David French

That strange sermonette that Chris Pratt tricked MTV viewers into swallowing

That strange sermonette that Chris Pratt tricked MTV viewers into swallowing

Everyone knows what the angelic nanny Mary Poppins meant when she sang:  "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down."

Hollywood superstar Chris Pratt put a different spin on that during the recent MTV Movie & TV Awards. After receiving the Generation Award, he told fans to "listen up," because he was speaking "as your elder." Then he recited what CNN called his "Nine Rules for Living."

It was a strange set of commandments -- part potty humor, part youth-pastor sermon. But Rule No. 4 said this: "When giving a dog medicine, put the medicine in a little piece of hamburger and they won't even know they're eating medicine."

That's what Pratt was doing. The megastar of Guardians of the Galaxy and the Jurassic Park reboots followed the MTV rules and used some mildly off-color humor -- like how to poop at a party without smelling up the bathroom. These MTV celebrity-fests are known for their racy fashion statements and crude language.

That humor was Pratt's "hamburger." What caused a tsunami of Internet clicks was his "medicine," speaking as an out-of-the-closet Hollywood Christian.

Rule No. 2 proclaimed: "You have a soul. Be careful with it."

Rule No. 6 was rather personal: "God is real. God loves you. God wants the best for you. Believe that, I do."

Rule No. 8 was just as blunt: "Learn to pray. It's easy, and it's so good for your soul."

There was more to this drama than the rare chance to hear a "Hollywood A-lister tell people to pray," noted film critic Titus Techera of the Claremont Institute. Pratt was trying to turn celebrity worship upside down.

What comes next for religious liberty, after the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision?

What comes next for religious liberty, after the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision?

The Pulitzer Prize winning "Angels in America" has long been a touchstone for gay spirituality, so it wasn't surprising that actor Andrew Garfield celebrated winning a Tony Award in the play's revival with remarks mixing faith and politics.

It's crucial, he said, to celebrate the play's "spirit that says 'no' to oppression. It is a spirit that says 'no' to bigotry. … It is a spirit that says we are all made perfectly."

Garfield concluded: "We are all sacred. … So let's just bake a cake for everyone who wants a cake to be baked!"

The baker behind the U.S. Supreme Court's recent Masterpiece Cakeshop decision has heard pronouncements of this kind many times since that fateful day in 2012 when he declined to create one of his handcrafted, personalized cakes to celebrate the same-sex marriage of Charlie Craig and David Mullins.

"The biggest myth I hear all the time, pretty much, is that I turned away a gay couple. But the truth is, I never turn away any customers. I do, sometimes, have to decline to create cakes that violate my faith, and that was the case here," said Phillips, in a Lutheran Public Radio interview soon after the June 4 decision.

"The two gentlemen that sued me were welcome in my shop that day. I told them, I'll sell you cookies, brownies, birthday cakes, anything else, custom cakes -- it's just that I can't create this one, because this was a cake that goes against the core of my faith."

While this was a 7-2 ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion (.pdf) focused on evidence that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had demonstrated open hostility to Phillips and his Christian faith. Thus, he avoided a broader ruling on First Amendment protections of free speech and the "free exercise" of religion.

Naturally, church-state activists have argued about the significance of this much-anticipated decision. At least four camps have emerged so far.

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."