Sunday, August 28, 2011

What about a statue of Billy Graham in Washington?

It's been noted that the new statue of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is the first on the National Mall honoring a non-U.S. president and the first honoring an African American.

I would add that it's also the first time a religious figure -- a man of the cloth -- has been so honored.

And that got me thinking: Should Billy Graham get a statue in Washington, too?

Not now. Graham, who will turn 93 in November, is still very much with us.

But someday, I think a statue of this Charlotte-born evangelist -- pastor to presidents -- would be a popular addition to Our Nation's Capital.

I'm not suggesting it go on the National Mall. That's reserved for titans who profoundly changed America: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR and MLK.

Graham's influence was big, but more sectarian: He's a beloved evangelist.

So here's where they might want to put his statue: In the U.S. Capitol.

If you've toured this domed home to the legislative branch, you know that each state gets to donate likenesses of two of its favorite sons or daughters to be among the Capitol's statuary.

Right now, two long-ago N.C. governors -- Zebulon Vance and Charles Aycock -- represent the Tar Heel State.

I say they've had their time.

At some future date, maybe the state could replace one of the governors with a statue of Billy Graham preaching the Gospel. (And maybe the other could be replaced, also someday, by a statue of Andy Griffith of Mayberry, er, Mount Airy. But that's another, later blog post).

Now, for those of you who think separation of church and state should extend to statues in public buildings, you might want to tell that to Hawaii . . . or California . . . or Utah . . . or Illinois.

Those are among the 12 states (by my count) that are represented by at least one religious figure.

Hawaii donated a statue of Father Damien, the 19th century Catholic priest who pastored lepers on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. Two years ago, he was canonized a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.

California, too, is represented by a Catholic priest: Father Junipero Serra was a Spanish missionary who founded a series of missions named for saints -- including San Diego, Santa Clara and San Francisco.

One of Utah's two statues is of Brigham Young. Yes, he was the first governor of the Utah territory. But he was also a historic president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- also known as the Mormons.

The first woman added to the National Statuary: Frances Willard of Illinois, a 19th century Christian crusader against drink. She started the Prohibition Party and was affiliated with evangelist Dwight Moody -- the Billy Graham of his day.

Certainly Billy Graham is a major figure not just in North Carolina. He is known all over the country -- and around the world.

Just like humorist Will Rogers was. His statue is in the Capitol representing his native Oklahoma.

And swapping one statue for another would not be unprecedented.

In 2009, the state of California did it. It replaced the statue of Thomas Starr King -- a Civil War-era Unitarian minister -- with one honoring a Hollywood actor whose star shone even brighter in the field of politics.

Maybe you've heard of him: Ronald Reagan.

For a complete list -- with cool photos and bios -- of the states' statues in the Capitol, check out the Web site for the National Statuary Hall collection.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Belmont Abbey College offers different take on Thomas More

On stage and screen, he's known less by his name than by this moniker: A man for all seasons.

But Belmont Abbey College is about to offer a different take on Sir Thomas More -- the 16th century British lawyer who was beheaded for his refusal to back King Henry VIII in the rotund royal's battle with the Roman Catholic Church.

"More," a one-man play written and performed by Simon Donoghue, will debut Thursday night at the college's Haid Theatre. You can also see it Friday and Saturday. All three performances will begin at 8 p.m. Tickets: $10.

Donoghue, director of theater at Belmont Abbey College for 37 years, offers high praise for "A Man for All Seasons," the Robert Bolt play about More that was made into an Oscar-winning 1966 film starring Paul Scofield.

In fact, he's staged it twice over the years at Belmont Abbey.

But O'Donoghue says he has a different view than Bolt, who portrays More as strictly a man of conscience.

The real reason for More's refusal to back the king was more religious, O'Donoghue says.

Even though More worked for Henry VIII -- running his government as Lord Chancellor -- he considered the king's actions "an attack on God and the church," says O'Donoghue.

As you may recall, Henry wanted the Catholic Church to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so he could wed Anne Boleyn. And amid signs that then-Pope Clement VII would not go along, the king bolted from the Roman church and got a compliant Parliament to dub him Supreme Head of the Church of England.

More felt that what the king was doing was "flying in the face of 1,500 years of what (More) calls tradition," Donoghue says.

In fact -- and you won't get this in "A Man for All Seasons" -- More was so committed to the church's official line that, ironically, he had some so-called heretics burned at the stake for fear they would poison the faith of others.

Donoghue says the play opens in the wee hours of the morning on the day More is to be executed at the Tower of London. As the play continues, he reflects back on his life and how he got to this place.

More, who was later canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, was said to have remarked before the axe fell: "Let me arrange my beard so it doesn't get cut. It didn't commit treason."

He also reportedly said this in his final minutes: "I die the King's good servant, but God's first."

Thomas More was 57 -- Donoghue's current age -- when he faced his end in 1535.

By the way: This is the second one-man play Donoghue has performed at Belmont Abbey College in recent years. In 2009, he was "Damien," the Catholic priest and saint who pastored lepers on the Hawaiian island 0f Molokai.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Learn about Islam this Ramadan

Got a question about Islam? Why not bypass all those anti-Islamic hate screeds on the Internet and actually ask a Muslim?

The Islamic Circle of North America is making it easy. Answers about the Five Pillars of Islam, the holy month of Ramadan, the Prophet Muhammad, the Quran and more are now only a phone call away.

As part of its "Why Islam" campaign, the group has put up 50 billboards around the country inviting those curious about Islam to call its toll-free hot line.

The phone number: 877-949-4752.

There's also a Web site.

"We invite people to come hear it from the horse's mouth," Asim Khan, a member of the Islamic Circle's New Jersey chapter told Religion News Service, which did a good story on the info campaign. "There is a lot of curiosity about Islam, but also a lot of misinformation, uncertainty and a sense of fear in approaching us."

And, he adds, "We're not here to convert people. We're here to educate people."

Islam is a religion of 1.5 billion people, and Muslims are now in the final week or so of Ramadan -- a time of fasting and repentence and the holiest month on the Islamic calendar.

What better time to raise your IQ about the world's second largest religion?

You might also check out the popular Web site,

And for a personal take on Ramadan, read Kari Ansari, co-founder of America's Muslim Family Magazine, on "Ramadan Lessons From My Kids."

Friday, August 19, 2011

Coming to Charlotte: Jesuit priest who's 'chaplain' of Colbert's satiric news show

The Rev. James Martin, who's brought a religious perspective to U.S. pop culture in recent years, will be in Charlotte on Oct. 1 to help St. Peter Catholic Church celebrate its 25th anniversary as a Jesuit-run parish.

(Full disclosure up front: I attend the uptown church, which was founded in 1851, making it the oldest Roman Catholic parish in Charlotte).

Martin, who was ordained to the priesthood in 1999, is probably the country's most famous Jesuit -- a worldwide Catholic religious order that was founded nearly 500 years ago by Ignatius of Loyola in Spain. The order's more formal name: The Society of Jesus.

Martin has turned up frequently on CNN, Fox and NPR, a self-deprecating but soulful talking head who's served up compassionate and sometimes funny commentary on everything from Lindsay Lohan dressing as Jesus for a fashion magazine to Mother Teresa's admitting the presence of doubt in her prayer life.

But Martin has made perhaps his biggest pop culture splash via his appearances on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report." Host Stephen Colbert -- who grew up in an Irish Catholic family in South Carolina -- now introduces Father Martin as chaplain of the faux news show.

This month, Martin was back on Colbert's week-nightly satire to talk about God's job performance and poll numbers. Before becoming a priest, Martin graduated from the Wharton business school in Pennsylvania and worked in finance at General Electric.

Besides appearing on TV, Martin blogs for the Huffington Post and America, a Catholic magazine, and writes books -- including "My Life with the Saints" (2006) and "The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything" (2010).

USA Today profiled him last year. And St. Peter has more information on Martin's "Jesuit 25th Anniversary Lecture" on its Web site.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Charlotte pastor is candidate to lead N.C. Baptist State Convention

The Rev. Mark Harris, senior pastor at Charlotte's First Baptist Church, says he'll be a candidate for president when the N.C. Baptist State Convention meets in November.

Southern Baptists make up the largest Protestant denomination in the state, with about 1.4 million members. More than 4,200 N.C. churches are associated with the Baptist State Convention.

Harris, 45, is now the group's first vice president and he's been in the forefront of a push in recent years to move the convention further to the right.

The most prominent example: In 2006, the convention adopted a policy crafted by a committee chaired by Harris. It said Baptist churches that "knowingly act to affirm, approved, endorse, promote, support or bless homosexual behavior" would henceforth be considered "not in friendly cooperation" with the convention.

Among the gay-friendly churches that have since left or been kicked out of the convention includes Charlotte's Myers Park Baptist.

Harris, whose uptown church attracts 1,000 worshipers most Sundays, told the Observer that he would "use the bully pulpit to continue that (conservative) vision" if elected president of the convention.

But mostly, Harris said, he wants to have Southern Baptist churches in the state work together to fulfill the Great Commission -- Jesus' command in the Gospel of Matthew to baptize and teach the Word to people around the world.

Harris said he'd also push for the state convention to closely align itself with mission boards and seminaries of the national Southern Baptist Convention, which has also grown more conservative in recent decades.

Nominating Harris at the November meeting in Greensboro will be the Rev. Marty Jacumin, senior pastor at Bay Leaf Baptist Church in Raleigh. He said Harris is the best person to lead the group at a time when some Baptist churches in North Carolina are closing.

"I've really seen Mark's heart for people and for the Gospel, lived out in leadership," he said. "And I've seen him drive from one end of the state to the other for Baptist causes."

Jacumin said Harris understands the need to plant more Baptist churches around the state and help existing churches struggling in this sour economy.

"Right now, more (Baptist) churches are closing each year than are opening," he said.

He also expects Harris to help the state convention become more diverse.

"When you think of Southern Baptist now, you probably think of white churches," Jacumin said. "We need to have more and more Southern Baptist churches that are Hispanic, African American, Chinese."

Harris' decision to run f0r the top job also comes at a time when an increasing number of churches are dropping the word "Baptist" from their names in hopes of attracting people who might be turned off by denominations.

"Over the years, the word 'Baptist' has, to some, been more associated with controversies than a lot of us would like," Harris said. "What I can do (as president) is see that the word 'Baptist' is more associated with the positive impact we are making on the culture, on families, on government."

Neither Harris nor Jacumin said they had heard of any other pastors planning to have their names placed into nomination for president when the "messengers," or delegates, meet Nov. 7-8 in Greensboro.

"No one (else) has announced," said Harris.

If elected, Harris would serve a one-year term, with the option of running for a second one-year term in 2012. There’s a two-term limit.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Newest issue in 2012 race: Religion

With the rapid rise of Michele Bachmann and the splashy entry of Rick Perry, faith has suddenly taken center stage in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

Both have advertised their own evangelical credentials. And in the coming months, the Minnesota congresswoman and the Texas governor are expected to battle each other for the hearts -- and votes -- of conservative Christian churchgoers in Iowa. The Christian Broadcasting Network is already calling it a "holy war." 

If they both survive that Midwestern caucus, look for Bachmann and Perry to show up in white evangelical churches all over South Carolina -- the site of the first Southern primary.

On the Sunday morning talk shows, Bachmann -- winner of Saturday's straw poll in Ames, Iowa -- was asked about several of her faith-based comments: her condemnation of homosexual behavior, her belief that God told her to enter politics, and her decision to "submit" to her husband by agreeing to becoming a tax lawyer.

The most intense back-and-forth happened between her and "Meet the Press" anchor David Gregory.

Perry, meanwhile, sent a clear signal to evanglicals that he was one of them when he headlined a recent prayer rally in Houston.

In TV interviews that reach a broader national audience, Bachmann and Perry will prefer to talk about jobs, the federal debt and President Obama's record.

But as they compete to become the more conservative alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- still the nominal front-runner in the GOP contest -- Bachmann and Perry will also find ways to communicate to evangelicals that the best way to promote conservative moral and social issues is to back them.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Church leaders: Go on week-long technology fast

Fasting from food and drink is an ancient religious practice. But this Sunday, Team Church in Matthews will ask congregants to give up entertainment technology for a week.

As in texting, tweeting, playing video games, surfing the Internet, checking Facebook, watching movies or TV, even listening to iPods or the radio.

The goal of this "DISconnect" project, the church says on its Web site, is for people to "unplug from distractions" and "REFOCUS on the things that should be the most important aspects of (their) life: God and other people."

"We think it will be painful," Pastor Kenny Hibbard told me. "But it will give them more time to read the Bible, pray, be with their kids or with friends, and get active outside. We think this can have a physical, relational and, most importantly, spiritual impact.

Team Charlotte, launched in 1999 as Charlotte South Fellowship, has a list of "Alternative Activities" on its Web site.

Besides praying and reading the Scriptures, activities on the list include: "Ask someone over for dinner or BBQ"; "Blow some bubbles"; "Bowling"; "Date Night"; "Go to bed earlier!" "Museum"; "Walk the dog."

The church -- evangelical and non-denominational -- is not asking members to get in trouble at work by refusing to, say, answer their boss' email. Job-related technological chores are not part of the fast.

But during their lunch breaks and when they get home. Hibbard said, they should abstain from the usual techno fun.

Team Charlotte, which changed its name and location on its 10th anniversary, draws between 900 to 1,000 worshipers each Sunday. Its 9:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. services are at 2301 Stevens Mill Road in Matthews.

For more details on the church's technology fast, go to and click on "DISconnect." But make sure you do it by Sunday if you're going on the fast -- after that, online anything is presumably off limits.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Women from black, white churches to discuss 'The Help'

Nearly 300 women from some of Charlotte's most prominent black and white churches will gather together at a movie theater Saturday morning to watch "The Help."

Then the women will reunite at Forest Hill Church to discuss the new movie -- based on a popular novel that explores relationships between black maids and their white employers in the segregated South of the early 1960s.

Most of the women who signed up for the sold-out screening come from three megachurches: Forest Hill, Friendship Missionary Baptist and The Park. Forest Hill is a predominantly white church in SouthPark; Friendship and The Park, both on Beatties Ford Road, are predominantly African American.

Interest at the churches was so great that organizers had to reserve not one, but two, theaters at Regal Cinemas Stonecrest at Piper Glen.

Who came up with this bridge-building opportunity?

A few W.I.L.D. Women -- i.e., leaders of the local Women's Institute of Leadership Development.

These leaders -- from The Park, Friendship and Forest Hill -- have been meeting since March and have agreed to travel to the African nation of Burundi next year to work to empower women there.

But then the leaders thought: What about women right here in Charlotte?

"We are doing great work overseas, helping people we don't know, building community among them," said the Rev. Cassandra Jones, who's minister of member outreach at Friendship. "But we fall woefully short in doing that here. So (we thought) 'what can a group of women do to bridge the gap in Charlotte?'"

Among their answers: Worshiping at another church where most of the people don't look like you. And seeing a provocative movie together and then discussing the issues it raises.

"We are trying to find natural ways for our congregations to spend time together," said Lisa Allen, who's on the outreach team at Forest Hill.

Allen added that those attending Saturday will be told: "Don't sit by somebody who looks like you. And jot down names and emails so you can stay connected."

Jones, whose grandmother and great aunts were maids in segregated Louisiana, said the hope, too, is that other groups in town will see what these W.I.L.D. women are doing and then initiate their own project.

Added the Rev. Nicole Martin. minister of young adults and singles at The Park: "We are working toward racial reconciliation among women in Charlotte."

Early reviews of "The Help," which is now in theaters, have been positive. In his review, Dave Germain of the Associated Press, said: "Provocative without turning preachy, tender without tumbling into sentimentality, 'The Help' is enormously enjoyable."

Monday, August 8, 2011

Burundi leader to visit Charlotte churches, school

Charlotte is getting a presidential visit-- from the leader of Burundi.

On Sept. 22, Pierre Nkurunziza, who has presided over the east African nation since 2005, will come to town for a day to visit a few churches and speak to an afternoon assembly at Quail Hollow Middle School.

The president's schedule is still in flux, but he does have a few confirmed appearances.

A self-described born-again Christian, Nkurunziza and his entourage will attend a staff meeting at Forest Hill Church, which has sent teams to Burundi since 2008 to work with pastors, teachers and students.

Also on the president's Charlotte agenda so far: a "civic leaders luncheon" at Friendship Missionary Baptist, a large, predominantly African American church on Beatties Ford Road.

The president, who was born in 1963, is coming to Charlotte at the request of Manny Ohonme, founder of Samaritan's Feet, a Charlotte-based charity that has done foot-washings and supplies new shoes to people in Burundi, one of the world's poorest nations.

Quail Hollow Middle School, the site of the president's afternoon speech, is a high-poverty public school where Forest Hill members have worked with students after school. The school's principal is a member of Forest Hill, said Lisa Allen, a member of Forest Hill Church's outreach team.

I asked Allen what she would tell those who might question whether having the church-sponsored president speak to a public school assembly would cross the line separating church from state.

Allen said Forest Hill had started the initiative with a previous principal who did not attend the church.

Plus, she said, when Nkurunziza speaks to the students -- which may be after school -- "the focus will be on servant-leadership, not preaching. It'll be about putting the team ahead of you."

Forest Hill pastor David Chadwick and his wife, Marilynn, met with the Burundi president during one of their visits. A year ago, as the congregation's gift to their longtime pastor, Chadwick's church announced that a center under construction in Burundi -- paid for with $165,000 pledged by Forest Hill -- will be named The Chadwick Center for Leadership and Reconciliation. In a country that's been torn for years by tribal strife -- between Hutus and Tutsis -- and even genocide, the center is designed to be a catalyst for forgiveness and reconciliation.

Burundi, about the size of the U.S. state of Maryland, is a former Belgian colony that won its independence in 1962. It's now home to about 10 million people.

Nkurunziza was elected in 2005. He was re-elected in 2010 with 91 percent of the vote, though the opposition boycotted the election.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Elevation Church will launch two new satellite sites

Charlotte's Elevation, one of the fastest growing evangelical churches in America, plans to expand to new satellite sites this fall in Rock Hill and at Vance High School in the University area.

Sounds like the Rock Hill site will also be at a school; Elevation is waiting for action Aug. 8 by the Rock Hill school board before it announces that specific site.

The start date for the new satellite sites: September 11.

Live worship teams will be at the new sites every Sunday. And Pastor Steven Furtick's sermon will be shown live on a big screen, via simulcast technology.

The Rock Hill and Vance HS sites -- the church prefers the term "campuses" -- bring the number of Elevation locations to six. The four current ones are at Blakeney and Matthews and, on Sundays only, at Providence High School and McGlohon Theatre in uptown Charlotte.

Elevation isn't Charlotte's only multi-site evangelical church. Forest Hill, pastored by the Rev. David Chadwick, plans to open its new 1,000-seat, 25,000-square foot permanent site at the Ballantyne YMCA on September 11. Now, the church has a Sunday satellite at the Ballantyne Village Theatre.

Forest Hill also plans to move its York County presence next year from the Manchester Theaters in Rock Hill to some location in Fort Mill.

After that, Chadwick told me, the church is eyeing satellite sites in either Matthews or uptown Charlotte.

Forest Hill's main church is in the South Park area.

Mecklenburg Community Church, pastored by the Rev. James Emery White, also plans to open new satellite sites, in Mint Hill and Kannapolis.

The church now has services at three locations: its main church in North Charlotte; at River Oaks Academy in the Mountain Island Lake area; and at Lowe's YMCA near Lake Norman.

Read my Observer story from earlier this year on Charlotte's multi-campus churches. That list also includes The Park Ministries and Hickory Grove Baptist, which each have a satellite in addition to their main church location. The Park's is in south Charlotte, close to Pineville; Hickory Grove's is near the Concord Mills shopping center.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Can you name the presidential hopefuls' religions?

A new poll says 56% of Americans think it's important for a White House wanna-be to have strong religious beliefs -- even if those beliefs differ from their own.

The percentage is higher still among white evangelicals (73%) and ethnic minority Christians (74%).

But the poll -- conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service -- also found that many have trouble naming the religions of President Obama, a Democrat, and the two Republican front-runners, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann.

Check out the Religion News Service report as well as a more detailed breakdown by the pollster.

And for the record, here is a list of the religious affiliations of the likely 2012 presidential contenders:
  • OBAMA: Attended a United Church of Christ church for 20 years, but has visited a few different churches in Washington -- including St. John's Episcopal, a longtime favorite with presidents since it's across from the White House.
  • ROMNEY: Member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormons.
  • BACHMANN: Lutheran.
  • Businessman HERMAN CAIN: Baptist.
  • Former House Speaker NEWT GINGRICH: Converted to Catholicism in 2008.
  • Former Utah Gov. JON HUNTSMAN: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints/Mormon
  • U.S. Rep. RON PAUL: Baptist.
  • Former Minn. Gov. TIM PAWLENTY: Evangelical, attends a Baptist church.
  • Texas Gov. RICK PERRY: Attends two churches, one United Methodist, one Baptist.
  • Former Sen. RICK SANTORUM: Catholic.
For more details on the GOP candidates' religion resumes, visit this Republican-friendly site.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Who has better moral compass in debt debate?

Religious liberals and religious conservatives agree on one thing: In the debt fight, what matters more than money and politics is morality.

And even if Congress approves today's deal and default is averted, these moral considerations will continue to play a role in the continuing debate over debt, taxes and spending cuts.

But which side has the better moral compass?

The dominant view from the left: It's immoral to balance the budget on the backs of the poor and the elderly.

The dominant view from the right: It's immoral to saddle our children and grandchildren with debt.

Each side has quoted biblical passages to support their cause.

In fact, both even quoted from the same book in the Bible.

In a radio ad campaign launched last week, Sojourners' Jim Wallis and other liberal Christian leaders attacked a House Republican plan by saying that Proverbs "teaches that where there is not leadership a nation falls and the poor are shunned while the rich have many friends."

Meanwhile, earlier this year, on "The Coral Ridge Hour," a TV program broadcast by the conservative Coral Ridge Ministries, author William Federer cited Proverbs 13:22, which says that "a good man leaves an inheritance for his children’s children."

Then, in case you're keeping score, another group weighed in that tends to agree with conservative Republicans on some issues (abortion, same-sex marriage) and with liberal Democrats on others (immigration, budget cuts affecting the poor.)

I'm talking about the U.S. Catholic Bishops. In a letter last week to the GOP-controlled House, they said that "the framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons. It requires shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs fairly.”

Also entering the debt drama -- but from stage right -- was another heavyweight religious group: The Southern Baptist Convention. Its Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission joined more than 200 other conservative groups in sponsoring a "Cut, Cap, Balance Pledge" that amounted to an endorsement of the House Republicans' plan.

"Our government is borrowing 41 cents of every dollar it spends," said ERLC President Richard Land. "That is generational theft. We're stealing our children's and our grandchildren's future. If something drastic isn't done and done quickly, our grandchildren will spend their entire working lives paying off our debts."

So: Which moral compass should guide Congress and the Obama administration in the months ahead?

Is there a middle way that enshrines compromise? Or would that amount to an abandonment of principles?

Will the religious left ever admit that, for Medicare to be available for future generations, some shifts in benefits may be necessary?

Will the religious right ever see that part of the reason for the big deficit is that some programs championed by conservatives -- the Bush tax cuts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- were put on a the federal credit card?

And where does statesmanship figure in this discussion over what's moral and what's not?

One last question: What do you think?