Do you need to have faith to practice values?

An increasing number of Americans are identifying as “nones,” with no religious affiliation at all, or switching faiths, dissatisfied with the one they knew as children. That is not exactly a revelation. Trust in every sort of institution is sinking. But does that trend signal the end of the world?

To my seatmate on a recent flight, it did. Not that he thought gun violence, political polarization and racism could be solved if everyone started attending weekly services. But organized religion, however flawed, provided a moral structure, a guide for living a decent life, he told me. And the secularization of America leaves too many adrift, missing something of importance as they figure out how to navigate the world’s challenges.

As a churchgoer — intermittent, I admit — I was surprised at the intensity of my pushback, to a stranger, no less. Perhaps I should have been agreeing with him instead of saying, “Wait a minute.” But my reaction was fueled by my recollection of congregations, especially those most faithful in their attendance and outward piety, acting in ways that would make the Jesus in “What Would Jesus Do?” blush.

If anyone thought the house of worship was refuge from such concerns, more about the commandments than political party, that’s not what folks in the pews believe. According to a study from Lifeway Research: “Half of U.S. Protestant churchgoers (50 percent) say they’d prefer to attend a church where people share their political views, and 55 percent believe that to be the case at their congregation already.”

That doesn’t include all religions, but being an insider is balm for many I speak with who seek refuge rather than argument whenever and wherever they worship.

Judging people based on how they fall politically has indeed become an article of faith, even when there would seem to be an easy area of agreement, like, for example, caring for the less fortunate.

But even that baseline is not so reliable.

For instance, I have always admired the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II for speaking up continuously and relentlessly about the poor — from his pulpit, from the streets, during marches and demonstrations, to anyone willing to listen, as I have been in several interviews with him.

On that topic, the good reverend has lots of backing from the Bible, which praises those with little, doing the best they can, giving to others even if they don’t have anything to spare. And though I realize that in some quarters, poverty has become a sign of personal weakness rather than misfortune, I was a little shocked when a tweet on the North Carolina Republican Party’s official account last month called the founding director of the Center for Public Theology & Public Policy at Yale Divinity School, the man who brought together diverse coalitions as part of the Poor People’s Campaign and Moral Monday marches, a “poverty pimp.”

Barber’s apparent offense was appearing with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., at a North Carolina rally on raising the federal minimum wage, a position most Americans favor, according to polls.

Though, in this case, his companion was a progressive democratic socialist senator, Barber walks with anyone who favors his causes, be it a living wage with Sanders or rural hospitals and Medicaid expansion when he joined with a Republican mayor to shine a spotlight on what both deemed an urgent need.

So much for “blessed are the meek.” When racist, demeaning slurs flow so easily (and officially), it’s a signal that disrespect for the clergy is no deal-breaker, especially if there’s a political point to be made.

Just as Barber believes that meeting actual people whose lives are affected by unemployment or a lack of health care is crucial, Utah Republican state Sen. Daniel W. Thatcher has said it was meeting with people affected by anti-trans legislation as well as his work on hate-crime legislation and suicide prevention that led to his opposition to his state’s anti-trans bills, according to The Washington Post.

“I have had people who claim to be Christian reach out to me and tell me that I can’t be a Christian unless I hate certain people,” he said on The New York Times’ “First Person” podcast.

The recent Supreme Court ruling that would now allow a Colorado woman to refuse to provide wedding website services to same-sex couples — if they ever asked — has been both hailed and derided by those who worship under the same spiritual roof.

The fight over faith in politics: Which faith? Whose values?

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In a Colorado church early this summer, one of that state’s Republican representatives, House member Lauren Boebert, spoke, as she always does, with definitive conviction: “The church is supposed to direct the government. The government is not supposed to direct the church. … I’m tired of this separation of church and state junk that’s not in the Constitution.”

While many would and have disagreed, pointing to that document’s First Amendment — which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” — Boebert was speaking for many Americans for whom that separating line has always been, if not invisible, at least fuzzy.

Boebert remains strong in her belief that faith and politics are inextricably entwined, as evidenced by brief, fiery remarks on Friday at the North Carolina Faith & Freedom Coalition’s Salt & Light Conference in Charlotte. There were warnings (“how far have we come when the word of God is not a part of our regular speech?”), bragging (“I am a professional RINO hunter,” when recounting her defeat of a longtime incumbent) and a prescription (“we need men and women of God to rise up”). In her words, she is someone who has been called by God, who “told me to go forward.”

At the gathering, which drew, according to organizers, about 1,500 over its two days, there was much talk of God, rivaled only by the many references to fighting and marching into battle, with the very future of America at stake. Though prayer was the primary weapon on display, and a voter registration table showing the way, there was also a raffle for a 17.76 LVOA rifle, only 500 tickets available, $20 each, six for $100.

America has heard similar exhortations before, including from the former head of the Christian Coalition, the founder of the national Faith & Freedom Coalition, Ralph Reed. Despite Reed’s tight relationship with Republican Party politics — as senior adviser to the Bush-Cheney campaigns in both 2000 and 2004, onetime chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, a GOP candidate himself, and more — the ambassador for the North Carolina organization insists his group is independent.

Paul Brintley, a North Carolina pastor who leads on minority engagement, told me, “Our forefathers made choices in laws from a foundation of the Bible” and “we don’t want to lose our saltiness” in continuing that charge, hence the “salt” in the conference name. Jesse Hailey, a Baptist pastor from Elk Point, S.D., said he, too, longed for a country that elevated biblical traditions, and he said he was very pleased with the Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade.

But, “we don’t endorse candidates; we just educate people,” said Jason Williams, the executive director of the N.C. Faith & Freedom Coalition.

Was that a wink?

It was hard to miss the issue-oriented voter guides or the theme of the vendors’ room with tables for the Patriotic Students of America, which promotes clubs and believes “today’s education system has growing anti-American sentiments,” and Moms for Liberty, which has led the charge against what it labels critical race theory but in practice seems to be about banning books on LGBTQ families, 6-year-old Ruby Bridges integrating New Orleans schools, and girls who aspire to a career in tech.

Valerie Miller, 40, a member of the Cabarrus County Republican Party executive committee, touted “Blexit” — Black Americans leaving the Democratic Party — and her story of finding a home in the GOP. You could also learn about Patriot Mobile, advertising itself as “America’s Only Christian, conservative wireless provider,” and pick up a “Let’s Go Brandon” sticker.

All the while, a who’s who of conservative politicians, media stars and firebrands took the stage.

When it comes to what faith in action — political action — should look like, opinions have always varied in stark ways. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” after all, was a generous yet robust rebuke to fellow faith leaders who urged patience not action in pursuit of justice. Not even the Scripture they all preached could settle the argument.

It’s no different today, with people of faith preaching far different versions of how God’s vision is and should be reflected in the country’s policies. In Washington, D.C., last week, a diverse group of national, state and local faith leaders prioritized voting rights, the living wage and the lack of health care as they joined the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival in a briefing to urge Congress to act on issues that affect millions of vulnerable Americans.

“We’re in a moral crisis. Fifty million people are going to experience some sort of voter suppression because we’ve not restored the Voting Rights Act and passed the original John Lewis bill that the guy who amended the original John Lewis bill didn’t vote for it himself,” said co-chair William J. Barber II, who is also president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach, in remarks I watched on video. “And 50 million people will experience continual poverty because we’ve not raised the minimum wage in 13 years. Thirteen years.”

Equal Time: Faith and politics

The late evangelist Billy Graham, known as America’s pastor, was as world famous as the presidents who sought face time with him. But after a friendship with Richard Nixon affected that image, Graham backed away from the political spotlight. His son has chosen a different path. Mary C. Curtis speaks with the Rev. Franklin Graham.

Tidings of victimhood and ‘revenge’ for a holiday, excuse me, Christmas season

Behaving badly, in a way contrary to anyone’s idea of norms or traditions, has become a badge of honor for far too many of our nation’s leaders and citizens, for which they feel neither shame nor a need to apologize.

Do unto others? Not quite. All those questions that should give pause — “Would you want someone to call your mother that name?” “What kind of example are you setting for your child?” — don’t work.

Incivility is winning, just in time for the holiday season.

Where faith divides: How do voters define justice in 2020?

In a recent phone conversation — a catch-up during COVID isolation — a longtime friend talked of a memory that seemed especially relevant these days. A fellow cradle Catholic, whom I met at a Catholic university, she recalled how startled she was on entering my childhood parish for my decades-ago wedding and finding herself surrounded by statues of the saints and Christ on the cross, familiar to her but so very different. The faces and hands and pierced feet were painted black, so unlike anything she had experienced growing up.

It stopped her, until she realized how appropriate the scene was. Of course, these representations would be reimagined in the image of those who gathered and worshipped in this particular holy place, located in the heart of West Baltimore.

It opened her eyes and, at that moment, expanded her worldview. The incident was one among many that inched our friendship toward a richer, more fulfilling space, where we could see the world and its gifts, as well as its inequities, through one another’s eyes.

Will cries of justice resonate with Trump voters of faith?

For so long, the Supreme Court was the deal-maker and -breaker for white evangelicals and, to a lesser extent, white Catholics and their unshakable partnership with the Republican Party. The GOP knew it in ways the Democratic Party never did, to its peril come election time. In 2016, with a narrow victory, President Donald Trump won the right to transform the federal judiciary and, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s help, has delivered.

But with the court’s decision this week protecting the rights of gay and transgender workers, written by Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, Trump’s prime-time appointee, some of those voters were a little shook. This would not be the only reason to wonder if Trump is losing his grip, if only a bit, on his most faithful (no pun intended) voting base.

While there is no reason to think that those guided by socially conservative beliefs will turn en masse to the Democrats and Joe Biden — better the thrice-married devil you know — a few in that group may be considering issues of life and rights in more nuanced ways. You can see it in the sometimes clumsy but also heartfelt reflections on the growing protests proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” and demanding police reform.

How open are faith leaders to the cries for justice from their flock and from “the least of these”? And if actions to eliminate inequality matter, will the Trump administration be evaluated and found wanting? Not that it would trigger a seismic shift away from a candidate and a man who is transactional in all the ways that matter. But might it initiate a conversation centered on the words of that good book Trump brandished but never bothered to open in his infamous photo op in front of St. John’s Church?

In a fractious holiday season, are there glimmers of hope?

In Washington, Santa’s naughty and nice list will be mighty lopsided this year. Donald Trump sealed his fate when he went after Speaker Nancy Pelosi — for her teeth. Then he followed with a six-page letter, a rant that projected many of his transgressions onto those he has labeled his accusers, targeting Pelosi, again, and mentioning the Salem witch trials for good measure.

Perhaps you have to step away from politics for some relief. Well, not this year, as even escapist Hallmark Channel fare has been sucked into arguments over love and family and the true meaning of the holiday.

It isn’t pretty.

Can church ever be separate from state at a Franklin Graham rally?

[OPINION] CHARLOTTE, N.C. — After the Rev. Billy Graham became less a counselor of presidents and more a political player, particularly in the unfortunate case of Richard Nixon, he learned a lesson. The Rev. Franklin Graham, heir to his father’s legacy, has chosen a different path, arguably becoming as well known for his politics as for his role as a spiritual leader.

Considering his remarks as he brought his “Decision America” tour to his hometown this past weekend, it’s a box Graham the younger is not exactly comfortable being placed in. But for the preacher who credited the “God factor,” in part, for Donald Trump’s 2016 win, that narrative is set. Vocal support of the president pre- and post-election exists right alongside his philanthropic and mission outreach — such as recent efforts in the Bahamas — through the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse.

Before he took the stage, and as Christian musician Jeremy Camp warmed up the crowd, I asked Graham about where he stands and about the qualities he admires in Trump, who is making his own news as he battles an impeachment inquiry with increasingly rough and divisive language, on Twitter and at rallies, which is anything but Christian.

This Is Not Your Father’s Bible Belt. Can Dems Make It Theirs?

OPINION — There’s a series of striking images in a televised ad for Dan McCready, who is seeking to represent North Carolina’s reliably conservative 9th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. It puts the candidate’s military record and faith front and center — not entirely surprising for someone vying for voters in a swath of the state that includes an affluent section of Charlotte, as well as parts of rural counties all the way to the Fayetteville area, with its strong military presence.

In the ad, McCready stands with his troops as an announcer states that after 9/11, he “was called to serve his country.” Then the scene shifts, and the narrative continues to describe the Marine Corps veteran as finding another calling when he was baptized “in the waters of the Euphrates River.”

He is the Democrat in the race.

Opinion: We Just Can’t Shake That Old-Time Religion

“Bless your heart” is a phrase I got to know well when I moved from the Northeast to the South several years ago. Though often spoken in soft, sympathetic tones, there was nothing blessed about the sentiment. And when those three syllables were delivered in an email, usually after I wrote a column a reader did not like, they landed like a punch to the gut.

Oddly enough, it was commentary on faith and values that elicited quite a bit of high dudgeon, topped only by the historically reliable topic of race, which, like religion, carries the taint of a North versus South, “them” against “us” spiritual split.

It was no surprise, then, that one of the most recent dust-ups in the sandbox called the U.S. House of Representatives was over religion — most specifically, the faith, message and suitability of the chamber’s chaplain — or that it, too, had its share of regional side-choosing.