May 25, 2015

Church militant

Twin City Baptist, a church from South Bend, Ind., demonstrates at a pro-war rally in Washington, D.C., in April 1970:

Tom Norpell, who took the photographs, said the rally was for people "fed up with the antiwar protests dominating the evening news." Many were religious, and they used their religious identities and Christian imagery to led moral credence to the American war in Vietnam.

Many pro-war advocates believed that American would win or lose the global conflict with Communism based on her moral courage and spiritual steadfastness.

May 18, 2015


Window globes.

May 15, 2015

How the church gave B.B. King the blues

B.B. King first learned music from the African American churches of the Mississippi Delta.

“Church was not only a warm spiritual experience,” the legendary bluesman once said, reflecting on his religious childhood. “It was exciting entertainment. It was where I could sit next to a pretty girl and mostly it was where the music got all over my body and made me wanna jump.”

King died on Thursday at age 89. In his long career, he had a profound influence on generations of rock and blues guitarists, as Terence McArdle reported for the Washington Post. King was considered by many to be the world’s best blues singer and came to be known as “King of the Blues.”

In interviews over the years, King talked about how his first experiences with music were connected to church. He also talked about how his relationship to church was deeply conflicted.

Read the essay at the Washington Post: How the church gave B.B. King the blues

"Nones" used to be nominal

Conrad Hackett, the religion demographer for Pew, on the rise of the religiously unaffiliated:
In the last 20 years there has also been rapid growth in the share of Americans who identify as atheists, agnostics or no religion in particular. To some extent, this seems to be a phenomenon in which people with low levels of religious commitment are now more likely to identify as religiously unaffiliated, whereas in earlier decades such people would have identified as Christian, Jewish or as part of some other religious group.
Hackett also notes that 14 percent of self-identified atheists say they believe in God, and 27 percent of those with no religious affiliation say they sometimes attend religious services.

May 13, 2015

Fewer people religious; America religious as ever

A key aspect of American religiosity is how Americans choose religious identities.

Often, they reject the religious identities they were born with. They choose new ones. They make new ones. Sometimes, as with the "nones," but also with some converts to Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, they choose religious identities premised on rejecting the entire regime of religious choice.

In America, even not choosing a religious identity is culturally meaningful as a choice. Religious affiliation is rarely simply inherited. It's a decision. And the decision is personal and meaningful, culturally, about who an individual is and wants to be.

A new Pew Research Center study on America's changing religious landscape mostly confirms what we already knew about the trends in the religious choices that are being made now. Trends continue to trend: the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated "nones" are growing and the Protestant majority is disappearing as the mainline churches decline dramatically. The top line of the report has been widely reported, including by the Washington Post, Religion DispatchesReligion News Service and the New York Times.

One thing that is easy to miss, with these reports, is that the types of religious changes people are making might be less important than the fact of change.

This Pew study is basically an update, but it also deepens our knowledge on this point, providing some useful information on this aspect of American religious culture. The new study has more information than I've ever seen before on religious switching.

The big story of religion in American culture right now is that the default Protestant consensus is disappearing. This has been apparent for a while and this data makes it even more clear. Buried here in the data, however, is another story about an American religiosity that is as vibrant as it ever was.

May 8, 2015

Guy Carawan, 1927 - 2015

Guy Carawan, who taught the song We Shall Overcome to the Civil Rights movement, has died at 87.

The song wasn't his, nor did he claim it to be. In the tradition of American folk music and leftist social activism, Carawan saw himself as serving something greater. He shared freely what had been given to him freely.

The New York Times reports:
The song, variously a religious piece, a labor anthem and a hymn of protest, had woven in and out of American oral tradition for centuries, embodying the country's twinned history of faith and struggle. Over time, it was further polished by professional songwriters.

But in teaching it to hundreds of delegates at the inaugural meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee -- held in Raleigh on April 15, 1960 -- Mr. Carawan fathered the musical manifesto that, more than any other, became "the 'Marseillaise' of the integration movement."
Carawan was the music director of the Highlander Folk School, a social justice training center in East Tennessee, co-founded by Southern students of theologian Reinhold Neibuhr. Carawan was part of the folk revival scene in Greenwich Village, in New York, and was first sent to Highlander by Pete Seeger. He took over as music director in 1959 and, the next year, was present at the founding of the SNCC.

He provided the group with the music that came to define the movement.

The Rev. C.T. Vivian, a Civil Rights leader who worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr., recalled that it wasn't immediately obvious that folk songs and spirituals would play a role in the struggle for racial equality. Even though the movement was led by pastors and made up of deeply religious men and women, old religious music didn't seem particularly relevant to the cause. There wasn't any sense these songs needed to be be taken out of that past and applied to the present.

Hearing Carawan changed that, for Vivian and for others at the SNCC meeting in 1960.

May 7, 2015



Oatmeal and evangelicals

An interview with Timothy Gloege, author of Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism:

Daniel Silliman: If you asked people for a short list of the most important religious figures in the early 20th century, Henry Parsons Crowell probably wouldn’t be on it. Who was Crowell and why was he important?

Timothy Gloege: Henry Parsons Crowell was a purveyor of oatmeal. He is best known by business historians as the president and founder of Quaker Oats, one of the pioneers of the branding revolution. He used a combination of packaging, trademark and massive promotional campaigns and transformed oatmeal from a commodity into a trademarked product.

Crowell took oatmeal that used to be sold out of large barrels in your general store, put it into a sealed package, slapped a picture of a Quaker on it and guaranteed it pure. Now it no longer mattered who you bought your oatmeal from, only what brand you chose.

A company’s reputation was once rooted in its owner, but the trademark created this virtual relationship with consumers that was pure fiction. The trust that is engendered by a Quaker has no relationship to the company itself. There are no Quakers involved in that. Crowell was a Presbyterian. He bought the trademark, a very small mill had the trademark and he said, “oh, this engenders trust, so I’m going to use this to sell my oatmeal.”

This was quite controversial at the time, though today that’s just how things are done. Quakers sell oatmeal and friendly animated lizards sell us car insurance.

One of the key arguments in the book is that he is using similar strategies in religion as well. As president of Moody Bible Institute, Crowell pioneered the techniques of creating trust in a pure religious product, packaging and trademarking, as it were, old-time religion.

Read the interview at Religion Dispatches: How Marketers Invented 'Old Time Religion'

Apr 29, 2015

What church stood for in 1949

There's not a lot of religion in "Unkept Promises," a prohibitionist comic book published in 1949 by a group calling itself the Legion of Truth. 

A lot the energy behind anti-alcohol campaigns in America have come, traditionally, from Protestant groups trying to make society a better place. Yet, in this very late prohibitionist tract, any references to Protestantism or even religion more generally are almost entirely absent. 

There are not even any ministers shown preaching against alcohol -- instead it's secular authorities. The narrator is a social worker. There are two judges, one handling criminal cases and another civil, and they both speak to the social affects of alcohol. There's the director of a women's prison and a representative from the state's "safety council," but no ministers.

There's one notable depiction of religion, though. Before the protagonist's life is ruined by drink, there is a single wordless panel depicting a church:

The church is associated with the American dream of home ownership, that mid-century dream of car ownership, and the middle class family ritual of the family portrait. The church is a white edifice with a steeple and stained glass, with big, broad stairs at the end of a curving walk way under leafy trees.

It is, in this 1949 comic, a bare symbol of middle class respectability.

Culturally, here, the church doesn't stand for a solution to a social problem. It certainly doesn't communicate any particulars of believing. Instead, it's a symbol of belonging -- specifically class belonging. It represents an aspiration, something one can obtain. If you're good enough, the message goes, you can have this. If you have the strength of character, you can earn this good life.

"---AND HAPPINESS," as the comic says.

Is this fact unrelated? In 1949, more than 60 percent of Americans told pollsters they attended church or synagogue every week.

Apr 27, 2015

Where religious arguments against same-sex marriage are secular

Many religious groups worry that secular arguments undercut their ability to participate in public debate, telling the court that their arguments actually are religious. It is, in fact, important to them that their arguments are religious. If the court excludes religious rationales, deeming theological motivations irrational, then religious people cannot speak on the moral, social issues they care about so deeply.

One brief, filed by five Christian conservative groups, including the North Carolina Values Coalition and the Christian Family Coalition, warns that the “American judicial system is becoming allergic to religious expression or influence in the public square.”

The groups say that laws defining marriage are always based on people’s religious beliefs — as are all laws. “Every law has a moral foundation and many are based on ‘moral disapproval,’ ” they tell the court. “The question is whose morality will prevail.”

A similar case is made in a brief filed jointly by the National Association of Evangelicals, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist, more than a dozen conservative Protestant denominations and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. These groups argue that their beliefs about marriage are both religious and practical.

“These beliefs,” they say, “are rooted in our theologies and in centuries of one-to-one counseling and personal experience with intact and broken families, functionally fatherless children, and single mothers.”

The line between religious and secular is not so neat for evangelicals in particular. They reject same-sex marriage because they believe that’s what the Bible says. But they also believe the Bible offers the best and most practical guide to human flourishing, so if the Bible condemns homosexuality it is because it is bad for people and society.

Read the full essay at the Washington Post: Supreme Court briefs reveal religious groups don’t agree on how to oppose same-sex marriage

Apr 24, 2015

Apr 21, 2015

YOU are spiritual but not religious

The decision comes on page 8. The sound of screaming is coming from behind a locked door in a warehouse. You have to do something. What do you do?

If you try to break the door down, you turn to page 20.

If you run to get the warehouse manager, you turn to page 33.

Eighteen years after it was first announced, and 17 years after the original series concluded, a new Choose Your Own Adventure book has found its way to print. The manuscript for Escape from the Haunted Warehouse, which was found in the CYOA archival library, was reworked by the son of one of the series’ creators and released last week, on April 15. Like the classic books loved by children of the 1980s and ’90s, the story starts with a disclaimer: "BEWARE and WARNING," it says. "You and YOU ALONE are in charge of what happens in this story."

And like those classics, the story is built on a key idea of the American mode of spirituality known as "spiritual but not religious."

Read the full essay at Religion Dispatches: YOU are Spiritual but Not Religious: The secret spiritual history of the Choose Your Own Adventure books

St. Konrad of Parzahm

St. Konrad of Parzham

Apr 20, 2015

Billy Ray Hearn, 1929 - 2015

Billy Ray Hearn, a giant of the Contemporary Christian Music business, has died at 85.

Hearn did more than perhaps anyone to make evangelical music into an industry. The business of producing and selling Christian culture has been controversial, though. There was (and is) ongoing tension between the mission of spreading the gospel and the mission of making money. That tension was Hearn's life work.

Hearn believed it was important business to spread the message of Jesus, but for him it was still a business.

Raised Southern Baptist in Texas, Hearn first took his faith seriously, by his own account, while serving in the Navy. He went to Baylor after his discharge in 1948, married his wife Joan and majored in Church Music.

His goal, then, was to be a great choir director. He as a music director for 15 years, ministering in big Baptist churches in Southern California, Texas and Georgia, before going to work for the evangelical publisher Word, Inc., located in Waco, Texas, in 1968. The company hired Hearn to promote music. At that time, that meant children's musicals.

The musicals were designed to be evangelistic. Churches would put on the performance and invite neighborhood children and their families to come, then presenting them with the message of Jesus. One of the first productions Hearn sold was "Tell It Like It Is," a folk-sounding gospel musical, which sold more than 500,000 copies. For many evangelical congregations, it was the first time popular music styles were allowed in church.

It was not the last time Hearn would push evangelicals in this direction.

Steve Curtis Chapman, who got his first record deal with Hearn, said Hearn's importance to Contemporary Christian Music could not be over stated. "I don't think there's a single person who's more responsible for the existence of the form of gospel music I'm a part of," he said.

Apr 14, 2015

Will evangelicals love Hillary Clinton in 2016?

Evangelicals didn't respond to Hillary Clinton with much warmth during her first presidential campaign.

According to Christianity Today in 2008:
From all sides of the political spectrum, evangelicals respond with a surprising amount of disgust upon hearing Hillary's name.  
Clinton, like every big-name political figure, has admittedly said and done things that have polarized, offended, and simply gotten under our skin. Her public persona, a brand of East Coast liberalism with roots in '60s radical politics, strikes many Americans as uppity and unapproachable. Open talk about her personal faith in recent years strikes some as politically convenient.
Will it be different this time?

Clinton and her team have put a lot of energy into appearing more relatable, approachable, and human. Going into the 2016 campaign, there's a major effort to humanize Clinton's image.

"Operatives who have been building her second presidential campaign," Ruby Cramer and Megan Apper report at Buzzfeed, "have conjured up words like 'intimate' and 'informal' to describe the 'tone' of the 'first 100 days.' They talk about retail politicking, the hardworking, old-fashioned way."

Part of what that means, apparently, is news stories about Clinton doing something normal, like eating a burrito in Maumee, Ohio, and not getting noticed. And then getting noticed for not getting noticed.

Another part of that project is showing Clinton as a person of faith, but a faith that is relatable for its quiet everydayness. The suggestion is that if she doesn't talk frequently or openly about her religious commitments, that's because -- exactly like evangelicals and middle class Americans more generally -- she is uncomfortable politicizing it. Faith, she feels, shouldn't be so strategic.

It's a tricky political strategy.

These efforts to emphasize the normalizes of a candidate can have the unintended effect of calling attention to how the "natural" persona is so carefully and politically crafted.

But if Clinton will struggle with the dehumanizing side effects of attempting to hold up and value her basic humanness, she's not the only one. It was evangelicals' commitment to valuing human life that allowed them to think of Clinton an not-really-human. The contradiction there was perhaps best captured in the fortune cookies passed out by the Family Research Council at a Republican convention. The political message inside said, "#1 reason to ban human cloning: Hillary Clinton."

For the editors of Christianity Today, the 2008 Clinton campaign was a moment of evangelical shame:
While pundits see candidates as punching bags, evangelicals are supposed to see candidates as, well, people. As we ponder how candidates are 'fearfully and wonderfully made,' we may haltingly come to realize that the most bold and courageous thing we each could do this election season, no matter who we vote for, is this: Love Hillary.
Will that happen in 2016? Probably not, but time will tell.