WASHINGTON – When Johann Gutenberg's printing press began churning out Bibles in the 15th century, the new technology helped usher in a new era of religion in Europe.
Nearly 600 years later, some think that increasingly popular Web logs — the Internet's version of personal journals, pamphleteering and issue forums all wrapped in one — combined with traditional religious beliefs could once again take people on a new, uncharted course.
In what appears to be a first of its kind, a small evangelical Christian college in Southern California on Thursday will open the God Blog Convention, a conference on Christian blogging.
Matt Anderson, a 23-year-old educator who works for Biola University (search), is coordinating the God Blog Convention. He said one of the goals of the conference is to see whether God, Christian-oriented blogging and politics are a good marriage, and if so, how they should match up.
"The advantage of blogging is that anyone can do it and you can reach a lot more people," Anderson said. "What ends up happening is the level of dialogue about particular issues goes up."
Some who have been following the trend of blogging say the fact that Christians — already a powerful political force — are wading into the world of blogging could mean a major change in the political landscape if their efforts take hold.
"It's tailor-made for that group," said Carol Darr, director of George Washington University's Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet.
Darr said blogs can be used to increase religious contacts among like-minded individuals and strengthen the social bonds among religious groups.
In terms of the strength of the group as a political force, Christian bloggers don't just talk religion. They spend much of their time discussing current politics, including the nomination of White House counsel Harriet Miers (search) to succeed Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (search), abortion, intelligent design, the use of "under God" in the classroom and where the Ten Commandments should or shouldn't be placed, among other topics.
But while blogging is generally considered a simple form of Web communication, the emerging movement of God-blogging is looking for a clearer definition of itself and what path it should take.
"That's kind of what everyone would like to know," Anderson said.
Blogging's popularity is no doubt on a rapid rise, although it hasn't yet taken hold over the vast majority of Internet users.
By the end of 2004, 8 million U.S. adults — 7 percent of adults who use the Internet — reported having created a blog, according to a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
The same study estimated that some 32 million Internet users reported reading a blog, which represented more than double the amount from less than a year before. Other studies have estimated the number of blogs at anywhere from 15 million to more than 30 million.
Anyone with access to the Internet can host or read a blog, and generally the host or group of hosts posts regular thoughts on anything ranging from their pet's diet to current political discussions. Some of the most popular blogs offer insights and sometimes sourced information on politics and current affairs.
The universe of religious bloggers is much smaller than the most popular sites, which can get as many as 5 million page views a week. Religious blogs represent Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist and Christian faiths, but the most popular Christian-oriented blogs find themselves counting their readers in the tens and hundreds of thousands, not millions.
Henry Copeland, founder of Blogads.com, which sells advertising space specifically on blogs, said he believes that the world of blogging — often referred to as the blogosphere — is trending toward smaller, more focused groups, and with a group like Christian bloggers trying to coordinate itself, the community could become a more formidable political force.
"What we haven't seen yet is the Evangelical blogs kind of take the lead on a particular issue," which is something he foresees, he said, noting that "every blog has its season."
Copeland said the convention set for this week seems visionary.
"It could very well be that this kind of event crystallizes [the Christian blog community]," said Copeland.
Copeland added that blogging conferences are not new, but the Biola convention is the first ideological gathering on blogging that he has heard of — and he's attended a few in recent years.
Darr agreed that the convention could be a strong focal point for the online evangelical community. She pointed to academic studies that suggest a certain level of trust builds among some blogs to the point that it brings a group with similar ideologies closer together.
Darr said that although the blogging community is relatively small, people who write or read blogs tend to be more politically and socially active than those who don't blog. And people go to blogs to try to help make sense of the world.
"There is so much information out there that all of us feel like we're drinking out of a fire hose [when it comes to news]," Darr said. "[Bloggers] tend to be filters for like-minded people since you can't read everything."
With that in mind, the social structure of blogging appears to fit perfectly into religious structure since just like pastors try to distill meaning from the Bible, blogs try to direct their audiences toward certain ways of thinking about issues, Darr said.
John Schroeder, a Southern California environmental contracting company owner, is an evangelical Christian, blogger and Republican Party donor. He said he spends one and a half to two hours a day online.
"I enjoy it tremendously," Schroeder said. "Probably it's the interaction that's involved — particularly in Christian blogging circles. It gives me interaction with people who are well-read, well-learned and therefore people who I can interact with on a level that not commonly available at a local congregation."
Schroeder, who will lead a panel discussion at the Biola conference, said his blog gets maybe 100 to 200 readers a week. He said it's a learning experience, one that might have even turned him toward more moderate stances than ones usually associated with Christian conservatives.
For instance, Schroeder said he thinks before he became an avid blogger, he would have been one of the people up in arms over the nomination of Miers to the Supreme Court, but now it's not a major concern to him.
"It's taught me a little bit about how to do business with people," Schroeder said. "It's turned me a little more — the church word we would use is 'gracious.'"
Darr said she believes a strong link between Christianity and Republican voting could be bolstered further by blogging among Christians.
A Pew study after last November's presidential election showed 78 percent of evangelical Christians voted for President Bush while 21 percent preferred Sen. John Kerry — and 65 percent of people who attend church regularly preferred Bush compared to 35 percent who liked Kerry.
That leads to the conclusion that if Christian bloggers do coalesce into a political force, it is "certainly going to be more [of a] benefit to Republicans than Democrats" in terms of organizing supportive blocs, Darr suggested.
The God Blog Conference will be capped at 300 participants, but outside observers are certainly watching to see what comes out of the conference, Copeland said.
"I do think that this is a revolution on the scale of both the telephone and Gutenberg," Copeland said. "Could you in 1910 have guessed how big a part of our lives the telephone would be?"