When it became clear that normal venues were too small, Donald Trump met his Mobile, Ala., flock in the ultimate Deep South sanctuary -- a football stadium.
"Wow! Wow! Wow! Unbelievable. Unbelievable," shouted the candidate that polls keep calling the early Republican frontrunner. "That's so beautiful. You know, now I know how the great Billy Graham felt, because this is the same feeling. We all love Billy Graham. We love Billy Graham."
The thrice-married New York billionaire didn't elaborate, but apparently thought he was channeling what the world's most famous preacher would feel facing a Bible Belt crowd. Participants in evangelistic crusades, however, don't bounce up and down screaming while wearing licensed merchandise and waving single-name banners.
Adjusting his red "Make America Great Again" baseball cap, Trump quoted Rush Limbaugh, mocked Jeb Bush, prophesized the demise of Hillary Clinton and shared sordid details of crimes by an illegal immigrant. He offered -- in the rain -- to prove that his legendary hair was indeed his own.
One photo went viral, showing the candidate greeting supporters in front of a homemade sign that proclaimed, "Thank you, Lord Jesus, for President Trump."
"Donald Trump comes across as a blunt, savvy, can-do man and that kind of leader has always been popular" down South, noted church historian Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary near Philadelphia. "He is the prototypical celebrity and has his own brand of populism. That seems to appeal to many modern evangelicals."
Problems arise, however, when journalists and politicos start calling Trump the "evangelical" favorite. In one much-discussed Washington Post-ABC News poll, he was leading -- in the giant Republican pack -- with 20 percent of white, evangelical, GOP-leaning voters. Other polls show similar or greater "evangelical" support, but his numbers are weaker among those who attend church once a week or more.
"If you ask why Trump's beliefs appeal to many evangelicals, then you face an old problem," noted Trueman, in a telephone interview. "If you put 12 evangelicals in a room, you are going to get 10 or 11 -- at least -- definitions of what the word 'evangelical' means."
The journalism bible -- The Associated Press Stylebook -- notes that "evangelical" the adjective has evolved, commonly becoming a noun. The term refers to a "category of doctrinally conservative Christians. They emphasize the need for a definite, adult commitment or conversion to faith in Christ. ... Evangelicals stress both doctrinal absolutes and vigorous efforts to win others to belief."
Historically speaking, it's crucial that evangelicalism is a movement of believers in a wide variety of churches and, thus, has no comprehensive set of shared doctrines, noted Nancy Pearcey, who leads the Center for Christian Worldview at Houston Baptist University.
When specific issues arise that cause division, evangelicals usually fall back on confessions, covenants or traditions in their own individual flocks. This can make it hard to find unity in painful debates, she said, reached by email. As a rule, American evangelicals are united by shared emotions, cultural experiences, a strong sense of individualism and loyalty to charismatic leaders and their causes.
"Evangelicalism arose as a renewal movement within the established churches … and therefore it was inherently opposed to structure, history, tradition, ritual and anything that could be characterized as mere 'externalism,' " she noted. When evangelicals have formed independent organizations, causes and churches "they were weak in precisely those areas."
This makes it hard, Trueman agreed, for evangelicals facing debates on issues such as same-sex marriage to decide when preachers, activists or even educational institutions have modernized their beliefs too much and, thus, no longer fit under the "evangelical" banner.
It may also make it hard for "evangelicals" to seriously evaluate the faith claims of politicians who urgently need votes in Bible Belt primaries.
"All kinds of legal and political issues will be putting new pressures on churches in this nation," he said. "At some point, simply calling yourself an 'evangelical' is not going to be enough. People are going to need clarity. …
"Our churches and our institutions are going to have to clearly state what they believe on specific issues -- such as the definition of marriage -- or they are not going to be able to stand together. The cultural ties that worked in the past are not going to be enough."
It was a story guaranteed to inspire a blitz of mouse-clicks in social media in the days just after the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision proclaiming that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage.
"Gay man sues publishers over Bible verses," said a USA Today headline. A Michigan man was seeking $70 million from two Christian giants, claiming they -- by publishing editions of the Bible referring to homosexuality as sin -- caused "me or anyone who is a homosexual to endure verbal abuse, discrimination, episodes of hate, and physical violence ... including murder."
But there was a problem. The vast majority of those who recently read this story, commented on it or clicked "forward" and sent it to others failed to notice a crucial fact -- it was published in 2008. (Confession: I fell for it, because the version I received didn't contain the date in the actual text.)
In religious circles, the abuse of partial facts and anonymous anecdotes is as old as preachers searching for Saturday night inspiration. However, the Internet age has encouraged global distribution, making it easier for flawed or exaggerated information to go viral in microseconds.
Once these stories lodge in memory banks -- human or digital -- they live on and on. This problem is especially bad among many religious believers who tend to distrust mainstream sources of news.
"Most of the fake news I see doesn't reach people through the mainstream," said Ed Stetzer, the online evangelical maven who leads LifeWay Research in Nashville. Instead, it comes "through what I call the 'angry Christian sites.' …
"There are a lot of people out there who feel very put upon. They're going to believe whatever feeds into that perception that they've been marginalized in public life."
That religious and moral traditionalists have suffered numerous stinging defeats in the public square only strengthens the temptation to believe, and pass along, "faux news" that supports their fears, he said, in a telephone interview.
Many people are thinking "they're after us for our beliefs on marriage. They're after us for our beliefs on religious liberty," he said. "But if there's so much bad stuff out there, it doesn't make sense to make new stuff up."
Truth is, the problem is rooted in technology as well as human temptation, according to a 2012 paper -- "Plausible Quotations and Reverse Credibility in Online Vernacular Communities" -- published by professors Quentin Schultze and Randall Bytwerk of Calvin College. Digital networks have, at the very least, created legions of self-publishers who, working without editors, preach to their choirs to day after day.
In a sense, they argued, fake quotes and information "can become like Internet-spread urban legends, which sometimes reference and even quote well-known persons. As with all previous media, the person who does the initial quoting has the advantage of first say -- as well, now, the advantage of initial Google indexing."
Theoretically, modern readers also have virtually unlimited access to digital tools -- weblogs, search engines and online libraries -- with which to verify or refute these shaky viral anecdotes, noted Bytwerk and Schultze. Alas, "Corrections, too, can become viral -- but not as easily."
Thus, it's important for clergy and laypeople to, at the very least, do no harm when handling cyber-news, stressed Stetzer, in an impassioned essay that is approaching a half-million page views at Christianity Today online.
Believers looking at viral news from alternative sources, he said, must learn to check with credible religious publications -- from Christian Century to Christianity Today to World Magazine -- to see if they have published similar reports. They also need, yes, to check publication dates and to examine questionable online addresses, noticing the difference between NBC.com and NBC.com.co, for example.
Religious leaders who have been hoaxed will also need to learn how to repent and print corrections. Their credibility is at stake, stressed Stetzer.
"Christians do believe a lot of stuff that, to people on the outside, seems pretty strange -- from the Virgin Birth to the Resurrection. … But we believe that these things are real and they're at the center of our faith," he said. "We don't need to keep believing lots of strange stuff that's fake. … It's not in our interest to fall for faux news and to spread it around."
Nearly a decade ago, leaders of the St. Mary's Catholic Center next to the giant Texas A&M University campus began having an unusual problem -- they had too many students coming to Confession.
The priests were offering what was, in this day and age, a rather robust schedule for the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, with 60 minutes or more time on Wednesday nights and Saturdays before Mass.
Students were queuing up and waiting. So a young priest suggested offering daily Confession, with two priests available for an hour-plus or one priest for two or three hours. But that wasn't enough, either. Now this parish dedicated to campus ministry -- with 50 full-time and part-time staffers -- offers Confession at least 10 times every week, plus by appointment.
"We still have some lines and sometimes, most days even, our priests don't have time to hear all the confessions," said Marcel LeJeune, the parish's assistant campus ministry director. "The priests don't have time to chat. … It seems that whenever we offer more opportunities for Confession, we have more people show up."
Parish leaders know all about modern campus trends with alcohol, pornography and "hooking up." They know the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that the average age at which young Americans lose their virginities is 17 and that, between ages 20 and 24, 86 percent of males and 88 percent of females are sexually active, to varying degrees.
But the statistic LeJeune stresses is that nearly 80 percent of Catholics who leave the church do so by age 23. In other words, he thinks that if Catholics are serious about influencing young people before they join the growing ranks of the so-called "Nones" -- the religiously unaffiliated -- they must invest more time and resources into campus ministries.
Texas A&M has more than 58,000 students and 25 percent of them, to one degree or another, are Catholics. Do the math. That's a big parish.
"It's a shame that only 25 to 30 percent of our secular campuses nationwide have Catholic campus ministries of any kind," said LeJeune, reached by telephone. "There may be a parish somewhere nearby where some kids are going to Mass, but there's nobody there who is reaching out to college students day after day. …
"That constant one-on-one work and small groups are crucial. You have to have people who are getting their hands dirty by being involved in the real lives of students. Many people are scared to do that."
Evangelical Protestant ministries have for decades demonstrated that college is a prime time to reach young people who are confused, hurting or simply open to new ideas, noted LeJeune. This is also when Catholics need to reach those who are straying before they make permanent exits from the church.
"We have seen plenty of people return to the sacramental life of the church late in their lives, as adults of all ages," he said. "But the simple fact is that you are much more likely to see this happen in college because this is a time when students are searching and open to making changes in their lives."
Obviously, students can make changes that are good or bad, from the church's viewpoint, he said. Many dive into alcohol and sex -- creating trends that have made headlines -- while others worship the less controversial gods of success and money.
In other words, students have solid reasons to go to Confession. However, a 2008 poll by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found that 87 percent of self-identified American Catholics go to Confession once a year or less, with 45 percent admitting that they "never" go.
While the St. Mary's team is glad to see students lining up for Confession, that cannot be the first goal, stressed LeJeune.
"For too long, Catholics have been guilty of preaching the church rather than preaching Jesus," he said. "Now, we preach Catholic stuff here and doctrine matters. But if we don't stir up a desire to know God then we're not doing Job 1. …
"You can't just keep talking about what's wrong with people and expect them to listen. … Once students are driven to know God, that's when they will get interested in Confession and forgiveness and going deeper."
FRANKLIN, Tenn. -- It was a typical evangelistic crusade in rural Alabama and, as he ended his sermon, the Rev. Gordon Walker called sinners down to the altar to be born again.
Most Southern towns have a few notorious folks who frequent the back pews during revival meetings, trying to get right with God. On this night, one such scalawag came forward and fell to his knees.
"Preacher! I've broken all the Ten Commandments except one," he cried, "and the only reason I didn't break that one was that the man I shot didn't die!"
It didn't matter that this man repeated this ritual several times during his troubled life, said Walker, telling the story decades later at Holy Cross Orthodox Church outside Baltimore. Now wearing the golden robes of an Eastern Orthodox priest, Walker smiled and spread his arms wide. The church, he said, has always known that some people need to go to confession more than others. The goal was to keep walking toward the altar.
With his gentle smile and soft Alabama drawl, Walker -- who died on July 23 -- was a key figure in an unusual American story. The former Southern Baptist pastor and Campus Crusade evangelist was part of a circle of evangelical leaders that spent a decade reading church history before starting an Orthodox church for American converts. Then in 1987, the late Metropolitan Philip Saliba accepted more than 2,000 pastors and members of their Evangelical Orthodox Church into the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.
As the late Father Peter Gillquist, the movement's charismatic leader, told me in 1992: "One Orthodox leader said to me, 'How are we supposed to incorporate a couple of thousand Bill Grahams into the world of Orthodoxy?' "
Cancer took Gillquist in 2012, and now Walker. This past week, Orthodox priests from across the nation gathered at St. Ignatius Church -- the large parish near Nashville that Walker founded 30 years ago -- for his funeral, after cancer took the pastor who had helped so many enter Orthodoxy. One by one, or with friends and family, hundreds (including my own family) made the journey to spend time in Father Gordon and Mary Sue Walker's rambling log cabin in a valley near Franklin, Tenn.
"Father Gordon was a quiet force that kept them rooted," said Father Peter Jon Gillquist of Bloomington, Ind., son of the movement's leader. "He was quiet, but deeply spiritual and edgy at the same time. He was utterly fearless and at key moments he was the voice crying in the wilderness, telling them to keep moving."
Many of these same believers gathered for Gillquist's funeral and it was Walker who was asked to preach. He mentioned the many futile meetings the Evangelical Orthodox held with the leaders of official Orthodox churches, including a trip to Istanbul to meet with the Ecumenical Patriarch.
"It was sort of, 'Nice to see you, but there was no opportunity here,' " recalled Walker. "There were times when we wondered, 'Is this going to survive? Will anything good come out of all of this?' "
Then they went to Englewood, N.J., to meet Metropolitan Philip. By that time there were 30 pastors on board, including many young men leading house churches and missions scattered across the United States and Canada. They pleaded their case, but it appeared there would be yet another frustrating Byzantine roadblock.
Walker began weeping and confronted the shocked metropolitan. Walker told the story this way: "I stood and said, 'Your eminence, if you don't receive us, where will we go? We have been everywhere else. We have knocked on all the other doors. There was this long pause and then he just held out his arms and he said, 'Gentlemen, welcome home.' … And from that point on, all kinds of things began to happen."
There has been growth, as well as painful struggles, said Walker, speaking directly to the next generation of priests at the Gillquist funeral.
"Let us not get weary. Let us not lose heart, when someone who was truly a giant among us … when they pass on," he said. "It seems like it leaves a huge hole in our ranks. But the truth is, Christ is with us. … God is not through with us yet."
The year was 1902 and the faithful at Denver's Campbell Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church decided to have a fundraiser serving up some of this flock's famous barbecue.
"This method of serving meat is descended from the sacrificial altars of the time of Moses when the priests of the temple got their fingers greasy and dared not wipe them on their Sunday clothes," pitmaster Columbus B. Hill told the Denver Times during the feast. "They discovered then the rare, sweet taste of meat flavored with the smoke of its own juices."
And all the people said? "Amen." In some pews, people would shout, "Preach it!"
For many Americans -- black and white -- it's impossible to discuss their heartfelt convictions about barbecue without using religious language. There's a reason one famous book about North Carolina barbecue, published by an academic press, is entitled "Holy Smoke."
It doesn't matter whether folks are arguing about doctrinal questions at the heart of the faith, such as, "Is barbecue a noun or a verb?" or "Pork, beef or both?" It doesn't matter if true believers are arguing about what wood to burn or the percentage of vinegar God wants them to use in the sauce. Mustard? Out of the question, except in certain South Carolina zip codes.
The bottom line: there's more to barbecue, and all that goes with it, than the stuff on plates and fingers. It's all about the culture and history of the communities surrounding those pits and smokers, said veteran barbecue judge Adrian Miller, author of "Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time." He is also the first African-American and first layman to lead the Colorado Council of Churches.
All this religious barbecue talk isn't sacrilege.
"Not really. Barbecue fans and commentators are onto something. They recognize that religious words have power to describe things near-inexpressible, things that are important and that matter," argued Miller, in a recent online essay.
"Church matters, and so does food -- especially, to many people, barbecue. In short … 'barbecue' has a theological dimension that is deeply enmeshed in church culture, especially in the African-American church."
While digging into this topic, Miller was especially intrigued by the role barbecue played in the waves of fiery "camp meetings," "revivals" and Gospel festivals that reshaped American Protestantism in the tumultuous eras before and after the Civil War. What pulled people together was the worship, the music and, yes, the food. Some of these gatherings evolved into churches.
"You wanted to attract a big crowd and, let's face it, you're not going to get a lot of people just with preaching," said Miller, in a telephone interview. "These things went on for days and people often came from pretty far away. … You're going to need big crews just doing the cooking for those crowds. So you build yourself a pit and we're talking barbecue. … Often it was the Baptists versus the Methodists."
When he discusses barbecue cuisine, Miller stressed that he's talking about all of the other foods that are traditionally served with it, whether on river banks or in church halls. There's fried catfish and chicken, of course, as well as greens, black-eyed peas, yams, cornbread, cobblers and pound cake.
In the early 20th Century, scholars interviewed former slaves and discovered that many of these dishes mixed foods common in European kitchens with the traditions of West Africa and the Caribbean. There's a reason the greens served with barbecue are bitter. And all that hot sauce? Many Southerners believed folk medicines made with cayenne peppers would help end a Cholera epidemic among slaves.
Participants in these camp meetings shared food and fellowship, often cooking entire animals to share with the crowds. People brought whatever they could to grace the common tables. The church could use some of that spirit today, argued Miller.
"How do we hold together a sacred community? What are the best ways to keep someone coming back? Barbecue may not be the perfect answer to all of these questions. But I can vouch for its success in bringing people together to embrace a faith-filled life," he wrote. "Barbecue, at its theological and culinary best, reinforces a church's important social role; it enhances the communal experience of God, sharing in his bounty through a delicious meal."
Famous authors are often invited to elite dinner parties in New York City, a setting in which the rich Georgia drawl of Flannery O'Connor stood out like a dish of cheese grits next to the caviar.
At one such event, O'Connor ended up talking to author Mary McCarthy, who opined that her childhood Catholicism had faded, but she still appreciated the Eucharist as a religious symbol. The reply of the fervently Catholic O'Connor became one of the most famous one-liners in a life packed with them.
"Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it," replied O'Connor, as reported in a volume of her letters. "That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me."
The fact that this literary legend now graces a U.S. postage stamp -- more than 50 years after her death -- is a testimony both to the greatness of O'Connor and to the fact that her radical, even shocking, vision of life has always been impossible to pigeonhole, said scholar Ralph C. Wood of Baylor University.
In particular, O'Connor refused to bow to man-made idols -- including the U.S. government and the civil religion many attach to it, said Wood, speaking at a National Philatelic Exhibition rite in McLean, Va., marking the release of the author's commemorative stamp. She refused to make her faith private and polite.
"We honor Flannery O’Connor today because she resisted such idolatry," he said. "She set her loves in order by giving her first and final loyalty, not to the nation-state, but to the incarnate and living God. ... She became the most important Christian author this nation has yet produced ... by becoming a radically Catholic writer.
"This meant that she was critical of her country, therefore, because she loved it. She also loved and criticized her native South in much the same way. Precisely because she discerned the transcendent virtues of her region could she lament its temporal evils."
O'Connor also lanced the soft underbelly of church culture in her short stories. For Wood, the author's description of the smug Mrs. May in "Greenleaf" was crucial: "She thought the word, Jesus, should be kept inside the church building like other words inside the bedroom. She was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true."
The new stamp, which costs 93 cents, has raised some eyebrows because it shows a young, glamorous O'Connor, smiling and wearing pearls. She is not wearing her trademark cats-eye glasses. As a New York Times essay noted, "What's Betty Crocker doing on Flannery's stamp?"
Wood said it's interesting to ponder a different question: How did O'Connor receive this salute from America's cultural powers that be in the first place? Surely the desire to honor a female writer was pivotal.
"If that is the question you are asking you can hardly get around Flannery O'Connor. Who outranks her? She is a giant in American culture," said Wood, author of "Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South."
"It's safe to say this was not an attempt to honor all that O'Connor stood for. The American cultural elites have never known what to do with her faith. ... People keep trying to tame this lady, to make her nice. But you cannot make her nice because she wasn't nice. You cannot defang her."
But if the convictions in her stories unnerved some secularists, the bizarre and violent plot twists left many conservative believers shaking their heads, as well. In his lecture marking the stamp's release, Wood noted that her work is full of grotesque characters that walk with "a divinely inflicted limp" caused by their wrestling matches with real sins and with God. These flawed believers "both believe and behave strangely."
O'Connor heard all these muttering voices.
"When asked why her fiction, like that of so many other Southern writers, is rife with freaks, O'Connor famously replied that Southerners 'are still able to recognize one,' " said Wood. "They take the measure of themselves and others by the biblical plumb line that exposes all deviations from the true Vertical."
When Bishop William White of Philadelphia became a bishop in 1787, he was number two in the Episcopal Church's chain of apostolic succession.
When Bishop V. Gene Robinson was consecrated in 2003 -- the first openly gay, noncelibate Episcopal bishop -- he was number 993. This fact was more than a trivia-game answer during a recent sermon that represented a triumphant moment both for Robinson and his church's liberal establishment.
Standing on White's grave before the altar of historic Christ Church, the former New Hampshire bishop quipped that he did "feel a little rumble" when he referenced the recent Episcopal votes to approve same-sex marriage rites. But Robinson was convinced White was not rolling over in his grave.
"I'd like to think that he who took the really astounding events of his day and turned them into a prophetic ministry would be joining us here today if he could," said the 68-year-old bishop, in an interfaith service marking the 50th anniversary of the July 4th Independence Hall demonstrations that opened America's gay-rights movement.
After a "week of blessings" -- the Supreme Court win for same-sex marriage, as well as the long-awaited shift by Episcopalians -- Robinson said it was now time to seek global change. It's crucial to prove there is more to this cause than "white gay men" struggling to decide "where to have brunch on Sunday," he said.
Robinson had a very personal reason to celebrate. During General Convention meetings in Salt Lake City, Episcopal bishops, clergy and lay leaders approved rites for same-sex couples seeking to be married in church. The convention also edited gender-neutral language into its marriage laws, substituting "couple" for "man and woman."
The canon changes passed in the House of Bishops with 129 in favor, 26 against and five abstaining.
At the time of Robinson's consecration, 48 diocesan bishops backed a statement defending traditional doctrines on marriage and sex. After the Utah votes, only 20 bishops signed a public statement of dissent.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, however, expressed concern that these changes could cause new cracks in the 80 million-member Anglican Communion. The evangelical Reform network in the Church of England went further, claiming Episcopal Church leaders had rejected the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew stating that God "made them male and female" and "for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." America's bishops, said the Reform statement, "have denied the faith they profess to teach, forfeiting any right to be regarded as true bishops of the church of Jesus Christ."
Primates from the Global South, including the giant churches of Africa, called this redefinition of marriage "another example of … unilateral decisions that are taken without giving the least consideration to the possible consequences on other provinces and the Anglican Communion as a whole, the ecumenical partnerships, the mission of the church worldwide and interfaith relations."
Days later, Robinson stressed that he grew up in rural Kentucky hearing conservatives quote the Bible in ways that left him confused and hurt. Today, this kind of oppression threatens people around the world, he said. But pain can become power.
Gay people know what's like to be told they have "an affliction" and, thus, cannot go inside sanctuary doors, he said. They know what it means to be told "our sin makes us unworthy to be inside of the temple, that we are never going to be worthy in God's eyes."
Now America has entered an age in which "Pandora's box" has been opened, he said, revealing that "we're coming to the place where there are as many sexualities -- plural -- as there are human beings, because no two of us have the same experience."
Americans need to see this as a kind of spiritual journey toward new revelations, the bishop said. Gay believers have already been there and done that.
"You can't survive being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender unless you ask spiritual questions. Who am I? Why am I here? What am I supposed to do? And does God love me? Those are the ultimate questions and we've got some experience asking and answering them. We might even be able to help some of you straight people."