Pseudo-Events Clash

Chaotic People on Charles Bridge in Prague

More than a half century ago, historian Daniel J. Boorstin — a Ph.D. dissertation-adviser of mine — taught us to distinguish between events and pseudo-events. The latter, he noted, were staged to get media attention whether anything event-ful had happened or not.

On the border between events and pseudo-events are media reports on public opinion polls, reports that generate comment and no doubt have some influence on “event-events” like elections. Reports on polls concerning religious opinions often get sighted when we read or hear media accounts, and become topics in Sightings.

In recent weeks we’ve been over-battered by hard-news stories of religion, often in global contexts, so we’ll catch our breath and notice data from one of our many frequently-used sources, the Pew Research Center.

Reports on a survey in which 2,002 interviewed adults got to speak for a couple of hundred millions of us citizens, inspired somewhat confusing headlines: “Americans fear religion losing influence, say churches should speak out more” bannered David Lauter’s report (Los Angeles Times, Sept. 22) while “More Americans Support Mixing Religion and Politics” topped Tamara Audi’s summary and comment in the Wall Street Journal (also Sept. 22; see “Sources,” below).

Statistics in a short column can create a blur, so let’s simply focus on the report of an increase in the number of interviewees who welcomed more involvement by religious figures, including preachers (here code-named “church”), with controversial political issues (coded as “state”).

Both reporters background their story by noting that this increase occurs at a time when “institutional” participation in religion has weakened. Also easily extracted from their reports is a recognition that the cast of characters who want more preachers-preaching-on-politics has changed.

Readers with long memories will recall that in the fabled 1960s, it was religious leaders labeled “liberal” — e.g. on civil rights, the war on poverty, anti-war protests — who drew the most notice. Meanwhile, those called “conservative” were just beginning to rally for their causes — e.g., anti-legalized abortion, birth-control, homosexual rights, etc.

Back then, the “liberals” were accused of being too politically involved, while conservatives were pictured as soul-savers with more otherworldly interests. Never mind, or mind only momentarily, that these images were broad-brushed, and open to question and criticism.

Today, according to reports, those who want “more involvement” tend to make up the camp of those (mainly conservative white Protestants) who complain that their religious liberty is in jeopardy, thanks to moves by the “state” which, they say, impinge upon the rights of the “church.” November elections and at least two forthcoming Supreme Court cases will be “events” without “pseudo-” status. We’ll watch media coverage of these.

There are reasons for suspicion of polls, preachers, and commentators — including this one — but one reality stands out dramatically in this nation and in cultures often dubbed “secular.” Religion, however defined, observed, and exercised (or not) remains a vital feature of a world with which citizenries have to cope.

The national Founders, in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, drew some lines and set some broad ground rules on “church” and “state,” But they could not prevent citizens, singly or collectively, from kicking up vision-obscuring dust as they contend about issues of conscience, rights, and — we do well not to forget — power.


Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project. “Public Sees Religion’s Influence Waning: Growing Appetite for Religion in Politics.” September 22, 2014, Polling and Analysis.

Lauter, David. “Americans fear religion losing influence, say churches should speak out more.” Los Angeles Times, September 22, 2014, Nation/National Politics/Politics Now.

Audi, Tamara. “More Americans Support Mixing Religion and Politics, Pew Survey: Nearly Half of Americans Now Say Religious Leaders Should Express Views on Social, Political Issues.” Wall Street Journal, September 22, 2014, Politics and Policy.

To read previous issues of Sightings, visit

Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

Evangelical Pullback/Retreat

The public is getting used to headlines like these: “Evangelical Leader Preaches Pullback from Culture Wars” and “Southern Baptists Sounding Full-scale Retreat in Culture War?” The former is from The Wall Street Journal and the latter from Renew America. The theme has become a constant in the blog world and among public media, just as it has become a topic of conversation in churches, and wherever “culture wars” have been standard unsettlers, and where innocent bystanders have been unsettled.

Preoccupying topics come and go in the media and public forums. As I compare notes with those who are “on the road” with lectures and at conferences, and check my own recall of responses and questions from colleagues on platforms or from audiences on campuses, at churches, and in public colloquies, this stands out: while “culture wars” remain, the names of the cast of characters, their causes, and their focuses change.

Last month during a question period after my talk on a campus someone asked what I thought of the future of The Christian Right. As an historian, I don’t professionally deal with futures, but, rummaging around in chronicles of the past, it came to me: no one had asked about that in the last couple of years. Store it away with troubled and troubling questions about “The Moral Majority,” “The Christian Coalition,” and less confrontational questions about, e.g., “The New Age.”

None of these are gone without a trace; each leaves a deposit on a tradition which is being revised and re-presented. But, as the two headlined stories mentioned above suggest, we have new situations.

Both articles featured “Russell Moore, the principal public voice of the Southern Baptist Convention.” Renew America, which swings more widely and wildly from the right than the Journal does, included Catholics in its sweep. Author Bryan Fischer reported that conservative Catholics are expressing alarm at Pope Francis’s rebuke of those in the Church who were “obsessed” about culture-war issues like same-sex marriage.

What is going on? Leaders named in these stories, and throughout mainline Protestant ranks, among Catholics-in-the-pew — who are only sometimes in step with those bishops who lead a faction in culture wars — and, now, most significantly, among Evangelicals are changing. These leaders rose from relative obscurity outside the South to become the headliners in culture wars. They are taking new looks. Many report that they have “lost” the young, who desert the pews (but not always the concerns which religion addresses), and are unsure of their place in Latino Catholic/Evangelical and now Black Protestant circles. The “obsessions’ of which the Pope spoke, do not obsess them. They may be indifferent to many religious agencies and outreaches, but they are not responding to the call to be “different” on culture-war lines.

Most significant in the eyes of many observers is the secularization (though sometimes under religious banners) of the Right, be it Far Right or Pretty Far, as in the Tea Party. Many participants in the T.P., according to polls, line up as being religious, but they are in coalition with forces that pay little attention to biblical and churchly calls. Most of their participation is frankly secular and pragmatic, which makes them hard to rally or to count on in the religious side of the culture warriors’ ranks.

Sensitive leaders like the Pope, Russell Moore, and great numbers of those who would be faithful to their core values but can’t live with the peels, are more and more the new agents of change.

Rather than “secularization,” we might speak of “de-churchification,” because, while we note that churches are pulling back from extreme Right Wing connections, religious rhetoric and appeals do remain strong on the Right. “People for the American Way” can supply a vivid anthology of this rhetoric in their calendar, Right Wing Watch, which features, each month, a picture and quotations from well-worn “old pros” like Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Pat Robertson, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, etc. The only “newer pros” quoted or featured — Ted Cruz, Mario Rubio, Rand Paul — are more identified with their partisan political expressions than their church ties or evangelical appeals.

For further reading:
King Jr., Neil. “Evangelical Leader Preaches Pullback From Politics, Culture Wars.” The Wall Street Journal, October 21, 2013. Accessed October 26, 2013.
Fischer, Bryan. “Southern Baptists sounding full-scale retreat in culture war?” Renew American ewsletter, October 23, 2013. Accessed October 27, 2013.
Boston, Rob. “Retreating Or Repositioning?” Southern Baptists and the ‘Culture War’ Americans United, Wall of Separation blog, October 23, 2013. Accessed October 26, 2013.
Riley, Naomi Schaefer. “Russell Moore: From Moral Majority to ‘Prophetic Minority’.” The Wall Street Journal, August 16, 2013. Accessed October 26, 2013.
People for the American Way.
Right Wing Watch.

Black Churches Divided Over Same-Sex Marriage

Recently, Sightings picked up on some lines written by the influential Evangelical-oriented author, Eric Metaxas. “Not so fast,” he wisely enough cautioned those who consider legalized, same-sex marriage to be inevitable. And yet, hours after he posted this alert, the United States Supreme Court issued a judgment, which made legal same-sex marriage look a bit more inevitable.

“Not so fast,” Metaxas would continue to warn: look at many factors in American life and not just at the biased-media that caters to supporters of the cause. He needed evidence for his stand and found it here in Illinois, where the legislature so far has failed to remove legal barriers to same-sex marriage.

You didn’t hear about it?

Metaxas accused the media of creating a blackout about the legislature’s vote and about one of the main reasons for that vote. Citing the National Organization for Marriage and the National Review, he reported that black pastors demanded that state legislators acknowledge the biblical definition of marriage, as they (the black pastors) interpreted it. Quoting the “National” and the “National” sources, Metaxas wrote that these pastors defeated “gay-marriage advocates and their supporters in the legislature in the bluest of blue states.”

Rather than speculate about the future, I’d simply say that Metaxas has alerted the media and everyone else, of whatever race or denomination, to keep their eyes on the black churches. One would not think of trying to cover religion in this blue city in the bluest of blue states without paying most attention to black churches — perhaps after having first noted Catholic archdiocesan news.

Whoever takes a look at the scene finds that, yes, many black pastors and, we presume, congregants, oppose same-sex marriage for reasons rooted in their biblical understanding and cultural expressions.

But a second look reveals profound controversy within black churches.

A year ago (July 31, 2012), the Coalition of African American Pastors (CAAP) drew attention to Chicago and elsewhere when it mobilized to defeat President Obama’s re-election bid. CAAP’s founder and president, the Rev. William Owens, called President Obama’s position on same-sex marriage a “travesty” and accused him of “pandering” to the gay and lesbian community. The 3,472 pastor-strong CAAP swayed some legislators, but the President won last November’s election.

Meanwhile, of course, the CAAP awakened much opposition. When Owens rejected the claim that the right to marriage for same-sex couples matched other rights, critics quickly stepped up to question his involvement in civil rights causes (he boldly asserted that he had been up front about his views).

Also, since President Obama changed his official opinion on same-sex marriage and since the recent Supreme Court ruling, polls have found an increase in support of same-sex marriage among blacks.

It is too early to tell whether black pastors will carry the same weight they are said to have exercised in the Illinois legislature and can help defeat this “rights” issue one more time.

Metaxas is right: the change in the public’s willingness to support same-sex marriage is “not inevitable.” The public, “the media,” and religious observers — including those of us who do much “sighting” of religion in American life — will do well to sharpen our focus on the vital African-American churches, which are often the most dynamic and influential forces in most of our metropolises.

Those of us who pay attention to the local black churches, to the loyalty so many of them command, to the respect they gain through their ministries, and to the power that goes with all that, have to pay attention to the interplay of the “inevitable” and the “evitable” in these days of sudden and radical change.

Metaxas, Eric. “The False Narrative of Gay Marriage: It Is Not Inevitable.” The Christian Post, June 26, 2013. Accessed July 13, 2013.
Maza, Carlos. “Three Things The Media Should Know About Rev. William Owens And His Coalition Of African-American Pastors.” Equality Matters (blog), August 8, 2012. Accessed July 13, 2013.
Black Pastors Condemn Supreme Court For Ruling on Gay Marriage.” Atlanta Daily World, June 26, 2013. Accessed July 13, 2013.
The Black Church.” Accessed July 13, 2013.

Evangelical Ministry to Gays and Lesbians Admits It Caused Harm

Notice the tenses in Wikipedia’s entry on “Exodus International” posted only a day or two after events necessitated a change from the word “is” to “was”. Quote: “Exodus International was a non-profit interdenominational ex-gay Christian organization that sought to help people who wished to limit their homosexual desires. . . Exodus International formerly asserted . . . [it] was an umbrella organization which grew to include. . . over 150 ministries in 17 other countries.” Etc.

One does not expect instant revisions of encyclopedias, whether of the on-line or other-line sorts. Give the religious world a week or two before anything about theology draws notice from a few. But anything to do with “Sex,” not “God,” is the splitting agent of denominations. Hundreds of congregations in numerous church bodies have broken away since words like “same-sex” came to prime time in church and world.

We can’t fault the media for giving so much attention to last week’s news about the “Closing Shop” sign posted by Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International. Quite remarkable is his avoidance of the pop-penitence so often practiced today. Not content with “if we offended or hurt anyone,” or “we made a mistake,” he went on to speak for the organization as he apologized for the pain, hurt, and all that went with the Exodus approach. He acknowledged that Exodus-type policies and strategies could lead to suicide and to church, family, and friends turning away. That’s quite serious.

Chambers, married to a woman and a father of two adopted children, acknowledged that not all impulses connected with his homosexual make-up had disappeared, but he understood them and encountered them with new understanding.

Since the simple declaration that homosexual activity is a sin used to be the first and last word, for Christians who made it basic to their understanding of faith, a declaration like Chambers’ is the latest shakeup in the ranks of the formerly completely self-assured evangelical leaders.

Not all evangelicals, of course, think this news settles much. The Southern Baptist Convention’s new “ethics” man, Russell Moore was ready: “I think it’s easy to overblow this story into a parable of evangelical shift;” “it’s only the end of a ministry that had been confused for some time about its own views.” Chambers had said “For some time we’ve been imprisoned in a world view that’s neither honoring toward our fellow human beings, nor biblical.”

Below, we provide links to an intelligent but not-unfiery exchange between two staunch evangelicals who argue about reactions to the five or six references in the bible that are negative toward homosexuality.

Columnist and blogger Peter Wehner, attacked by Kevin DeYoung, pastor of the University Reformed Church in East Lansing, responds in complex ways that we cannot condense here. Wehner quotes New Testament scholar Richard B. Hays, and Gospel Coalition founder Timothy J. Keller, both of whom make efforts to provide a broader context for dealing with biblical texts without down-playing the seriousness with which the texts are to be taken.

Wehner himself points to the standard evangelical compromise or by-passing of biblical anti-divorce texts, which affect millions, but holds firm to his insistence that the five or six negative biblical references cover everything that needs to be said on homosexuality.

Rest assured: more will be said.

“Exodus International.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Accessed June 23, 2013.
Chambers, Alan. “A Changing World — Letter from Alan Chambers, May 2013.”, May 21, 2013. Accessed June 23, 2013.
Do, Anh, Kate Mather, and Joe Mozingo. “Shifting tide was ministry’s doom.” Los Angeles Times, J une 21, 2013.
Wehner, Peter. “An Evangelical Christian Looks at Homosexuality.”, June 11, 2013. Accessed June 23, 2013.
DeYoung, Kevin. “Common Fault Lines in Maintaining an Evangelical Approach to Homosexuality.”, June 14, 2013. Accessed June 23, 2013.
Wehner, Peter. “Jesus, Homosexuals, and the Grace of God: A Response to Kevin DeYoung.”, June 20, 2013. Accessed June 23, 2013.

Evangelicals Change and Make Changes

The familiar “Protestant-Catholic-Jew” mantra no longer defines American religion. Politicians, bloggers, statisticians, and demographers now conventionally add “Evangelical” to the classifying. When Will Herberg wrote the canonical book Protestant-Catholic-Jew in the mid-fifties, Evangelicals appeared to be marginal at best. In recent decades they make the news more often and they are more exploited by and influential among politicians and public life than are the many breeds of Protestants. Let’s look in on the Evangelicals.

Quite properly, much of the news and notice about them is explicitly religious, churchly. But in public life they were long most useful to politicians and news-people on easily-grabbed issues such as “contraception” and “abortion.” Today, contraception largely drops off the argument-charts. Catholic bishops make a strong stand against it, but with 90% of their “faithful” being faithless or other-faithed on the issue, look elsewhere. Anti-abortion is a much more complex case, and we’ll save it for another day.

Let’s look at how thoughtful Evangelicals change and make changes on three key issues: climate change, immigration, and gay marriage.

If readers think Evangelicals are changing because they stopped paying attention to the Bible, they don’t know evangelicals. But something happened that has occasioned re-reading. On this score, I think (often) of a Groucho Marx line: “Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”

First: climate change. Their “own eyes” focused on melting ice caps and a thousand other visual and measurable climate signals, Evangelicals are rereading their scriptures (re: “the doctrine of creation” and “stewardship”) and they see something different than the old-school scripturalists thought was God’s only word. They now often lead on this front.

Number Two is immigration. One might be cynical and say that the anti-immigration stance of Evangelicals is softening because they “believe their own eyes.” Which means: they seek a better reputation on this issue. But, along Groucho lines, they also “believe their own eyes” when they look, are dumbfounded, and are then motivated to change attitudes about the plight and agony of “illegal aliens” and so many others. And they also believe their own eyes when they look at their scriptures, which put the need of the strangers, exiles, aliens, and newcomers first as bidders for consideration and change. The Wall Street Journal (April 9) front-paged “Evangelicals Push Immigration Path,” and documented the changes.

Thirdly, gay marriage. Evangelicals are not as far along on their rereading of this one. The main organized resistance comes from some – by-no-means-all – African American pastors, some of them allied with Catholic leaders (whose church members are also changing). Not much happened as long as resistance was grounded in what they saw or had portrayed to them as participation in “the gay lifestyle.” Change is coming, as many Evangelicals and others “believe their own eyes” and recognize devoted gay couples standing at the communion table, participating in church leadership, and being responsible parents – their status legally reinforced or not – while “the heterosexual lifestyle” in many manifestations is trashing the institution of marriage. And there is rereading of scriptures by many Evangelicals who, they will tell you, are placing stewardship and love before law and beyond convention. Their “own eyes” lead them to believe what they see and hear from consecrated couples, some of them their relatives and admired friends.


Miriam Jordan, “Evangelicals Push Immigration Path,” Wall Street Journal, April 8, 2013.

Bill Keller, “About the Children,” The New York Times, April 7, 2013.

Rich Miller, “Black Pastors hit Gay Marriage,” Chicago Sun-times, April 12, 2013.

Bret Stephens, “A Conservative Case for Gay Marriage,” Wall Street Journal, April 9, 2013.

Juhem Navarro-Rivera, “The Political Potential of EvangÈlicos,” Public Religion Research Institute, April 10, 2013.

Laura Washington, “Gay Marriage Foes Reek of Hypocrisy,” Chicago Sun-times, April 9, 2013.

Gay Marriage Tidewater

David Cole captures readers’ attention with the observation that “the gay rights movement has achieved more swiftly than any other individual rights movement in history, not merely the impossible but the unthinkable.” A few years ago, writes Cole, “those who fought for the right to marry … the partner of one’s choosing, regardless of gender — were called crazy and worse, by many.” As things have turned out and are turning out they “have proven not foolish romantics, but visionaries.” While the move toward acknowledging the rights of gays has elicited enormous backlash — that needs no chronicling here — Cole can quote Ellen Goodman: “In the glacial scheme of social change, attitudes [about gay marriage] are evolving at whitewater speed.”

Cole pictures that Supreme Court decisions could rule in ways which would slow that speed, but “it seems certain that in the not too distant future, we will look back on today’s opposition” on this subject, “the way we now view opposition to interracial marriage — as a blatant violation of basic constitutional commitments to equality and human dignity.” If so, how do religious institutions and leaders regard these options? Many are seen as being among the stronger forces and voices on the “anti-” side, but others are often public supporters on the “pro-” side.

Weekly I find on my desk piles of print-outs on this “public religion” debate, but rarely make use of them in Sightings. For once, before the tidewater sweeps all these evidences aside, let me summarize what I read and hear on many fronts among the “antis.” Advice given them: 1) Pretend this change is not occurring and ignore it; 2) since that doesn’t work, mount fierce opposition in state and church; 3) since that works less well each year, work out strategies for living in the face of changes one cannot welcome; that approach works at least temporarily for some, but the these resisting forces are themselves conflicted and convincing only to the convinced; 4) point to downsides in ecumenical relations with “poor world” churches where the tidewater does not yet rush; 5) reappraise your arguments, converse with the “other”, and make your case.

They will hear other counsel, such as: 1) It’s all over. The culture has changed. Among those of college age, and millions of others, most don’t even know what the dammers of the tidewater are talking about. 2) Notice that partners in gay couples in thousands of Christian gatherings, including in their pulpits, are often observed, even by the uneasy, as being among the most dedicated members. Exclude them now?

Where the pro- and anti- folk converse, one overhears: “Does not the gay marriage movement violate Scripture, the presumed norm in most churches?” Advocates of gay marriage come back: they recognize that a couple of verses in each biblical Testament rule out homosexual acts as sin. However advocates deal with that, expect to hear something like: “Why select this issue?” They will go on: “In our parish, perhaps in the pulpit or in our family are — against more explicit biblical witness — divorced-and-remarried-to-divorced persons who are honorable and honored members. Why are they not disciplined or criticized?” Fall-back position: “But gay marriage is against Natural Law, so it’s simply wrong.” That works for many Catholics and some Protestants, but most in church and world are wary of citing Natural Law: “its teachings, when invoked, tend to match what people have already decided, on other grounds, is right or wrong.

The tides rush on.


David Cole, “Getting Nearer and Nearer,” New York Review of Books, January 10, 2013.

Michael J. Klarman, From the Closet to the Altar: Courts, Backlash, and the Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage (Oxford University Press, 2012).

The Religious Right After the Election

Through the years Sightings has never commented on presidential campaigns, and the contest held this year is no exception. Today, self-liberated from the practice of opting-out, we can survey the comments on “public religion” in the campaign and election just past. We usually footnote these columns with reference to newspaper and internet coverage of the topic of the week. This year we will list a few, but doing so is hardly necessary: by today your computer can come up with scores, if not hundreds of stories and editorials on the subject. Scan them and you will find rare unanimity on this kind of issue: the Religious Right, aka the Christian Right, aka the Evangelical-Catholic Right experienced losses on its key chosen issues enough to raise questions about its influence: has it been over-rated all along?

We’ve been through milder versions of this in the past. Every setback of these coalitions has elicited widespread comment about the “decline” or “end” of the political Religious Right. Yet it remains, and churches covered by the term Right tend to be stable or growing. Huge majorities of members from these voted for Governor Mitt Romney. Yet on the issues chosen by their leaders and advocated for — even to the point of law-breaking and taunts to the I.R.S. about overt electioneering — they won little. The biggest losers were the Roman Catholic bishops, strongest advocates on sexual issues which did not attract their membership. (On Catholic social issues, bishops and members were more in line with church teaching, but most citizens don’t know or note or care that there is such a match.) The National Catholic Reporter, from the Catholic left, judged that among “the big losers . . . on Election Day 2012, the Catholic bishops are big losers.” The “nuns on the bus,” who are being chastised by Catholic officialdom, “on the other hand, were real winners in the Catholic world with their emphases on economic justice.”

On the Evangelical side, the losses were even more notable, as Laurie Goodstein chronicled them in a long New York Times cover story. The judgments on that page were not slanted by Times bias, because Ms. Goodstein simply quoted the evangelical notables. Lined up against President Obama and for Governor Romney, chiefly over the sex-and-marriage type issues were Billy Graham, whose organization paid for full-page ad after ad in the big papers, Ralph Reed, Albert Mohler, less-known Bob Vander Plante, and more — and more. They expressed, variously, surprise, shock, numbness, disappointment, judgment, and anger. Mohler: “The entire moral landscape has changed. . . An increasingly secularized America understands our positions, and has rejected them.” That “secularized” America who voted against the Religious Right leadership included millions of evangelicals, most Catholics, mainline Protestants, significant numbers of black church members, and, yes, many non-churched citizens.

One hopes that the jarring might inspire some of the leaders to reexamine their positions, the ones they are sure are exclusively congruent with biblical teaching. Who knows where such reexamination might lead? Meanwhile, reliable pollster-commentator Robert P. Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute, tied the jolting of the Religious Right to other elements in electoral change, some of them demographic. “This election signaled the last where a white Christian strategy is workable.” We’ll let the Right address that, and Sightings will wait and see when the present campaign (for 2016), which began “the morning after,” Wednesday, November 8 and new reappraisals appear.


Laurie Goodstein, “Christian Right Failed to Sway Voters on Issues,” New York Times, November 10, 2012.

Dan Gilgoff, “Election Results Raise Questions about Christian Right’s Influence,” CNN Belief Blog, November 7, 2012.

Sarah McHaney, “Christian Right’s Influence Shaken by U.S. Election,” Inter Press Service, November 8, 2012. Martin E. Marty’s biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

Christian Bias? A Sociology Study on Gay Parents

Sightings, at least in its Monday column releases, regularly classifies many topics dubbed “church and state” as being unsolvable. We have quoted Walter Berns who wrote that the Founding Fathers, who get so regularly invoked in contemporary debates, solved the problem of church and state by not solving the problem. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights go a long way in providing a framework, but any look at State and U.S. Supreme Court rulings in any session will reveal that the demands of factions — as James Madison called them — are too complex to be satisfactorily faced and settled.

This season the major unsolvable issue was the case of Prof Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas. He published findings in Social Science Research, a sober journal which ordinarily provides little grist for sensational media. Regnerus, however, picked the topic which agitates more people than most, and which deals with unfinished business in religious, legal, and cultural debates: homosexuality. Let’s quote from the Right, Karla Dial, summarizing the issue in Citizen magazine: his findings suggested that children raised by homosexual parents were more likely than those raised by heterosexuals to grow up with problems too extensive to be summarized here.

Bloggers and others attack Regnerus, his methodology, his sponsors — undisguisedly promoters of anti-homosexual criticism — and more. I’ll attach a couple of sources which reveal how divided the readers of articles are on the gay parents issue. Readers of a few lines will see at once how volatile the discussions are. Regnerus’ host institution, the University of Texas, convoked a panel which backed Regnerus. The internet is crowded with comments on both sides of the issue.

Sightings wants to pick up on what makes this an addressable but finally insoluble concern of such interests. Here’s the line-up: one group of commentators found radical fault because Regnerus is explicitly Christian in his commitments, and argued that one cannot “do” respectable academic social sciences if those commitments are to forms of Christianity which are critical of those with viewpoints favoring rights of gays. One group sees no carry-over of a bias shaped by Christianity of a particular sort. The University of Texas found nothing to censure in the Regnerus case. Scholars on the other side found plenty to censure, and the fight over these issues goes on and on.

While one set of critics argue that one cannot favor Regnerus’s article without pressing the conservative Christian faith he professes, the other says that expressing his kind of Christianity without having it distort everything, is biasing, and should be ruled out. While many debate the empirical research and findings, Sightings steps back and says that in social sciences there is no pure land beyond prejudice, pre-judging, where scholars are free of bias. They may be fair-minded, careful, judicious, often hard to pin down, but dig, dig, dig and you will find presuppositions behind the presuppositions, this time subtly leading to a tilt one way or another.

The Regnerus incident in its first phase is now history and many move on. But astute religionists on left and right who know that social (and political and other) professors of total balance also bring their own presuppositions, which will be biasing. Scholars have all kinds of checks on their scholarship, but they can’t and don’t jump out of their communities, creeds, and commitments, recessive and vague though they seem. References

Melissa Steffan, “Mark Regnerus Cleared Of Misconduct in Research Involving Gay Parents,” Gleanings, September 12, 2012.

Scott Rose, “Regnerus Anti-Gay Scandal: Open Letter To Texas Attorney General, The New Civil Rights Movement,” October 1, 2012.

Episcopal Church Adapting to Culture

Miracles do happen. They are happening recently in the media world on the church front. Critics are responding to recent attacks on the Episcopal Church. Inspired by reports of the obvious, that that church body has experienced very significant losses of membership and church attendance in recent years, critics in national newspapers and elsewhere beyond the confines of that denomination have gone public with accounts of what’s wrong with that body.

Notable examples were Ross Douthat’s “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” in the New York Times and “What Ails Episcopalians?” by Jay Akasie in the Wall Street Journal. Most such headlined questions on charges by writers who know the answers, are ignored. Episcopalians, like members of all Christian bodies of which we have heard (since the time of the letters of the Apostle Paul) have been too busy fighting each other to pay attention to snipers from a distance. Or Episcopalians simply yawned, changed the subject, and kept doing what they were doing.

The frequent and notable recent responses to attacks do not deny documentations of “decline,” but, with their nerves touched, they find the ideologies behind the attacks and the assumptions of the attackers too weighty to ignore. The attacks all come down to the charge that in recent decades Episcopalians have adapted too strongly to “secular liberalism.” We can only signal and touch on a few examples. Thus Bishop Stacy F. Sauls in a letter to the Times turned the attack on its head. The Chief Operating Officer of the Church agrees, Yes, “the church has been captive to the dominant culture, which has rewarded it . . . for a long, long time.” And now the Church is liberating itself by trying “to be a follower of Jesus.” It is now “standing by those the culture marginalizes,” and thus is counter-cultural at last. The Bishop makes brief references to Jesus and to Paul’s writing in Galatians 3:28 to support his claim.

Sarah Morice-Brubaker charges online that Douthat poses false alternatives for the Church: “Either Unpromising” archaism or becoming “a Secular Den of Promiscuity and Irrelevance.” Like other respondents to attacks, she invokes Jesus and the central Christian narrative in an attempt to show how the Church which the critic dismisses is, on some ground, closer to the Gospel than are the critics, who are bound to other elements in the culture.

Diana Butler Bass, an upfront prolific writer on mainline Christian trends sees “mean-spirited or partisan” criticism. She finds Douthat and company stuck back in 1974 with a notable book by Dean Kelley, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, which was astute about life forties years ago. She asks, has he looked lately at decline in Catholicism, Missouri Synod Lutheranism, the Southern Baptist Convention – and, she could have added, non-growth or decline of denominations wanted to be counter-churches to the conservatives? Face it, says Bass: today “liberal churches are not the only ones declining.” She’d prefer to see analysts facing up to that rather than attacking the groups they don’t like.

For her the question is not “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?” but “Can Liberal Christians Save Christianity?”


Ross Douthat, “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?,” New York Times, July 14, 2012 .

Jay Akasie, “What Ails the Episcopalians,” Wall Street Journal, July 12, 2012.

Sarah Morice-Brubaker, “For Douthat, Church Either Uncompromising or a Secular Den of Promiscuity and Irrelevance,” Religion Dispatches Magazine, July 16, 2012.

Bishop Stacy F. Sauls, “Episcopal Church Is Radically Faithful to Its Tradition,” Wall Street Journal, July 19, 2012.

Southern Baptist Decline

The two “big kids on the block” of American denominationalism are making front-page and prime-time news this early summer in ways which crowd out other stories of events and trends in most other groups. Only the Mormons are in competition for the spotlight right now. The two churches which are hefty enough to throw their weight around are the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention (a.k.a. “Great Commission Baptists” after a vote in convention last week). Most of the headlines are unwelcome in the eyes of their Public Relations agents and the hearts of most serious members, but there they are. We do not even need to remind readers of what these churchly involvements in politics, scandal, etc. are. (P-s-s-t: but do notice that the Southern or Great Commission Baptists, their denomination born in slavery, did elect their first African American president in the bad-news weeks.

Through all the decades-long travails of sects, cults, confessional bodies, dissenting and minority denominations, and more, people could always look at the big two and gain confidence in the knowledge that those two, with their millions, knew what they were doing. Critics of what went on in moderate and mainline and liberal church bodies could always point to these two as models: they are doctrinally firm, conversion-seeking, and not wishy-washy as the others are. So, what do we make of current trends?

Sightings is not announcing anything new when we mention that Catholicism, apart from its Mexican (etc.) masses, mirrors most trends of the Protestant decliners. Sociologist Everett Hughes many decades ago said something like “everything that can happen sociologically has already happened in the Catholic Church.” Non-Hispanic Catholicism has “happenings” to match social trends in Mainline Protestantism.

The Baptists of the Southern/Great Comission persuasion were supposed to be exempt from (largely) white-Protestant-wide downward trends. Yet in convention in recent days they announced declines in membership every year of the past five, with more decline most recently. You can be sure that leadership will work strenuously to reverse trends, and one may hope with them that they will recover, but . . . .

Google, or use any search instrument on your computer, and type in “declines” and pair it with the names of churches such as UCC, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran, Reformed, United Methodist, Disciples of Christ, and on and on, and you will not lack data about decline. Link almost all of these with their more conservative acronymic partners, e.g., RCA/CRC, ELCA/LCMS, PCUSA/PCA, etc. and you will find the word “decline” easily. These bodies were looked to as potential winners by church growth experts because they blew against the Zeitgeist with their own spirit, were staunch and not flabby, counter-cultural, God’s own people in conflicts. Yet, while not all of them have declined as much as their more moderate counterparts, they also have not been able to resist cultural trends which work against them.

This is not the day to isolate all the trends affecting all the groups, but they include the demographic along with so many more. It is the day to suggest that they are demonstrating that there is no place to hide from cultures named “millennial” or “youth” or “pop” or “consumerist” or any other one might name. One does not have to be an ideological “declinist” – I refuse to be one, and I have plenty of company – to know that by amassing the stories of decline one can paralyze or, perhaps, awaken and nudge. References:

Bob Smietana, “Nation’s largest Protestant group faces ‘decline’,” USA Today

Kathy Finn, “U.S. Southern Baptists Elect First Black President,” Chicago Tribune, June 19, 2012.