Time Flies




Ten years ago I turned off my phone and walked into the offices of a magazine in the Chicago suburbs for a job interview.

At that point, I’d been a professional writer for 8 years, as an editor and writer for The Covenant Companion magazine and as a jobbing freelancer.

Life was a bit crazy. We had three kids under 10 and when I wasn’t chasing them around (which was a blast), I was writing constantly, till all hours of the night, just to make ends meet.

Plus I was ready for a change. I needed one job that would pay enough for me to slow down on the freelancing a bit.

That meant giving up on my dream of becoming a full-time religion writer at a newspaper.

I’d been chasing that dream for about a decade–starting in the mid-1990s when I went back to school to get a degree in writing.

That in itself was a huge change. I’d already spent a decade working at nonprofits and trying to save the world and discovered I was terrible at it. Plus I was hardly making any money.

So why not chase my first love–writing about religion? I was good at that– and if I wasn’t going to make much money, I might as well do something I loved.

A master’s degree and some freelancing led to a job as an editor at a church-related magazine. A late night conversation with Jim Rice, the editor of Sojourners, and David Anderson, the former editor of Religion News Service, sparked a freelance career–getting me out of the church world and onto the pages of national newspapers.

A summer at Medill School of Journalism also opened doors, thanks to the friendship of Roy Larson and the late Bob McClory.

I began applying to newspapers for open religion jobs– in Iowa, Kansas, Washington, D.C. Wherever there was an opening, I tossed my hat in the ring.

There was this one job that kept popping up–at the Tennessean in Nashville, that sounded perfect.

I applied three times.  First time, the response was “No.”  Second time, “No thanks. But I really love Bob McClory, one of your references.”

The third time, crickets. At least at first, Then an email, from Ricky Young, who was then city desk editor, asking me to send my writing samples again. He had my resume, but couldn’t find the samples of my work.

I sent an email with samples attached. Then went to Kinko’s and made copies of dozens of stories and mailed them as well.

Still crickets.

I figured that was it. When a local magazine called and asked me to come in for an interview, I went in.

It was a disaster. The work seemed great but the editor confided in me that she was at war with her boss. “I need an ally,” she said. “Would you be on my side?”

No thanks.

Walked out of the interview, turned on my phone and a message popped up from Deborah Fisher, an editor at the Tennessean.

We talked.  It was a Friday.  On Monday, I was on a plane to Nashville.  A week later, I had a new job. A few weeks later, I loaded up the car and headed south. (Kathy and the kids would join my a few months later).

What a ride it’s been.

Six years at the Tennessean– the best of my career. Met great friends like Heidi Hall, Chas Sisk, Tom Wilemon, Brad Schmidt, Kate Howard to name a few.  Covered snake handlersshady charities, the anti-Islam industry,  a Bible-study surrogate mom,  the lovely Pearl Joy Brown, and a Russian immigrant who quit his job because his company kept assigning him 666 on his work ID.

Even a life-changing run-in with diabetes.

So many great and terrible stories.

It was, in a word, awesome.

But all good things come to an end.  Having survived a string of layoffs at the paper and college tuition in the future, I left the paper and went to work with the folks at Facts&Trends, where I’ve learned all about the perils and wonders of public polling and have had time to dig deep into stories.

The freelancing returned as well. A cat cult. A political prisoner accused of domestic abuse.  A church saved by refugees. A congregation that’s taking on big oil in their neighborhood.  A pair of congregations–one in Charleston, one in Antioch, Tenn.–trying to move on after deadly shootings.

Along the way,  I had the great privilege of serving for six years on board of   Religion News Association and Foundation (two as president) as well as a stint as president of the board for Religion News Service.  I even snuck in some time with my good friends as Christianity Today–long enough to discover a cult with close ties to the Christian music biz.

All in all, it’s been a great 10 years. I really am one of the luckiest people in the world, I have a beautiful family, dear friends, and work that I enjoy.

There are so many people to thank over the past decade.

Deborah Fisher for that first call. Ricky Young for sticking with me. Toni Dew, my first editor at the Tennessean. The fabulous Heidi Hall. Lisa Green. Kevin Eckstrom, my former editor at RNS. Debra Mason.  Michelle Boorstein at the Washington Post. Manya Brachear, Jerry Pattengale, John Terril, Ken Chitwood, Abe Levy, Peter Smith, Ann Rogers, Jeff Diamant, and a host of other RNA/RNF/RNS board members. Holly Meyer at the Tennessean, who helped pull off a fabulous RNA conference this fall in Nashville. Tom Gallagher, Jerome Socolovsky and the great staff of RNS.  Tiffany McCallen who keeps RNA humming. Carol Pipes and the Facts&Trends crew.

And all my religion beat friends, who are far too numerous to mention.

The last decade has been a blast. Can’t wait to see what the next ten years bring.


Apocalypse Chow and the Genius of Jim Bakker


In the 1980s, Jim Bakker was a con man and a true believer.

He was also a genius, says John Wigger, author of “PTL: the rise and fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s evangelical empire.”

The Bakker’s invented the Christian talk show, built one of the first satellite networks, and created a Christian Disneyland, complete with a water park.

Everyone who was anyone seemed to appear on their show. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan showed up while on the campaign trail. Mother Angelica was a regular (Bakker later claimed he built her first set when she launched out on her own). Even Little Richard came by for a visit in one of his holy roller phases.

The Bakkers even pioneered an early form of reality TV, with their unscripted approach to the PTL Club, argued Wigger in a commentary for Religion News Service.:

In one episode they brought a camel on the show to promote their Christmas program. As Jim described how magnificent the camel was, it peed a river across the set, all on live television. Viewers came to think of Jim and Tammy as part of their extended family.

Even more, they knew how to read people– and to tell them what they needed and wanted to hear.

And people loved to give them money–including $148 million from 1983 to 1987–at the height of fundraising for Heritage USA.

In fact, the Bakker’s biggest problem– apart from the sex, drugs, and lying–was that they were too successful at meeting people’s needs. If people hadn’t loved Heritage USA so much–they wouldn’t have shown up in droves, writes Wigger.

And no one may have know that the Bakker’s oversold rooms at Heritage USA–which was the heart of the fraud case against them.

After the Bakkers fell and Jim went to jail, they reinvented themselves. Tammy Faye became a talk show host on her own, with Jim J. Bullock, who was openly gay. She also became an icon–one of the few Christian leaders of the 1980s to be kind to gay men, especially during the height of the AIDS crisis in the US and died beloved.

Jim reinvented himself as well– selling repentance at first and later, the end of the world.

For a while, he even denounced the prosperity gospel, he told Christianity Today in 1998:

I believe the harlot of the Book of Revelation is materialism. Our denomination [the Assemblies of God], at least, used to teach that the harlot was the Catholic church. That was escapist—we wanted to blame somebody else and never look at ourselves. If you study the attributes of the harlot, she’s all about materialism. Everything is about the commerce of buying and selling and stuff. It’s about loving this world and the things of this world.

He also told CT that he preferred working with the poor to returning to television and that the secret of the Christian life was to draw close to Christ and his suffering:

On returning to television. I don’t want to say never on anything. But with the money it takes to be on television—my budget was a million dollars every two days—the tail wags the dog. I don’t want money to be my consuming force again. Now I live in the ghetto of Los Angeles, where I work under a group of men that I highly respect. There are 160 different ministries working together. It’s like a New Testament church, a daily thing, where we are feeding people, working with drug addicts, and repainting whole city blocks. We have about 4,000 in our sidewalk Sunday schools, and 12 different language churches at the center.

The street ministry didn’t last too long. And the end of the world turned out to be extremely lucrative.

Today, Bakker is the star of Morningside, a 600-acre complex near Branson, complete with condos and cabins, when fans and followers can watch the new Jim Bakker show live and pick up buckets full of his survivalist foodstuffs. The end of the world is coming, so it’s best to have a few freeze-dried meals on hand.

For $3,000 you can buy the “Super Grocery Store” bundle of food–a pallet with close to 21,000 servings.

As  Buzzfeed put it:  “Just add water and, as Bakker says, ‘imagine — the world is dying and you’re having a breakfast for kings.'”

It’s easy to poke fun at Bakker, as just another snake oil salesman or crooked televangelist. But Wigger says that it’s worth paying attention to Bakker.

After all,  Wigger says in a chapter called “Apocalypse Chow,” Bakker has a keen eye for what a large number of Americans want.

“In exchanging the prosperity gospel for doomsday apocalypticism, Bakker has found a way to turn a profit by selling freeze-dried survival food and gear, including water filters, solar generators, and camping supplies. It is brilliant, in a way. Just as the abundant life gospel fit the 1980s, a survivalist message resonates in post 9/11 America. Once again, Bakker has proven himself adept at detecting shifting patterns in the cultural currents.”


Atheists Vs. The Housing Allowance: Round Three

A federal judge has once again ruled that the parsonage allowance — a tax break that allows pastors to pay all their housing costs with tax-free dollars–is unconstitutional, reports Christianity Today.

The purpose of the housing allowance, ruled  U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb,” is to provide financial assistance to one group of religious employees without any consideration to the secular employees who are similarly situated to ministers. Under current law, that type of provision violates the establishment clause.”

Ministers get about $800 million in tax relief each year because of the housing allowance, according to Christianity Today. So it’s a big deal.

Crabb issued a similar ruling in 2013, after the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sued the IRS, saying that it was unfair that pastor could get a housing allowance, but the leaders of a secular nonprofit–in this case one run by atheists– ould not.

The Department of Justice responded by saying in essence, “OK–atheists can get a housing allowance.” An appeals court later overruled Crabb, saying that FFRF leaders hadn’t ever asked for a housing allowance.

So the FFRF’s leaders called the government’s bluff. They asked for a housing allowance by filing amended tax returns. The IRS gave them some money but then later, turned down their request.  Atheists can’t get a housing allowance, the IRS said,  according to the FFRF.

“IRC Section 107 specifically requires that to exclude a housing allowance from income you must be a minister of the gospel,” states a letter quoted in Crabb’s new decision. “The IRS does not have the authority to interpret this to include anyone other than those who meet this definition.”

This is the third time the housing allowance has been in legal trouble. The first came way back in 2002, when Rick Warren feuded with the IRS.