On The Pursuit of Kiki … and the Church

On The Pursuit of Kiki … and the Church

Leaning into the last quarter of the year, we won’t soon forget #summer18 as the time Drake and Kiki had us in our feelings. By now, we’ve all heard Drake’s Billboard Top 100 serenade to the mysterious “Kiki.” The carefree acoustics of the track made it an easy summer jam with its mellow diddy bop vibes mixed with hints of youthful New Orleans Bounce energy. While there’s plenty of speculation on the true identity of Kiki, her existence meant enough for Drake to write an entire song with her in mind. Despite whatever complications that may have arisen between him and Kiki, he sang of longing. If, for a moment, Drake was merely a man resolute on a genuine pursuit, remembering the position of his heart, and writing music about that love many years later. To some, Drake’s tune is a simple invitation to dance.  To others, it inspires reflection on first loves, the places we can call home, and the people we can count on to always be there. For Christians, the Drake and Kiki dynamic is cute, but pales in stark comparison to the dynamic of Christ and his pursuit of the Church.

It’s not hard to spot a couple in love with their public displays of affection and extravagant gestures. Yet it doesn’t compare to the love of Christ and his martyrdom for the sole purpose and sake of a people who may or may not think twice about it. It has been said that the Bible is one massive love story with many interludes and plot twists that ultimately end in a beautiful union of first loves. [Rev. 21:2-4] Countless accounts in Scripture demonstrate the depth and consistency of the pursuit that flows from God Himself to us average, everyday people with records showing no merit for the grace we receive. We, as God’s people, aka “the Church,” also have a pretty strong track record of playing hard to get with God (read: rebellious). Whether an early century Israelite complaining, kicking, and screaming while making your way to a land God promised you, or whether you have the tendencies of an adolescent who prefers to spend all his money on prostitutes and living on the wild side—God says that he still wants you, and can make a celebration out of you. Whatever flavor of 2018 sin you battle every day, God says his love and grace are still yours for the taking. The hearts of mere men may change, their loyalties may realign, their focus may shift—but God is not subject to the same human emotional inconsistencies we tend to fall into. He stays the same through the ages. He has promised that his love, his pursuit, who he is, and how he values us never changes. [Psalm 136; Hebrews 13:8] His heart is that you would draw near to Him even at your lowest point, and even at your darkest hour. He declares He will never, ever leave from beside you—no matter how bad things look.

Video Courtesy of BigDaddySoul

So, death to the idea of fair-weather pursuits. Imagine loving someone to the point of voluntary submission to public humiliation, bare-skin flogging, ridicule, going up a hill carrying a cross designed to hold the weight of a grown man, and dying brutally on the same. More fascinating still is the pursuit didn’t end there. Jesus not only turned on his “read receipts” and ghosted death itself, but God has also promised that nothing would separate us from his love through his son Jesus Christ—no angel, no demon, no height or depth, nor anything imaginable or unimaginable. He has promised to be down for us, in the most literal sense, always.

The world will offer many exotic loves of all sorts presented on the silver platters of our favorite vices (greed, lust, sexual immorality, addiction, impulsivity, etc.). In those moments, it is up to us to get in our feelings, to check the position of our hearts, and to recognize where and with whom our true loyalties lie. “The eyes of the Lord search the whole earth in order to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him” [2 Chronicles 16:9]. If this is true, the Lord is also asking of you “Do you love me?” and “Are you riding?” to the extent that you will also take up your own cross and follow him. [Luke 9:23]

God has given us a masterful example of what it looks like to pursue—a relentless and timeless pursuit that supersedes death. He has demonstrated that he is someone who loves you and whose love can be trusted to last. He offers a proven record as someone who cares for you deeply. Someone who calls out for you, even when you pay him no mind. Despite it all, God says that he wants you, he needs you….and he’s down for you, always. Fortunately for us, God offers much more than a top Billboard song. He offers a love that won’t fade after #summer18, and an unrivaled pursuit that will last well after Drake and Kiki.

Data mining gets religion as campaigns target voters of faith

Data mining gets religion as campaigns target voters of faith

RNS photo illustration by Kit Doyle

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In 2004, as George W. Bush was running for a second presidential term, his campaign asked religious supporters to share their churches’ directories, which staffers hoped to combine with voter registration records. The strategy was criticized by some conservative religious leaders, who felt it violated churchgoers’ privacy, The New York Times reported at the time.

Fourteen years later, the spread of social media and digital profiling has made such privacy concerns seem almost quaint. Powerful data-mining tools allow today’s campaigns to connect religious voters with their political viewpoints and to micro-target ads to fit their particular brand of faith.

“It’s definitely happening at a greater level,” said Terry Schilling, executive director of the conservative American Principles Project.

Data has increasingly become the currency of political campaigns. The two parties and campaign consultants put huge resources into developing sophisticated voter files based on previous voting records, phone numbers, email addresses, and other data.

“Before you knew it, you had this incredible profile of people,” said Steve Rabinowitz, co-founder and president of Bluelight Strategies and a former campaign and transition team staffer for Bill Clinton.

As elections focus more on mobilizing voters of known views, rather than convincing a broad middle, those profiles have become increasingly valuable, and they are bought and sold within each party’s phalanx of consultants.

But traditional data hasn’t reflected beliefs. Religious information isn’t available for purchase from the census, from banks or from anyone else. “Nobody gathers religion,” Rabinowitz said.

The new techniques are changing that.

Last year, Eitan Hersh, an associate political science professor at Tufts University, “scraped” church and synagogue websites to build a database that matched some 130,000 clergy with their voting records. Data sets like this can be used to speak to religious voters without being offensive to nonreligious ones, Hersh told Religion. News Service. An ad containing messages about helping the poor, the stranger, the needy or the sick could connect with believers, for instance, without being seen as “too religious” for other voters with a secular interest in social justice. Other ads might hammer particular voters with highly targeted ads pointing out, say, an opponent’s support for abortion. Facebook has been a game changer, said Rabinowitz. Campaigns can pinpoint users who self-identify as part of a particular faith group and run advertisements on their individual pages, much as they would run ads in a religiously affiliated newspaper.

“It’s fairly easy as far as political tactics go,” said Barney Keller, a partner at Jamestown Associates, which produced media for Donald Trump’s campaign and is working on dozens of current Republican races. “The advertising on Facebook is cheap. The building of a model of certain types of voters can be (done at) various levels of sophistication and expense.”

As an example, Facebook has made it easier to create a model for likely Jewish voters and drive ads toward them.

“You could say, ‘I want to target every Rosenbaum and Rosenthal and Rosen, and so on and so forth,’” Keller said. “You can just use that as a way to target potentially Jewish voters. That’s the way a lot of it is done.”

Rabinowitz has tried in the past to build a Jewish voter file. “It’s exceptionally difficult,” he told RNS.

Given the amount of information that is now available about voters’ faiths, Rabinowitz said he has seen less religion-oriented messaging than he’d expect. “There’s so much more room for it to be so much more sophisticated,” he said.

Schilling agreed, pointing out that the GOP could use data to better court blue-collar Catholics — union-supporting, registered Democrats who nonetheless often swing voters because of their conservative beliefs on issues like religious freedom and right to life. Targeting ads to this demographic could help sway them to vote Republican, according to Schilling.

“It’s a major missed opportunity,” he said. “You can actually win over a bunch of Democrats to your base.”

Rabinowitz acknowledges that every kind of data gathering comes with risks. “I wouldn’t want the biggest anti-Semites in the world to have the list” of Jewish voters, he said.

While Schilling agrees there is a danger of misusing religious data, he thinks the level of concern often depends on who is accessing the data. In 2012, said Schilling, the Obama campaign and Facebook all but bragged about teaming up. But when the political survey firm Cambridge Analytica gathered data from 50 million Facebook users for the use of the Trump campaign in 2016, the ensuing controversy was “overblown,” he said.

Pollsters are also starting to approach religion and voting differently. According to Jamestown’s Keller, pollsters have long asked prospective voters about their religious affiliation, but he is seeing them ask the question in new ways.

“These days, one thing we ask a lot more of is, ‘Are you a Trump Republican?’ Or this other one, which a lot of pollsters have started to put in, is ‘Are you a Christian Republican?’” he said. “The Christian one tends to be neck-and-neck with the Trump Republican these days.”

Knowing voters’ religious identities can help campaigns decide how to craft ad language in ways that simply knowing their views on abortion, which often divide down both religious and political lines, wouldn’t dictate.

“Just because someone says that they are pro-life doesn’t mean it’s going to be the number one issue for them when they vote,” Keller said. “For many voters, it’s informative of their worldview. Understanding people’s faiths and their religious views will always be critical when it comes to electoral politics.”

As campaigns understand more about voters’ religious identities, said Hersh, the Tufts professor, a fundamental question about party identity is at stake. That’s especially true for Democrats.

Catholics have long voted Democratic, but as the party grows increasingly secular, that could change. Race is the largest division between parties, but religion is “not as well understood,” Hersh said. It is harder to predict what will happen to religious voters who currently identify as Democrats.

Pew Research Center data released in March reveals that religiously unaffiliated registered voters are on the rise, from 8 percent in 1997 to 12 percent in 2007, and subsequently doubling to 24 percent in 2017.

Registered Democrats account for a large share of that change. In 1997, 9 percent of registered Democrats were religiously unaffiliated. That number climbed to 15 percent in 2007 and reached 33 percent — 1 in 3 Democrats —by 2017.

“For the public, the interesting question is to what extent the Democrats are a party that is welcoming to religious people,” Hersh said.

Latter-day Saints, NAACP collaborating on inner-city initiative

Latter-day Saints, NAACP collaborating on inner-city initiative

NAACP leaders join LDS church leaders on Temple Square in Salt Lake City for a breakfast meeting prior to the first session of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ general conference on Oct. 6, 2018. ©2018 Intellectual Reserve Inc.

Latter-day Saints and civil rights leaders are making plans for a collaboration to foster education and economic empowerment in urban centers across the country.

Officials of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the NAACP met in Salt Lake City earlier this month to continue hashing out plans for an “education and employment initiative” to be started in cities from Baltimore to San Francisco.

“They changed; they’re singing a new song,” the Rev. Amos Brown, chair of the NAACP’s interreligious relations committee, told fellow black Baptist clergy in Washington, D.C., about his recent meeting in Utah. “They got a new walk, a new talk and they have admitted that there were checkered instances in the past that they were engaged in racial ideas and practices.”

Elder Jack N. Gerard, of the Seventy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, announced expanded collaboration between the NAACP and the church at the organization’s 109th annual national meeting in San Antonio, Texas, on July 15, 2018. ©2018 Intellectual Reserve Inc.

The collaboration, scheduled to launch next year, comes as the LDS church marks the 40th anniversary of the “revelation” about race that then-President Spencer W. Kimball declared he received. According to that revelation, the Mormon priesthood was no longer limited by color, opening the way for blacks to have leadership positions.

In May, current President Russell M. Nelson joined with top church and NAACP officials in a call for “greater civility, racial and ethnic harmony and mutual respect.”

Standing next to him, on the 64th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that declared school segregation unconstitutional, NAACP President Derrick Johnson spoke of their shared hope that “all peoples can work together in harmony and should collaborate more on areas of common interest.”

The dialogue between the two groups started officially this spring when the LDS church hosted a “unity luncheon” for NAACP board members in Salt Lake City. That was followed by the first-time speech of a top LDS leader at the civil rights organization’s annual meeting in July. Then NAACP board members attended a portion of the recent Mormon biannual conference.

The collaboration will be based on internal LDS “self-reliance” programs, which church leaders say they hope will enhance the employment opportunities and financial well-being of participants.

Ahmad Corbitt, a spokesman for the church who recently directed missionaries in the Caribbean, said the most recent meetings focused on making materials and manuals for the initiative appropriate for people of all faiths and no faith.

Topics include personal finances, entrepreneurial advice and getting a “better education for a better job.”

Planners anticipate the programs will primarily be attended by African-Americans and be held in black or Latino churches, Mormon meetinghouses and recreation centers in cities including Atlanta, Chicago and Camden, N.J.

“We are starting in five cities and we’re trying to serve our brothers and sisters who most need our service in those cities,” said Corbitt. “We’re coming together to do that and to identify them and get them enrolled in these courses or groups that will make a real difference in terms of their education and employment and really can change the course of their lives for many of them, is our hope.”

Corbitt, who previously was the African-American president of the stake, or regional area of Mormons, in Cherry Hill, N.J., said the church’s programs usually occur once a week for 12 weeks. But the duration and frequency of the collaborative programs may be different.

Brown, in an interview, said he believes the LDS church is focused on fostering better education and employment opportunities through the initiative rather than building its membership of 16 million people worldwide.

“They did not come with any hidden agenda of proselytizing,” said Brown, who also is the social justice chair of the National Baptist Convention, USA. “It was made clear up front that they were concerned about what the church today needed to do of substance to address the challenges of African-Americans and other marginalized people in inner-city communities.”

Leon W. Russell, left, chairman of the board of directors of the NAACP, with President M. Russell Ballard, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, on Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Oct. 6, 2018. ©2018 Intellectual Reserve Inc.