Norm Macdonald: Theological mysteries, a red-brick wall, a spotlight and a microphone

Norm Macdonald: Theological mysteries, a red-brick wall, a spotlight and a microphone

While debating heretics, early Christians used the Greek term "hypostasis" -- meaning "substance" and "subsistence" -- to help define their belief in the Incarnation of Jesus as one person, yet with divine and human natures.

This "hypostatic union" is not the kind of subject a comedian typically raises on a TV talk show while chatting about mortality with a Hollywood legend. Then again, Norm Macdonald -- who died on September 14 after a secret nine-year fight with cancer -- wasn't a typical funny man. He openly identified as a Christian, while making it clear that he didn't consider himself a very good one.

During an episode of "Norm Macdonald has a Show," the former Saturday Night Live star asked Jane Fonda -- who at one point briefly embraced evangelical Christianity -- this question: "Are you a religious person?"

"I have faith," said Fonda. The host quickly asked, "In Jesus Christ?" Hesitating, Fonda called herself "a work in process," saying she accepted "the historical Jesus."

Macdonald responded: "But do you believe in the hypostatic Jesus?"

When Fonda said "no," he added, "So, you're not a Christian. But you believe, you believe in something."

Raised vaguely Protestant in Canada, Macdonald didn't discuss the brand-name specifics of his faith, even as he wrestled with his own demons -- such as habitual gambling. Yet he could be stunningly specific when addressing criticisms of Christian beliefs. As a judge on NBC's "Last Comic Standing," he quietly shot down a contestant who trashed the Bible, before praising the Harry Potter series.

"I think if you're going to take on an entire religion, you should maybe know what you're talking about," said Macdonald. "J.K. Rowling is a Christian, and J.K. Rowling famously said that if you're familiar with the scriptures, you could easily guess the ending of her book."

The result was a public persona laced with paradoxes, an edgy, courageous comic who often seemed unconcerned if his work pleased the public or his employers.

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Big question right now: What religious groups oppose vaccination, even during epidemics?

Big question right now: What religious groups oppose vaccination, even during epidemics?


What religious groups oppose vaccination -- even during epidemics?


Judges and public officials will be coping with the issue of vaccination mandates that President Joe Biden, states and employers are imposing to counter spread of the stubbornly contagious and virulent COVID-19 virus. This again raises the issue of religious-liberty claims for exemption from required vaccination.

Pastor Greg Locke of the independent Global Vision Bible Church in suburban Nashville has just been permanently banned from social media postings on Twitter after demanding that Christians shun vaccination (as well as preaching that Biden is a usurper and not a legitimately elected president).

Also, the Washington Post highlighted Pastor Jackson Lahmeyer of Tulsa, Oklahoma (who's running against devoutly evangelical U.S. Senator James Lankford in next year's Republican primary). Lahmeyer offers exemption letters for anyone who donates at least $1 to become an online member of his charismatic Sheridan Church. So far 30,000 supplicants have downloaded his exemption letter.

The president's new policy has already sparked a significant upswing in religious exemption requests. So, what are the facts on religious groups and opposition to vaccination?

A bit of history: Major religious objections arose with the first vaccination experiments in the American Colonies. But influential Congregationalist Cotton Mather championed scientific progress and defended smallpox experiments using adult volunteers. Eminent theologian Jonathan Edwards agreed and set an example as a vaccination volunteer when president of the school we know as Princeton University. He died as a result in 1758. Edward Jenner only achieved vaccination safety 38 years later.

Since then, official Christian or Jewish protests have generally been rare to non-existent as vaccinations are required to enter U.S. public schools, military service or particular jobs, or for foreign travel.

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New podcast: Covering a so-called 'religious liberty' story? Dig into religious liberty history

New podcast:  Covering a so-called 'religious liberty' story? Dig into religious liberty history

Believe it or not, America’s commitment to the First Amendment and religious liberty wasn’t dreamed up by the Religious Right.

However, at some point — mainly during press coverage of clashes between the Sexual Revolution and traditional forms of religion — religious liberty turned into “religious liberty” or even “so called ‘religious liberty’ ” and other language to that effect. America has come a long way since that 97-3 U.S. Senate vote to approve the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.

Now we are seeing waves of valid news coverage of religious liberty disputes linked to people seeking exemptions from mandates requiring COVID-19 vaccines. During this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (CLICK HERE to tune that in) I suggested that it would help for journalists to dig into the details of how courts have handled earlier religious liberty cases.

Consider this recent Washington Post headline, involving a White evangelical leader in Oklahoma: “This pastor will sign a religious exemption for vaccines if you donate to his church.” Here’s the overture:

A pastor is encouraging people to donate to his Tulsa church so they can become an online member and get his signature on a religious exemption from coronavirus vaccine mandates. The pastor, Jackson Lahmeyer, is a 29-year-old small-business owner running in the Republican primary challenge to Sen. James Lankford in 2022.

Lahmeyer, who leads Sheridan Church with his wife, Kendra, said Tuesday that in the past two days, about 30,000 people have downloaded the religious exemption form he created.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. “My phone and my emails have blown up.”

This minister isn’t alone in thinking this way. Here is a New York Daily News story about an African-American Pentecostal leader: “A Brooklyn preacher’s blessing is a pox upon his flock.”

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Push comes to shove on climate change. What more can clergy and religion reporters do?

Push comes to shove on climate change. What more can clergy and religion reporters do?

Imagine, if you dare, being forcibly parachuted into Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, the world’s current hell-hole du jour.

Suddenly you’re forced to shelter and feed your family and you’re at a loss as to how to do this.

Now consider how the increasingly dramatic consequences of human-accelerated climate change might make your already dire situation worse.

A recent New York Times piece attempted to paint this picture.

It was not pretty. Here’s its opening graphs.

Parts of Afghanistan have warmed twice as much as the global average. Spring rains have declined, most worryingly in some of the country’s most important farmland. Droughts are more frequent in vast swaths of the country, including a punishing dry spell now in the north and west, the second in three years.

Afghanistan embodies a new breed of international crisis, where the hazards of war collide with the hazards of climate change, creating a nightmarish feedback loop that punishes some of the world’s most vulnerable people and destroys their countries’ ability to cope.

And while it would be facile to attribute the conflict in Afghanistan to climate change, the effects of warming act as what military analysts call threat multipliers, amplifying conflicts over water, putting people out of work in a nation whose people largely live off agriculture, while the conflict itself consumes attention and resources.

Just like that, a regional hell hole turns into a global tragedy that should be generating global headlines. Powerful nations half-a-world away scramble to deal with the situation — or should I say scramble to look like they’re dealing with it.

Nor is Afghanistan the only failed state suffering from ongoing political violence complicated by climate change’s frightening uncertainties. “Of the world’s 25 nations most vulnerable to climate change, more than a dozen are affected by conflict or civil unrest, according to an index developed by the University of Notre Dame,” The Times article reported.

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Southern Baptist sexual-abuse puzzle: Can Executive Committee act on its own legal authority?

Southern Baptist sexual-abuse puzzle: Can Executive Committee act on its own legal authority?

I do not envy the journalists who are attempting to cover the current meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee.

The financial and moral stakes are huge. Many of the questions being debated have, from a congregational polity point of view, theological as well as legal implications. You have some activists who want the SBC to take steps that, under its system of governance, it can’t really take. You also have SBC leaders who don’t appear willing to take the actions that they can take, in order to be transparent on sexual-abuse cases.

This may sound strange, but I think it may help to look at the top of the Baptist Press report covering the opening day of the meetings in Nashville. Yes, Baptist Press is an SBC operation and its leaders report directly to the Executive Committee. That makes one statement here even more important:

NASHVILLE (BP) — In its first meeting since messengers to the June 2021 Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting called for an independent, third-party review of the SBC Executive Committee, the EC responded to several routine motions and moved to fund the independent review but declined to waive attorney-client privilege for the time being.

After a three-hour extra session Tuesday afternoon, the Executive Committee ultimately rejected a proposal from its officers and instead adopted a temporary measure to move the sexual abuse review forward leaving the details to be hashed out between the officers and the Sex Abuse Task Force within seven days. One of the most significant undecided details was whether or not the EC will agree to waive attorney-client privilege as Guidepost Solutions, the independent firm chosen by the task force to conduct the review, has requested. In the motion passed SBC messengers in June, the EC was instructed to abide by the recommendations of the third-party firm, up to and including the waiver of attorney-client privilege.

Did you catch that last sentence? That’s one of the most important facts in this standoff. The Executive Committee is charged with carrying on the work of the SBC when the national convention is not in session. However, in terms of authority, the EC’s powers come from the local church “messengers” attending the annual SBC national convention.

It appears that a majority of the Executive Committee think they get to debate whether or not to approve the waiver of attorney-client privilege as part of a third-party investigation of how the EC, or some of its leaders, handled accusations of sexual abuse. However, “messengers” at the national convention already voted to approve that step.

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Latest angles on Trump-era 'evangelicals,' including questions about the vague label itself

Latest angles on Trump-era 'evangelicals,' including questions about the vague label itself

This Memo concerns not some breaking story but a potential scenario about U.S. "evangelical" Protestants that reporters on both the politics and religion beats should be watching.

For the umpteenth time we revisit the definition of this vibrant but challenged movement and its relation to a Republican Party that the secularized Donald Trump continues to dominate.

(See The Guy's effort at defining evangelicalism here, and remember that most media discussions involve White evangelicals only, since Black and Hispanic evangelicals are very different politically. And click here for a wave of tmatt posts on this topic.)

GetReligion team member Ryan Burge, an energetic political scientist who posts interesting data most days of the week, tweeted this chart on Sept. 16th showing how self-identified evangelicals described their own church attendance over a dozen years in Cooperative Election Study polling.

There's a clear developing trend. As recently as 2008, 58.6% of self-identified evangelicals said they worshiped weekly or more often, but less than half (49.9%) by 2020.

Over the same years, evangelicals who "seldom" or "never" attended grew from 16.1% to 26.7%. The slide did not begin with the Trump presidency but was already at work, since in 2016 the weekly-or-mores were down to 52.9% and seldom-or-nevers up to 22.6%.

The Guy considers attendance a good barometer of devotion, as a historically central value inside the evangelical subculture. We can speculate that similar downward slides might be occurring with other bonding activities in the evangelical tradition such as adult Bible classes, prayer meetings, small groups, daily devotions, evangelistic revivals and charity projects.

The numbers surely reflect the nation's 21st Century secularization. But Burge reaches the provocative conclusion that they mean evangelical "is not a religious term anymore." (What substitute word would suffice? There's a story theme for you.) Certain movement insiders have argued that a different label is needed because the term has taken on such a heavy Republican -- and Trumpublican -- flavor

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Why mainstream newsrooms can't be bothered to cover USCCB church vandalism report

Why mainstream newsrooms can't be bothered to cover USCCB church vandalism report

Abortion debates continue to dominate American politics. A Texas law banning most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy went into effect just three weeks ago, something that resulted in widespread national news coverage, with many of the stories showing familiar media-bias patterns.

Despite the 1973 Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal, this law makes attaining an abortion in Texas among the most restrictive in the country after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on Sept. 2 not to block it. This unleashed debate and further political animus between Democrats and Republicans as arguments over abortion in this country now stretch into a fifth decade.

The fallout from all this may have increased animosity against the Catholic church. The church’s stand — ancient and modern — against abortion has placed it at the forefront of this cause, along with many other traditional Christian denominations and organizations.

Some of this animosity has led to vandalism against U.S. churches. A Catholic church in Colorado was vandalized with graffiti showing support for legalized abortion days after the Supreme Court decision. This is how The Christian Post recently reported the story. This is long, but essential:

St. Louis Catholic Church, located in the Boulder suburb of Louisville, became the target of vandalism from abortion activists over the weekend. The doors to the church were spray-painted with the declaration “My body, My choice,” a common refrain among pro-choice activists. Church members discovered the graffiti when they gathered for worship on Sunday morning.

In addition to spraying the phrase “My body, my choice” on the church's doors, vandals targeted a marker on the property that read “Respect Life,” replacing the word “Life” with the phrase “Bodily Autonomy.” Additionally, the sign at the front of the church was defaced with the phrase “bans off our bodies.”

In a Facebook post on Monday, the Louisville Police Department noted that a surveillance camera recorded three individuals on the church property at 1:30 a.m. local time Sunday and asked the public for help with identifying them.

The Christian Post, as the name states, is a niche news source. The question here — once again — is why vandalism cases of this kind receive so little attention in the mainstream press.

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Francis tacks again: Did press catch pope's whole message on abortion and Eucharist?

Francis tacks again: Did press catch pope's whole message on abortion and Eucharist?

How does a ship’s captain sail against a headwind?

The maneuver is called “tacking” and it consists of steering the ship back and forth, at roughly 45 degree angles across the chosen course. The question — with all the left and right turns — is this: What is the course that runs through the middle? Where is the captain trying to go?

It’s impossible to figure that out by studying only the turns to the left or to the right. Dare I say that this task is even more difficult if the captain of the ship is a modern Jesuit?

So what was the course Pope Francis was trying to sail the other day during his in-flight Shepherd One press conference about abortion, Communion and the pastoral needs of Catholics (including, perhaps, powerful politicians)? In the mainstream press, the big turns were all to the left, with the pope warning U.S. bishops not to meddle in the state of President Joe Biden’s soul. Readers had to turn to Catholic publications to find any hint that Pope Francis was, perhaps, seeking a middle course.

This was best seen in the piece that ran in the “Politics Section” (#DUH) of the New York Times. The headline stated the basics:

Pope Weighs In on Calls to Deny Communion to Biden Over Abortion

“What must the pastor do?” Francis said when a reporter asked him about the subject. “Be a pastor, don’t go condemning.”

Everything readers needed to know, from the doctrinal point of view of the Times, was right up top:

ROME — Pope Francis weighed in on Wednesday on a debate roiling the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, where conservative bishops are pushing for guidelines that would deny communion to politicians, like President Biden, who support abortion rights.

“I have never refused the eucharist to anyone,” Francis said, though he added that he did not know of any instance when such a politician had come to him for communion.

Later, there was this:

“What must the pastor do?” he asked. “Be a pastor, don’t go condemning. Be a pastor, because he is a pastor also for the excommunicated.”

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Plug-In: As COVID-19 vaccine wars rage, press focuses on religious-exemption claims

Plug-In: As COVID-19 vaccine wars rage, press focuses on religious-exemption claims

Back in March, I wrote a column about the joy and hope the COVID-19 vaccines had brought my family after more than a year of pandemic disruption.

I prayed that those skeptical of the vaccines eventually would recognize the benefits of protecting themselves — and their loved ones — from potential serious illness and death.

Yet here we are six months later, with coronavirus infections and deaths at “levels not seen since last winter” and religion often at the center of the vaccine war.

Colleen Long and Andrew DeMillo of The Associated Press report:

An estimated 2,600 Los Angeles Police Department employees are citing religious objections to try to get out of the required COVID-19 vaccination. In Washington state, thousands of state workers are seeking similar exemptions.

And in Arkansas, a hospital has been swamped with so many such requests from employees that it is apparently calling their bluff.

Religious objections, once used sparingly around the country to get exempted from various required vaccines, are becoming a much more widely used loophole against the COVID-19 shot.

And it is only likely to grow following President Joe Biden’s sweeping new vaccine mandates covering more than 100 million Americans, including executive branch employees and workers at businesses with more than 100 people on the payroll.

In a front-page report, New York Times religion writer Ruth Graham notes:

Major religious traditions, denominations and institutions are essentially unanimous in their support of the vaccines against Covid-19. But as more employers across the country begin requiring Covid vaccinations for workers, they are butting up against the nation’s sizable population of vaccine holdouts who nonetheless see their resistance in religious terms — or at least see an opportunity.

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