Jan 23, 2015

The doomed bill to repeal a law that keeps churches out of politics

One of the first things North Carolina congressmen Walter Jones, Jr. did on the very first day of the 114th US Congress was file House Resolution 153. The bill would repeal a law that keeps churches out of politics. Pastors would be permitted to endorse political candidates even from the pulpit.

Probably this will come to nothing.

The non-partisan GovTrack, an open government data site, puts the likelihood of HR 153 becoming a law at zero percent. This bill will never come to a vote, probably, disappearing into the Ways and Means committee never to be heard from again.

The question is: why aren’t Republicans supporting it?

Religious conservatives are rallying around religious liberty issues, including the rights of churches to get involved in politics. In October, when a legal dispute over a petition to repeal a non-discrimination ordinance in Houston led a city lawyer to subpoena records from the churches that had organized the petition, religious conservatives went ballistic. That was a unique situation. The Johnson Amendment applies much more broadly, restricting the political activity of every church that takes a tax exemption. (Which is almost all of them).

For people fired up about government infringement on religious liberty, HR 153 would seem like a winner.

Read the full essay at Religion Dispatches: Why Don't Republicans Want to Allow Pastors to Endorse from the Pulpit?

Jan 20, 2015

Kennedy preaches separation of Church and State in West Virginia

A John F. Kennedy campaign ad, targeted at West Virginia, where there were fewer Catholics than in any other state, making the case that Kennedy's Catholicism wouldn't conflict with a presidential oath:

Jan 16, 2015

The most segregated hour

Opinions on church and race, by the numbers:

  • 90 percent of Protestant pastors say racial reconciliation is mandated by the gospel
  • 86 percent of Protestant churches are made up of one dominant racial group
  • 71 percent of evangelical church-goers say their churches are diverse enough
  • 63 percent of white church-goers say their churches are diverse enough
  • 53 percent of all church-goers say their church does not need to be more diverse
  • 50 percent of Americans say churches are too segregated

From "Sunday Morning Segregation: Most Worshipers Feel Their Church Has Enough Diversity," at Christianity Today.

Jan 13, 2015

'And he can take the kingdom from whosoever he wills'

Now friend let me tell you:
God rules in the kingdom of men
And he can take the kingdom from whosoever he wills
And give it to the one he want to give it to
Now you liar
Now you backslider
Now you rich men
Let me tell you that God in heaven
To bring you down, my friend.
Now in conclusion,
If you deserve a God to range over you,
And if you want to home and down with the world,
Get in touch with God right now.

J.C. Burnett's sermon, "Downfall of Nebuchadnezzar," recorded in Oct. 1926 for Columbia, was one of the first in the gospel boom in "race records." Burnett's 10-inch record sold 80,000 copies, four times as many as a Bessie Smith album could be expected to sell at the time, even though Smith was outselling all other "race records" at the time. The next year, sermons made up a third of all recordings featuring African Americans.

One prolific minister, J.M. Gates of Atlanta's Mount Calvary Baptist Church, recorded 40 sermons in one nine-month period. Burnett continued recording sermons until 1945.

Jan 12, 2015

Andraé Crouch, 1942 - 2015

"Every song I've written takes you through the Scriptures and reinforces the word of God," Andraé Crouch told the Los Angeles Times in 1982. "I give people a beautiful message, but I do it with pop, rock, funk, jazz or disco or anything that will make it appealing."

Crouch, gospel musician widely hailed as the best of the modern era and the greatest hymn writer of his time, has died at the age of 72. He had been sick a while and was hospitalized in December.

At Religion Dispatches, Anthea Butler writes that Crouch's connection to Pentecostalism cannot be ignored:
It is the genius of Andraé Crouch's talent that flowed from his Pentecostal upbringing in the Church of God in Christ that made him the powerful songwriter and singer he was. Along with his sister Sandra, his first group, the COGICS (Church of God in Christ Singers) featured Billy Preston. He would then go on to form the group Disciples in 1965. While COGIC churches emphasized holy living and strict discipline, their cutting edge musical styles and choir presentation helped groups like the Disciples to break out into the mainstream music scene. The tension between serving God and singing for the world would put Crouch often at odds with those who felt his music was not “holy” enough. Yet it was in those long church services and constant revival meetings as a child that Crouch’s distinctive musical style and lyrics were formed. His music became a bridge in the late 1960’s and would not only cross racial lines, but form the foundation for contemporary Christian and gospel music.
According to Robert Darden at Christianity Today, "Amy Grant may have made CCM popular; Andrae made it sound great."

Billboard also notes the importance of Crouch's crossover success, reporting, "He was often praised for bridging the gap between popular music and gospel, bringing a contemporary pop and R&B sensibility to his music."

Jan 6, 2015

God's hell

From the atheist newspaper the Blue Grass Blade, August 1903.

Jan 2, 2015

Mario Cuomo, 1932 - 2015

Mario Cuomo, whose politics were deeply informed by his Catholic faith, for many years seemed to embody the potential of American liberalism. As the New York Times explains in the obit for the man who governed New York state from 1983 to 1994:
In an era when liberal thought was increasingly discredited, Mr. Cuomo, a man of large intellect and often unrestrained personality, celebrated it, challenging Ronald Reagan at the height of his presidency with an expansive and affirmative view of government and a message of compassion, tinged by the Roman Catholicism that was central to Mr. Cuomo's identity.

A man of contradictions who enjoyed Socratic arguments with himself, Mr. Cuomo seemed to disdain politics even as he embraced it. 'What an ugly business this is,' he liked to say. Yet he reveled in it, proving himself an uncommonly skilled politician and sometimes a ruthless one.

He was a tenacious debater and a spellbinding speaker at a time when political oratory seemed to be shrinking to the size of the television set. Delivering the keynote address at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, he eclipsed his party's nominee, former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, seizing on Reagan's description of America as 'a shining city on a hill' to portray the president as unaware of impoverished Americans. 'Mr. President,' he said, 'you ought to know that this nation is more a "tale of two cities" than it is just a "shining city on a hill."'

The speech was the high-water mark of his national political career, making him in many ways a more admired figure outside his state than in it.
His rhetoric was powerful, but Cuomo also represented an alternative to the patrician liberalism of Kennedys and Roosevelts, on the one hand, and New Left identity politics, on the other. A son of immigrants who worked their way toward the American dream, he could communicate to the populace that was increasingly identifying with the populism of Ronald Reagan.

Jan 1, 2015

Books of 2014

Six brief reviews, some notes on a year's reading, and a list:

House of Zondervan, by James E. Ruark

James E. Ruark tells the story of Zondervan from the perspective of the Zondervans. In the process one gets a picture of the emergence of modern evangelicalism, a common identity and subculture forming at least partly as the product of a book market.

There is not yet a good, reliable academic history of American evangelical publishing. Hopefully there will be soon. Right now there are only a few memoirs from those who worked in the industry and a few histories produced by publishing houses about themselves. This book is one of the better examples of that latter.

Fascinating detail: The Zondervans initially sold books on the apocalypse from a variety of theological perspectives. They later decided this was too confusing and they had to choose a theology to publish and promote. They chose premillennialism, which helped to make that the default position for American evangelicalism.

Demon Camp, by Jennifer Percy

This is an achingly beautiful book about trauma, pain, and one religious response to horror. Demon Camp tells the story of a soldier from America's wars on terror who has found a new mission in spiritual warfare. He seeks to be free of his demons, and to free other soldiers of theirs and, maybe, America of hers.

He doesn't think those demons are metaphorical.

Percy's creative non-fiction is deeply sympathetic to her subject, though also skeptical of the supernaturalism and the pentecostal cosmology that pictures the natural world as pervaded by the unseen. The book suffers from a lack of historical perspective. Percy doesn't have much context for what she sees and experiences. The book suffers from a lack of sociological perspective, too. Questions about secularity and taken-for-granted reality are raised, but only with a lot of hesitation and awkward first-formations.

She makes up for it in lyricism and an impressive ability to communicate the beauty in the strangeness of an unfamiliar and even off-putting religious practice.

Amazing quote:
I lean toward the dark.
'Power outage?'
'They're here.' He drums his hands on the table.
'The whole fucking army is here.' He reaches his arms above his head and opens them like a ballerina.

Dec 31, 2014

My most popular posts from 2014

1. Sam Hose's Christian America

It's one thing to say that America should be Christian. It's another thing to say it should be Christian like is was, like it used to be.

When it actually was like it used to be, there were no stores open to sell the kerosene to burn Sam Hose because businesses were closed on Sundays. But a shop keeper was found to give kerosene to the crowd at no cost.

When it actually was like it used to be, there was a Sunday in Georgia where Christians went to church in the morning and in the evening went to the public square to sell bits of Sam Hose's burned liver for 25 cents each.

2. When Bill Nye's wedding was performed by Rick Warren

The brief association between the two men, captured in this picture, isn't really significant in that narrative in any way that's obvious.

It's just a very odd, very peculiar moment in the recent history of American science and religion.

3. The 'Left Behind' audience

Among cultural critics, there's a tradition going back to the Frankfurt school of treating mass culture as manipulative, and seeing mass audiences as passive and stupid, easily molded by what they consume. It's a condescending view. It's also a view that also seems to only really be supported by its own snobbery. Even the briefest of investigations into actual cultural consumption shows the theory of manipulated masses is not a good one.

Nevertheless, whenever the audience is mainly women, you see this theory.

When the audience is young women, this is how they're treated. When it's people without a college education, or racial minorities, or cultural conservatives, or other groups critics apparently find it difficult to treat as three-dimensional humans, audiences are again taken to be milling, drooling sheep. Cultural condescension passes for critical analysis not infrequently.

It's not just Left Behind's audience that gets treated this way, but Left Behind has been a good example of this over the years.

4.  The Hobby Lobby ruling is actually pretty reasonable

The actual decision was pretty circumspect. It was only this:
  • The government does have an interest in providing health insurance plans that cover birth control to women who want it. 
  • Some individuals who own corporations have the right to their religious objections to some (or all) forms of birth control. 
  • Therefore, the easiest way to provide birth control is not through employer-provided health insurance. 
Politically, there is plenty of fuel there for a number of fires. From another perspective, the Hobby Lobby ruling is pretty reasonable.

5. How the atheist movement lost America's most famous scientist

Remaining unconvinced is not the same thing as being an atheist.

Dec 30, 2014


Winter woods, Schönbuch, Germany.

Dec 29, 2014

14 who died in 2014

A connect-the-dots portrait of a powerfully complicated American religious landscape, circa 2014:

Vincent Gordon Harding

Historian and theologian Vincent Gordon Harding died at 82. Harding founded Atlanta’s Mennonite House with his wife Rosemarie in 1961, a headquarters for consciences objectors and civil rights activists. He helped Martin Luther King, Jr. make the argument against Vietnam, drafting King's "Beyond Vietnam" speech in 1967, broadening the concern of the movement and alienating some moderate civil rights supporters. Author of numerous works on American-American religious history, including There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America and Martin Luther King: An Inconvenient Hero, Harding taught at Illiff School of Theology in Denver, Colo. for more than 20 years.

Nelson Bunker Hunt

A Texas billionaire remembered mostly for his business exploits, Nelson Bunker Hunt bankrolled the religious right. He underwrote many Campus Crusade’s projects, including the 1967 "Berkley Blitz," the $6 million Jesus film in 1979, and a $30 million campaign to evangelize the world by 1980. He gave $1 million to help start the Moral Majority and financed the founding of Tim LaHaye’s Council for National Policy in 1981. Hunt also tried to buy all the world's silver as a hedge against the financial collapse he believed the Bible predicted. He lost $1.7 billion and went bankrupt in 1989. He died at 88.

Read the fully essay at Religion Dispatches: Snake-Handlers, False Messiahs, and a Few Great Souls: 14 Who Died in 2014

Dec 27, 2014

A Jesuit astronomer finds he doesn't need to reconcile faith, science

Journalist Nick Tabor interviews Jesuit astronomer Guy Consolmagno, who has some interesting things to say about the relationship between science and religion:
In TV and radio appearances he's frequently called on to discuss an old subject: How does he reconcile his faith with science?

'It's a question that never actually arises in our lives -- ever,' he said during a recent interview with Religion Dispatches. 'It's sort of like asking, "How do you reconcile being a scientist and a Detroit Lions fan?"'
So why do so many feel the two do -- or should -- conflict? Consolmango tells Tabor it's caused by a seeing both science and religion as smaller than they really are.

In his experience, those who imagine a conflict between science and religion usually take a reductive view of both. 'They think religion is a book full of things, and science is a book full of things,' he told RD. 'And what happens if the things in one contradict the things in the other?'

... Religious belief doesn't start with blind belief, he says in Brother Astronomer, it begins with experience. In his case it's a sense, at the most basic level of perception, of divine presence. Given that his own experience closely resembles those of other people in different times, places, and cultures, he writes, 'Occam's Razor … cuts pretty clean here.' He repeats an analogy not uncommon in mystical literature: it's like hearing music and knowing it's more than just noise. 'Faith,' he says, 'is our reaction to that experience.'

In the same way, he argues, science doesn't begin with logic. It begins with insight, and it uses logic to 'support the intuition after the leap of insight has occurred' -- or to scrutinize insights and discard or refine them.

Dec 24, 2014

Nativity, Taize, France

Nativity, Taize, France.

Dec 23, 2014

It's a political life

In a final scene of the 1946 Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey opens a Christmas present from his guardian angel. It's a copy of Tom Sawyer with the inscription, "Dear George, remember no man is a failure who has friends."

What are the politics of that sentiment?

Two friends debate the political leanings of It's a Wonderful Life at the group blog Mere Orthodoxy. Chris Schaefer argues that the movie is not as conservative as conservatives think it is. The movie is liberal-ish in its critique of capitalism and in its New Deal-era values, even if it's not explicitly politically left.

In the movie, for example, being moral means being bad at business.

Schaefer writes:
George improves the lives of his customers AND that he has a successful business full of entrepreneurial spirit. Is that really what is happening? As far as we know, his for-profit company never makes a profit, and his community spirit interferes with his entrepreneurial spirit at every turn. Think of his comment to the bank-examiner that 'between us, we're broke' or when the real estate agent points out to Potter that the Baileys 'don't make a dime' off of the houses they build. The Bailey Building and Loan isn't a successful business full of entrepreneurial vim; it's a community service center subsidizing people trying to live above their means.