By John Blake, CNN
(CNN) – The Rev. Timothy McDonald gripped the pulpit with both hands, locked eyes with the shouting worshippers, and decided to speak the unspeakable.
The bespectacled Baptist minister was not confessing to a scandalous love affair or the theft of church funds. He brought up another taboo: the millions of poor Americans who won’t get health insurance beginning in January because their states refused to accept Obamacare.
McDonald cited a New Testament passage in which Jesus gathered the 5,000 and fed them with five loaves and two fishes. Members of his congregation bolted to their feet and yelled, “C’mon preacher” and “Yessir” as his voice rose in righteous anger.
“What I like about our God is that he doesn’t throw people away,” McDonald told First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta during a recent Sunday service. “There will be health care for every American. Don’t you worry when they try to cast you aside. Just say I’m a leftover for God and leftovers just taste better the next day!”
(CNN) – An angry outburst at a mosque. The posting of a suspicious YouTube video. A friendship with a shadowy imam.
Those were just some of the signs that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, accused of masterminding the Boston Marathon bombings, had adopted a virulent strain of Islam that led to the deaths of four people and injury of more than 260.
But how else can you tell that someone’s religious beliefs have crossed the line? The answer may not be as simple you think, according to scholars who study all brands of religious extremism. The line between good and evil religion is thin, they say, and it’s easy to make self-righteous assumptions.
“When it’s something we like, we say it’s commitment to an idea; when it’s something we don’t like, we say it’s blind obedience,” said Douglas Jacobsen, a theology professor at Messiah College in Pennsylvania.
President Barack Obama was sharing a pulpit one day with a conservative Christian leader when a revealing exchange took place.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a conservative Christian who has taken public stands against abortion and same-sex marriage, had joined Obama for an AIDS summit. They were speaking before a conservative megachurch filled with white evangelicals.
When Brownback rose to speak, he joked that he had joined Obama earlier at an NAACP meeting where Obama was treated like Elvis and he was virtually ignored. Turning to Obama, a smiling Brownback said, “Welcome to my house!”
The audience exploded with laughter and applause. Obama rose, walked before the congregation and then declared:
“There is one thing I have to say, Sam. This is my house, too. This is God’s house.”
Historians may remember Obama as the nation’s first black president, but he’s also a religious pioneer. He’s not only changed people’s perception of who can be president, some scholars and pastors say, but he’s also expanding the definition of who can be a Christian by challenging the religious right’s domination of the national stage.
By David Fitzpatrick and Jessica Ravitz, CNN
(CNN) - As he begins serving a life sentence in the Texas State Prison system, Warren Jeffs still maintains titular control over his estimated 10,000 fundamentalist followers in Arizona, Utah and Texas. But how long that control will endure is anyone’s guess.
Jeffs was convicted by a jury in San Angelo, Texas last week on two counts of sexually assaulting children. On Tuesday, he was sentenced to life in prison on one count and 20 years in jail on the other.
He was shaved bald and will be processed into the prison system in the next 10 days, according to a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
A fundamentalist Mormon polygamy primer
Even while awaiting trial in two small county jails in Texas, authorities said Jeffs was able to effectively remain in charge of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints by using jail telephones to communicate with followers. FULL POST
By the CNN Wire Staff
Tune in to HLN's "Nancy Grace" at 9 p.m. ET Tuesday for more on Warren Jeffs' sentencing.
San Angelo, Texas (CNN) – Polygamist leader Warren Jeffs was sentenced Tuesday to life in prison plus 20 years for sexually assaulting two girls he claimed were his "spiritual wives."
Jeffs, 55, will have to spend at least 45 years in prison before being eligible for release, according to Jerry Strickland, spokesman for the Texas Attorney General's office.
The jury sentenced Jeffs to life in prison for aggravated sexual assault of a 12-year-old girl and 20 years in prison for the sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl. He must serve at least 35 years of the life sentence and half of the other sentence, Strickland said. The judge in the case ordered that the sentences be served consecutively.
Editor's note: Kirby Ferguson is a New York-based writer, filmmaker and speaker who created the web video series Everything is a Remix. His videos, like the one above, can be found on Vimeo, an online community where artists share their films.
(CNN) - Can you speak Christian?
Have you told anyone “I’m born again?” Have you “walked the aisle” to “pray the prayer?”
Did you ever “name and claim” something and, after getting it, announce, “I’m highly blessed and favored?”
Many Americans are bilingual. They speak a secular language of sports talk, celebrity gossip and current events. But mention religion and some become armchair preachers who pepper their conversations with popular Christian words and trendy theological phrases.
If this is you, some Christian pastors and scholars have some bad news: You may not know what you’re talking about. They say that many contemporary Christians have become pious parrots. They constantly repeat Christian phrases that they don’t understand or distort.
Marcus Borg, an Episcopal theologian, calls this practice “speaking Christian.” He says he heard so many people misusing terms such as “born again” and “salvation” that he wrote a book about the practice.
Editor’s Note: CNN’s Gary Tuchman explores the latest developments in the saga of polygamist Warren Jeffs, the jailed leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in a special report on tonight’s “AC 360” and for CNN Presents, airing Sunday, July 31, at 10 p.m. ET.
By David Fitzpatrick, CNN
El Dorado, Texas (CNN) – Fundamentalist Mormon leader Warren Jeffs has been held in a tiny jail in this west Texas town for roughly three years. According to his jailers, he has spent his time doing one thing above all else: talking on the phone..
Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran told CNN that in one month, Jeffs has spent roughly $3,000 on phone cards.
And while Jeffs was recently held in another Texas jail roughly 50 miles away, he spent close to $10,000 in phone cards in three months.
Reagan County Sheriff James Garner, who oversees that jail, told CNN that no inmate there has ever spent that much money on phone cards.
Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.
By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN
I know a lot of people are eagerly awaiting 6 p.m. this Saturday, either to greet the rapturous return of Jesus with open arms or to snicker at the idiocy of the followers of radio host Harold Camping, the evangelist behind all this holy hoo-hah.
I’m looking forward to 6:01 p.m., and the recalculations and reinterpretations that invariably ensue whenever Bible believers are proud enough to imagine that they know the day and the hour of Jesus' return, and bold enough to announce their imaginations to humanity.
People have been predicting the end of the world ever since they started thinking about the world as a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Thus far everyone has been wrong. So we have a lot of experience as a species with what the Millerites of the 19th century called the Great Disappointment.
(CNN) - As protesters battle repressive regimes in the Middle East, some commentators fear that the collapse of these regimes could pave the way for radical Islamic groups to take power.
But anyone who believes that democracy and religious fundamentalism cannot co-exist has not been paying attention to how fundamentalist Christians have strengthened American democracy, Jonathan Zimmerman, a history professor at New York University says in a provocative recent Christian Science Monitor article.
Here's a sneak peek at tonight's primetime exclusive interview with the cast of Sister Wives. In this clip, Kody Brown talks about his desire to legally marry all four of his wives.
For more of the interview be sure to tune into "The Joy Behar Show" tonight at 10 pm ET/PT on HLN.
Crazy about the "Sister Wives?" Check out our guest post from Danielle Elizabeth, a female priest who can't get enough of the show.
And if you're looking for a primer on fundamentalist Mormon polygamy, this piece, by CNN's Jessica Ravitz, should do the trick.
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.