Saturday, October 6, 2012

Notebook jottings - Part 2

The Religion Newswriters Association conference continues in Bethesda, Md. Here are a few more notes from Friday and Saturday at the event.

At a presentation called "50 Shades of Evangelicalism," a group of younger evangelicals talked about the growing diversity among this substantial slice of Christians in America. The diversity does not all move in one direction.

Robert Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute, for instance, noted that even though younger evangelicals trend more liberal on social issues, their support of Mitt Romney now is higher than that for John McCain four years ago. Patton Dodd, executive editor of Bondfire Books (e-books), said younger evangelicals often struggle with how to define themselves, since they don't fit into conventional stereotypes. And Sarah Pulliam Bailey, the new managing editor of Odyssey Networks after serving as the online editor at Christianity Today, said that when she was a student at Wheaton College, just outside Chicago, she found that "a lot of people know where they are from but they don't know what they are right now."

Brad Russell of, a new social network with appeal in the evangelical world, wondered if "evangelical is still a valid term." And panelists talked about the debate among the evangelical leaders about who could be called an evangelical and who could not. Is author Brian McLaren still an evangelical if he supports gay marriage? Dodd said the issue is do you identify yourself or do others define you.

Russell said a significant change in attitudes on social issues like gay marriage reflected a greater tolerance of a pluralistic society: "What's not right for me does not have to be a matter of law for everyone else... Younger evangelicals have grown up thinking their stance in the public square has been defined for them." They no longer accept that.
Perhaps the oddest session of the conference was one where representatives of the Obama and Romney campaigns faith outreach operations were invited to "tell war stories from the front lines."
First, the two from the Obama campaign - Broderick Johnson and Michael Wear - refused to let C-Span video the session. Then all three of them said in many different ways that faith really did not matter that much in the election, even though that was their area of focus. As Bob Smietana of the Nashville Tennessean tweeted:  "Faith advisors on panel want to talk about works, not faith."
Stephen Prothero discussed his new book, The American Bible: How Our Words United, Divide and Define a Nation. It's a collection of 27 texts with a varieties of commentaries on each that he defined as "the texts that we value and fight about." He said that the U.S. is "held together not by a common creed but by a shared argument." And that plays out in the pages of this book.

Prothero acknowledged that sometimes the argument can get out of control. He suggested that the great thinkers of the past modeled how people could engage in public conversation and he cited the Jewish tradition of two kinds of arguments - one on behalf of the self, the other on behalf of heaven. An argument on behalf of heaven recognizes that truth resides there, not in any one of us, so as we listen and as we talk, we can come closer to the truth.

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