Bigger trends behind Mennonite split

Written by Peter Smith on .

mcshortWinston Churchill reportedly once quipped that Americans and Brits are divided by a common language. Or maybe it was Oscar Wilde or George Bernard Shaw. Or Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain.

In any case, the expression comes to mind often in matters of religion. Mennonites are only the latest group who could be described as being divided by a common faith.

They began 2018 by formalizing a long-expected schism. The Lancaster and some smaller conferences separated from the Mennonite Church USA, and some individual congregations split off as well.

At issue was the role of LGBTQ persons and whether to endorse or oppose same-sex marriage. Conservative and progressive groups alike saw biblical precedent for their stances, but their differences proved irreconcilable.

Mennonites form a small but deeply committed and devout part of the American religious landscape. The Mennonite Church USA, which had close to 100,000 members a couple of years ago before the schism, represented only about a third of all Mennonites in the United States.

They range from highly separatist -- marked by conservative modes of dress and limited use of technology, almost to the extent of their theological and historical cousins the Amish -- to highly assimilated, to where you wouldn't notice too much of a difference in walking into their churches versus that of any other mainline or liberal Protestant church. 

Speaking of which, there's a familiarity to the news. Mennonites are relatively sparse in the western part of Pennsylvania compared to the hub around Lancaster, yet they're breathing the same cultural air as other religious groups. 

In the past decade, hundreds of congregations have calved off the mainline Episcopal Church USA, Presbyterian Church (USA) and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Many of them joined (respectively) the new Anglican Church in North America, based in Ambridge; the new ECO or older Evangelical Presbyterian Church; or the North American Lutheran Church.

In each case, those departing were conservative congregations opposing their denominations' endorsement of ordaining gays and/or blessing their unions.

In the Mennonite Church USA, the main issue was the national body's opting for a policy of "forbearance" amid disagreements, as opposed to disciplining LGBTQ-affirming congregations.

Theology professor Scott Holland of Pittsburgh Mennonite Church sees deeper factors behind the tensions in these denominations as well as others in the peace church tradition, such as Quakers and Brethren. He's professor of theology and culture at Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Ind., which is affiliated with the Church of the Brethren and is in partnership with the Quaker-affiliated Earlham School of Religion.

Mr. Holland said the debates come amid accelerating declines in membership of many religious denominations.

“It’s not necessarily a question of authority or LGBTQ. It’s part of a larger question of what is the meaning of religion in our lives today,” he said. “The trend of being spiritual-not-religious is getting a lot of traction. Does one need to be part of an established church or congregation to be a spiritual person?”

Many, particularly young people, he said, are saying, “Not necessarily.”

The debates offer "a window into a larger fragmentation of congregations, of conferences, of denominations," he said. "I think we’re seeing tremendous shifts in recent years, and this comes at a time when those of us in theological education are gasping at how rapidly churches are in decline or dying." Long-established seminaries are closing, too.

"So we’re seeing enormous shifts," he said. "It seems to me that the grasping after religious authority by some traditionalists and linking it to LGBTQ issues is symptomatic of greater anxieties that many in the church world are feeling."






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Religious figures among most-admired. Again.

Written by Peter Smith on .

The Rev. Billy Graham reached Gallup's annual Most-Admired Men list for the 61st time, a record that's about as likely to be outdone as Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games streak is. Oh, that's right -- it was. So you never say never. But unless a Cal Ripken of admirability comes along, Rev. Graham will hold the record beyond not only his lifetime, but probably all of ours as well. He's 99 years old, severely limited by the infirmities of age and a legendary part of an American century that is slowly fading from personal memory. In his time he was a one-man state church, as somebody put it, and enough people remember him as such. He's fourth on the list of admired men.

Other religious leaders on the list include Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama. Of course, in an era when political and cultural figures carry religious resonance as well, we could also say that Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Michelle Obama, Mike Pence, Oprah Winfrey and Benjamin Netanyahu are religious figures high on the list.

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R.C. Sproul's Pittsburgh roots

Written by Peter Smith on .



The Rev. R.C. Sproul may not have become a household name on the order of his classmate at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in the 1960s, one Rev. Fred "Mister" Rogers.

But Rev. Sproul, who died last week and whose memorial service was on Wednesday, was a big enough name in his own right.

He was a a Pittsburgh native who began his ministry in southwestern Pennsylvania and took a geographic souvenir of it with him in the name of his Ligonier Ministries, which he transplanted to Florida in 1984.

He was big in conservative Protestant circles on multiple fronts.

Among them: He was a lead organizer of the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, a manifesto for a conservative theological reaction in multiple fronts, most prominently the Southern Baptist Convention.

And he was a leader in the revival of Reformed or Calvinist theology, which emphasizes the sovereignty of God in all things, including predestining human events and who gets saved. 

Yet in the early decades of his ministry here in southwestern Pennsylvania, he doesn't seem to have made many local news headlines. The Pittsburgh Press and the Post-Gazette frequently listed announcements that he would be speaking at this or that church. But in my search on, I only found a couple of references in actual news articles, both from the 1970s.

In 1975, he was identified as a "well-known area theologian" who was among a group joining a new Pittsburgh-area presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America. He and others were decamping from the mainline United Presbyterian Church in the USA over the ordination of women and other liberal trends.

"The church has the right to decide these matters," he said. "I as an individual should resign peaceably if I don't agree. The church doesn't need that kind of hassle."

He refused to call the United Presbyterians apostate. "A lot of my brothers remain in the UP church. I am not about to declare war on it. There is plenty of work to keep us both busy."

In 1978, he joined other clergy leading a rally of about 1,000 people in Market Square in Pittsburgh, praying for an end to the nation's longest coal strike, then three months and running. The rally happened the same day the workers overwhelmingly rejected a contract.

He and other pastors struck a neutral tone at the rally.

It's been said that the church should stay out of the market place, out of the coal strike and even out of Market Square," the 1978 Post-Gazette article quoted him as saying. "But we're not."

He suggested that economic issues were not necessarily the chief issue in the coal dispute.

"When people get angry, it's a sign that they have been hurt. The miners have charged that the companies are ripping them off and the companies have said the same about miners. .. So today we're praying for reconciliation so miners and mine owners can embrace."

Embrace or not, the strike lasted a couple more weeks.

Beyond those articles, there was not much news that I could find from Rev. Sproul's early years here.



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Who won Alabama?

Written by Peter Smith on .

In the days following the Alabama Senate vote, there's some debate over whom to credit for Doug Jones' victory: Black voters? Women voters? Young voters? White voters?

What was so remarkable, of course, was fact that such results could take place in an overwhelmingly Republican-voting state. And Roy Moore nearly won, despite or because of his theocratic proclamations, and despite allegations of repeated, sexually inappropriate or worse conduct toward women and young girls. But the fact that he didn't win marked a massive swing away from the usual Republican margins of victory racked up by President Trump and others in past elections.

You could hear plenty of such opinions in the days after, all with some justification. "Black woman have been attempting to save America since the dawn of time," said one Democratic strategist. Let's face it: Jones got most of his votes from African-Americans. Or, if you reconfigure it, from women and from young people.


The vast majority of self-described evangelical Christians voted for Moore, allegations notwithstanding.

Yet Mark Silk at the contrarian and always-insightful Spiritual Politics blog noted that the black vote, and turnout, have been consistently high for Democratic candidates. The difference was the depression in the white vote for the Republican candidate. Enough of them followed Sen. Shelby's tack and decided this was one candidate they could not vote for, whether or not they held their nose. So off Moore went on the horse he rode in on.


So yes and yes. The staunch Democratic loyalty of certain demographic groups, those younger and of color, who collectively represent the growing demographic reality of America, were essential to Jones' victory. So, too, the women's vote in a MeToo era.

And so, too, the deflection of just barely enough white votes. 

Exit poll results are here:

Doug Jones will probably have a short ride in office. But you never know. Among the other predictors of who voted for whom? The popularity of President Trump. Nine in 10 who approved of Trump voted for Moore, and nine of 10 who disapproved voted for Jones. After 2016, it's hard to imagine what Trump can do to lower his negatives to Moore levels, but strange things happen.

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Trump & Trumpvangelicals lead religion news in 2017 survey

Written by Peter Smith on .



It's important to distinguish between a religion newsmaker and a religious newsmaker.

That's a preface to this:

Donald Trump was voted the religion newsmaker of the year for 2017 in the annual survey of members of the Religion News Association. And the strong support for Trump among evangelicals (sometimes called Trumpvangelicals) -- and their heavy representation in his administration's cabinet, religious-advisory board and policy priorities -- topped the list of religion news for the year.

President Trump has shown little if any discernible religiosity, although many of the aforementioned supporters would say only God knows the heart.

But the point is that, like a catalyst in a chemical reaction, President Trump has shaken up a lot of things in religion news. 

"Muslim ban"? Check.

Jerusalem? Check.

Religious-liberty exemptions? Justice Neil Gorsuch? Immigration and refugee crackdowns, prompting religious reactions from Catholic bishops and others? 

Check, check, check.

Even stories that weren't all about Donald Trump, at least at first, became partly about him, from Roy Moore to Charlottesville to the whole NFL BlackLivesMatter kneeling protests (which participants cited as a religious gesture).

So, here's an abbreviated list of the top news stories. You can read a more thorough listing here.

  1. Trumpvangelicals
  2. Charlottesville.
  3. Travel ban on certain Muslim-majority lands.
  4. Trump recognition of Jerusalem.
  5. Myanmar's mass expulsion of Rohingya Muslims.
  6. Gunman's massacre at church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
  7. Roy Moore.
  8. Gorsuch and other conservative judicial appointments.
  9. NFL racial-justice protests, plus religious statements vs. the alt-right and churches removing Confederate symbols from their sanctuaries.
  10. Lutherans, others marking the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

Speaking of which, Martin Luther did pretty well for himself, considering he's been dead for nearly five centuries.

He got second place as religion newsmaker of the year for 2017, receiving renewed attention on the 500th anniversary of when he did -- or didn't -- nail his 95 Theses onto a church door. Even if he didn't nail them, he did nail his point home, and changed history.

Following Trump and Luther in the newsmaker category were: Roy Moore, the Rev. William Barber (a leader of the resurgent religious left), Pope Francis, Trump religious advisor Paula White-Cain, reformist (or not) Saudi crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and two pro-Pope Francis cardinals.

Back to the religion news stories: I think my colleagues made reasonable choices in a year that was suffused with religion news, much of it tragic. I had listed the territorial defeat of ISIS -- and the terror attacks perpetrated in the West by those it inspired -- as much higher. Otherwise my votes were fairly on track.

Maybe it's just me, but I can't remember a year like this, when religion played such a big real in so many political and policy stories, not to mention breaking news such as Sutherland Springs, Charlottesville and other hate crimes.

At the same time, religious institutions themselves weren't making big news in 2017.

I've written about the Pope Francis controversies, but honestly these involve relatively insider intrigue, at least for now.

Presbyterians and United Methodists each have their own commissions on a "Way Forward" -- yes, same name. But neither has found a way forward yet, so it's hard to see big news there. As with the pope, maybe next year.

Some of the biggest religious institutional news may be coming from aboard.

Prince Salman has lifted the ban on women's driving in Saudi Arabia and pledged to curb the religious hard-liners, but by some accounts he's making a power play for dictatorial control.

And then there's Israel's powerful Orthodox religious establishment, which halted the government's plans to allow for mixed-gender, non-Orthodox prayer at the Kotel (sacred Western Wall), and which refused to recognize the credentials of certain foreign rabbis, some of them here in Pittsburgh. Even that seemed dwarfed by news of the Jerusalem recognition.

Some years it's big news when someone changes stances and recognizes gay marriage, whether it's a denomination or the U.S. Supreme Court. This year, about the biggest name to do so was Eugene Peterson. Or so it seemed for a day or so. Then he didn't.




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