The pope and the Pentecostal smartphone

The image projected onto the giant screen above the recent Kenneth Copeland Ministries conference was not your typical clever smartphone video. Still, the crowd of Pentecostal Protestants was mesmerized because the shepherd vested in white who addressed them -- in Italian, with subtitles -- was one of the last men on earth they would have expected to warmly bestow his blessing on them.

Pope Francis stressed that they "must encounter one another as brothers. We must cry together. ... These tears will unite us, the tears of love. ... I speak to you in a simple way, with joy and yearning. Let us allow our yearning to grow, because this will propel us to find each other, to embrace one another and together to worship Jesus Christ as the only Lord of History."

There was another historic twist at the end. The pope from Latin America asked the flock in Texas for a spiritual favor, which would have been unthinkable during decades of bitter tensions between established Catholic churches and the rising tide of Protestant -- usually Pentecostal -- believers in the Americas.

"I thank you profoundly for allowing me to speak the language of the heart," said Pope Francis. "Please pray for me, because I need your prayers. ... Let us pray to the Lord that He unites us all. Come on, we are brothers. Let's give each other a spiritual hug and let God complete the work that he has begun. And this is a miracle. The miracle of unity has begun."

Copeland then took the stage, shouting, "Glory! Glory! Glory! Come on, the man asked us to pray for him!"

Many in the crowd lifted their hands and began speaking in what Pentecostal Christians believe are heavenly, unknown tongues. Copeland -- a global televangelist -- proclaimed: "Father we answer his request. ... We know not how to pray for him as we ought, other than to agree with him in his quest ... for the unity of the Body of Christ. We come together in the unity of our faith. Hallelujah!"

This drama was the result of relationships forged behind the scenes. The video was recorded during a Jan. 14 visit to Rome by Bishop Anthony Palmer, a Pentecostal minister from England who is part of the independent Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches. He traveled to Argentina five years ago to work with Catholic Charismatic Renewal leaders and also met the local Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio -- now Pope Francis. Their ongoing friendship led to an invitation to visit the Vatican.

The pope's video, and its enthusiastic reception by Copeland and his flock, caused a sensation on the Internet. The key was the contrast between the image of the Jesuit pope with a media-friendly flare for simple living and that of Copeland, an elder statesman of what critics call the "prosperity Gospel."

Meanwhile, some Protestants worried about Palmer's challenge to the crowd: "Brothers and sisters, Luther's protest is over. Is yours?" And some Catholics pondered the pope's statement: "It is sin that has separated us, all our sins. ... It has been a long road of sins that we all shared in. Who is to blame? We all share the blame."

Both of these reactions miss the point, noted Marcel LeJeune, the assistant director of campus ministry at the thriving St. Mary's Catholic Center at Texas A&M University. The goal of the pope's message was to demonstrate Christian unity where it could be demonstrated -- in prayer and encouragement -- rather than doctrinal debates.

"This is what Christian unity looks like," he argued in a commentary at the Aggie Catholics website. "It doesn't ignore the differences that we have with our non-Catholic brothers and sisters. It isn't triumphalistic. It isn't us vs. them."

At the same time, speaking as a Catholic raised in Texas, LeJeune said it was stunning to see a flock of evangelical leaders openly praying for the pope, instead of, as was common in the past, "talking about Rome being the great whore of Babylon."

Catholics and conservative Protestants have to "find some middle ground between sitting in a circle singing 'Kumbaya' and sitting off by ourselves going on and on about our many differences," he said, in a telephone interview. "We have to see each other as brothers and sisters, rather than enemies, or we will just keep driving stakes into the hearts people who are open to becoming believers."

Goodbye to old-time mountain faith

Travelers who frequent the winding mountain roads of Southern Appalachia know that, every few miles, they're going to pass yet another small Baptist church sitting close to some rushing water. It's all about location, location, location.

Why would a preacher want to baptize a new believer in a heated, indoor tank when he can dunk them in the powerful, living, frigid waters of the river that created the valley in which his flock has lived for generations? There's no question which option the self-proclaimed Primitive Baptists will choose, even if it adds an element of risk.

"Among Primitive Baptists, you almost always see two ministers when they baptize someone -- one to do the baptism and one to hold on. It's even become part of their unique liturgical tradition to have two ministers there," said Baptist historian Bill Leonard of the Wake Forest School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C.

"As the saying goes, you could get baptized and go to heaven on the same day if there wasn't somebody there to hang on so you didn't wash away and drown."

This is the kind of old-fashioned faith that Americans are used to seeing in paintings of frontier life or grainy black-and-white photographs from the days before interstate highways, shopping malls, satellite dishes and the Internet. Appalachian religion has played a dramatic role in American culture, helping shape our folk art, Scotch-Irish history, roots music and a host of other subjects.

The question, for Leonard and many other scholars, is whether the rich heritage of "mountain Christianity" will play much of a role in the nation's future.

"Increasingly," he said, "our modern forms of American religion and our mass media and culture are sucking the life out of one of our most distinctive regions."

While the region contains religious groups with European ties, the most important fact about the common Appalachian churches is that they are uniquely American.

For outsiders, this can be very complex territory.

The Calvinist, Primitive Baptists are not the only Baptists whose sanctuaries dot the landscape of the 1,600-mile-long strip of mountains that run from Eastern Canada down to the high hills of Alabama and Georgia, cresting at Mount Mitchell in the heart of North Carolina's Black Mountains. There are Independent Baptists (of various kinds), Free Will Baptists, Old Regular Baptists, Missionary Baptists, Southern Baptists and dozens of other brands.

Even the Primitive Baptists are a complex bunch, noted Leonard. There are some who avoid wine and some who make their own. Some refuse to hire professional pastors or to send their preachers off to seminary, fearing they will be corrupted. There's even a small body of Primitives -- critics call them "no-hellers" -- who insist God's love is so strong that everybody ends up in heaven, no matter what.

Then there are the various kinds of Pentecostal-Holiness churches, including the rare -- but world famous -- congregations in which believers handle snakes, sip poison and wrestle with demons.

Some "Oneness" Pentecostal believers baptize in the name of Jesus, alone, while others embrace the traditional Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In an academic paper entitled "Looking for Religious Appalachia," Leonard noted that he once heard a Trinitarian Pentecostal preacher explain that doctrinal feud in terms anyone could grasp: "Jesus had a Daddy. He wasn't no bastard."

"Case closed," wrote the historian.

Ironically, some of the most powerful forces that threaten these churches are the efforts of outsiders to help the region -- such as missionaries sent to evangelize the locals or social-justice activists who want to help the locals escape their own way of life. Then there are the softer forms of Evangelical Protestantism that arrive through television, mass-marketed gospel music and those new, transplanted megachurches that keep sprouting up like suburban superstores.

Thus, the stark "Sacred Harp" hymns of the shape-note era gradually gave way to the cheery gospel quartets of the radio era, which were then blitzed by the pop-rock "praise bands" of the Contemporary Christian Music era.

What happens when the mountain churches and their traditions are gone?

"Appalachia still exists and it remains something to celebrate," said Leonard. "Still, what's happening there is a danger signal to us all. ... What was once pristine wilderness is becoming an exploited region. Tragically, a crucial element of America's religious history and heritage if being lost, as well."

Rights and wrongs of Pastor Terry Jones

The deaths of the 10 International Assistance Mission medical workers inspired headlines that were both shocking and numbingly familiar, since these are dangerous times for believers whose convictions steer them into Afghanistan. A Taliban blandly leader told the press: "They were Christian missionaries and we killed them all."

If the gunmen had only waited a few weeks, they could have claimed that their victims were linked to a powerful global conspiracy to burn Korans.

That's the kind of statement that the head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission was worried about when he -- with countless other evangelicals -- urged the Rev. Terry Jones to cancel his "International Burn a Koran Day" event on Sept. 11. The leader of the tiny Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., did precisely that, but not before forcing religious and political leaders to wrestle with agonizing First Amendment issues.

"The behavior of this church is not Christian. I cannot imagine Christ burning any religious texts," argued the Rev. Richard Land, in an online Washington Post forum. "This behavior is unfortunately one of the prices we pay for living in a free society with freedom of speech and freedom of expression, even when it is odious and reprehensible."

A protest of this kind would "besmirch the reputation of our Savior, and that makes it blasphemy," he said. The whole idea was "appalling, disgusting and brainless."

The bonfire would have made life more dangerous for missionaries, human-rights activists, diplomats and American soldiers. Those flames also would have made life much more dangerous for Christian converts and members of other religious minorities in predominantly Muslim lands.

Nevertheless, these clergy and politicos had to wrestle with the fact that Jones had every right to buy copies of the Koran and, after planning a fire small enough to wink at local laws, strike a match.

After all, this would, have been another act of painful symbolic speech.

Did the American Nazis have a constitutional right to march in Skokie, Ill., a Chicago suburb that was home to numerous Holocaust survivors? Yes, and demonstrators in the Reagan White House era burned the American flag. Muslims overseas have burned copies of the novel, "The Satanic Verses," by Salman Rushdie, and Bibles, too.

How many times have followers of the Rev. Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kan., waved their lurid signs -- "God Hates the U.S.A." is one of the mildest -- at funerals for soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan? On Sept. 11, the Westboro Baptist Church crew burned a Koran and an American flag at the same time. For once, most journalists elected to look the other way.

In the case of Jones and his church in Gainesville, the Council on American-Islamic Relations decided that the timing of his Koran travesty was simply too hot to ignore. Even though the group regularly ignores the videos that it receives of people burning, shooting or ripping apart Islam's holy book, CAIR decided to issue a July 19 press release announcing its own protest of "International Burn a Koran Day." The group handed out free copies of the Koran.

The word was officially out and the media storm kept growing as angry reactions -- from Arab streets to the White House -- rolled into the world's newsrooms.

Lost in the din were the quiet, measured words of many religious leaders who tried to walk a knife's edge of logic in their public statements.

For starters, they had to note the painful fact that the Dove World Outreach Center was an independent Pentecostal congregation and its members were responsible to no higher religious authority than their own pastor. Thus, there was no one who could stop this event, other than public officials who, in order to do so, would have had to trample the rights of Jones and his flock.

The bottom line: Blasphemy is not illegal in the United States of America.

As the clock ticked down, Land stressed that the "only thing more dangerous than what this pastor is doing would be to allow the government to interfere. This would set a terrible precedent and would diminish all our First Amendment rights. The best way to combat this is to exercise our free speech right to condemn what he is doing in the simplest way and most direct terms."

Farewell to Ashcroft urban legend

The satirical report on the Democratic Underground website may have seemed bizarre to outsiders, but it was old news to Attorney General John Ashcroft.

According to a fictitious poll by CNN, Time and Cat Fancy Magazine, 52 percent of calico cats surveyed were afraid -- even deathly afraid -- of the attorney general and another 36 percent were "somewhat afraid." Some cats said they believed Ashcroft is, in fact, a sign of the devil.

"There have been reported cases of young kittens actually dying of fear when Ashcroft appears on television," said the fake news story. "Luckily for them, they have nine lives."

Behind the satire was an Internet report that spread as a rumor that became an "urban legend" about the Pentecostal Christian who was the highest of lightning rods during the first administration of President George W. Bush. Ashcroft will soon leave the cabinet, but this episode offers a window into how the religious and secular left viewed his faith and even the faith of his boss.

The rumor? Here is how it was stated by the San Fernando Valley Folklore Society ( "Attorney General John Ashcroft believes calico cats are a sign of the devil." The site says this rumor is "false" and calls it "one of the most bizarre items we've had to tackle in recent memory."

The key to understanding urban legends is that the people who spread them sincerely want to believe they are true, said Barbara Mikkelson, a curator at this urban legends research site. They don't believe they are spreading lies.

"People have a tendency to immediately believe rumors about people that they don't like or that they don't respect," she said. "We tend to spread the stories that, on some level, we agree with. It tells us that we are right.

"So along comes this story that is perfect and it confirms all of those views that we already hold. Of course we want to share it. It's just too perfect."

In the Internet age, legions of people click "forward" and pass the rumor along to friends through email, many of whom do the same or even post it somewhere on the World Wide Web.

Urban legends are especially popular among religious conservatives, millions of whom believe that mainstream media conspire to hide the best and the worst of the news. Thus, digital true believers excitedly circulate reports about NASA confirming biblical miracles, evil activists asking the Federal Communications Commission to zap religious media and a born-again president boldly sharing his faith with troubled teens.

But this particular legend sprang up on the left, beginning with web columnist and Democratic National Committee treasurer Andrew Tobias. Citing anonymous sources, he wrote that members of Ashcroft's advance team had confirmed that their boss "believes calico cats are signs of the devil" and wants them removed from his path.

When pushed, Tobias declined to be more specific about sources. The tale of the demonic cats leapt into cyberspace and assumed a life of its own, as anyone can learn by typing "Ashcroft," "calico" and "Satan" (or "devil") into a computer search engine.

The attorney general laughed off the rumors -- again and again. Finally, a reporter from The American Enterprise asked if he had any idea how the rumor began.

"Absolutely none. ... In any case, there's no truth to it," said Ashcroft, a graduate of Yale and the University of Chicago Law School. "I owned a calico cat on the farm I lived on until I went away to be the state auditor of Missouri."

Still, the urban legend grew. It even reached the New York Times.

The natural tendency, said Mikkelson, is to focus on who starts the rumor. The more important question is this: Who is spreading the urban legend and why are they doing so? The Ashcroft rumor is especially interesting because it was spread by powerful people in the mainstream of politics and media.

"What we have here is a mirror held up to the people who are spreading it," she said. "What it shows us is something about their values and their hopes and their fears about the world around them. ... Even if the story isn't true, they believe that it ought to be true. They want it to be true."