Feb 12, 2016

Not of yourselves, it is the gift of God

A white Lutheran minister with his mostly black confirmation class in 1926:

From a collection documenting African-American Lutherans in the Schomburg General Research and Reference Division of The New York Public Library.

Feb 8, 2016

From the German presses of early America

A German edition of the Psalms, published in Philadelphia in 1762:

This edition was printed by Nicolaus Hasselbach, who learned his trade from Christopher Saur. Saur, a Pietist, was the first to print with the German-Fraktur typeface in North America. He was competition for Benjamin Franklin, who had a monopoly on the the German-language print market until Sauer got a press and type from radical pietists in Germany. He is known for printing the first German-language Bible in America.

Hasselbach started his business in Philadelphia, where he was part-owner of a print shop in Chestnut Hill and an investor in a paper mill in Germantown. He moved to Baltimore in 1765, a few years after printing this psalter. He set up in business for himself and was Baltimore's first printer in any language. Hasselbach printed a number of almanacs and possibly some religious tracts, including one called Zwey wahrhafte von gantz besondrn Himmels-Zichen (Two true, very special Heaven-Signs), an apocalyptic text which has been attributed to him on typographical evidence. 

Hasselbach died only four or five years after getting started in Baltimore. On a business trip back to Europe, he was died at sea. His widow sold the printing shop to William Goddard, a New Englander, who used it to print Baltimore's first newspaper in 1773, The Maryland Journal.

The book of psalms sold at a New York auction last week. It brought $938.

Feb 5, 2016

Obama preaches about fear

The full speech at the National Prayer Breakfast can be seen here.

Feb 3, 2016

An atheist's questions for presidential candidates

As presidential candidates spent weeks in Iowa, many of them let their religious flags fly high. Donald Trump brought out the Bible his mother gave him. Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton both spoke about their faith. Even Bernie Sanders, who doesn’t participate in organized religion, spoke up about his personal beliefs.

One voter wondered where all this God talk left Americans who were not religious. What about atheists and other nonbelievers? So he decided to ask the candidates.

Justin Scott, a self-employed photographer and Iowa native, spoke to every major presidential contender and more than a few of the minor ones. At pizza parlors and coffee shops, meetups and rallies, Scott asked the candidates about atheists. He asked them if they support the separation of church and state and why an atheist voter should vote for them.

Political observers parsed the answers, speculating on how they would play with various religious voters. But what about atheists?

I spoke on the phone to Scott, who lives in Waterloo, Iowa, a few hours before the caucuses began on Monday.

The interview can be read at the Washington Post: "Meet the atheist who quizzes presidential candidates about their faith."

Jan 27, 2016

The spiritual challenge of a political campaign, 1948 edition

Harry S Truman's campaign advisors were thinking in religious terms in 1948. Winning was a spiritual challenge. 

Much like the Republican Party today, the Democrats of Truman's time faced serious internal divisions. There was a strong anti-establishment movement. 

The political scene, Truman's advisors said in an undated campaign memo, was "one unholy, confused cacophony." 

Henry Wallace, the New Deal champion whom Truman replaced as Franklin D. Roosevelt's vice president, had attacked Truman from the offices of the New Republic and now was running a progressive third-party challenge. Southern Democrats, meanwhile, were splitting off into a different third-party challenge, these traditionally reliable votes rebelling with the segregationist Dixiecrat Party. The Democratic Party seemed to be cracking up.

On top of that there was the Republican opponent, New York Governor Thomas Dewey, who appeared unstoppable to many.

Truman's advisors looked at all this. They decided Truman nevertheless had some advantages. People believed he was personally a moral man and they had some faith in the authority of the White House.

"The Presidency," the memo said, "possesses the only platform authoritative and creative enough to be of political and spiritual significance in the chaos of 1948."

The President just had to find his prophetic voice.

Jan 22, 2016

Puritans, capitalists and acts of God

Life wasn’t going too well for John Hull. The 17th century Boston merchant had a cargo of furs going to Europe and the entire load was lost at sea. Then news came he had lost a second shipment too. Dutch pirates had seized the ship and taken Hull’s furs.

It was a big loss, but Hull was a pious man—a Boston Puritan. He comforted himself with the thought his personal economic disaster was part of a larger plan. These were “acts of God.”

Read the full essay at the Washington Post: This is why your insurance company calls blizzards an 'act of God'

Jan 19, 2016

In the early days of the religious right

Pat Robertson tried to obscure his religious beliefs and background to run for president in 1988, according to this contemporaneous news account:

Jan 15, 2016

The political road of repentance

"The Road Back," a cartoon by Charles Ramsay, a cartoonist for the Pentecostal Evangel for 43 years, was published in 1936.

Jan 11, 2016

Bigger the church, smaller the tithe

Per-person giving declines as a congregation grows.

The numbers say that the more people who go to a church, the less each of those people give. It's not obvious why this should be true, but that's the data from the latest National Congregations Study, which has tracked religious groups across America from 1998 to 2012.

In evangelical churches, for example, a congregation of 100 adults collects an average of $175,000 per year, or $1,750 per person. A 400-member congregation, in comparison, gets an average of $1,480 per person. The survey found that across the board, 100-member groups get 18 percent more per person than 400-member groups.

When an evangelical congregation reaches 1,000 people, giving goes down to $1,140. That means individuals in these big churches are giving, on average, one-third less than individuals at smaller churches.

Using the numbers from the congregational study, an average evangelical church with 1,000 people collects about $1.14 million in tithes and gifts. If people at big churches gave at the same rate as people at the smaller churches, though, the 1,000-person churches would collect $640,000 more than they do.

The authors of the report do not have an explanation for this. They write:
"We do not know if there is something about larger congregations that causes people to give less than they would give if they were in a smaller congregation, or if people inclined to give less are drawn to larger congregations. Perhaps members of smaller congregations perceive (rightly or wrongly) that their congregations have more financial need than people in larger congregations perceive. Or perhaps larger congregations require less financial commitment from their members because they are more efficient. Perhaps members of larger congregations are somehow less personally invested in their congregations, or perhaps they are just as invested, but a particular level of commitment translates into more financial support for a smaller congregation than it does for a larger congregation. Whatever the dynamics behind this relationship, it is clear that people in smaller congregations give more to their churches than do people in larger congregations. Not incidentally, other research shows that people in smaller congregations also participate more in the life of their congregation than do people in larger congregations."
Larger religious groups, it would seem, have weaker individual commitments. This is an interesting bit of data to connect to the broader story of the trends of weakening religious connections.

The National Congregations Study, directed by Duke University sociologist Mark Chaves, can be viewed here.

Jan 8, 2016

Jesus Died for Both

A 1927 ad for interracial Lutheran schools:

From a collection documenting African-American Lutherans in the Schomburg General Research and Reference Division of the The New York Public Library.

Dec 28, 2015

15 notable religious leaders who died in 2015

To get a visceral sense of the real diversity of religion in America, we can look to the obituaries. Every year, people who gave their lives to one vision or another of transcendent reality and of the next life leave this one.

These 15 religious leaders, all of whom passed away this year, moved many in one way or another. They inspired Americans—and terrified them. They sang and organized, converted and advertised, prayed and preached and, for some, set an example.

And then, in 2015, they were gone.

They were each, in their own way, witnesses. Taken together, they testify to something true about America and about this moment.

Read the rest of the essay at the Washington Post: Andraé Crouch, Wayne Dyer, Clementa Pinckney and 12 other religious figures who died in 2015

Dec 18, 2015

Evangelical-indie Christmas music

More than a half dozen evangelical Christian music groups have released Christmas music on the site NoiseTrade, where they can be downloaded for a donation.

John Mark McMillian has done a version of "Joy to the World." McMillan, best known for the song "How He Loves." His 2015 EP, co-written with his wife, debuted as the number one iTunes download in the Christian & Gospel category.

He's making this Christmas song available for a suggested donation of $2:

Port Harbor, a Harrisonburg, Va., group, also has a Christmas single out on NoiseTrade. They've followed up their first full-length album in 2014 with a modern take on "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."

Josh Wright -- a former Baptist worship leader and American Idol contestant trying to make it in music -- has a released one new Christmas song every year for the last three years. The trio of compositions are available together as a seasonal EP titled "Christmas Dream."

Another EP is by LCBC Worship, the worship band of a multisite Pennsylvania megachurch. LCBC, which stands for Lives Changed By Christ, has weekly attendance of more than 14,000 at its seven locations. Its band has put out "Christmas at LCBC," with four Christmas songs. Each of these compositions is both familiar and new.

The Many, a group based in a Chicago church, has released a whole album, called Christmas & Advent 2015. The album offers a mix of traditional hymns and new material. According to the group, the new songs "came out of reflection on The Magnificat, Mary's song from Luke 1, and the story of Jesus' birth, and how those words from so long ago resonate with our current headlines."

Shoreline, a Knoxville, Tenn. church has chosen to stick with the classics. "Christmas with Shoreline" features the Baptist church's worship team performing four hymns:  "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus," "O Come O Come Emanuel," "Emanuel Has Come," and "Joy to the World." The church hopes making its music available will focus people on "the redemption that only comes through Jesus."

The old Christmas songs sound new on "A Christmas Sing-A-Long." This is the Christmas album from the Gospel Song Union, a group made up of members of five evangelical bands, including Kings Kaleidoscope and Citizens & Saints, two bands that started in Mark Driscoll's Mars Hill Church. The Christmas sampler reportedly is the start of a sustained project.

Dec 17, 2015

Baby Jesus theft

An $80 Baby Jesus figurine has been stolen from a front yard nativity in New Jersey.

According to police, "witnesses reported a black vehicle driven by a male." That isn't much of a lead. The Christmastime crime will likely go unsolved.

Across American, there is a rash of these thefts. Christ child figurines are being stolen from nativity scenes in residential neighborhoods, public parks and church lawns. It's that time of year again.

Peace on earth. Joy to the world. Baby Jesuses getting jacked.

In Pennsylvania, a life-sized papier-mâché baby Jesus was stolen out of a park. That Jesus has been stolen multiple times over the years. The town is looking into new security measures. The council of churches -- the owners of the display -- might pay to have a security camera installed. They have ruled out a padlock and chain, however.

According to the police chief, "Jesus in restraints isn't good."

Washington state has had a lot of baby Jesus thefts. One town, Port Angeles, Wash., had five in a year. A Presbyterian church in Seattle hasn't replaced it's Christ child from 2014, so they can't have the nativity scene this year.

"We can't put out Mary and Joseph," the pastor said, "cause that just looks kind of sad."

On the other side of the state, a man was arrested in Walla Walla, Wash. swiping a sheep from a nativity. He posted video of his own crime on Facebook. The 20-year-old claims he was on meth at the time. He has been charged with theft and he also broke a flower pot and was charged for that too. His bail was set at $5,500.

In California, a Christmas stable was stolen from a Congregationalist church before the church even had the chance to put Jesus in the manger. The pastor speculates someone might use the structure for firewood.

"It is just a sign of the times," he told the Modesto Bee. "It seems there are so many people that feel that it's all about them and they have a right to anything and everything and have no sense of moral or ethics."

A couple in Indiana were not so clear on the motives of the baby Jesus thieves. Their Christ was heisted from in front of their home, apparently while they were away. They put up the nativity because they "believe in the real meaning of Christmas." So do the thieves steal because they don't?

"You know we heard stories about people taking Jesus out of the yard," the Indiana man said. "We wonder does that mean you just don't believe and you don't want us to have it or what?"

My own theory is that it isn't unbelief that underlies this act. It's just a prank. But what makes the prank interesting is what it reveals:
Baby Jesus thieves literally take the Christ out of Christmas. When they do, it becomes apparent that the sacred object is also a piece of property, protected by the law that protects property and this whole apparatus that defends Christmas: fences and lights, tracking devices and private security companies, patrolling police and the courts. The commercialization of Christmas is visible here in a way it might not be, otherwise. That’s the power of the joke. 
Stealing the baby Jesus can seen as a protest against the commercialization of Christmas, which is to say against Christmas, since the theft, as a theft, shows how indistinguishable the commercial and religious aspects of this American holiday really are.