Bob Smietana is a senior writer for Nashville-based Facts & Trends magazine. He lives in Nashville, Tenn.
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When Strange Belief Turns Harmful
Guerrero, a former missionary turned charismatic fitness guru, is Tom Brady’s miracle man, credited with allowing the star quarterback to play at a top level into his 40s. The two have teamed up to spread the Gospel of TB12 — in a best-selling book and TB12, a lucrative training and fitness brand. In TB products and promotions, Guerrero shares almost every moment of Brady’s life — what he eats, how he exercises and rests, how he mentally prepares for games. He’s even godfather to Brady’s son.
'Syrian Refugees Welcome Here'
LAST FALL, MAYORS of 18 U.S. cities sent a letter to President Obama, promising to welcome Syrian refugees with open arms. Atop the list was Ed Pawlowski, the mayor of Allentown, Pennsylvania’s third largest city.
Pawlowski said his evangelical Christian faith—and America’s founding ideals—shaped his decision. “We like to say that America was built on Judeo-Christian principles,” he told Sojourners. “Then let’s follow our Judeo-Christian principles, which tell us to welcome the stranger because we were once strangers ourselves.” So far, about 10 Syrian refugee families have come to Allentown in the past year. More are expected.
There’s been some pushback from older Syrian immigrants in the community. Allentown is home to about 5,000 Syrians, many of them Christians who fled persecution in the past. Most of the new arrivals are Muslim.
Aziz Wehbey, head of the local American Amarian Syrian Charity Society, told CBS News he had concerns about the background checks on the new arrivals. “We need to know who we are welcoming in our society,” said Wehbey.
Another local Syrian charity, the Syrian Arab American Charity Association, has collected donations of food, furniture, and clothing for the refugees. So has St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church, where many Syrian immigrants worship.
Pawlowksi has spent a great deal of time talking to residents about their fears, such as concerns that the area will become “overrun” with refugees. He stressed that only a few families are coming to Allentown. They’ve lost everything, the mayor said, and need help: “We can handle this.”
How to Suppress the Vote
IN THIS YEAR'S midterm elections, hundreds of thousands of Americans will have a much more difficult time casting their ballots than they did two years ago. And it won’t be because of rain, or early winter snows, or other acts of God.
It will be because powerful people don’t want them to vote.
Why? They stand to gain politically if the “wrong” people can be kept away from the polls. It’s the opposite of a “get out the vote” campaign—“keep out the vote” describes it better.
The tradition of keeping particular sectors of the population from taking part in the franchise goes back to the founding fathers. John Adams, for instance, believed that only rich, successful, smart people should vote—and only people of a certain race and gender, of course.
“Such is the frailty of the human heart,” Adams wrote in May 1776, “that very few men who have no property have any judgment of their own.” At the time, politicians in Massachusetts wanted to allow men who didn’t own property to vote. Adams thought that was a bad idea. For him, no property meant no vote.
Agents of Grit and Grace
THE 67 PEOPLE gathered in the basement of Union Baptist Church in Memphis have come from all over: Appalachian State University and Asbury College, Louisiana State and Liberty University, Wright State and Wheaton College. The youngest is 21; the oldest, 48. They’ve come to teach in some of the lowest performing schools in the state of Tennessee.
For the next 12 months, they’ll live, learn, and pray together, becoming a family as they also learn to become teachers and colleagues. All were drawn by faith and a dream that God is doing unexpected things in the city schools of Memphis.
Welcome to the Memphis Teacher Residency (MTR), a faith-based nonprofit that’s become one of the most effective teacher training programs in Tennessee.
At the front of the room, Rev. Tom Fuerst, an associate pastor at Christ United Methodist Church, gives the morning devotional. His message: The world is broken and so are Memphis schools. But God wants to fix them both. Fuerst describes the idea of “prior grace”—that God is at work in the world long before we are aware of it—and invites the new trainees to become agents of that grace by becoming great teachers.
But Fuerst, like everyone at MTR, is quick to warn the aspiring teachers—known as residents—against proselytizing. The residents, as public school teachers, don’t preach faith in the classroom, hold Bible studies, or actively discuss their faith. That would make the classroom unsafe for non-Christian students, warned Fuerst.
Murfreesboro Mosque Fight Laid to Rest after Supreme Court Ruling
For years, opponents of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro vowed to take their legal fight to shut down the mosque all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
That fight ended Monday, when the nation’s highest court declined to hear their case.
The four-year conflict over construction of the mosque, which opened in 2012, brought national attention to this Bible Belt city of 112,000 about 30 miles south of Nashville.
Hundreds marched in protest after Rutherford County officials approved plans for the mosque in 2010. Televangelist Pat Robertson labeled the Islamic center a “mega mosque” and claimed Muslims were taking over Murfreesboro. An arsonist set fire to construction equipment on the building site.
Mosque opponents eventually filed a suit against Rutherford County, seeking to block construction of the worship space.
Jamie Coots, Co-star of 'Snake Salvation,' Dies of a Snakebite
The Rev. Jamie Coots, a serpent-handling pastor and co-star of the Snake Salvation reality television show, died Saturday after snakebite during a church service. He was 42.
Coots, pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in Middlesboro, Ky., was found dead at his house around 10 p.m.
Coots had been bitten at the church, Middlesboro Police Chief Jeff Sharpe told WBIR television in Knoxville, Tenn. Sharpe said emergency workers went to the church and to Coots’ home but he refused medical care.
Fired Tenn. Pharmacist Sues Walgreens Alleging Religious Bias
A Tennessee pharmacist and a Baptist church deacon who lost his job after an ongoing dispute over selling Plan B contraception has sued his former bosses, claiming he was fired because of his religious beliefs.
Lawyers for Philip M. Hall of Jamestown, Tenn., filed suit against the Walgreens drugstore chain in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee on Tuesday, claiming it discriminated against Hall’s religious beliefs.
Hall was fired in August after working six years for Walgreens. He believes Plan B contraceptives cause abortions and refused to dispense them. Plan B is a form of birth control that can prevent pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex. Many medical experts say it does not cause a miscarriage or abortion and won’t work if the fertilized egg is already implanted.
For Some Christians, Sharing Medical Bills is a Godly Alternative
Every time he goes to the doctor’s office, Daniel Eddinger takes a leap of faith.
Eddinger, a 28-year-old father of two from Lexington, N.C., doesn’t have health insurance.
But he’s not worried about the cost of getting sick.
Instead of insurance, he says, he relies on God — and the help of other believers — to pay his medical bills.
Protestant Pastors Support Immigration Reform, According to Survey
The news that immigration reform may be dead—at least for this year—isn’t likely to sit well in many of America’s churches.
A new poll from Nashville-based LifeWay Research finds nearly six in 10 senior pastors of Protestant churches support immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship.
Many of those pastors hope reform will help them minister to more Hispanic Americans. But few say the current immigration system hurts current members of their flocks.
The poll of 1,007 senior pastors of Protestant churches, conducted Sept. 4-19, comes as immigration reform has stalled on Capitol Hill.
Serpent Handler-TV Star Has New Cause: Religious Liberty
A Tennessee pastor’s dangerous spiritual practices made him a star of a reality TV series.
Now they may make him a religious liberty crusader.
Officials from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency raided the Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollete last Thursday and seized 53 venomous snakes — including timber rattlesnakes, copperheads, and several exotic breeds.
They cited the Rev. Andrew Hamblin, the church’s pastor and co-star of the National Geographic series Snake Salvation, and plan to charge him with 53 count of violating a state ban on possessing venomous snakes at a court hearing on Friday. Each count carries a maximum sentence of one year in jail.
Baptist-Hindu Couple Write How-to Book on Interfaith Marriage
Growing up Baptist, J. Dana Trent heard plenty of warnings about interfaith romance.
Marrying the wrong person — known as being “unequally yoked” — could ruin your faith and your marriage.
But three years after marrying a former Hindu monk, Trent says she’s a better Christian than ever.
“I had become complacent in my Christianity,” said Trent, an ordained Baptist minister. “Now my religion and spirituality have become much more integrated in my life.”
Feds Offer Atheists a Clergy Tax Break That They Don’t Want
The federal government wants to give Annie Laurie Gaylor a tax break for leading the Freedom from Religion Foundation.
But Gaylor, an outspoken atheist from Madison, Wisc., wants to stop them — and she’s asking a federal judge for help.
The standoff is the latest twist in a court battle over the parsonage exemption for clergy, a tax break that allows “ministers of the gospel” to claim part of their salary as a tax-free housing allowance.
ACLU Says Magistrate Can’t Order ‘Messiah’ Name Change
A Tennessee judge should not have barred a couple from naming their child “Messiah,” said the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee.
On Thursday, the parents of the child appeared in Cocke County Chancery Court in Tennessee because they could not agree on a last name.
Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew ordered the mother, Jaleesa Martin, to change her son’s name to “Martin DeShawn McCullough.” It includes both parents’ last names but leaves out “Messiah.”
“The word Messiah is a title and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person and that one person is Jesus Christ,” Ballew told the 7-month-old’s parents.
Presbyterians Stir Theology Debate by Rejecting Popular New Hymn
Fans of a beloved contemporary Christian hymn won’t get any satisfaction in a new church hymnal.
The committee putting together a new hymnal for the Presbyterian Church (USA) dropped the popular hymn “In Christ Alone” because the song’s authors refused to change a phrase about the wrath of God.
The original lyrics say that “on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” The Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song wanted to substitute the words, “the love of God was magnified.”
The song’s authors, Stuart Townend and Nashville resident Keith Getty, objected. So the committee voted to drop the song.
Reza Aslan Defends Controversial New Book on Jesus
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For the third time, Jesus is about to change Reza Aslan’s life.
As a teenager, Aslan turned to Jesus in an evangelical youth group, where becoming a Christian made him feel like a real American.
He later studied Jesus of Nazareth in college, which led Aslan to a doctorate in the sociology of religion.
Now Aslan’s controversial new book about Jesus is about to make him a best-selling author. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth has already reached No. 1 on Amazon.com. It’s expected to debut this weekend on The New York Times’ best-seller list, becoming the latest in a long line of controversial and profitable books about the so-called historical Jesus.
Aslan said he wants to show the power of Jesus as a flesh-and-blood human being, rather than the savior of the world. That Jesus has gotten lost in 2,000 years of church history, he said.
The Evolution of Southern Baptist Ethicist Russell Moore
Russell Moore, the new chief ethicist for the Southern Baptist Convention, has Jesus in his heart, Wendell Berry on his bookshelf, and Merle Haggard on his iPod.
His first few weeks in office have been a kind of baptism by fire.
The 41-year-old Moore took over as president of the Nashville, Tenn.-based Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission on June 1, just as prominent Southern Baptists were calling for a boycott of the Boy Scouts. Then came the Supreme Court’s recent decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, which landed Moore in the spotlight as an opponent of same-sex marriage.
Tweet Your Way Out of Purgatory (But There’s Work Involved)
Following Pope Francis’ Twitter feed may be good for your soul — both in this life and the next.
The spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church plans to grant plenary indulgences by Twitter during the World Youth Day, which will be held July 23-28 in Brazil.
The indulgences, which Catholics believe can reduce the time a soul spends in purgatory, will be available to Francis’ nearly 7.5 million Twitter followers in all languages — if they tune in to World Youth Day broadcasts or take other spiritual actions. To get an indulgence, Catholics must have already had their sins absolved by a priest.
The Power of Partnership
THE CONGREGATIONAL HEALTH NETWORK began with a simple request from the largest hospital network in Memphis to a group of local pastors: Help us take better care of your people.
Ten years ago, officials at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare were worried that chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, and obesity were threatening the well-being of local residents and sending health-care costs through the roof.
“People in their 20s were coming to the emergency room in end-stage renal failure,” said Rev. Bobby Baker, a Baptist pastor and director of faith and community partnerships at Methodist Healthcare. “That person is going to be using critical care resources for the rest of their life.”
Hospital officials knew something had to change. They wanted to focus on preventive health care—getting people in to see their doctor long before they were in a crisis. So in Memphis, a city where faith remains a powerful force and more than 60 percent of the population has ties to a religious group, they turned to churches for help. It started small, with a group of about a dozen pastors at churches near Methodist South hospital, in the city’s Whitehaven neighborhood. Those pastors recruited church members to serve as liaisons to the hospital, while the hospital assigned staff to work with churches. That small pilot, first called the Church Health Network, began in 2004.
Two years later, Methodist CEO and president Gary Shorb, along with Rev. Gary Gunderson, the former senior vice president for Methodist’s faith and health division, decided to expand the project system wide. That was the only way to make a significant impact on health outcomes, said Baker. “The thought was that it can’t be a pilot, it can’t be a research project—it really has to be broad reaching,” he said.
Churches Move to Cut Ties to Scouts After Gay Policy Change
For the Rev. Ernest Easley, the decision to cut ties with the Boy Scouts was simple.
The Bible says homosexuality is a sin. The Boy Scouts do not.
“We are not willing to compromise God’s word,” said Easley, pastor of the 2,300-member Roswell Street Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga., which has sponsored Boy Scout Troop 204 since 1945.
Church Leaders Tackle the Stigma of Mental Illness
The Rev. Frank Page, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, was getting ready to work in the yard in the fall of 2009 when the phone rang. His daughter was on the line.
Daddy, I love you, she said. Tell Mama and the girls I love them, too.
Then she was gone.
Melissa Page Strange, 32, took her own life just after hanging up the phone with her dad.
“I do not want you to imagine what that is like,” he said.
For years, Page did not share the painful details of Melissa’s death, fearing that some Christians might speak ill of her if they knew. Mental illness and suicide were taboo topics for many churches, seen as a kind of spiritual failure.
But that may be starting to change.