Complex realities behind that '81 percent of evangelicals love Trump' media myth

Complex realities behind that '81 percent of evangelicals love Trump' media myth

For millions of American evangelicals, a recent Oval Office photo-op was a perfect example of the political realities they face.

A day after his release from a Turkish prison, the Rev. Andrew Brunson knelt and prayed for the president who helped focus a global spotlight on efforts to free him. Brunson had been accused of backing critics of the Turkish regime.

The pastor asked God to give Donald Trump "perseverance, and endurance and courage to stand for truth. I ask that you to protect him from slander from enemies, from those who would undermine. … Fill him with your wisdom and strength and perseverance. And we bless him."

Millions of evangelicals, but not all, had to smile.

Trump, in jest, asked Brunson and his wife: "Who did you vote for?"

Millions of evangelicals, but not all, had to groan.

In the current news theory of everything, few numbers in American political life have received more attention than this one -- 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016. Politicos have paid less attention to signs that many evangelicals cast those votes with reluctance, and some with a sense of dread.

"This was really a faith-based vote -- faith that Trump would operate as a conservative on the issues that mattered the most to evangelicals," said World Magazine editor-in-chief Marvin Olasky, a Christian conservative who, citing character flaws, openly opposed Trump getting the GOP nomination.

"I still don't like him at all, but I have to say that he's coming through. … It's a kind of politics by gesture, but he's pulling it off."

Praying with Brunson was "a perfect gesture," he added. But if Trump had "blown it on the Supreme Court, his support among evangelicals would have plummeted."

Before the election, World consulted 100 evangelical "leaders and insiders" and half of them said they wouldn't vote for Trump, "no matter what." The other half said they would watch for signals that Trump sent about the U.S. Supreme Court.

Can clergy help modern parents struggle with technology issues in their homes?

Can clergy help modern parents struggle with technology issues in their homes?

The evidence keeps growing that families need help controlling technology in their homes, but this is a subject most megachurch pastors would have trouble addressing with a straight face.

"Talking about this subject in many of our churches would be … controversial for reasons that are rather ironic," said author Andy Crouch, senior communication strategist for the John Templeton Foundation in Philadelphia. "Pastors would be preaching in churches dominated by giant video screens and lots of them now ask their people to tweet sermon feedback right there in the service. The technology is everywhere."

It's hard to talk about controlling today's digital-screens culture without being accused of advocating a semi-Amish retreat. But at some point, he said, parents who care about faith, morality and character will have to develop some strategies. For starters, their children will need to hear, over and over: "Our family is different."

Clergy could help parents face this task. But that would require them to address hot-button issues ranging from online porn to whether parents should give children smartphones. It would also require saying, "Our church is different."

Crouch doesn't have easy answers for any of these questions. His new book, "The Tech-Wise Family," includes "Crouch Family Reality Check" pages detailing the struggles behind the principles he recommends. While his family uses candles at its screens-free dinners, Crouch admits that his home's number of Apple devices is in double digits.

Obviously, it's hard to observe any kind of "digital Sabbath" in which all these screens go dark for an hour, a day or even a week, said Crouch. Nevertheless, trying to control this digital lifestyle is a subject religious leaders should discuss with their flocks.

"If we don't have some rhythm with these things -- in terms of when we use them and when we don't -- then they're using us, instead of us using them," he said. But it's crucial to remember that, "we're not saying all this technology is bad. It's good, when used as part of a Christian family culture. That's what takes planning and commitment.

Words pastors fear saying to their flocks, part 1

The powers that be in professional sports know that it’s easier to fire embattled coaches than to push powerful athletes out the door.

Pastors know that the same pattern usually holds true when push comes to shove in religious sanctuaries. The sad result is often a vicious cycle of fear, stress, doubt, despair, workaholism, frustration and fatalism.

In his book “Counseling Christian Workers,” the late Dr. Louis McBurney — a Mayo Clinic trained psychiatrist known for helping clergy in times of crisis — summed it up with one sad, exhausted quotation from an anonymous minister hurt by powerful people in his pews.

“There’s nothing wrong with my church,” said this pastor, “that wouldn’t be solved by a few well-placed funerals.”

The Rev. Gary Brinn has heard clergy offer variations on that line, with the most common being that, on occasion, “pastors get to bury their problems.” It’s the kind of blunt talk pastors share when privately talking shop. It’s not the kind of thing they would say to their flocks, not even to the angry goats in the pews.

“You would think the one place people would practice some manners and show some understanding would be in church, but too often that just isn’t the case,” said Brinn, who leads the Sayville Congregational United Church of Christ, on the South Shore of Long Island. “Sometimes you just want to say, ‘Have a little kindness, folks.’ “

Recently, Brinn went toe to toe with one “bushy-bearded rogue” after this year’s late-night Christmas Eve service. In this case, the once-a-year churchgoer wanted the pastor to know that the service — which blended Christmas hope with the sobering realities of Hurricane Sandy and the massacre in Newtown, Conn. — was one of the worst services he had ever attended in his life.

The pastor turned the other cheek. Later he turned to his computer, pounding out a commentary entitled “Secrets Your Pastor Can’t Share in a Sermon” that went viral. While many readers posted outraged online comments, said Brinn, in a telephone interview, his email in-basket was soon full of sympathetic letters from clergy.

Among his dark secrets, Brinn noted that clergy — usually experienced, seminary-educated professionals — wish their parishioners would remember that:

* Offerings are not tips exchanged for entertaining sermons, “nor are you paying for services rendered. Your stewardship, bringing your tithes and offerings to the community in which you worship, is a spiritual practice that comes right out of scripture. … Failure to give appropriately is a spiritual problem.”

* Clergy struggle to work 60 hours or less each week. Even on Sundays, he noted, they’ve “been ‘on,’ like rock concert ‘on,’ all morning. I’m smiling and being social, but I’m actually fried. … You know that important thing you needed to tell me as you shook my hand and headed off to brunch? I forgot it, along with the important things eight other people told me. Sorry, I didn’t mean to, but you better write it down, send it in an email, or leave me a message for when I get back in the office.”

* Truth be told, clergy care more about “the regulars. I know I’m not supposed to, but I do. You know, the ones who show up in the pouring rain, there for every fundraiser and Bible study. When a perfect stranger shows up demanding the rites of the church and treating me like I’m an unfortunate prop in their personal movie, it’s a problem. … I’m having serious theological qualms about this, I’m just not telling you.”

* Clergy work for a bishop, a vestry or another source of authority, but they ultimately must be able to confess that, “I work for God.” Yes, it’s hard to please everyone, but an honest preacher also must be able to say, “If I stop challenging you, you’ll know that I am either exhausted or scared. Neither is good for you or the church you love.”

Brinn said he didn’t worry that members of his small congregation would misunderstand this candid shot over the pulpit.

“I really wrote this piece for all of the pastors who don’t have the freedom to be this honest in their pulpits,” he said. “Way too many pastors try to bury their problems. … I am convinced that 75 percent of American clergy are terrified of their congregations.”

NEXT WEEK: Why are many clergy so afraid of their flocks?

Thumbs down for Obama faith, again

For those keeping score, let it be noted that the White House transcript from the National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony says that President Barack Obama shouted "Merry Christmas" before adding "Happy holidays." In fact, Obama said "Christmas" eight times, twice as often as he mentioned "holidays." With his family at his side, the president also used an even more controversial word -- "Christian."

"Each year we've come together to celebrate a story that has endured for two millennia," he said. "It's a story that's dear to Michelle and me as Christians, but it's a message that's universal: A child was born far from home to spread a simple message of love and redemption to every human being around the world."

Politicos did the Beltway math and got this number -- 2012.

God talk is back in the political equation, as the clock ticks toward another campaign. Insiders are counting how often Obama clearly mentions his Christian faith and then subtracting, to cite a key statistic, the number of times he quotes the Declaration of Independence while clipping God from the line that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights."

Many pastors seem to be paying attention as well, according to a recent LifeWay Research survey that asked 1,000 Protestant pastors to judge the faith of five public figures. Researchers interviewed a spectrum of clergy, with the selection of participants based on the sizes of their national denominations. Thus, conservative flocks had more votes.

The question: "Which, if any, of the following people do you believe are Christians?" It was thumbs up for former President George W. Bush (75 percent) and GOP lightning rod Sarah Palin (66 percent), but thumbs down for Obama (41 percent), as well as media superstars Glenn Beck (27 percent) and Oprah Winfrey (19 percent).

Among the pastors who said they were Republicans, 23 percent said Obama is a Christian, a stark contrast with the 80 percent of the pastors who identified themselves as Democrats. Among "independents," 52 percent called Obama a Christian.

Bush was viewed as a Christian by 75 percent of the pastors, including 84 percent of those who identified their politics as "liberal" or "very liberal." Meanwhile, 25 percent of the "very conservative" Protestant clergy declined to call Bush a Christian.

One thing this survey made clear is that many American clergy have clashing definitions of the word "Christian," said Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, which is linked to the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention.

For many Americans, he said, "Christian" is "simply an identification on a form. They see a box on a survey and they say, 'I am not Hindu or Jewish. I am from America, so I must be Christian.' ... Pastors may see this differently. For example, evangelical pastors tend to link the term 'Christian' with conversion experiences."

Thus, conservative Protestants believe that people are not born into Christianity, but enter the faith by being "born again."

This is why the Obama controversies are so hard to understand, stressed Stetzer. On several occasions -- including in his memoirs -- Obama has described what is "clearly a conversion experience of some kind" in which he made a public profession of Christian faith and joined the United Church of Christ.

Nevertheless, Obama supporters were stunned by last year's much-publicized Pew Research Center poll that said 18 percent of Americans continue to believe that Obama is a Muslim, while only 34 percent identify him as a Christian. Another 43 percent did not know his religious faith.

There is no way to be sure why so many of the clergy who participated in the LifeWay survey declined to call Obama a Christian, stressed Stetzer.

A few may think he is a Muslim, while others may believe that Obama is so progressive that he is trying to affirm multiple faiths at the same time. It is likely that many conservatives believe that Obama sincerely thinks he is a Christian, but that his religious beliefs are too unorthodox to be considered doctrinally sound.

"I just don't think that the Muslim controversy alone is enough to explain what we're seeing here," said Stetzer. "At the end of the day, we only know that the pastors answered this way, not why they answered this way. We have more work to do on this."

Voices of unbelievers, in pulpits

On Sunday mornings, you will find him leading hymns in one of the independent Church of Christ congregations somewhere in South Carolina. Call him "Adam." He is a church administrator, a "worship minister" and a self-proclaimed "atheist agnostic." That last detail is a secret. After all, his wife and teen-aged children are devout believers and he needs to stay employed.

"Here's how I'm handling my job. ... I see it as playacting. I kind of see myself as taking on a role of a believer in a worship service, and performing," he said, during an interview for the "Preachers who are not Believers (.pdf)" report from the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.

"I know how to pray publicly. I can lead singing. I love singing. I don't believe what I'm saying anymore in some of these songs. But I see it as taking on the role and performing. Maybe that's what it takes for me to get myself through this, but that's what I'm doing."

The researchers behind this report do not claim they can document whether this phenomenon is rare or common. What they have right now is anecdotal material drawn from confidential interviews with five male Protestant ministers -- three in liberal denominations and two from flocks that, as a rule, are conservative. An ordained Episcopal Church woman was interviewed, but withdrew just before publication.

The authors of the report are philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, an outspoken leader in the movement many call the "New Atheism," and Linda LaScola, a clinical social worker with years of qualitative research experience. She is also an atheist, but, until recently, was a regular churchgoer.

"We started with a pilot study because this is very new ground," said LaScola, who conducted the interviews. "We are planning to do a larger study in the future."

The key is circulating this early material and then finding more ministers who are willing to be interviewed. The initial participants were found through contacts with the Center For Progressive Christianity and the Freedom from Religion Foundation. As this report candidly states: "Our sample is small and self-selected, and it is not surprising that all of our pastors think that they are the tip of an iceberg, but they are also utterly unable to confirm this belief."

What unites these ministers is their isolation from the believers in their pews, their awareness that they cannot honestly discuss their doubts and evolving beliefs. They also struggle with labels such as "atheist" or "agnostic," often insisting that they remain believers of some kind -- although they reject Christian doctrines or even theism.

This tension, the authors stressed, is "no accident" in these postmodern times.

"The ambiguity about who is a believer and who a nonbeliever follows inexorably from the pluralism that has been assiduously fostered by many religious leaders for a century and more: God is many different things to different people, and since we can't know if one of these conceptions is the right one, we should honor them all," noted Dennett and LaScola. "This counsel of tolerance creates a gentle fog that shrouds the question of belief in God in so much indeterminacy that if asked whether they believed in God, many people could sincerely say that they don't know what they are being asked."

More than anything else, the report offers a striking mix of voices and motives.

"Darryl" the Presbyterian still calls himself a "Jesus Follower," but adds: "I reject the virgin birth. I reject substitutionary atonement. I reject the divinity of Jesus. I reject heaven and hell in the traditional sense, and I am not alone."

There's "Wes" the United Methodist: "I think the word God can be used very expressively in some of my more meditative modes. I've thought of God as a kind of poetry that's written by human beings."

A retired United Church of Christ pastor, "Rick," has learned to add this subtle disclaimer when reciting creeds: "Let us remember our forefathers and mothers in the faith who said, 'dot, dot, dot, dot'."

"Jack" the Southern Baptist has concluded that the "grand scheme of Christianity, for me, is a bunch of bunk." Thus, he is quietly planning a new career.

"If somebody said, 'Here's $200,000,' I'd be turning my notice in this week, saying, 'A month from now is my last Sunday.' Because then I can pay off everything."

Palin's pastor meets the press

The Sunday service had just ended and the Rev. Larry Kroon couldn't believe what he was seeing. A journalist was chasing Wasilla Bible Church members in the aisles, trying to convince somebody, anybody, to dish about his flock's most famous church lady. The craziness had started as soon as Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin became the GOP's nominee for vice president.

Suddenly, there were satellite dishes out front and worshippers were trapped inside, trying to escape to the safety of their cars in the parking lot.

Kroon tried to control the chaos, telling journalists they were free to participate in worship services, but not to film or interrupt them. The pastor also asked them not to "fish for interviews" as members arrived or departed. He thought these rules were enough. He was wrong.

"We can look back and say, 'Whoa. We really should have done this or that differently,' " said Kroon. "I was naive enough to think this wasn't going to affect us -- but it did. We ended up scrambling to get from day to day. We had that deer in the headlights look for quite a while."

Wasilla Bible Church leaders encountered professionals from the New York Times, CNN, Time, Fox, the major television networks and just about everyone else -- from America and around the world. Flocks of alleged journalists arrived from every corner of the World Wide Web, as well.

After hurricane Palin, Kroon met with management consultant James Stamoolis and prepared some tips for clergy who struggle with media attention -- wanted or unwanted. Some of those tips are relevant again in Wasilla, since Palin's faith plays a big role in her new "Going Rogue" memoir. Here's a sample, drawn from a talk with Kroon.

* Never accept an interview without confirming a reporter's identity and his or her current employer. Just because someone has written for the Associated Press doesn't mean that he isn't currently a blogger for or something like that.

* Help reporters understand that private communications between clergy and the faithful are, in fact, privileged and guarded by the same kinds of laws that shield reporters and their sources.

* Keep contact information for community leaders -- such as telephone numbers and email addresses for church elders -- in a firewall-protected section of your congregation's website. Post contact information for staffers who are prepared to handle media requests in a timely manner.

* Ask if reporters or producers have experience covering religion news. Some journalists sincerely want factual information that will help them cover a story fairly and accurately, while others "are in a hurry and they simply want what they want. You may think you're helping them understand who you are and what you believe, but they just want a good quote and then they're moving on," said Kroon.

* It may help to post information about your denomination or tradition, including frequently asked questions about worship, media relations, how the congregation is governed and the meaning of unique terms (such as "born again" or "charismatic") that newcomers will encounter.

* Understand that a two-hour interview may be reduced to 20 seconds and that the journalist decides what goes in that soundbite. So avoid lectures and focus on the key points that you must make to explain your congregation's point of view. It's also important to remember that silence is the reporter's problem, not your problem.

* In the Internet age, there is no reason that a pastor cannot -- as a condition for talking to a reporter -- insist on the right to record and transcribe an interview. That way, the professionals on both sides of the transaction know that they are on the record and the results, if needed to clarify a point, can be posted online or emailed to a publisher.

Kroon stressed that he was truly impressed by many of the journalists, especially with their commitment to accuracy and fairness. They wanted to get the story right. But others arrived in Wasilla with their minds clamped shut. They came to get the story that they already knew that they wanted to write.

"Pastors need to understand that there are really good reporters and there are some really bad ones, too," he said. "You also have to understand that even the really good ones are going to push you to your boundary lines. That's what they do."

A holy kind of anger

Anyone who has turned on talk radio, scanned the headlines or visited Capitol Hill lately knows that millions of Americans are angry. Democrats are mad at Republicans who are mad about President Barack Obama's health-care plans. Democrats are mad at other Democrats who are raising questions about hot-button issues in the legislation, especially questions about tax dollars and abortions. Republicans are mad about lots of other things and they have YouTube videos to prove it.

Right now, America's political elites are getting angry about the fact that so many people are angry. It's almost a Zen thing.

All of this anger is supposed to be a bad thing, a sign that the nation is coming unglued. But that may or may not be true, depending on what these angry citizens are mad about and what they choose to do with their anger, noted Leon J. Podles, a Catholic conservative known for his slashing critiques of the church hierarchy's weak responses to decades of clergy sexual abuse of children.

"If the politics of anger can't lead to constructive actions, then all that anger is meaningless and, ultimately, doesn't do anyone any good," stressed Podles. "Still, I would argue that anger is more positive than apathy, especially when citizens are angry about issues that are worth being angry about.

"Anger is certainly better than people sitting back on their sofas and saying, 'Ho hum, millions of unborn babies are dying.' It's better than people saying, 'Ho hum, people are dying because they don't have health care, but so what?' These are issues that should make rational people get angry."

Writing in the ecumenical journal Touchstone, Podles argued that it's especially important for Christians and other religious believers to understand that anger is not always a sin or an emotion that must be avoided. In fact, that there are circumstances in which it is a sin not to feel anger. The ultimate question, he said, is whether anger leads to rational, constructive, virtuous actions.

Who would argue, for example, that it was wrong for the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., to feel righteous anger about the impact of racism and economic injustice on the lives of millions of black Americans? Who would argue that it was wrong for Nelson Mandela to draw strength from the anger he felt during his 27 years in prison under South Africa's apartheid regime?

It's crucial in both of these cases, stressed Podles, that these men did not allow their anger to turn into hatred of their oppressors. Instead, it led to courageous and strategic acts to accomplish worthy goals.

"Anger must be more than mere emotion," he stressed. "Anger must also be proportionate to the evil that provokes that anger. Take road rage, for example. That kind of anger is completely irrational and it accomplishes nothing."

Then there are cases in which powerful people fail to feel anger about issues that are directly under their control, issues that their actions could affect in direct and positive ways. In his book "Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church," Podles attempts to understand why so many bishops failed to be outraged by the sins committed by some of their priests and, thus, failed to channel that anger into actions to stop the crimes.

"If the bishops had not coddled these priests, if they had not hidden them and then put them back into parishes full of children and parents who were kept in the dark, they could have prevented evil acts against thousands of victims," he said. "There were bishops who could have acted and they should have acted. But they didn't act. … For some reason they never got angry and, as a result, they never acted to protect the laity, especially the children."

There are times that call for unity, diplomacy, conciliation and peacemaking in the church and in public life, said Podles. But there are also times when leaders must feel outraged about corruption and injustice. There are times when anger must be allowed to fuel actions that defend virtue.

"There are evils in this world that we can do something about and we should get angry about them," he said. "In any battle, it's hard to act in an effective manner without a kind of appropriate anger that energizes your actions. Without that anger, innocent people will suffer and evil will win the day."

Twin rocking chairs for ELCA gays

There was no way for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to affirm the ministries of clergy living in "publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships" without attracting attention. After all, debates about the Bible and sexuality had rocked America's largest Lutheran flock since it was born in 1988 through the merger of three older Lutheran denominations. Similar fights have caused bitter divisions among Episcopalians, Presbyterians, United Methodists and other oldline Protestants.

While the decision in the recent ELCA national assembly was a triumph for proponents of same-sex marriage, this media storm also focused attention on a question that often causes debates among liberal theologians and ethicists: What does the word "monogamous" mean?

The detailed social statement approved by the denomination does not specifically define the term, but states that clergy in same-sex unions should be held to the same standards as those in heterosexual marriages.

"This church teaches that degrees of physical intimacy should be carefully matched to degrees of growing affection and commitment. This also suggests a way to understand why this church teaches that the greatest sexual intimacies, such as coitus, should be matched with and sheltered both by the highest level of binding commitment and by social and legal protection, such as found in marriage," argues the document, which is entitled "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust."

Thus, the Evangelical Lutheran Church continues to oppose "non-monogamous, promiscuous, or casual sexual relationships of any kind. ... Such transient encounters do not allow for trust in the relationship to create the context for trust in sexual intimacy."

It's hard to define "monogamy" without discussing what it means for one person in a relationship to be sexually "faithful" to another, said the Rev. Kaari Reierson of the national ELCA staff. She was part of the task force that produced the "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust" document.

"When we talk about a 'monogamous' relationship," she explained, "we mean that someone is supposed to be having physical, sexual contact with only one person."

For some activists, however, "monogamy" is a fighting word.

As the national debates about same-sex marriage began to gain momentum a decade ago, the influential gay newspaper The Advocate stated this issue in a blunt headline: "Monogamy: Is it for us?"

This is not a new issue. As a gay United Methodist pastor explained to me in the early years of the AIDS crisis, few gay Christians embrace a "twin rocking chairs forever" definition of monogamy. Instead, they believe that it's possible to be "faithful" to one's life partner, while having sexual experiences with others.

The Episcopal Church's first openly gay male priest went much further, questioning the relevancy of monogamy altogether during an address about what he called "sex-positive" theology soon after his ordination in 1989.

"My position on sexual exclusivity ... is that it is NOT in fact a requirement for a valid Christian marriage," stated Father Robert Williams, whose controversial views led to his departure from the Episcopal Church. He died of complications of AIDS in 1992.

A strict form of monogamous sexual fidelity, he noted, is "an option some couples choose. Others do not, and yet have lifelong, grace-filled, covenant relationships."

The gay journalist Andrew Sullivan -- a liberal Catholic -- was equally blunt in his 1995 book "Virtually Normal," arguing that, "There is more likely to be greater understanding of the need for extramarital outlets between two men than between a man and a woman. .... The truth is, homosexuals are not entirely normal; and to flatten their varied and complicated lives into a single, moralistic model is to miss what is essential and exhilarating about their otherness."

And in the ELCA? Several church representatives stressed that their leaders are still preparing the revised guidelines for clergy conduct, which may not be made public until the end of the year. However, Reierson said she believes they will strive to apply terms such as "monogamous" and "faithful" to the covenant relationships of both gays and straights.

Meanwhile, the current policy that "single ordained ministers are expected to live a chaste life" will remain in the guidelines, she said. This means no sex before marriage for all single clergy.

"I think what we have said is pretty clear," she said. "I don't see room in there for physical, sexual relations with another person outside of the covenant of a lifelong, committed relationship."

Hot 50 American rabbis

For those marking their calendars far in advance, the next celebration of Passover will begin at sundown on April 19, 2008.

This means well-connected American Jews have almost a full year to lobby for their favorite rabbi to make the unofficial, but totally buzz-worthy, list of the nation's 50 top rabbis. The pre-Passover list in Newsweek was such a hit that the film-industry players who created it are already gearing up for the sequel.

The goal was to jump start discussions about what it means to be an "influential" rabbi today, said Jay Sanderson, head of the Jewish TV Network and producer of the PBS series "The Jewish Americans." But it's hard to talk about shepherds without discussing their flocks. That was the point.

"The whole concept of what it means to be an effective leader is changing so fast and this is certainly true for the Jews," he said. "So some people are talking about the fact that we didn't ask, 'Who is the most learned rabbi?' or 'Who has the most powerful pulpit? Instead, we specifically asked, 'Who is the most influential rabbi and what does that mean, today?'...

"Some of our rabbis are preaching in what can only be called 'virtual pulpits.' "

When it comes to buzz, it didn't hurt that the list was created by Sanderson and two other top mass-media executives -- Gary Ginsberg of News Corp. and Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton -- rather than by panels of community leaders and scholars.

The result was an earthquake in the Jewish blogosphere and wide coverage in the mainstream press.

It also didn't hurt that three of the top five picks were from Los Angeles, while the rabbi of the largest congregation in Washington, D.C., was ranked No. 10 and the leader of New York City's largest congregation fell all the way to No. 23. The top pick was Orthodox Rabbi Marvin Hier of Los Angeles, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Museum of Tolerance and Moriah Films. The Top 50 list stressed that he is "one phone call away from almost every world leader, journalist and Hollywood studio head."

The 2007 edition began with a 100-candidate shortlist and its creators plan to cast their nets wider next year. Feminists were upset that only five women made the cut.

The project's guiding principles can be seen in the 100-point system used to rank the rabbis. First they asked if the rabbis were known around the world, as well as in America. (20 points) The other questions: Do they have media presence? (10 points) Are they leaders in their own cities? (10 points) Are they leaders within their branches of Judaism? (10 points) How many Jews, in one way or another, follow them? (10 points) Do they have political and social clout? (20 points) Have their careers had a major impact on Judaism (10 points) and the wider culture? (10 points)

In the first list, 18 of the top 50 were listed as Reform, 17 as Orthodox, 10 as Conservative, three as Reconstructionist and two as "Jewish Renewal" rabbis. Next time, said Sanderson, the team will make a stronger effort to identify rabbis with the various movements within that complex Orthodox camp.

After all, the Orthodox rabbi whose selection drew the most flack was Rabbi Yehuda Berg at No. 4, founder of the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles. He has become a cultural phenomenon by preaching red-string power to Madonna, Britney Spears and many other trendsetters. Some Jewish leaders content that Berg is not really a rabbi.

"Any list that has Yehuda Berg on it is a list that I do not want to be on," said an anonymous rabbi who made the list, but vented to the Jerusalem Post. "I think his name up there on the top tells you all you need to know about the Jewish sophistication of these folks."

Sanderson welcomes the ongoing debate. The key, he said, is that rabbis have to take their various takes on the ancient faith directly to modern Jews -- where they are.

"Picture a young Jewish woman on her treadmill watching the Today Show," he said. "How do you talk to her about Judaism? The answer is that you have to go on the Today Show, because she isn't going to be sitting in your congregation during the High Holy Days. That's the reality, right there."