At first, Vanderbilt University's new credo sounded like lofty academic lingo from the pluralistic world of higher education, not the stuff of nationwide debates about religious liberty.
Leaders of Vanderbilt student groups were told they must not discriminate on the basis of "race, sex, religion, color, national or ethnic origin, age, disability, military service, or genetic information. ... In addition, the University does not discriminate against individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression."
The bottom line: this "all-comers policy" forbad campus-recognized student groups from requiring their leaders to affirm the very doctrines and policies that defined them as faith-based, voluntary associations in the first place.
This private university in Nashville -- which once had Methodist ties -- affirmed that creeds where acceptable, except when used as creeds. Orthodoxy was OK, except when it conflicted with the new campus orthodoxy that, in practice, banned selected orthodoxies.
Ultimately, 14 religious groups moved off campus, affecting 1,400 evangelical, Catholic and Mormon students. Stripped of the right to use the word "Vanderbilt," some religious leaders began wearing shirts proclaiming simply, "We are here."
In the furor, some conservatives called this struggle another war between faith and "secularism." In this case, that judgment was inaccurate and kept many outsiders from understanding what actually happened, according to the Rev. Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican minister who worked with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Vanderbilt during the dispute.
"What Vanderbilt did affirmed the beliefs of some religious groups and rejected those of others. That isn't secularism. Vanderbilt established that there is an orthodoxy on the campus, which means that it has taken a sectarian stand," said Warren, who now works with InterVarsity at the University of Texas, in Austin.
"The university established some approved doctrines and now wants to discriminate in order to defend them. ... As a private school it has every right to do that," she added, reached by telephone. Meanwhile, conservative Christian schools "have their own doctrinal statements, but they're very upfront about that. Students who go to those schools know what they're getting into. The question is whether Vanderbilt will be just as candid and tell students about these new limitations on free speech, freedom of association and freedom of religion" on campus.
The key is whether creeds are enforced, noted psychologist Richard McCarty, during a 2012 Vanderbilt forum. At that time he was vice chancellor for academic affairs. Vanderbilt leaders believe that it's wrong to require a student to "profess allegiance to Jesus Christ as his or her Lord and Savior" in order to lead a Christian group, he said, according to a forum transcript.
"I'm Catholic. What if my faith beliefs guided all of the decisions I make from day to day?" Hearing objections from critics, he continued: "No they shouldn't! No they shouldn't! No they shouldn't! ... As a Catholic, if I held that life begins at conception, I'd have a very big problem with our hospital" at Vanderbilt.
"Would I not? ... I would, but I don't. ... We don't want to have personal religious views intrude on good decision-making on this campus."
Many other Catholics disagreed and had to leave the campus.
Now leaders in creedal groups face a growing challenge in state schools, where discrimination policies affect the equal access to student budgets. In the California State University system -- with 450,000 students on 23 campuses -- leaders are pressing toward a policy requiring student-group leaders to pledge, in writing, they will not "discriminate on the base of race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, color, age, gender, marital status, citizenship, sexual orientation, or disability."
Once again, said Warren, the issue is whether these campus policies promote pluralism or weaken it. Ironically, 70 percent of InterVarsity students in these affected regions are "persons of color," as academics now say.
Also, it's crucial to know that on some doctrinal issues -- especially linked to sexuality -- many evangelical students are eager to separate themselves from traditional, orthodox Christianity, she said. These tensions are real.
"It's great that we welcome progressives into our groups. I think it's great that we welcome students who don't believe the Gospel, at all," said Warren. "We need to be open and joyful and embrace as many people as we can. That said, we also need to know what we believe and what we must proclaim as the truth -- without shame."
Architect Michael Tamara's original goal was to study new Catholic churches built using classic designs and symbolism, as opposed to all of those modernist sanctuaries offering what some critics call the "Our Lady of Pizza Hut" style.
The first church that caught his eye, 15 years ago, was the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Ala., an ornate sanctuary rich in majestic marble and gold details that was becoming familiar to viewers of Eternal Word Television Network. This church, he thought, was built decades after the Second Vatican Council?
Tamara began gathering materials about other new churches in neo-Gothic, Romanesque or other classic styles. Eventually he spotted a surprising pattern.
That first church was in Alabama, and then he found others in Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Oklahoma, several in South Carolina and quite a few in Virginia. Oh, and there was a stunning new monastery -- in Alabama.
"Something is going on," said Tamara, who works at the American Institute of Architects in Washington, D.C. "The obvious question is this: Why is this happening in the South? Why not in the heavily Catholic Northeast, which is where I am from?"
While it's true that many Catholics are moving to the South for economic reasons, Tamara is convinced that other cultural factors are at play, including the fact that priests and parishes in the old Protestant South are often more evangelistic than those in declining Frost Belt cities.
To be blunt, Catholics in the North are being forced to close many old churches, while Sunbelt Catholics are building new ones. Catholic leaders have noticed.
Thus, noted Tamara, "Rome has been sending more traditionally minded bishops down South because, frankly, they're a better fit for the culture there. These bishops -- naturally -- tend to attract priests who take a more conservative approach to the faith. You put both of those factors together and this more traditional architecture is going to follow. ...
"Yes, people have been calling architecture 'theology in stone' for a long time."
Writing in Crisis, a conservative Catholic journal, Tamara conceded that it's far too early to see this turn toward traditional sacred architecture as a national trend. However, it's getting hard to ignore what is happening, especially in growing sectors of the American church.
"It is true that a certain indiscriminate preference for the contemporary remains firmly ensconced in the average American parish," he wrote. "Yet there has also quietly developed a parallel phenomenon: a deliberate and measured return to tradition, born of a deep desire to reestablish continuity and stability in Catholic life. ...
"Lest delusion set in, the ratio of new traditional churches to posh amphitheater spaces still being built is grossly disproportionate. Nevertheless, after the epic social and liturgical upheavals of the last century, it is a wonder that any sort of traditional resurgence is happening at all, and these projects seem to be only increasing in number and scale with each passing year."
There is another irony linked to these strikingly Catholic sanctuaries rising in the modern South, noted Tamara, in a telephone interview.
After Vatican II, many Catholic leaders thought it was important to present the Catholic faith in ways that were more neutral, modern and, frankly, less offensive to mainline Protestantism. The thinking was that "if we make ourselves look less Catholic, then we will look more ecumenical and we can fit in better with the Protestant culture that is all around us," he said.
The result in many older Catholic regions was a vast array of sanctuaries shaped like giant saucers, wedges, high-tech cubes or movie theaters. Today, some of these churches resemble smaller versions of the giant evangelical megachurches in Southern suburbs.
How ironic is that? Many modern Southern Protestants have stopped building old-fashioned churches, while some of the Catholics flocking into the region have started building ultra-traditional sanctuaries.
"The further South you get, the further you are from the whole New York City and West Coast world that leans toward progressive and secular approaches to just about everything, including faith and education and art," said Tamara. "Down South, you have growing urban areas, but you can still find a kind of rural, small community, traditional, mom-and-pop atmosphere that is friendly to faith and family.
"People still call it the Bible belt for a reason and lots of people down South still like churches that look like churches."
When a believer is immersed in the rosary, the familiar phrases of the Lord's Prayer, the Hail Mary and the Doxology find a soft rhythm, as clicking beads mix with steady breaths and the human heart.
While meditating on each great mystery of the faith, the final words of the Hail Mary prayers are particularly sobering: "Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen."
The prayers are "like a pulse that sinks deep inside and goes on and on as you meditate on how these mysteries are connected to your life," said writer Elizabeth Scalia, known as "The Anchoress" among Catholic bloggers.
"I think all the mysteries would have offered inspiration and consolation to James Foley" while in captivity, she said, as he "faced the fact that his life was truly in danger."
It's hard not to ask: Was Foley still praying the rosary as he knelt with an Islamic State guard's knife at his throat?
During his earlier captivity, in a Libyan jail, Foley began praying in hope that his mother would "know I was OK. I prayed I could communicate through some cosmic reach of the universe to her," he wrote, in a 2011 letter to priests and students at Marquette University, his alma mater.
"I began to pray the rosary," he added. "It was what my mother and grandmother would have prayed. I said 10 Hail Marys between each Our Father. It took a long time, almost an hour, to count 100 Hail Marys off on my knuckles. And it helped to keep my mind focused."
After his release, Foley watched a video from a Marquette vigil on his behalf, which included a speech that resembled a "best man speech and a eulogy in one." It was another link to a larger body, he said, evidence that "prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom, an inner freedom first and later the miracle of being released. ... It didn't make sense, but faith did."
After Foley's hellish death, beheaded on camera by an Islamic State guard, his parents faced reporters and said they were proud of his calling to "bear witness" to truth and thankful, once again, for their family's ties of faith.
"Jim was very loved, very proud to be a journalist," Diane Foley told reporters, outside their New Hampshire home. She added, "How do you make sense out of someone as good as Jim meeting such a fate? There's so much evil in this world."
John Foley said he believed his son "was a martyr -- a martyr for freedom."
In commentaries online, some Catholics have begun asking if the 40-year-old journalist may have been a martyr -- period. In an interview with NBC, his siblings Michael and Katie claimed that Pope Francis had called Foley "a martyr," during a telephone call to the family.
A key fact in this discussion is that Islamic State fighters have consistently offered their victims a chance to save their own lives -- by converting to Islam. In an online essay, former L'Osservatore Romano staffer Pia de Solenni noted that it was also likely that Foley's social-media savvy guards were aware that he was a Catholic, as well as a U.S. citizen.
"Martyrdom is not something that happened a long time ago in ancient Rome. ... It's something that's happening a lot, most -- if not all -- of the time," she wrote. "If it takes the death of James Foley for us to realize that people are dying because of their faith every day, then that makes him even more of a witness to the truth."
It's almost impossible to believe, noted Scalia, that Foley was not pressed to convert during his captivity and, thus, to abandon his Christian faith. This may have happened, again, as he faced the immediate threat of execution.
"You know that they tried to get James Foley to do that," she said. "Clearly, he refused to do it."
If so, it's hard not to think about the rosary prayers, once again, she said. It's easy to see the relevance of meditating on the First Sorrowful Mystery, when Jesus knows that he is facing his own death. Thus, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus prays, "Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done."
At first glance, there was a bizarre gap in the proclamation Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi issued as his forces rolled to victory after victory in their rush to rebuild a caliphate in Iraq, Syria and beyond.
The modern world, he said, in a July 1 statement circulated on Twitter, has "been divided into two camps and two trenches, with no third camp present: The camp of Islam and faith, and the camp of kufr (disbelief) and hypocrisy -- the camp of the Muslims and the mujahidin everywhere, and the camp of the Jews, the crusaders, their allies and with them the rest of the nations and religions of kufr, all being led by America and Russia, and being mobilized by the Jews."
Missing from this list were key groups immediately impacted by the rise of the Islamic State -- the region's ancient churches. In one stunning blow, ISIS forces seized Mosul and other Nineveh Plain communities that have sheltered Christians since soon after the faith's birth. Jihadi militiamen burned churches, or turned them into mosques, and marked Christian homes with "n," for "Nisrani" or "Nazarene."
Thus, believers with 2,000 years worth of local roots were declared foreigners -- Nazarenes. They were ordered to convert to Islam, to flee as refugees or face execution, perhaps by crucifixion. Baghdadi called them "crusaders," with other Western infidels.
The exiled leader of Mosul's Chaldean Catholics has warned believers in foreign lands not to feel secure.
"Our sufferings today are the prelude of those you, Europeans and Western Christians, will also suffer," said Archbishop Amel Nona, in an interview with Corriere della Sera in Italy. "I lost my diocese. The physical setting of my apostolate has been occupied by Islamic radicals who want us converted or dead. But my community is still alive."
The tragedies in Iraq and Syria -- affecting Christians and other religious minorities, such as members of the Yazidi sect -- have inspired fervent pleas for help from religious leaders around the world, including Pope Francis and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.
Nevertheless, it has taken time for Western leaders to be shaken into the realization that -- after at decades of rising persecution -- the futures of the Middle Eastern churches are literally hanging in the balance. Part of the problem is that Americans and Europeans have long misunderstood the pivotal role of Eastern Christianity, according to historian Philip Jenkins, author of "The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia -- and How It Died" and numerous other acclaimed books.
When thinking about Christian history, the "movie that plays in the minds" of most Western believers says that the church was born in Jerusalem, moved to Rome, then on to Europe, the Americas and the rest of the world, he said. This is simply wrong, since the faith immediately spread east and to the south, into Africa.
"The great churches of the East were just as important, if not more so, for many ages," said Jenkins, reached by telephone. One famous monastery near Mosul contained, for centuries, thousands of monks and scholars. "This was the heart of Christianity. ... But that isn't in the movie in Western Christian minds."
Meanwhile, many Western leaders fail to grasp that there are Arab Christians and, thus, equate Arab identity with Islam -- a stance similar to that of many Muslims. For decades, he said, Western elites in politics, journalism and academia have viewed conflict in the Middle East as clashes between Islam and Judaism, period.
"Americans are open to seeing religion's role in the politics of the region, but they just cannot seem to see the Christians there," said Jenkins. "Europeans have had a tendency to ignore the role of religion altogether. ... The idea that these Christians have been there for 2,000 years just doesn't register."
Is there hope? Surrounded by the storm, the bishops of the Damascus-based Eastern Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch have, in a public epistle, refused to surrender.
"We reconfirm that we were and are still committed to the message of our Gospel, which has arrived to us from our ancestors 2000 years ago. Our forefathers carried and transferred this message to us enduring numerous afflictions. And we will keep this seed which we have received here in the East, growing it and being loyal to it."
For centuries, religious believers in many cultures have held solemn funeral rites that were then followed by social events that were often called "wakes."
The funeral was the funeral and the wake was the wake, and people rarely confused their traditional religious rituals with the often-festive events that followed, noted blogger Chad Louis Bird, a former Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod seminary professor who is best known as a poet and hymn composer.
But something strange happened in American culture in the past decade or two: Someone decided that it was a good idea to have fun funerals.
"Our culture is anxious to avoid dealing with death. It seems that the goal is to keep your head in the sand and not have to face what has happened to your loved one and to your family," said Bird, in a telephone interview.
Thus, when it comes time to plan funerals the results frequently suggest that people in the modern age -- including many religious believers -- have "lost that sense of the reality, the gravity of death itself," he added. "The problem is that death is denied, then it's hard to understand the meaning of life and our hope for the life to come."
On one level, it's easy to blame this on the Baby Boomers, that giant cohort of 76 million or so Americans that came of age during the cultural revolutions of the late 1960s and early '70s. This was also an era, noted Bird, when people increasingly began to define their lives in terms of consumerism and entertainment.
Throw in a strong trend toward "navel gazing," he said, and what do you have? Fewer traditional funeral rites and a rising number of events defined by the comfortable label, "A Celebration of Life." These services tend to focus on good times in the past, rather than on faith, grief and loss in the present. The result, argues Bird, is an " egocentrism that extends beyond this life into a kind of necro-narcissism."
To demonstrate what this trend looks like in practice, Bird recently wrote an online meditation in which -- speaking as a traditional Christian -- he listed some phrases that he wants banned from the eulogy at his own funeral. For example:
* "He was a good man." That's out of line, he said, because "even if I were the moral equivalent of Mother Teresa" funerals are not supposed to celebrate someone's "moral resume." In Christian theology, the goal is to remember God's love for sinners -- including the one in the coffin.
* "God now has another angel." It's important to understand that "people don't become angels in heaven any more than they become gods or trees or puppies. The creature we are now, we shall be forever," he wrote. This is a sobering statement about the importance of decisions made during this life.
* "We are not here to mourn Chad's death, but to celebrate his life." This is a false note, argued Bird, because the "gift of life cannot fully be embraced if we disregard the reality of death, along with sin, its ultimate cause."
* "What's in that coffin is just the shell of Chad." Actually, he said, "My body is God's creation, an essential part of my identity as a human being. It is not a shell. It is God's gift to me."
Bird said religious leaders shouldn't be surprised that secular consumers are planning -- encouraged by funeral-industry experts -- upbeat end-of-life celebrations filled with references to their favorite movies, music, hobbies and sports franchises.
Want to end a "Celebration of Life" with your college fight song? The spirit of the age says, "Just do it."
The bigger question, said Bird, is why clergy and believers who say they take their faith traditions quite seriously would want to join in this trend.
"The funeral is one of the best opportunities that pastors have to preach on the central doctrines of the Christian faith," he noted. "If you pass up the chance to do that, then you really haven't honored anyone, including the person who has died or the people who are mourning the loss. ...
"This is serious, because liturgical scholars say that when our liturgies -- like funerals -- have changed to fit the culture, then that change is real. I don't see this as a passing fad."
From day one in the Pope Francis era, the so-called insiders who do so much to shape public opinion have said "conservatives" -- inside the Vatican and outside -- were grumbling about this shepherd's unorthodox style.
That is certainly true in some corners of the church, noted Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, a prominent voice on matters of doctrine and public life. However there is a bright side to all the jarring news reports about Pope Francis.
The famous Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton once noted that "every age gets the saint it needs. Not the saint people want, but the saint they need -- the saint who's the medicine for their illness. The same may be true of popes," said Chaput, in a July 26 speech at the Napa Institute in California.
"John Paul II revived the spirit of a church that felt fractured, and even irrelevant. ... Benedict revived the mind of a church that felt, even after John Paul II's intellectual leadership, outgunned by the world in the public square. Francis has already started to revive the witness of a church that, even after John Paul II's and Benedict's example, feels as if we can't get a hearing and that we're telling a story no one will believe."
But there's the rub. In many cases, this down-to-earth pope's words are being edited and warped in public reports, said Chaput.
Take, for example, these striking lines on wealth and poverty in the pope's apostolic exhortation "Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel)."
"The great danger in today's world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience," wrote Francis. "Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. ...
"Today's economic mechanisms promote inordinate consumption, yet it is evident that unbridled consumerism combined with inequality proves doubly damaging to the social fabric."
That was simply too much for talk-radio superstar Rush Limbaugh, who said the pope was "dramatically, embarrassingly, puzzlingly wrong" in these "socialist" attacks on capitalism.
"This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope," said Limbaugh. "Unfettered capitalism? That doesn't exist anywhere. Unfettered capitalism is a liberal socialist phrase to describe the United States. ... To hear the pope regurgitating this stuff, I was profoundly disappointed."
Speaking to the La Stampa newspaper, Pope Francis noted that merely defending the "social doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church" doesn't make him a Marxist. "Marxist ideology is wrong," he added, but "I have known many Marxists who are good people, so I don't feel offended."
What is happening? Anyone who wants to understand this pope must grasp why he took the name "Francis," and thus embraced St. Francis of Assisi, stressed Chaput, who is a Capuchin Franciscan. Pope Francis has repeatedly said he wants to lead a church that "is poor and for the poor."
Because of his pastoral experience in Argentina, this pope also "knows poverty and violence. He knows the plague of corrupt politics and oppressive governments. He's seen the cruelty of human trafficking and other forms of exploitation. He's seen elites who rig the political system in their favor and keep the poor in poverty," said Chaput.
"When we Americans think about economics, we think in terms of efficiency and production. When Francis thinks about economics, he thinks in terms of human suffering. We're blessed to live in a rich, free, stable country. We can't always see what Francis sees."
Also, it's crucial for news consumers -- Catholics included -- to understand that it's hard to accurately discuss centuries of doctrine and faith while using political terms like "conservative" and "liberal." Chaput stressed that people should read the pope's writings and sermons and hear what he is saying, unfiltered.
They will find that political language of this kind tends to "divide what shouldn't be divided," said the archbishop. "Service to the oppressed and service to the family; defense of the weak and defense of the unborn child; belief in the value of business and belief in restraints on predatory business practices -- all these things spring from the same Catholic commitment to human dignity. ...
"There's nothing 'conservative' about ignoring the cries of the poor."
It's a hypothetical case, but one priests frequently face in an American culture transformed by the Sexual Revolution.
On the other side of the desk is a couple seeking marriage-preparation sessions before a church wedding. At least one of these young people is from a parish family and, thus, has been receiving Holy Communion. Neither has been to Confession in years.
The pastor has every reason to suspect that, like millions of Americans, this couple is already "shacking up."
A Catholic priest knows that the catechism teaches that sex between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman is "gravely contrary to the dignity of persons and of human sexuality which is naturally ordered to the good of spouses." He knows that it teaches that anyone "conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to Communion."
So a painful question looms over these encounters: Don't ask, don't tell?
"What I have heard priests say is that if people come to us to get married, then we don't feel like we can refuse them," said Scott Stanley, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. The thinking seems to be that "getting these people married will solve the big problem that, from the church's point of view, exists in their lives."
But when it comes to addressing doctrinal issues linked to cohabitation, "you get the feeling that priests just don't know what to do right now," he said.
Meanwhile, cohabitation has turned into one of the dominant forces shaping new marriages and homes, with a majority of Americans in their 30s saying they have lived with someone outside of marriage. And new studies, argued Stanley, show that the practice of cohabitation has for many become "de-linked from marriage" altogether, with more and more people moving from one cohabitation relationship to another -- a practice with serious implications for the stability of future unions.
While most couples used to think of cohabitation as a "trial marriage," there is evidence this is no longer true. The key is that living together before marriage has become "fundamentally ambiguous" as a sign of faithfulness and commitment. Instead, it's a practice "with no implications about the odds of marrying," one that Stanley has called "CohabiDating."
This reality, for clergy, raises big questions as they deal with couples preparing for marriage, especially in churches that view marriage as a sacrament.
At the end of the 20th Century, the U.S. Catholic bishops were already circulating materials noting that nearly half of all couples seeking Catholic marriage-preparation sessions were already cohabitating. A set of 1988 guidelines, entitled "Faithful to Each Other Forever," warned priests to avoid two extremes: "(1) Immediately confronting the couple and condemning their behavior and (2) Ignoring the cohabitation aspect of their relationship."
Ever since, priests have been asked to view marriage-preparation sessions as chances to welcome couples back into the life of the church. However, they are also supposed to communicate that sex outside of marriage is grave sin.
Thus, some Catholic dioceses -- but not all -- urge those who are cohabiting people to live separately and cease premarital sex while preparing for the Sacrament of Marriage. The catechism also teaches that it is "appropriate for the bride and groom to prepare themselves for the celebration of their marriage by receiving the sacrament of penance."
While cohabitation remains a scandal for many traditional believers, guidelines from the U.S. bishops note that more and more young people -- along with their parents -- will be scandalized by clergy attempts to require cohabiting couples to repent and quit "living in sin" before a church wedding.
Rather than hiding from evolving trends linked to cohabitation, said Stanley, clergy must address these issues more often so that young people will know the faith's teachings long before couples face complications of this kind.
Clergy must be willing, he said, to "stand up and tell people that there is good evidence and good research indicating that God had your best intentions in mind when he came up with this whole marriage thing and set some standards for how you prepare for it. …
"Cohabitation isn't teaching people how to be committed to each other for a lifetime. Instead, it's teaching them how to pack up and move on."