- as he has with every Oval Office occupant since Harry Truman -- he vowed never again to become that attached to a candidate.

The question, for Graham's critics and even some supporters, is whether the national advertising campaign launched on Oct. 18th by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association -- now led by son Franklin Graham -- has crossed that line. The target audience: Readers of USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, key swing-state newspapers and church bulletins nationwide.

"The legacy we leave behind for our children, grandchildren and this great nation is crucial," proclaims one ad. "As I approach my 94th birthday, I realize this election could be my last. I believe it is vitally important that we cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel.

"I urge you to vote for those who protect the sanctity of life and support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman."

It's easy to read between those lines, noted sociologist William Martin, author of "A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story."

"Billy Graham representatives note that the ads do not mention a specific candidate or party -- an observation intended more for the IRS than for the target audience," wrote Martin, at Christianity Today online. "Given that former Gov. Mitt Romney opposes same-sex marriage and President Barack Obama supports it (and by doing so, has -- to use Franklin Graham's words -- "shaken his fist" at God), the ads leave no doubt about their intent."

There's more. Romney aides claim that, at the end of a recent meeting with the candidate, the evangelist promised: "I'll do all I can to help you. And you can quote me on that."

Months earlier, the Graham organization also released statements urging North Carolina voters to back a state constitutional amendment on marriage and an appeal for support of "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day," after the company's president drew fire for defending traditional Christian doctrines on sex and marriage.

Meanwhile, former Graham-organization webmaster Steve Knight has said -- in a much-circulated Huffington Post essay -- that enough is enough. It's significant that Knight now works with a denomination on the religious left, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

"My concern is that here's how things like this continue to work," warned Knight. "Franklin Graham (or Franklin and his sister Anne Graham Lotz) have an agenda (in all ... of these cases, "traditional marriage"), they get a BGEA copywriter to draft the text, ... Franklin approves the copy and-or design, then Franklin drives out to Little Piney Cove (Billy's cabin home outside of Asheville, N.C.) and holds the piece of paper in front of Billy and asks, 'Daddy, can we publish this?' And Billy nods (or whatever he's capable of doing at this point in his life), and Franklin goes back and publishes this stuff with his good father's name all over it."

Veteran Graham spokesman A. Larry Ross has vehemently denied this and other claims that Graham has, in effect, become a puppet used and abused by Franklin Graham and others.

"In the years since his last public crusade, Billy Graham has been increasingly burdened by society's moral decline and the need for renewal in our culture and revival in the church," noted Ross, in the Christianity Today forum. "Because he considers the institution of marriage as the cornerstone of society, he is opposed to any redefinition of marriage -- which he sees not as a political issue but rather a matter of religious freedom."

Thus, Ross added, Graham personally approved the use of these quotations in which he is heard "challenging citizens -- particularly the faith community -- on how to vote, rather than for whom to vote."

Stalking the anti-Mormon voters of 2012

With the White House race nearing an end, it's time for America's political pundits to face that fact that millions of voters will in fact be worried about Mitt Romney's Mormon faith on Election Day. Many will be offended by what they believe are the intolerant, narrow teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on marriage. Others will be worried about Mormonism's history of opposing abortion rights.

"There really is a large group of people in America who won't vote for Mitt Romney for president because he is a Mormon," noted Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes, in a recent Institute on Religion and Democracy lecture.

"It's a very large group and there is a name for them -- liberals."

This isn't the God-and-politics story most media insiders wanted to talk about during the 2012 campaign, said Barnes, who also works as a commentator for Fox News. The religion hook this time around was supposed to be clashes between Romney and Trinitarian Christians who consider Mormonism, at best, a sect or, at the worst, a "theological cult" with its own prophet, scriptures and unorthodox doctrines on the nature of God and other eternal matters.

But a strange thing happened somewhere during the campaign. According to a number of political polls, the overwhelming majority of Christian conservatives quietly decided they could vote for the Republican nominee without endorsing his views on heaven, hell and the mysteries of the Godhead.

In one Gallup survey this past summer, potential voters were asked: "If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be a Mormon, would you vote for that person?" While 10 percent of Republicans answered "no," this negative stance toward Mormon candidates rose to 18 percent among self-declared "independents" and 24 percent among Democrats.

Another piece of pre-election research -- the American National Election Studies (.pdf), by a scholar at the University of Sydney -- found that anxieties among evangelical Protestants have actually declined somewhat in recent years, with 36 percent expressing an "aversion" to Mormon candidates in 2007 and 33 percent feeling the same way in 2012.

Meanwhile, anti-Mormon attitudes among non-religious voters rose from 21 percent in 2007 to 41 percent in 2012. Among voters who called themselves "liberals," this aversion to Mormons rose from 28 percent to 43 percent during that same period. Political and religious liberals, according to this study, are now 10 percent more likely than evangelical Protestants to harshly prejudge Mormon candidates.

The key for many Protestants is that, after decades of trying to Christianize American history, it has become very hard for them not to think of the president as a kind of "religious mascot" instead of as a politician, said the Rev. Russell D. Moore, speaking at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. A recording of this forum, entitled "The Mormon Moment: Religious Conviction and the 2012 Election," was later posted on the Internet.

"I heard someone in recent days say, 'I would never vote for anyone who is not an authentically professing evangelical Christian,' " said Moore, who leads the seminary's school of theology. "If that's the case, then as far as I can see, you have about three candidates in the last 100 years or so ... that you could possibly vote for: William Jennings Bryan, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush."

Instead of focusing on a shopping list of doctrines, religious voters will need to focus on a more practical question when they enter voting booths, said Moore. They should ask: "Between these two people -- President Obama and Gov. Romney -- who is going to do the best for the common good and in protecting the United States of America and all the other questions that we've got to keep in mind?"

Meanwhile, admitted Barnes, there are "small pockets" of evangelicals in the Bible Belt who remain convinced that members of their flocks must not compromise by voting for a Mormon. However, most religious conservatives have concluded that they fear Romney's faith less than they fear a second term for Barack Obama.

The experts also know that, "just as a matter of political geography, the few holdouts, if you want to call them that, tend to be in states where Mitt Romney probably doesn't need their votes," said Barnes. "He will carry states like Tennessee and South Carolina and Georgia … very easily."

Faith in that Barack Obama brand

Here's good news for President Barack Obama: The slice of Americans who believe he is a Muslim is down to 11 percent, according to a new Gallup Poll. That number was up to 18 percent two years ago, in a Pew Research Center survey, after hitting 11 percent in 2009.

This time around, 52 percent of Democrats knew the president is a Protestant Christian, as opposed to 24 percent of Republicans. Only 3 percent of Democrats said Obama is a Muslim, while 18 percent of Republicans thought so. The number of Gallup respondents who answered "none/no religion" was fairly even -- 10 percent of independents, 7 percent of Republicans and 6 percent of Democrats.

In many ways, the most remarkable number in these polls is that -- after years of public professions by Obama -- nearly 137 million Americans answer "don't know" when asked to name his faith. That's 44 percent of those polled in this recent Gallup effort.

"It's clear most Democrats recognize that he is a liberal Christian or they just don't care," said Mark Edward Taylor, author of "Branding Obama: The Rise of an American Idol." Meanwhile, on the other side, Republicans are "much more likely to say that they are confused about his faith or that they doubt he is really a Christian.

"That could be what some people really mean when they say they don't know Obama's religion."

Meanwhile, there are liberals who think Obama is lying when he says he is a believer. HBO comedian Bill Maher spoke for this flock when he said: "If you woke him up in the middle of the night, or if you gave him sodium pentothal, I think (Obama would say) he's a centrist the way he is a Christian -- not really."

From this perspective, it's crucial that the president's father was a skeptical Muslim and that Obama has, at various times, described his mother as "an agnostic" and "a lonely witness for secular humanism," as well as "a Christian from Kansas," noted Taylor. Young Obama grew up with Joseph Campbell's "The Power of Myth," as well as the Bible and the Koran.

Still, there's plenty of evidence the rising politico paid attention during his years at Trinity United Church of Christ.

One thing's for sure: Obama didn't learn his call-and-response pulpit skills at Harvard Law School. He plugged into a liberal African-American congregation in order to build his South Chicago credibility, while hitting the golf links to learn how to reach into executive suites.

By the time he went national, these lessons had been fused into a powerful advertising formula driven by the words "change," "hope" and "believe." In his book, Taylor says the key is that the "believe" component centered on Obama's image, talent and personal story -- not a creed. The candidate offered "himself to America," rather than political or religious specifics.

"At no time did Obama declare, 'I am the Messiah.' Every time he stepped into the spotlight, though, he talked and acted like one," argued Taylor. "Obama created a messianic personality by being messianic. ... He preached justice, righteousness and compassion. He proclaimed the end of war and peace among nations. He prophesied the healing of the planet. Obama never told the American people that he was their Savior. He showed them his plan for redemption."

This take on faith rings true for millions of Americans. Yet millions of other Americans balk at Obama's privatized definition of "sin" as "being out of alignment with my values." In that same 2004 interview with journalist Cathleen Falsani, Obama said he was unsure about heaven and hell, but that "whether the reward is in the here and now or in the hereafter, the aligning myself to my faith and my values is a good thing."

Taylor is convinced this division -- between two very different views of faith -- is what keeps showing up in poll results about Obama and religion.

"All I know is that Obama recently played his 100th round of golf on a Sunday morning. I don't know if he went to church that Sunday morning or not," he said. "When we look at these poll numbers, perhaps what we are really seeing is the result of what these Americans think about religious faith. What they say about Obama may tell us as much or more about them as it does about Obama."

Evolving conflicts over religious liberty

The ratification of the 18th Amendment banning the manufacture, transportation or sale of alcoholic beverages had obvious implications for Catholic priests and Jewish rabbis, as well as for tavern owners. Thus, legislators wrote an exemption into the bill that defined the Prohibition era allowing the sacramental or medicinal use of alcoholic beverages. The wine on Catholic altars and Jewish Seder tables remained real -- thanks to the Volstead Act's fine print.

"If the act had failed to exempt wine for sacramental purposes there would have been both a political firestorm and a First Amendment challenge," noted William Galston of the Brookings Institute, at a recent religious-liberty conference in Washington, D.C.

This is not dusty history, in a year loaded with tense clashes between religious groups and the government. Thus, Galston said it's important for politicians and clergy to remember 1919 and to ask, "Would that challenge have succeeded? This is not a peripheral issue. The use of sacramental wine lies at the heart of more than one religion."

Truth is, the timeline of American history is dotted with similar conflicts. While the First Amendment offers strong protections, politicians and judges have frequently tweaked the boundaries on the religious-liberty map.

Several church-state fires are currently burning, including intense debates linked to health care as well as to same-sex marriage.

Many speakers during the conference, which was sponsored by the American Religious Freedom Program of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, focused on conservative concerns about the impact of new Health and Human Services regulations. The key is that these mandates require the health-insurance plans offered by most religious institutions to cover sterilizations and all FDA-approved forms of contraception, including "morning-after pills" -- even when this violates ancient doctrines.

As a former domestic policy adviser for President Bill Clinton, Galston knew that he wasn't "preaching to the choir" when telling conservatives that today's conflicts are not unprecedented and have been inflamed by the "overwrought polemics" of contemporary politics.

No matter what the headlines say, Galston said he believes Catholic bishops are not "conducting a war on women and the Obama administration is not conducting a war on religion. There is, instead, a genuine disagreement over the respective roles of religious obligation and civil law. This disagreement takes place against the backdrop of an enduring fact -- there is no guarantee that the requirements of citizenship and of faith will prove fully compatible in a religiously diverse and non-theocratic society."

In addition to the Prohibition Era conflict, it's easy to spot similar clashes in American life -- past and present.

For example, noted Galston, the U.S. government "mercilessly hounded" the Mormon Church for decades and in the early 20th century anti-Catholic forces made serious attempts to outlaw parochial schools. In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Native Americans could be denied the right -- required by centuries of tradition -- to use the drug Peyote in religious ceremonies.

There's more. During his White House years, Galston said he often had to inform delegations of Christian Scientists that "federal laws on child abuse and neglect trumped their conscientious beliefs as to the form of medical care that their children should receive."

The U.S. Supreme Court has proclaimed that religious groups are not allowed to violate "common community conscience" on racial issues, even when acting for doctrinal reasons. Thus, Bob Jones University lost its tax-exempt status in 1983 because of what it then proclaimed were Bible-based policies forbidding interracial dating.

A key issue today is whether this civil-rights standard will soon be applied to gay rights, noted Galston.

"Many religious organizations take the position that opposing same-sex adoption cannot be equated with opposing comparable interracial activities," he said. "In law, that is mostly correct -- for now. But some states have already moved to settle the issue in favor of same-sex couples and more ... are likely to follow."

Can this conflict be resolved? History says there is no easy answer to that question, said Galston.

"There is no guarantee that public opinion will converge on what justice requires. The conscience of the community has often erred and will continue to do so," he said. "There are compelling reasons within modern states to carve out protected spaces for dissenting moral voices. But in the end, the tension between the laws of the state and the demands of faith cannot be fully resolved -- it can only be managed."