A bruising year of religion news

Written by Peter Smith on .

khansA bitter presidential election -- with plenty of religious fallout -- joined with violence, fear and expressions of bigotry and protest to create the top religion news stories of the year, according to an annual poll of members of the Religion News Association.

It's hard not to disagree with the headline, "A depressing year of religion news" as my colleagues over at Religion News Service put it in their own year-end roundup: While "religion gave billions of people meaning in their lives and inspired good deeds, in news coverage it was linked to bloodshed and blamed for fueling bigotry."

The news association poll picked the presidential victory of Donald Trump, fueled by especially loyal support from white evangelicals (81 percent) and other white Christians, as the top news story of the year.

Three other stories in the top 10 had direct connections to the election -- post-election hate crimes directed at minorities, the divisions over Trump among evangelical leaders despite the rank-and-file support, and the voters' defiance of demographic trends given the surprising strength of pro-Republican white Christians, supposedly in numerical decline, and the failure of the growing secular and liberal bloc to show up in sufficient numbers for Democrats.

Also big in the news: Terrorist attacks by those claiming a mandate from Islamic State in Europe and the United States, and the deaths of at least 4,600 migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean from chaos zones in Africa and Asia into Europe, where an anti-migrant backlash helped fuel Brexit.

Generally I agreed with these results. I did take a lead role in shaping the ballot, but with 25 news items on it, I had no idea which would get votes. But I voted for seven of the same top-10 items that the members voted on, although in some different orders. I put foreign and domestic terrorist incidents in two of my top four, compared with sixth and 10th overall. And my colleagues rated Pope Francis' busy agenda far higher than I did, as well as various protest movements. I rated the wars in Syria and against Islamic State as far higher than most, and the transgender-rights controversies a little higher than most.

We also vote for Religion Newsmaker of the Year. I though it would be Trump in a runaway, not because of his religiosity, which is superficial at most, but because of the deep nerves he struck in religious communities, both those who love him and those who fear him.

But unlike the Electoral College or Time magazine, my colleagues had different ideas. They voted for Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Muslim Gold Star parents who so dramatically challenged Mr. Trump at the Democratic National Convention (above). Runnerups were Mr. Trump and the Standing Rock Sioux tribe members who have opposed a pipeline they say threatens water and sacred land.

Had Trump lost, I might have voted for the Khans. But since he won, I put them at number 3 on my ballot. I thought Jerry Falwell deserved runnerup, mainly because he was the first big name to get the crucial evangelical momentum going Trump's direction. 

The top 10 follow at the link. The full list, including down-ballot items, is at

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Whatever happened to the charismatic movement?

Written by Peter Smith on .


It may seem an odd question given the explosion of Pentecostal Christianity worldwide, but bear with me.

The question came to mind as I was putting together my story on the 40th anniversary of the death of Kathryn Kuhlman, the Pittsburgh evangelist who rose from the Pentecostal sawdust trail to become the most prominent American charismatic leader of her time -- even outpacing the legendary Oral Roberts in her last decade, according to her biographer, Wayne Warner, a retired Assemblies of God archivist. 

Kuhlman embodied a generation in which Catholics, Orthodox Christians and mainline Protestants such as Episcopalians and Presbyterians were suddenly gathering together at services such as Kuhlman's, speaking in tongues and proclaiming miracle healings. Pittsburgh as much as any place could be seen as ground zero for this trend. It was here in Duquesne University that Catholics first began experiencing charismatic gifts. And when Ms. Kuhlman's longtime venue on the North Side underwent renovations, she was invited into perhaps the most storied church in the local Protestant establishment, the two-century-old First Presbyterian Church in Downtown. Around this time in Tulsa, Okla., Oral Roberts was making his own big step into the Establishment when he joined the upscale Boston Avenue Methodist Church there.

Talk about movin' on up. Early in their ministries, Kuhlman and Roberts were preaching tent meetings, and Pentecostalism was, socially speaking, on the wrong side of the ecclesiastical tracks.

Said church historian Amy Artman, who watched nearly the entire archive of Kuhlman's 500 or so television programs on the way to her doctorate:

"Kathryn Kuhlman was a leader in the transformation of charismatic Christianity from a suspect form of religion to a respectable form of religiosity that was accepted and even celebrated by mainstream Christianity and culture by the end of the twentieth century. ... I call this transformation gentrification. The term 'gentrification' is evocative and provocative when used in reference to urban areas, and no less so when applied to the changes charismatic Christianity experienced in the twentieth century. In urban neighborhoods, as interest builds, there is a change in public perception of an area from being uninteresting or even dangerous to being the new 'hot spot.' Charismatic Christianity experienced this kind of media-driven metamorphosis."

Church scholars often talk of three waves of 20th century Christian renewal focused on the Holy Spirit and the miraculous. The first was the Pentecostal revival, breaking out in Los Angeles in 1906 even as other revivals were exploding from Wales to India. Pentecostalism soon resulted in denominations such as the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ and emphasized a "baptism in the Holy Spirit," with often an initial manifestation of speaking in tongues.

The second wave, or charismatic movement, spread into older churches and was often less strict about insisting on speaking in tongues or on the exacting holiness codes of some early Pentecostal groups. (For Ms. Kuhlman, healings were central to her meetings, but not tongues.) But the label "charismatic" was also pinned in many independent church start-ups, not just on a movement within existing churches.

The third wave, called the Third Wave (wonder why), manifested in newer denominations such as Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard, and was exemplified by the term "power evangelism," in which signs and wonders played a role in helping persuade people to become Christians. If this sounds like a meeting point between more traditional evangelicals and charismatics, well, it does to me, too.

So really my question is: What happened to that second wave, at least the part that flowed through the older denominations?

To be sure, all three waves have been a dominant force in both American and global Christianity. A Pew Forum report found especially high numbers of "renewalists" in countries ranging from Kenya to Brazil. 

But at least in the United States, I don't see as much of it in the mainline Protestant churches, or among Catholics or Orthodox. Not that it isn't there, but it isn't a front-burner thing. Church histories remind us that a generation ago, controversy over spiritual gifts cut through virtually every denomination. So it was big. 

But think about all the other issues that have crowded church agendas: Politics, abortion, the role of gays and lesbians, the authority of the Bible, membership losses. It seems like churches there's been a re-separation, with the historic churches putting spiritual gifts on the back-burner, while first-wave Pentecostals and third-wave charismatic denominations and independent churches continue to emphasize the spiritual gifts. 

Sort of. Even among the Pentecostals, tongues aren't being emphasized as much as they used to be. 

But among the mainlines, the catchphrase might be, "Hands, no tongues," as one Baptist church historian put it years ago.

In other words, in many churches, the organ has been replaced, or at least is sharing space, with electric guitars, keyboards and drums. (Come to think of it, I was just in a sanctuary the other day with a great organ, and a drum set.) People like the lively, hand-raising worship that Pentecostalism brought into the mainstream. But for whatever reason, the tongues have lagged.

"I do think the worship wars of the 1980s emerges out of the charismatic movement," said Ms. Artman, now professor of religious studies at Missouri State University. "If the charismatic movement has a victory, it's in the diffusion of more charismatic worship styles into the mainline. Most mainline churches have what's called a contemporary service."



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Top news of '15: Marriage, terror, pope

Written by Peter Smith on .

Charleston-MartyrsEach year members of the Religion Newswriters Association polls members for what they see as the top 10 biggest religion stories of the year.

Eight of the 10 I voted for were in the same top 10 that the writers voted for over all - but in very different order. As I saw it, this was a very dark, violent year. At least six of my top 10 involved either direct cases of religiously motivated violence or reactions to it. My colleagues saw more of a mix of issues at the top, and their list was even more pope-heavy than mine was. (It's a secret ballot, but I don't mind discussing mine after the fact.)

And in that vein, my colleagues voted Pope Francis as the top religion newsmaker of the year for the third year in a row. As big a newsmaker as he was, Francis didn't get my first or second place vote. I voted for the members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston, S.C. -- the martyrs who welcomed the man who would kill them, and the survivors who forgave him in a stunning followup that cleared the way for a large-scale removal of Confederate symbols in public places. My second choice, close behind: the Coptic Christian martyrs who, as much as anyone, represented the human cost of the murderous savagery of ISIS. 

In fact, for me, the biggest question was figuring out which items to vote for as separate or unrelated. ISIS has been creating such deadly chaos that it warrants a news item of its own, yet the November attacks in Paris and San Bernardino massacre were huge enough to list as well. And that doesn't even count the January attacks in Paris, which were more of an Al Qaeda operation. Hell (almost literally), we could have filled the entire list up with the horrors of attacks in Kenya, Mali, Tunisia and elsewhere.

But to be sure, there was more big news, especially involving marriage, the environment and pope, pope, pope. I can understand why my colleagues put the same-sex marriage decision as number one, as it was a capstone event to one of the biggest social revolutions in U.S. history. But I didn't list it quite so high, because who was really surprised? It was already legal here and in many states, and a week or so beforehand, I was at a gathering of the Southern Baptist Convention, where the question was not how the court would rule but how social conservatives would respond to the inevitable. That's the odd thing about revolutions. Sometimes, looking back, you realize it's happened long before it's officially happened. The New York Times' James Reston famously wrote in 1987: "I think we've won the cold war and don't know it." By the time Gorbachev was riding off into the Soviet sunset in 1991, it seemed old news.

coptic martyrsAnyway, here is the list, in numerical order based on the RNA vote. At the end of each item, I'll put where I voted it.


1) The U.S. Supreme Court legalizes same-sex marriage in a historic 5-4 decision in June. (5)

2) Thousands of migrants, many from wartorn Syria, pour into Europe by sea and land, stirring right-wing resistance in some countries and compassion fatigue even from countries that welcomed them. (6)

3) ISIS expands its reign of horror in Syria and Iraq. It claims responsibility for beheadings of 21 Coptic Christians, the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot, the deaths of hundreds on a Russian airliner, and deadly bombings in Beirut and Paris. (1)

4) Anti-Muslim rhetoric flares in the U.S. and Europe as some politicians call for surveillance of Muslims and a ban on Muslim refugees, citing terrorism fears. (9)

5) Pope Francis makes a historic visit to the United States where he greets crowds in Washington, New York and Philadelphia, and speaks before Congress and the United Nations. (7)

6) Paris reels from its second major terrorist assault in 2015 on Nov. 13 as attackers linked to the so-called Islamic State kill at least 130 and wound many others at a concert hall, restaurants and other sites. (2)

7) Pope Francis issues encyclical Laudato Si on the environment, a call for replacing fossil fuels linked to global warming and lamenting a throwaway culture. Meanwhile, religious leaders call for similar goals at the November Paris climate summit. (10, as much for the second sentence as the first)

8) A white-supremacist gunman is charged in the shooting deaths of nine black worshipers in Charleston, S.C. In the wake of the tragedy, many Southern institutions remove displays of Confederate symbols. (4)

9) The #BlackLivesMatter movement draws support from faith-based groups, including Christians, Jews, Muslims and Unitarian Universalists, amid increased scrutiny of police killings of black suspects and racial issues in public universities. (13, mainly because I think faith-based groups were more followers than leaders in what seems a secular-led movement.)

10) Pope Francis continues his reformist agenda — ending a three-year supervision of U.S. nuns, speaking out for the needy, streamlining the annulment process and recommending a more pastoral tone while upholding church laws on divorce and remarriage. (15)

The others in my top 10:


Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik kill 14 and injure 21 in San Bernardino, Calif. Fears of violence in the name of Islam also arise as Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez is charged in the deaths of five U.S. servicemen in Chattanooga, Tenn. My #3, RNA's #11.

Early presidential campaigning pulses with religious rhetoric, as Republican candidates appeal for conservative Christian votes. Some candidates call for surveillance of and banning U.S.-entry to Muslims. My #8, RNA's #15.





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Nuns back Obama on carbon rules

Written by Peter Smith on .

Organizations of women religious sisters, including one that's active in Pittsburgh, are backing new, stricter rules on carbon emissions under a plan released by President Obama this week.

The statement by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group for most orders of nuns, says in part:

"Climate is a common good given to all and meant for all. Each of us has a responsibility to cooperate with God to protect our common home and to care for all of creation."


Both the nuns and President Obama cited Pope Francis' recent encyclical, Laudate Si, calling for urgent action on climate change.

Also endorsing the plan are the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, a Kentucky-based order that has sisters in Pittsburgh from the former Vincentian Sisters of Charity. The orders merged in 2008: 


"We acknowledge that for Pennsylvania, which is experiencing much concern around fracking for natural gas, that these regulations pose large challenges for the health of our people," the statement said. "Our hope is that we can all work together to face these challenges for the sake of future generations and our beloved planet."








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