religious left

At March for Life, embracing ancient doctrines reveals modern tensions

At March for Life, embracing ancient doctrines reveals modern tensions

Just over a century ago, a Methodist leader on the church's Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public morals noticed an empty lot facing the U.S. Capitol and thought it would be a fine place to do some lobbying.

The Methodist Building was finished in 1923 and 100 Maryland Ave., N.E., soon became an even more strategic address when the Supreme Court moved next door. The prohibition cause faded, however, and in recent decades the five-story limestone building has housed liberal Protestant activists of all kinds, as well as Kids 4 Peace, the Islamic Society of America, Creation Justice Ministries and others.

It's an unusual site for a March for Life prayer meeting. But, year after year, the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality meets there to mark the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade.

Defending life means "walking in a way that is out of step with the world," said retired Bishop Timothy Whitaker, former president of the denomination's Board of Discipleship. While there are secular people who oppose abortion, he focused his Jan. 18 sermon on why this issue has become so crucial to modern Christians who strive to affirm ancient Christian doctrines.

"Unless a part of the church is compromised by being conformed to the world," said Whitaker, "becoming a Christian profoundly changes one's perception of reality and one's behavior. … That is why the church is loved by many, as well as hated by many."

When the March for Life makes headlines, it is almost always for political reasons, such as this year's remarks by Vice President Mike Pence and a video-chat from President Donald Trump.

The massive march also serves as a hub for dozens of smaller events, with groups ranging from Episcopalians for Life to Feminists for Life, from Pro-Life Humanists to the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians. Almost all mainstream religious groups -- including progressive flocks -- include a pro-life caucus of some kind.

For decades, United Methodists were powerful supporters of the interfaith Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, ties that were cut by delegates at the denomination's 2016 General Conference. That same conference defeated a motion to retain an old affirmation of Roe v. Wade.

The quiet (in terms of news coverage) rise of a secular coalition in US politics

The quiet (in terms of news coverage) rise of a secular coalition in US politics

NEW YORK -- Believe it or not, most Americans think their nation is becoming more tolerant, at least when it comes to warm feelings about most religious believers.

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that, in terms of "thermometer" ratings, Americans felt "warmer" about nearly all religious groups than they did in 2014. Even chilly ratings for atheists and Muslims are approaching a neutral 50 score.

But there was one glitch in this warming trend, with evangelical Protestants stuck on a plateau. Christianity Today magazine noted that, when the views of evangelicals were removed from the mix, only a third of non-evangelical Americans had warm feelings toward evangelicals. Flip that around and that means two-thirds of non-evangelicals have lukewarm or cold feelings about evangelical Christians.

"There's a sharp divide in this country and it's getting stronger. … This tension has been obvious for years, for anyone with the eyes to see," said political scientist Louis Bolce of Baruch College in the City University of New York. "It's all about moral and social issues. Some people don't like the judgmental streak that they see in traditional forms of Christianity, like in evangelicalism and among traditional Roman Catholics."

Bolce and colleague Gerald De Maio have, over two decades, mustered research demonstrating that journalists have shown little or no interest in the liberal side of this divide. While offering in-depth coverage of the Christian Right, journalists have all but ignored a corresponding rise in what the Baruch College duo have called "anti-fundamentalist" activists. Among Democrats, the term "evangelical" has become as negative as the old "fundamentalist" label.

When journalists deal with religion and politics, "prejudice is attributed to people on the Religious Right, but not to people on the secular and religious left. Everything flows from that," said De Maio.

Goodbye to a radical Baptist patriarch

The old Southern preacher had walked through many airport security gates using his cherry-wood cane and was surprised -- especially years before 9/11 -- when a guard ordered him to send it through the X-ray scanner. After that rite, the Rev. Will Campbell asked the guard to bring him the cane. The guard, somewhat miffed, asked if he could walk through the scanner without it. The preacher, somewhat vexed, said that was a question for his doctor.

Facing a nervous crowd, the guard ordered Campbell to walk through the gate. So the famous civil-rights activist -- the only white leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. invited to the first Southern Christian Leadership Conference meeting -- got down on the floor and crawled through. Then he retrieved his cane.

Campbell admitted, when telling this parable to Baptist progressives in 1994, that he then gave the cane a "sassy little twirl." His wife asked: "Why do you do things like that?"

"Because, I'm a Baptist! I come from a long line of hell-raisers," said Campbell. "I was taught that I wasn't a robot -- that I was a human being with a mind, capable of reason, entitled to read any book, including the Bible, and interpret it according to the ability of the mind I was given. That's why I do things like that."

The key, he said, is to ask what happened to all the Baptists who kept clashing with authority figures in the past. Where are the Baptists who were willing to be "tied on ladders and pushed into burning brush heaps because they believed in and practiced freedom of conscience," who "were so opposed to the death penalty they wouldn't serve on juries" and who "would not go to war, any war, for church or state? ... Where are they now?"

Campbell, he died last month at the age of 88, was a complex activist and writer who made lots of people mad for lots of reasons. Raised in rural Mississippi, he thrived at Yale Divinity School and failed as a small-town pastor. He accompanied the Freedom Riders in 1961 and marched in Birmingham in 1963. He tried to avoid reporters, but was tight with country-music rebels like Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. He opposed both abortion and the death penalty and, late in life, backed gay rights.

The self-proclaimed "bootleg Baptist" spent his life preaching forgiveness and reconciliation, yet also called religious conservatives "ecclesiastical highwaymen" who were "espousing a course that is a rollercoaster to a fascist theocracy." Pushed to summarize his theology he stated: "We're all bastards, but God loves us anyway."

"Will was fond of saying that if you are going to love one then you have to love everyone. ... This meant rednecks as well as radicals," wrote the Rev. Timothy George, for the conservative "First Things" journal. He is the dean of Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala., and a former member of Campbell's Committee of Southern Churchmen.

Campbell "infuriated many," George added, "when he befriended members of the Ku Klux Klan and even visited James Earl Ray in prison. Campbell wrote: 'I have seen and known the resentment of the racist, his hostility, his frustration, his need for someone upon whom to lay blame and to punish. With the same love that we are commanded to shower upon the innocent victim, the church must love the racist.'

"The fact is Will Campbell was simply sui generis. He cannot be comfortably squeezed into anyone's box."

In the end, the only box Campbell accepted was a Baptist box that fit his own iconoclastic specifications -- rejecting all creeds, traditions and hierarchies.

"Institutions, by their very definition, are evil," he said, in that 1994 address. "Their raison-d'etre is always and inevitably self-survival. They, all of them, when they are threatened will go to any length, tell any lie, engage in any program to protect themselves. And justify it as being in defense of Almighty God."

For Baptists to be true Baptists, he said, it's crucial for them to teach that Jesus never "demanded of the people who wanted to follow him that they must first know this or that, this creed, or that catechism, the nature of the Trinity or the plan of salvation, or subscribe to an Abstract of Principles to the satisfaction of the Sanhedrin. He had not insisted on any systematic belief whatsoever."

The fall and the strange rise of liberal religion

The most recent Jewish Community Study of New York held few surprises for those who have followed the sobering Jewish trends of recent decades. Yes, the 1.5 million or so Jews living in New York City and surrounding counties included a rising tide of people living in interfaith relationships and some had even begun calling themselves "partially Jewish." Participation in liberal Jewish congregations declined, again. Jews who said it was "very important" to affiliate with Jewish institutions fell to 44 percent.

But one number was genuinely startling -- that 74 percent of the region's Jewish children were found in the one-third of the Jewish households that identified as Orthodox.

No wonder leaders of the Reform movement and other liberal Jewish institutions have been asking sobering questions about theology, demographics and the future.

"The liberal approach to observance makes it impossible to set and maintain high expectations in terms of communal participation," argued Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan, in a much-debated broadside in The Forward. "Without an omnipotent God who can compel believers to practice a prescribed pattern of behavior, religious consumerism becomes the movement's dominant ethos. ...

"In the absence of a strong theological basis for making religious demands, the members lose interest and wander off."

There is, however, an ironic cultural reality hiding in all the negative trends that have been nagging liberal Judeo-Christian institutions, noted historian John Turner, who teaches religious studies at George Mason University.

This ironic wrinkle is easiest to see in the influential denominations scholars call the "seven sisters" of Protestantism. These churches, in descending order by size, are the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Recent Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life research found that, for the first time, America lacks a Protestant majority, with only 48 percent of the population claiming ties to Protestant denominations. This trend has affected a variety of churches, but the liberal mainline has been hit especially hard. Episcopal membership, for example, has fallen from 3.4 million in 1967 to 1.9 million in 2011. The United Church of Christ, President Barack Obama's denomination, has declined from more than 2 million members in 1962 to just over 1 million in 2011.

However, liberal religious groups "may have ultimately lost the battle for membership, but they won the larger cultural struggle," noted Turner, in an online First Things commentary. "Through their embrace of religious pluralism and more universal mystical religious experiences, liberal Protestants imperiled their own institutional strength but persuaded many Americans of the value of their ideas."

For example, liberal Protestants have -- backed by progressive elements in Catholicism and Judaism -- been victorious in their push to define religion's value in public life primarily in terms of social and economic justice, in contrast with more conservative groups that would stress both good works and evangelism.

Then there is religious liberalism's "much higher tolerance of pluralism," even on eternal issues tied to salvation, said Turner, in a telephone interview. Belief in "universalism" -- that all world religions lead to the same eternal ends -- remains "very divisive among evangelicals, but you would have to say that this belief has become the norm in Middle America."

Liberal religious leaders, he added, have been intensely committed to the "cultural prestige of science" in debates about life's big questions. They won that battle, too.

Religious liberals have also been much quicker to adapt to the looser moral standards of the Sexual Revolution, especially when changing ancient doctrines linked to hot-button topics such as sex outside of marriage, abortion and homosexuality.

"Actually, it's hard to know," said Turner, if mainline Protestants and other religious liberals "simply jumped on the bandwagon of the Sexual Revolution or if, in the end, they got run over by it."

The bottom line, he said, is that the religious left has the cultural momentum right now, even as its own institutions are wrestling with painful issues with demographics, membership totals and budgets.

However, stressed Turner, "it's hard to know what the future holds. ... I mean, Thomas Jefferson was absolutely sure that Unitarianism was the future of religion in America. That isn't how things turned out, at least not in terms of what's happened in America in the past."

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."

Gov. Sarah Palin, Antichrist

The punch line rocketed around the World Wide Web, inspiring smiles in pews friendly to Sen. Barack Obama.

The Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners saw a campaign button based on this one liner and, on the "Interfaith Voices" public radio show, said it was a fine response to Gov. Sarah Palin's jab at the work of "community organizers."

Donna Brazile -- who ran Al Gore's 2000 White House campaign -- saw the same gag and, on CNN, quickly linked it to the Bible's message that "to whom much is given, much is required."

But this cyberspace quip finally made the crucial jump to YouTube when U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen took to the House floor to remind conservatives "Barack Obama was a community organizer like Jesus. ... Pontius Pilate was a governor."

Cohen later emphasized that, "I didn?t and I wouldn't compare anyone to Jesus. ... What I pointed out was that Jesus was a force of change." But the apology came too late to douse the fiery rhetoric raging on talk radio and weblogs.

In particular, the soundbite used by Cohen and others captured the rising tide of religious tensions in this White House race. This conflict has been heightened by the powerful role played by religious liberals in Obama's groundbreaking outreach efforts in a wide variety of sanctuaries.

Obama is, after all, an articulate, proud member of the denomination -- the United Church of Christ -- that has in recent decades boldly pushed mainline Protestant to the doctrinal left on issues such as gay rights, abortion and the tolerance of other world religions. His running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, is an outspoken American Catholic whose progressive views have often placed him in dangerous territory between his political party and the Vatican.

Sen. John McCain, meanwhile, used to be an Episcopalian married to a beer-empire heiress, the very model of a mainline Protestant gentleman from the 1950s. Then he started visiting Southern Baptist pews while mending fences on the religious right. Finally, McCain shuffled the 2008 deck by naming Palin -- an enthusiastic evangelical mother of five children -- as his running mate.

This move rocked the pews on both sides of the sanctuary aisle, but Palin's ascension has caused an unusual degree of shock, anger, dismay and distain on the secular and religious left.

The political weblog Instapundit summed up the mood on the cultural left with this headline: "She's the freakin' Antichrist, I tell you!"

For author Deepak Chopra, a superstar in the spirituality marketplace, Palin is, quite literally, the anti-Obama. She is a living symbol of all that is wrong with small-town, parochial, ignorant, reactionary Middle America, especially with her "family values" code language that opposes expanding doctrines of civil rights.

"She is the reverse of Barack Obama, in essence his shadow, deriding his idealism and exhorting people to obey their worst impulses," he argued, at The Huffington Post. "In psychological terms the shadow is that part of the psyche that hides out of sight, countering our aspirations, virtue and vision with qualities we are ashamed to face: anger, fear, revenge, violence, selfishness, and suspicion of 'the other.' "

Obama, however, is "calling for us to reach for our higher selves," said Chopra.

The ultimate irony is the GOP's assumption that Palin will appeal to women just because "she has a womb and makes lots and lots of babies," argued religious historian Wendy Doniger of the University of Chicago's Divinity School.

"Her greatest hypocrisy is in her pretense that she is a woman," she wrote, in an "On Faith" essay for the Washington Post. "She does not speak for women; she has no sympathy for the problems of other women, particularly working class women."

But can anyone, in the current political atmosphere, top the Palin as Pontius Pilate smack down? University of Michigan historian Juan Cole, a specialist in Middle Eastern and South Asian affairs, offered Salon.com his best shot.

When it comes to faith and politics, he said, the values of McCain's "handpicked running mate, Sarah Palin, more resemble those of Muslim fundamentalists than they do those of the Founding Fathers. On censorship, the teaching of creationism in schools, reproductive rights, attributing government policy to God's will and climate change, Palin agrees with Hamas and Saudi Arabia rather than supporting tolerance and democratic precepts.

"What is the difference between Palin and a Muslim fundamentalist? Lipstick."

Pullman vs. the Magisterium

Those values viewers in the heartland are at it again, clicking "forward" on yet another wave of hot emails about sin, evil, magic and Hollywood.

Here's the news, as harvested on the Internet by experts at Snopes.com, a giant website dedicated to researching urban legends.

"Hi! I just wanted to inform you what I just learned about a movie that is coming out December 7, during the Christmas season, which is entitled 'The Golden Compass.' ... What is disturbing to me is that this movie is based on the first of a trilogy of books for children called 'His Dark Materials' written by Philip Pullman of England.

"He's an atheist and his objective is to bash Christianity and promote atheism. I heard that he has made remarks that he wants to kill God in the minds of children, and that's what his books are about."

Snopes.com researched the many issues raised in this message -- concluding that these emails are (you may want to sit down) essentially true.

It's even true that Pullman devotees have accused New Line executives of editing out some of the book's juicier heresies in an attempt to offend fewer Christian consumers. After all, the studio has about $180 million invested in this project and would like to make two more movies based on the award-winning trilogy.

"What's really amazing is that all of those evangelical and Catholic critics have been aiming their heavy artillery at J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter books, when they could have been firing at Pullman, whose books came out first," said Sandra Miesel, co-author of the upcoming book "Pied Piper of Atheism: Philip Pullman and Children's Fantasy Literature."

"Pullman is brilliant at hiding what he's really saying," she added. "Also, his books were marketed for people with more elite tastes. Once they started winning awards, they became more popular. And now, here come the movies, so people are really starting to pay attention."

Pullman has, however, never been soft spoken. In one famous interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, he expressed amazement that Rowling's Potter books took more flak in Bible Belt America than his own.

"I've been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God," he explained. As for his own beliefs, he added: "If we're talking on the scale of human life and the things we see around us, I'm an atheist. There's no God here. There never was. But if you go out into the vastness of space, well, I'm not so sure."

As a writer, Pullman greatly admires Milton's 17th-century classic "Paradise Lost," with its battles between good and evil to determine who will rule heaven. The "His Dark Materials" trilogy covers similar territory and tries to turn the tables through the triumph of two young adventurers, Lyra and Will. The goal is for this couple -- a new Eve and Adam -- to eat forbidden fruit and, this time around, destroy God.

Along the way, Pullman serves up clergy who kidnap and torture children, visitations from gay angels, fickle witches patrolling the skies, a wise shaman, warrior polar bears, a brilliant ex-nun and plenty of opportunities for children to get in touch with their inner "daemons," the talking-animal spirits who represent their souls.

At the heart of the story is a substance called "Dust," which may or may not be Original Sin in a physical form. Then again, Pullman recently told Atlantic Monthly that "Dust" is evidence of a godlike energy unleashed when people gain wisdom, explore their emotions, challenge authority and -- especially for adolescents -- explore their sexuality.

Meanwhile, evil incarnate has a name in Pullman's books -- the "Church." Its bishops wear purple, its cardinals wear red and there is a Vatican with fancy guards. By the end of the trilogy, the ultimate villain has been identified as, "The Authority, God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty."

In the movie, however, "Magisterium" is always used instead of "Church." These forces of evil are, however, fond of Orthodox Christian iconography and Bible verses written in Latin.

"I guess it helps to know that the word 'Magisterium' is the term used to describe the teaching office of the Catholic Church," said Miesel. "That's really subtle. ... Actually, it's not very subtle at all."

Vast right-wing media conspiracy

When it comes to covering religion news, the mainstream American press is a vast right-wing conspiracy that consistently commits sins of omission against religious liberals.

No, wait, honest. Stop laughing.

The leaders of a liberal advocacy group called Media Matters for America recently released a study entitled "Left Behind: The Skewed Representation of Religion in Major News Media" that says journalists consistently dedicate more ink to covering conservative leaders than to those on the left side of the spectrum.

"Coverage of religion not only over represents some voices and under represents others, it does so in a way that is consistently advantageous to conservatives," according to the study. "Religion is often depicted in the news media as a politically divisive force, with two sides roughly paralleling the broader political divide: On one side are cultural conservatives who ground their political values in religious beliefs; and on the other side are secular liberals, who have opted out of debates that center on religious-based values."

The bottom line, according to Media Matters, is that religious conservatives were "quoted, mentioned or interviewed" 2.8 times more often than liberals. The study focused on coverage between the 2004 election -- the "values voters" earthquake -- and the end of 2006. It focused on coverage in major secular newspapers, the three major broadcast television networks, major cable news channels and PBS.

With a few exceptions, the study contrasted the coverage of a small circle of evangelical Protestants with the coverage of a more complex list of liberal mainline Protestants, progressive evangelicals and others.

The 10 conservatives included James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Charles Colson of Prison Fellowship, Franklin Graham of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network and the late Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority.

The 10 liberals and "progressives" included Robert Edgar of the National Council of Churches of Christ, C. Weldon Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance, Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Jesse Jackson of the Rainbow Coalition and Jim Wallis of Sojourners.

Were these lists fair representations of a spectrum of beliefs on either the left or the right? The conservative list does not, for example, include a representative or two drawn from the ranks of Roman Catholic clergy, Jewish rabbis or doctrinally conservative mainline Protestants. The list on the left is better, but there are glaring omissions -- such as Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State or the Episcopal Church's Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.

It is certainly true that leaders on the religious right have drawn more than their share of news coverage during recent decades of American political life. However this raises a crucial question, which is whether religious movements should be judged by the political maneuvers of a handful of outspoken leaders. Should politics always trump doctrine?

Meanwhile, many conservative evangelicals, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox believers and others have to cringe whenever they see themselves represented in the national media by more quotes from Dobson or Robertson. Who are the leaders on the religious left who make other liberals cringe whenever they open their mouths?

So why have a few religious conservatives dominated the news, while religious liberals have been left in the shadows?

For starters, conservative groups have been growing in size and power, while liberal groups -- especially mainline Protestant churches -- have lost millions of members. Journalists pay special attention to groups that they believe are gaining power.

Journalists also focus on trends that they consider strange, bizarre and even disturbing. Certainly, one of the hottest news stories in the past quarter century of American life has been the rise of the religious right and its political union with the Republican Party. For many elite journalists, this story has resembled the vandals arriving to sack Rome.

One of the nation's top religion writers heard an even more cynical theory to explain this evidence that journalists seem eager to quote conservatives more than liberals when covering religion news.

"Personally, I think there's much truth to what the study claims," said Gary Stern of the Journal News in Westchester, N.Y., in a weblog post. "But why? Some progressive religious leaders have told me one theory: that media people are anti-religion, so they trot out angry, self-righteous, conservative voices who make all religion look bad."

Sinners on the counterattack

The panic may strike in the shelter of a Starbucks, when a customer realizes that a quote from evangelical superstar Rick "The Purpose Driven Life" Warren is printed on some of coffee cups.

This would cause any latte-sipping liberal to mutter "Oh my goddess" and worry about legions of Focus on the Family donors invading Wiccan book clubs in Unitarian sanctuaries from sea to shining sea.

Does thinking about this give you sweaty palms? If so, writer Robert Lanham of New York City believes you may be suffering from "Evangophobia."

"It's a healthy fear. ... The evangelical right isn't the new counterculture. It's the new mainstream culture," notes Lanham, in his book "The Sinner's Guide to the Evangelical Right."

"Worst of all, many evangelicals aren't content watching The 700 Club and attending laser-light projections of the crucifixion at the local megachurch. They want to transform the culture you consume to fit their standards. ... And compounded by the fact that evangelicals often share similar goals with conservative Jews, Catholics and Bill O'Reilly, we may soon witness a ratings' sweeps plotline where Will marries Grace after attending a gay deprogramming class."

Lanham realizes that evangelical politicos haven't won many national victories on the hot-button issues that worry him the most -- gay rights and abortion. Nevertheless, he is convinced that alliances between conservative believers and secular conservatives have resulted in "trickle down" policies on taxes, health care, environmental laws and strategies in the Middle East.

"Fundamentalists of every kind," he said, "keep clinging to beliefs that can be very destructive. They are advocating religious teachings that divide people, rather than bind them together. ... They are always on the attack and if we don't buckle down, the next thing you know, they will be running the country -- again."

It helps to understand that Lanham grew up in a non-dancing Southern Baptist home in Richmond, Va. Things got even worse, he said, when he was a teen-ager and his parents joined the kind of Pentecostal flock that "used live camels in the Easter pageant."

Virginia Commonwealth University beckoned, where Lanham majored in English and religion and soon discovered that his activities on Fridays and Saturdays were trumping beliefs he had been taught on Sundays. Before long he was writing "The Hipster Handbook" and his fiction trilogy "Pre-Coitus," "Coitus" and "Aftermath."

The new book on evangelicals contains more of what Publisher's Weekly called his unique brand of "caricature assassination." Thus, there are angry mini-profiles of alpha males like Dr. James Dobson ("The Evangelical Pope"), Tim LaHaye ("The Evangelical Stephen King") and the young Joel Osteen ("The Evangelical P. Diddy"). Along the way, he mocks the doctrine of the Trinity, rips into the Gospel of John and, with a note of sadness, confesses that liberal mainline churches have become fading enclaves for

"old people and pansies" who use hymnals.

Lanham stressed that he really doesn't hate evangelicals, conservative Catholics, Orthodox Jews and other traditionalists. He does, however, believe that most evangelicals are guilty of "dumbing down the faith" and consuming shoddy Christian consumer goods that deserve ridicule. Thus, his list of modern evangelical commandments includes statements such as:

* "Thou shalt live in the suburbs, eat at the Olive Garden and wear clothes made from polyblend fabrics."

* "Thou shalt become aware of pop culture trends eight years after the fact and co-opt these trends for Christian culture."

* "Thou shalt own a support the troops car magnet, a fish bumper sticker and/or an embroidered flag sweater."

* "Thou shalt not speak ill of they neighbor, unless thy neighbor is gay. Then it's okay."

The key, said Lanham, is that he -- along with many others on the religious left -- cannot accept the ancient belief that the Christian Gospel is the unique pathway to salvation. This is the kind of doctrine

that he believes creates fear and division.

Also, in the wake of the Sexual Revolution, there is one issue that towers over all others today.

"It does seem that the evangelical right has set out to repeal the values of the Woodstock generation," he said. "The key issue is gay rights. I decided that I couldn't stand back and let the James Dobsons of this world continue to attack gay people. That's the issue that has made people like me want to take the gloves off and fight back."