Farewell, ‘Touchdown Jesus’

It may seem like a long time ago, but when George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004, there was sense that evangelical Christianity had become a political and cultural force that was reshaping the country.

Evangelicals, you may remember, were credited with keeping Bush in office, despite the poor start to the war in Iraq.

I talked to an evangelical pastor in Putnam County who told me that evangelical culture out there in the Heartland was a mysterious and potent force, impossible for a New Yorker to understand or relate to.

So I spent a week in West Chester, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati, hanging out at four evangelical churches and asking dozens — hundreds? — of evangelicals what politically correct New Yawkers might want to know about them.

One of the churches I visited was Solid Rock Church, a large, vibrant, ministry-rich and highly diverse Pentecostal church in Monroe, Ohio. The place was regionally famous because a few months before, it had commissioned an artist to build a 62-foot-tall statue of Jesus in front of the church.

The statue, built right beside I-75, was quite controversial.

It showed Jesus from the waist up, rising out of the ground, with his arms outstretched toward the heavens.

It was officially called “King of Kings.” But people in the region referred to it as “Touchdown Jesus.”

Some considered it garish. In fact, the pastor of another evangelical church I visited cringed when I brought it up. He was afraid that reporters like me would be drawn to the area because of the statue and would make fun of Christians as a result (I don’t believe I did so).

I can tell you this: When driving along I-75 at night, the statue could give you a chill.

That’s me in front of the statue. From what I remember, there was a cold, December wind blowing right into my face.

When my article ran in the paper, everyone asked me about the statue. Why did they build it? What did it look like up close? What did the neighbors say?

I mention this now because, last night, “King of Kings” burned. To a crisp.

Apparently, the statue, made of fiber glass and foam, was struck by lightning during a storm. The entire thing went up in flames.

As pictures from the Cincinnati Enquirer show, all that’s left is some kind of wire frame. An accompanying video shows clumps of charred statue scattered across the grounds. An adjacent amphitheater was also damaged.

According the paper’s website: “Authorities on Tuesday were urging motorists to resist the temptation to stop on Interstate 75 and snap photos, fearing that drivers pulling on and off the berm could cause crashes…The Ohio State Highway Patrol is issuing warnings to those who stop — and will soon start writing citations, a dispatcher for the patrol’s Lebanon post said.”

I’m sure that the people of West Chester, Ohio, are going to need some time to get used to the great statue not being there. You also have to figure that some jokes are being told today about the statue’s fate and that some may even find meaning of some sort in its demise.

The members of Solid Rock Church were real nice to me. I attended a meeting about their intense prison ministry and visited their elegant home for young, single mothers.

So I can’t help feeling kind of sad.

The Dayton Daily News reports that Solid Rock has gotten calls of support from around the world and that work will begin this summer to rebuild the statue.

Fire photo by Michael Ryan

6 Catholics, 3 Jews, 0 Protestants

We’ll probably hear a lot over the coming weeks about the U.S. Supreme Court becoming Protestant-less for the first time ever.

Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Obama’s nominee to replace John Paul Stevens, is Jewish. If she gets confirmed, the court will have six Catholic justices and three Jewish justices (although not all are religiously observant).

How important is it that the court won’t have a Protestant justice?

I guess it’s one of those “turning the page” moments, a solid reminder of the long, slow demise of mainline Protestant numbers and influence in this country.

Mainliners used to run the show, basically, dominating many American institutions. As we all know (at least those of us who follow this stuff), this hasn’t been the case for quite some time.

One might wonder if and when evangelical Christians — who make up at least a quarter of Americans — might replace mainliners on the top bench.

A CNN report notes:

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Evangelical Protestant colleges, meanwhile — including Regent University and Liberty University, founded by Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell respectively — have had law schools only since the 1980s.

And law schools with Protestant roots, like Harvard and Yale, shed their religious identities a long time ago, part of the broader fading of a distinct mainline Protestant identity in the U.S..

Some legal and religious scholars say the dearth of qualified evangelical candidates for the Supreme Court came into sharp relief in 2005, when President George W. Bush nominated White House counsel Harriet Miers to the high court.

An evangelical Christian whom the White House promoted strenuously among evangelicals, Miers had her nomination brought down largely by conservatives — nonevangelicals, mostly — who said she was not qualified for the position.

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I’m not sure if there have been “evangelical” justices in the past.

Several websites I found that compiled the religions of past justices list about a dozen who were believed to be only “Protestant.” Some of them could have been evangelicals, at least in terms of belief and practice.

It would surprise no one if Obama picked a mainline Protestant for the court. But you have to figure that it will be a Republic president who chooses the next evangelical justice.

And what about an atheist justice, an outright nonbeliever?

He or she would have to be chosen, one would think, by a Democratic president with really high poll numbers.

(AP Photo/Harvard University News Office, Stephanie Mitchell)