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Updated: 49 min 36 sec ago

False balance: As New York Times reports on divided campuses, only left has 'real' concerns

2 hours 20 min ago

In the wake of Donald Trump's stunning election as president, the political divide between right and left has hardened on campuses nationwide, the New York Times reports.

At first glance, the Times seems to put aside Kellerism for a day and provide an evenhanded account of what college-age Republicans and Democrats are feeling and saying.

The Old Gray Lady even opens with an anecdote featuring a young Trump supporter:

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Amanda Delekta, a sophomore at the University of Michigan and political director of the College Republicans, was ecstatic when her candidate, Donald J. Trump, won the presidential election.But her mood of celebration quickly faded when students held an evening vigil on campus — to mourn the results — and her biology teacher suspended class on the assumption, Ms. Delekta said, that students would be too upset to focus.She was outraged. “Nobody has died,” Ms. Delekta said. “The United States has not died. Democracy is more alive than ever. Simply put, the American people voted and Trump won.”She circulated an online petition and accused the university president of catering to the liberal majority by suggesting that “their ideology was superior to the ideology of their peers,” as she put it, when he sent out an email publicizing the vigil and listing counseling resources for students upset by the election. Three days later, she was invited to meet with the president in his office.

But read a little closer, and the piece's "balance" becomes less impressive.

Yes, sources on the right — including Delekta — are quoted. However, the Times never explains what motivates them. The right's issues, for the purposes of the campus divide story, are frustratingly generic:

Ms. Delekta described how she had been offended when a classmate wondered why as a “white female,” she had not voted for Hillary Clinton. She resented what she saw as identity politics on campus.“My identity is so much more than my race and my gender,” Ms. Delekta said. “We’re all so much more similar than we think.”She was able to separate Mr. Trump’s policies from his personal attitudes toward women, she said later. “I’m not electing a grandpa or a babysitter,” Ms. Delekta said.

OK, but which of Trump's policies were important to her? Was it his promise to appoint judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationally? Was it his defense of religious liberty? Was it his concern over Hillary Clinton's private email server scandal?

The Times offers no mention of such issues. Zero. Zilch. (Holy ghosts, anyone?)

On the other hand, the story highlights the left's specific problems with Trump:

The day after the election, Biddy Martin, president of Amherst College in Massachusetts, called for tolerance and acknowledged that some people might be rejoicing. But she also said in a speech on campus: “In the mirror we see virulent forms of racism, misogyny, homophobia and other ills; and we see them celebrated by some as though the expression of our worst impulses were the definition of human freedom.”Amherst also saw a bit of a controversy surrounding a professor who was singled out for his views.The professor, Hadley Arkes, an emeritus professor of political science, pulled out a bottle of champagne in his political science class to celebrate Mr. Trump’s election. An editorial in The Amherst Student newspaper criticized him for bringing alcohol to class, and suggested that college officials hold him “accountable” for supporting a candidate the paper’s editorial board thought was bigoted, homophobic and misogynist.“There are students on this campus whose lives and civil liberties will be compromised in the next four years,” the editorial said. “Not only does Amherst’s nonpartisan stance invalidate their struggles, but brash and insensitive political partisanship creates irreparable scars.”

So there you have it: a bit of false balance from the Times, but not the kind we often hear about.

Image via

Read. Think. Then, perhaps, reaffirm some old-school journalism doctrines on accuracy
and respect for readers:

— Terry Mattingly (@tweetmattingly) December 8, 2016
Categories: Main

In your newspaper? Vatican reaffirms its teachings on homosexuality and the priesthood

5 hours 53 min ago

The big news out of the Vatican today really isn't all that surprising, if you know anything about the Catholic Catechism. However, grab your local newspaper and look for this story anyway, because I will be surprised if you find coverage of it there.

The Washington Post online headline proclaims: "The Vatican reaffirms its position suggesting gay men should not be priests."

Yes, we are returning to Pope Francis and the most famous, or infamous, quotation, or sort-of quotation, from his papacy. I am referring, of course, to the 2013 off-the-cuff airplane press conference in which he spoke the phrase, "Who am I to judge?"

The pope said many things in that historic presser and news consumers have had a chance to read about 90 percent of what he actually said. Click here for previous GetReligion material about this media storm. By the way, here are the latest search engine results for these terms -- "Who am I to judge" and "Pope Francis." There are currently 7,520 hits in Google News and 140,000 in a general search.

So what did the Vatican say that is, or is not, in the news? Here is the top of a Washington Post "Acts of Faith" item, which is one of the only major-media references I could find to this story. I would be curious to know if this appears in the ink-on-paper edition:

People who have “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” or who “support the so-called ‘gay culture’” cannot be priests in the Catholic church, the Vatican said in a new document on the priesthood.The document said the church’s policy on gay priests has not changed since the last Vatican pronouncement on the subject in 2005. Some have been hoping for more openness toward gay priests ever since Pope Francis uttered perhaps the most famous sentence of his papacy -- when he was asked in 2013 about the subject of priests who are gay -- “Who am I to judge?”But the Church’s Congregation for the Clergy, in a document approved by Francis, declared that bishops and clergy who oversee seminaries should indeed judge candidates’ sexuality and should ban them from becoming priests on that basis.The document, called “The Gift of the Priestly Vocation,” has an official publication date of Dec. 8 but was posted online earlier.

Notice, right in the lede, that this Vatican document addresses some of the issues mentioned by Pope Francis in his 2013 presser.

First of all, the "deep-seated" roots of same-sex orientation -- locked in place DNA or evolving spectrum of behaviors -- remain rather mysterious. Discussing that fact is highly controversial. But there is also an emphasis on the "gay culture" question, which points to the more important question of whether future priests have taken stands that publicly oppose the teachings of the church.

If you look at the Pope Francis comments (full transcript here), you can see him wrestling with these issues. His conclusion points toward a basic fact: A priest who is taking his struggles, his sins, to Confession is doing the right thing. When a person is seeking God through repentance, said the pope, "Who am I to judge?" In other words, God is the judge of sincere repentance.

Writing that into a policy manual is difficult. However, the Post report quotes this statement from a 2005 Vatican document, a quote that is repeated in the new Vatican document:

The Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture.’ Such persons, in fact, find themselves in a situation that gravely hinders them from relating correctly to men and women. One must in no way overlook the negative consequences that can derive from the ordination of persons with deep-seated homosexual tendencies.

So how does that function in the real world, especially in cultures -- think North America and Europe -- in which many Catholics simply ignore the teachings of the church?

It would appear that a kind of "local option" is in place, according to material offered by the Post, with local bishops and their colleagues playing a thumbs up or thumbs down role based on their own views on these issues.

Check out these two contrasting quotations:

“Not much has changed,” said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and the editor at large of America magazine. “The people who were open to accepting healthy gay men into the seminaries will still do it. It does not negate the fact, nor could it, that there are thousands of healthy and hard-working and holy and celibate gay priests throughout the world.”

The issue, of course, is whether there is a doctrinal element to that word "healthy." 

However, there is also this:

Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, a Catholic University of America professor who has written books on psychological care for priests, said clergy have consulted him about whether they should admit specific men to seminaries based on their sexuality. The question they ask comes out of this Vatican language, Rossetti said: “I’ve had rectors sit me down and say, ‘What do I do with this guy? Is it deep-seated?’”Rossetti said that his own recommendation would have to do not only with whether the man is or has been involved in a sexual relationship, but also with whether his sexuality is central to his identity or not. “If he’s marching in the gay pride parade, I’m going to say, ‘Mm, I don’t think so.’ ”

Once again, the crucial issue is a matter of doctrine and, for the pope, repentance, Confession and mercy.

So how does that fit into a mainstream news template that is usually based on public-square, if not openly political, discussions of gay rights? Not very well.

Perhaps this is why this new statement from the Vatican is not drawing much coverage in the mainstream press.

The Post religion team is to be commended for covering this story. However, I would like to know (attention GetReligion readers in the greater D.C. area) if this "Acts of Faith" feature appeared in the pages of the newspaper what landed on the doorsteps of actual subscribers.

Categories: Main

Assyrian Christian hostage thriller: The Associated Press gets this persecution story right

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Anyone who has the slightest familiarity with northern Iraq knows there’s several ancient people groups who’ve been there for millennia.

The Kurds descend from the ancient Medes. There were Jews there –- sent to the region by the Chaldean monarch Nebuchadnezzar in the fifth century BC to join earlier deportees -- who lingered there until very recently. And then there are the Assyrians who came to the fore in the ninth century BC.

It’s the ancestors of the latter that concerns this fascinating Associated Press story that recounts the tale of these latter-day Assyrians imprisoned by ISIS and the bishop who raised about $11 million to free them.

It was written by AP’s “international security” correspondent (didn’t know there was such a beat) and it’s a winner.

Start reading how an ancient Christian community took action, after governments around the world refused to help them.

SAARLOUIS, Germany (AP) -- The millions in ransom money came in dollar by dollar, euro by euro from around the world. The donations, raised from church offerings, a Christmas concert, and the diaspora of Assyrian Christians on Facebook, landed in a bank account in Iraq. Its ultimate destination: the Islamic State group.Deep inside Syria, a bishop worked around the blurred edges of international law to save the lives of more than 200 people — one of the largest groups of hostages yet documented in IS's war in Syria and Iraq. It took more than a year, and videotaped killings of three captives, before all the rest were freed.Paying ransoms is illegal in the United States and most of the West, and the idea of paying the militants is morally fraught, even for those who saw no alternative.

Then we get some back story:

The Assyrian Christians were seized from the Khabur River valley in northern Syria, among the last holdouts of a dwindling minority that had been chased across the Mideast for generations. They trace their heritage to the earliest days of Christianity, their Church of the East founded by the apostle known as Doubting Thomas. To this day, they speak a dialect of Aramaic, believed to be the native language of Jesus. But most also speak Arabic and some Kurdish, the languages of the neighbors who have long outnumbered them.In a single night of horror on Feb. 23, 2015, IS fighters attacked the Christian towns simultaneously, sweeping up scores of people and sending everyone from 35 towns and villages fleeing for their lives…

We hear about calls to the diaspora:

As they were being rounded up, people made panicked phone calls to cousins, sons, daughters, friends -- Assyrians who had left the region in generational waves for the West. To the outsiders, rumor mixed with fact, choppy voices could barely be heard over the sounds of gunshots. Even the total number of hostages was a mystery, ranging in estimates from 200 to 280 men, women and children.

ISIS kept a few hundred captives until it figured out what to do: Shake down all their relatives -- and the worldwide Assyrian community -- for stunning amounts of money to support their cause.

The killers sent one of the hostages to the Syrian town of Hassakah to a certain bishop.

The extremists gave Marza a scrap of paper signed and stamped by the Islamic State group, allowing him safe passage: "The infidel Christian Abdo Marza wants to negotiate between us and their church for money. Please facilitate his task from the checkpoints in three days."The bishop, Mar Afram Athneil, took three days to answer as he consulted with others in the church around the world on what to do. Finally he gave Marza a sealed envelope to take back to IS.

The rest of the story –- and it is fascinating -– tells how this bishop pulled off a Schindler’s list-type operation to get more than 200 people out of Iraq. It cites members of the community in London, Melbourne, Australia, Burbank, Calif., and Saarlouis, Germany, who scavenged fellow church members around the world to come up with the money.

The article almost reads like a thriller down to the final 43 hostages and then the final one who almost didn’t make it out. Sadly, the bishop wouldn’t go on the record for AP and the article’s one serious hole, in terms of essential facts, is that we get no description of Athneil: What he looks like, what kind of church he presides over or any quotes from people who know him. He remains shrouded in mystery. Perhaps that's the point (although we did find one photo of him that appears in this piece).

Although the piece certainly gives a human face to a people group that few westerners know about, it’d help if we knew a bit more about the brand of Christianity they adhere to. Are they Catholic, Orthodox, Syriac or a mix? Athneil heads up a diocese in the Assyrian Church of the East, which is neither Catholic nor Orthodox. Its seal is included with this story.

However, the reporter did the story based out of Germany and eastern Syria is not an easy place to get to these days, even to interview a bishop. She did well enough to get the story she had. Which goes to say there a zillion stories out there about religious groups caught in the crosshairs of world politics, but we rarely hear them except in small specialty publications.

Sadly, I am sure there are more thrillers like this out there. Would that more reporters would dig around to find them. 

FIRST IMAGE: Bishop Mar Afram Athneil.

Categories: Main

A classic Paul Simon song for scribes to hum when covering religious freedom issues

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

 "Still a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest."  

Paul Simon included that line in his emotionally moving song, "The Boxer." The words have long rung true for me.

These days, I find them particularly relevant when thinking about religious freedom issues -- both domestic and international -- and much of what journalists write about them.

Which is to say that too often, respect for religious freedom comes down to whose ox is being gored.

On the domestic front, Simon's words spring to mind when reading many of the stories written about the successful -- for the moment, at least -- Standing Rock Sioux protest against the Dakota Access oil pipeline.

His words also seem blindingly appropriate when considering these two international stories, one from Indonesia and one from China's ethnic Tibetan region, both published by The New York Times.

Please read both stories to better understand this post and to keep me from having to stuff this column with critical but wordy explanatory background -- as might have been necessary in the long-ago world of pre-links journalism. It's a new world. Make use of the links. The photos accompanying both stories alone are worth your time.

Click here for the Indonesia story. And click here for the China story.

Notice how sympathetic both stories are toward the religious and social views of the indigenous tribe, in the Indonesian case, and toward Tibetan Buddhism, in the China story.

Understand that my observation is by no means a criticism. On the contrary, I think acknowledging the spiritual beliefs and the religious freedoms due Indonesia's Mentawai people and the Buddhist monastics living at Larung Gar in China's Sichuan Province should be a requirement of American-style journalism.

Historically, we all know, that has not been the case. Indigenous beliefs were generally of no concern to the pioneering reporters who followed white America's westward expansion. Africa, Asia and the Americas are full of such stories.

But now that the cultural upheaval is mostly completed, remaining outposts in far-off jungles or mountain-top monasteries are viewed as unique vestiges of humanity's distant and pre-globalization past worth preserving, if only as living artifacts.

Look, it's complicated. Religion is about far more than theology and doctrinal beliefs and whether or not you attend Mass, fast on Yom Kippur, or refrain from drinking alcohol because your religious culture says you should. It's also a banner that provides cover for aggressive human tendencies while offering a sense of belonging to this or that cultural tribe.

Sometimes I think religious freedom might be better understood if we relabeled it religious tribalism -- or even religious libertarianism. By that I mean that everyone has the right to self-identify as they wish, and to congregate with whom they feel spiritual or psychological kinship.

Yeah, you might reply. But how does that work to the benefit of all in an increasingly pluralized American -- and global -- landscape? Good question, but other than changing human nature, I have no silver bullet answer. But there is that First Amendment that's written in ink on a rather important American page.

This seems particularly critical today, in the volatile aftermath of this year's American presidential election, in which the overwhelming majority of evangelical and other (theoretically) traditionalist, white Christians and Orthodox Jews -- to select just two groups -- voted for President-elect Donald Trump. That, despite his glaringly obvious, self-admitted, biblical-magnitude personal transgressions.

Concern for their First Amendment guaranteed religious liberties was one reason so many Americans who self-identify as religious voted for Trump. Their concern -- as GetReligion readers are well aware -- is that the secular culture insists on a degree of societal leveling that threatens their counter-cultural, religious and cultural beliefs.

I get that. Assimilation greases the wheels of commerce, but it leave many individuals rudderless and often defenseless in the face of majority points of view.

But then there's the religious freedoms of American Muslims to also think about. What, as a nation, do we do about those freedoms? By the way, journalists should note that religious liberty groups on the cultural left and on the right have been working to back Muslim groups in these cases. These are interesting times.

As I said above, it's complicated. It's one religious tribe trying to fend off what it regards as a potentially fatal level of encroachment by another. That this has long been the way of the world is of little comfort when your core identity is being challenged.

Of course this is not just a burgeoning domestic story. Read this Crux story warning about the rising persecution -- or denial of religious freedoms -- of Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world.

Or read this piece, also from the Times, that seeks to explain the growing support for Russia's Vladimir Putin by casting him as the last-line of defense for traditional white, Christian culture in the face of Islam's spread and Western democratic liberalism. Among his prime domestic supporters on moral and cultural issues is the Russian Orthodox Church.

Finally, there's this piece from Religion News Service noting that Turkish numero uno Recep Erdogan is satisfying his anti-Americanism by going after Turkey's Protestants, who he sees as agents of American influence. But then, Erdogan -- as the Orthodox Christian world understands -- has never shown himself to be a protector of religious freedom for non-Muslims.

So it goes both ways. Or perhaps more accurately, every religious sub-group seeks to safeguard itself, when the chips are down, at the expense of other religious sub-groups.

Remember all this when writing about religious freedoms issues. If it helps, hum "The Boxer." Here's some interesting background on the song's genesis, including Simon explaining its biblical influences.

Categories: Main

Donald Trump is Time magazine's Person of the Year — but not much religion to see here

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Donald Trump is TIME's Person of the Year 2016 #TIMEPOY

— TIME (@TIME) December 7, 2016

The gods make an early appearance in Time's cover story on President-elect Donald Trump's selection — no surprise here! — as the magazine's 2016 Person of the Year.

"Gym-rat greek gods," that is.

Yes, you'll need to read that reference in context:

Even for Donald Trump, the distance is still fun to think about, up here in his penthouse 600 ft. in the sky, where it’s hard to make out the regular people below. The ice skaters swarming Central Park’s Wollman Rink look like old-television static, and the Fifth Avenue holiday shoppers could be mites in a gutter. To even see this view, elevator operators, who spend their days standing in place, must push a button marked 66–68, announcing all three floors of Trump’s princely pad. Inside, staff members wear cloth slipcovers on their shoes, so as not to scuff the shiny marble or stain the plush cream carpets.This is, in short, not a natural place to refine the common touch. It’s gilded and gaudy, a dreamscape of faded tapestry, antique clocks and fresco-style ceiling murals of gym-rat Greek gods. The throw pillows carry the Trump shield, and the paper napkins are monogrammed with the family name. His closest neighbors, at least at this altitude, are an international set of billionaire moguls who have decided to stash their money at One57 and 432 Park, the two newest skyscrapers to remake midtown Manhattan. There is no tight-knit community in the sky, no paperboy or postman, no bowling over brews after work.And yet here Trump resides, under dripping crystal, with diamond cuff links, as the President-elect of the United States of America. 

The only other mention of god — again the lowercase version — comes near the end of the lengthy piece. The second time the term is used as part of a vulgar quote attributed to a Trump supporter.

God with a capital "G" figures not at all in this profile of Trump — which in many ways is not all that surprising since Trump "doesn't wear his religion on his sleeve."

There is an obligatory mention of evangelicals:

Trump found a way to woo white evangelicals by historic margins, even winning those who attend religious services every week. 

And yes, the profile rehashes Trump's comments on Muslims:

Last year, Trump boasted about the great instincts that led him to support forced deportation for all undocumented immigrants and a ban on Muslims from entering the country. He has since backed off both positions. 

So religion remains on the periphery of Time's cover story. Is that good? Bad? I'm still digesting the piece, which I read quickly on deadline. I previously have praised Time religion writer Elizabeth Dias' excellent, behind-the-scenes coverage of Trump's "inner circle of evangelical advisors."

Generally speaking, I'm not sure the Time cover story plows much new ground — about Trump or religion or otherwise. It mostly rehashes what readers probably already know. The piece seems both curious about the Trump phenomenon and — as many major news outlets' reports tend to be — dismissive of it, as illustrated by the ending:

It’s a country where many who felt powerless have a new champion, where much frustration has given way to excitement and where politics has become the greatest show on earth. Here men in combat helmets and military assault rifles now patrol the streets outside a golden residential tower in midtown Manhattan. And almost every day at about the same time they let pass a street performer who wears no pants, tight white underwear and cowboy boots, so he can sing a song in the lobby for the television cameras with Trump’s name written in red and blue on his butt. It’s an America of renewed hope and paralyzing fear, a country few expected less than a year ago. Because of Donald John Trump, whatever happens next, it will never be like it was before.

Are there holy ghosts in the Person of the Year piece? I'm still contemplating that question. I'd urge you, kind reader, and my fellow GetReligionistas to check out the article and weigh in.

Categories: Main

Fixer Upper update (with M.Z. flashback): Was Gaines slam just BuzzFeed news style?

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Over the past few days, I have been searching for actual updates on the whole BuzzFeed vs. Chip and Joanna Gaines story and, as far as I can tell, there has been little or no news to speak of on that front.

It's clear that, for most journalists, these HGTV stars are cultural heretics who are on the wrong side of history, if not the cable-TV ratings. However, some commentators -- including a few on the cultural left (Brandon Ambrosino here in The Washington Post) -- have asked whether Kate Aurthur of BuzzFeed did the right thing when she probed the couple's silence and, in effect, blamed them for the traditional Christian teachings (on marriage and sex) voiced by their pastor, the Rev. Jimmy Seibert.

For example, Vox has issued one of its usual pieces on What. It. All. Means. The headline is logical: "Chip and Joanna Gaines and the anti-gay controversy over HGTV's Fixer Upper, explained." That's as good a place to start as any, in terms of the status of the journalism issues in this high-profile case.

After expressing lots of outrage over the religious beliefs at the center of the case, Vox reaches the summary paragraphs: "What the fight over the Gaineses’ beliefs is really about." Let's read that:

HGTV has a long history of leaning toward the progressive in the types of people it features on its shows. Same-sex couples are featured in many of its programs. The network airs programs like House Hunters International that sometimes feature non-American same-sex couples, and shows like Property Brothers and Love It or List It have had same-sex couples who had their homes renovated. And the channel stated on December 1 that all of its current programs are open to LGBTQ couples. ...In 2014 the channel canceled a proposed show, Flip It Forward, because its hosts, David and Jason Benham, were vocally anti-gay. The Benham brothers are sons of a man named Flip Benham, the leader of an organization called Operation Save America, who has gone on the record in saying that “Jesus hates Muslims” and blamed the 2012 Aurora massacre on Democrats. David Benham spoke to a conservative talk show in September 2012 and said, “Homosexuality and its agenda ... is attacking the nation,” plus some nonsense about "demonic ideologies."

Then there is this, the only real commentary on journalism questions:

If Chip or Joanna Gaines had said something on the record similar to Seibert or to the Benham brothers, the motivation for Aurthur’s BuzzFeed article would be more clear, since HGTV seems to have a policy against discriminatory speech and practices. But the crucial detail here is that as far as we know, the Gaineses haven’t said anything similar to Seibert or the Benhams. In fact, they haven’t really publicly positioned themselves to be LGBTQ allies or enemies, nor have they used to the show as a mouthpiece for their church.

So the Gaines camp has remained silent (for the most part), offering some basic evangelical-lingo social media statements about keeping faith in the midst of an unnamed controversy. Such as:

U know.. even as all hell "appears" to be breaking loose. All I have to do is look at my 4 precious babies sleeping, or kiss Jo good morning

— Chip Gaines (@chippergaines) December 1, 2016

But back to journalism.

In Julia Duin's GetReligion post on this media storm, there was a tweet by the Rev. James A. Smith, Sr., of the National Religious Broadcasters, that pointed toward the journalism doctrines at the heart of all this.

@DLoesch This is a result of Buzzfeed's horrible editorial policy that "there are not two sides" on LGBT equality.

— James A. Smith Sr. ن (@JamesASmithSr) December 1, 2016

While Smith calls the BuzzFeed editorial policy "horrible," it's pretty clear that this is the new journalism orthodoxy for many reporters and editors in the post-American Model of the press camp.

Thus, here is the policy as stated in the newsroom's online manual of style:

ActivismWe firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women’s rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides. But when it comes to activism, BuzzFeed editorial must follow the lead of our editors and reporters who come out of a tradition of rigorous, neutral journalism that puts facts and news first. If we don’t, it makes it harder for those reporters to do their jobs. We encourage cross-team collaboration, but Buzz and Life staffers who wish to write on a hot-button news event should consult with News editors before publishing.

In other words, BuzzFeed journalists are supposed to be "neutral," even though their publication has made it clear that it is not neutral.

Is this policy affirming what many traditional journalists refer to as the "separation of church and state" wall between a news organization's management and editorial views and what goes on in the newsroom? If that is the case, this needs to be stated more clearly by BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith and others at the top.


That style guide reference leads us back to an essential M.Z. "GetReligionista emerita" Hemingway piece at The Federalist.

Once again, to state the obvious, the key issue here for journalists is not whether they agree or disagree with the theology lived out (you know, that whole "free exercise" thing) by the Fixer Uppers and folks in their church, but how they will, as journalists, do fair, accurate coverage of moral issues on which Americans are so fiercely divided, usually because of clashing religious beliefs.

Thus. M.Z. noted last year:

Maybe the standards guide should define these issues a bit more. Does it consider the right to end an unborn life a “women’s rights” issue on which there are not two sides? Or what, exactly? What would be an example of a story on which there are not two sides? ...What would it even mean to say that there are not two sides on an issue that was literally just decided on a 5-4 vote? How does BuzzFeed explain to its readers what that number four represents?New York’s highest court issued a ruling on the same issue as Obergefell in 2006. It looked at virtually the same constitutional issues as Obergefell did and rather than discovering a foundational right to same-sex marriage, it concluded that if the legislature wanted to change the law, it could, but that defining marriage as the union of husband and wife made tons of sense.

That reference leads to an article in The New York Times, published at the time:

By a 4-2 majority, the Court of Appeals found that the State Legislature, in laws dating back nearly 100 years, intended to limit marriage to a union between a man and a woman, and that the Legislature had a rational basis for doing so. ...

The majority decision, written by Judge Robert S. Smith, found that limiting marriage to couples of the opposite sexes was based on legitimate societal goals, primarily the protection and welfare of children. It could well be argued, he said, that children are better off raised by a biological mother and father, rather than by a gay or lesbian couple.

But wait, noted M.Z. What was the name of that judge?

Yep, none other than Ben Smith’s own father.

So to repeat the question: What does it mean to say that there are not two sides on an issue that has divided Americans to this degree?

Is it really possible, with the wave of an editorial hand, to state that the overwhelming majority of the world's traditional Christians (Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, etc.), those who worship in churches that affirm ancient doctrines on sex and marriage, do not deserve news coverage in which their beliefs are handled in a way that is fair and accurate? Ditto, of course, for Orthodox Jews, traditional Muslims, Buddhists, Mormons and lots of other religious believers.

Let's end with an interesting piece by blogger Samuel D. James, who has 10 questions for the BuzzFeed editorial team. Here some of the key questions, but please read it all:

1. How many evangelical Christians do you personally know? How many evangelical Christians are employed by your company? If the answer to either of these questions is “None,” why do you believe that is?

Actually, I would note that there are lots of progressive evangelicals whose doctrinal views might fit in the BuzzFeed newsroom. But I think readers can understand what James is saying.

Also, this:

4. Which do you consider more journalistically noteworthy: The belief that all who do not worship Jesus Christ will eventually be in hell, or the belief that sex is meant only for a man and a woman in marriage? If the first, why is that not the story here? If the second, why is this teaching more significant than the first?

Also, this:

9. Would Buzzfeed fire a staffer for expressing beliefs similar to Jim Seibert? Would Buzzfeed fire a staffer not for expressing such beliefs, but upon discovering the staffer attended a religious gathering that taught them? In your opinion, does being wrong on LGBT make one a bad person?

Let me stress one more time: BuzzFeed has every right to publish whatever its editors want to publish, in terms of editorials and advocacy news pieces. Also, there is no need for BuzzFeed editors to affirm the ancient doctrines proclaimed by millions and millions of traditional religious believers -- from Pope Francis to the Rev. Billy Graham, from the Dalai Lama to St. Mother Teresa.

The issue is whether the BuzzFeed team has a clear and coherent set of editorial policies guiding its work. Is the website committed to basic news or to one-sided advocacy journalism? Please clear up the tension in those editorial guidelines. Put this on the record.

Categories: Main

The big question: What does Christianity say happens to believers after death?

Wednesday, December 7, 2016


When people say their loved one went to heaven, why doesn’t the preacher tell them that no-one goes straight to heaven? If they did, what would be the reason for the resurrection?


Christian doctrine says that after death a believer’s soul enters the presence of God in the blessedness of heaven, and then in the end times will be reunited with a transformed body. Christianity contrasts with Eastern religions’ belief in reincarnation, a long series of rebirths into varied conditions and biological species based upon performance in the prior life.

With typical Presbyterian precision, the Christian teaching is spelled out in the 17th Century Westminster Confession, accompanied by citations of 14 Bible texts:

“The bodies of men after death return to dust, and see corruption, but their souls, (which neither die nor sleep,) having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them. The souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies.” Then at “the last day ... all the dead shall be raised up with the self-same bodies, and none other, although with different qualities, which shall be united again to their souls forever.”

The modern-day Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches the same: “In death, the separation of the soul from the body, the human body decays and the soul goes to meet God, while awaiting its reunion with its glorified body. God, in his almighty power, will definitively grant incorruptible life to our bodies by reuniting them with our souls, through the power of Jesus’ resurrection” at “the end of the world” when Christ returns.

The church’s Lateran Council (A.D. 1215) said believers “will rise again with their own bodies which they now bear” and Jesus Christ “will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body” citing biblical Philippians 3:21 and the major resurrection passage of 1 Corinthians 15:35-53. For more on Catholic theology see Pope Benedict XII’s encyclical “Benedictus Deus” (1336) and teachings on this from the Councils of Florence (1438-1445) and of Trent (1545-1563).

Catholicism adds one aspect. The catechism says believers “who die in God’s grace and friendship” are “assured of their eternal salvation,” but if they are “still imperfectly purified” they “undergo purification so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” Regarding this intermediate state of Purgatory, the catechism commends earthly believers’ indulgences, works of penance and charity, prayers, and Masses on behalf of the dead “so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God.” Protestants disagree and this may receive attention during the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.

Eastern Orthodoxy, which defines no concept of a Purgatory, shares the standard Christian view. Britain’s Bishop Kallistos writes that “the redemtion and the glorification of matter” means that “at the Last Day the righteous will rise from the grave and be united once more to a body -- not such a body as we now possess but one that is transfigured.”

Do those in heaven restore fellowship with deceased loved ones? Most people assume so but, surprisingly, the Bible is vague. Christian interpreters typically say yes due to biblical suggestions such as a dead believer “gathered to his people,” and the conviction that a loving God would not deny this important comfort to those who believe in him.


Continue reading "What does Christianity say happens to believers after death?" by Richard Ostling.

IMAGE: Care of

Categories: Main

Breaking Up Is Hard To … Quantify? This Wall Street Journal trend story needs more facts

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

In the month or so since the American electorate chose a first-time political candidate as the 45th President of the United States, the hyperventilating has approached a magnitude not seen since, well, those long-ago days of “Bush Derangement Syndrome.”

But unlike the mass attack of the vapors surrounding POTUS 43, the election of Donald J. Trump has also riven religious congregations across this fair and gentle republic. Where once the 11 a.m. hour on Sunday morning was deemed America’s most segregated time due to considerations of race, it now appears, per The Wall Street Journal (paywall trigger warning),  that that the advent of a Trump Administration will cause the kind of schisms usually occasioned by some monk nailing 95 talking points to a cathedral door.

I exaggerate, but perhaps only slightly. Let’s dive into that Journal piece, shall we?

The election is over and so is Brandi Miller’s religious affiliation.On Nov. 8, white evangelical Christianity and I called it quits,” she wrote in a message posted on Facebook. Ms. Miller, a campus minister at the University of Oregon, says that exit polls showing that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump revealed a divide over race that she, as a biracial woman, can’t condone. But can she condone it as a Christian?“Evangelicals have decided who and with what they will associate,” wrote Ms. Miller, 26 years old, in an online magazine and on Facebook. “It’s not me.”Church is often the place where people seek comfort and community in unsettling times, but the contentiousness of this election has filtered into the pews. In a sign of lingering partisanship, some people have looked for another place to worship, having split with their pastor over politics. Others are staying but feel estranged, wondering how a person a pew away backed a pro-choice candidate, for instance, or supported someone who demeaned immigrants.

Reading this, one wonders how much or how well this Journal reporter (the Pittsburgh bureau chief) understands about the nature of a church. As the late Rev. George Craig Stewart, former Episcopal bishop of Chicago, once said, “What did you think the Church was, a club for shining saints? … [It] has been a hospital for sinners.”

By extension, it’s reasonable to suggest that the church isn’t a club of the politically homogenized any more than it should be an assembly of one racial group. “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ, said the apostle Paul in 1 Cor. 12:12.

My point -- and I believe I have one -- is that while the 2016 campaign was perhaps extraordinarily contentious, it’s not unique in American history for sowing division and concerns. Perhaps its safe to say that many journalists are especially interested in schisms linked to this election, as opposed to pain and divisions linked to others. The pain seems to be especially newsworthy this time.

As a nation, we’ve lived through other contentious elections, only to come together afterwards. One example might be the 1960 Presidential race, where then-Sen. John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, had to overcome severe anti-Catholic sentiment to capture the White House. After Kennedy was elected, there was not a mass defection to Roman Catholic parishes, nor did Protestant churches fill up with those who’d voted for Richard Nixon. We all learned to, as a society, get along.

This Journal piece provides little, other than offering a pair of reading groups from a church pastor caught in the middle, in the way of evidence that this is an issue for many congregations. It's a classic trend story that simply assumes the trend is real.

The anecdotal evidence of perhaps three people or families in the article stands without any data -- Pew Research Center anyone? -- buttressing or battering the claims of a new chasm in American polity. The glaring lack of data here suggests that while some gentle souls may feel estranged from now-former co-religionists, it’s not yet a tsunami, and may end up being a trickle.

Meanwhile, everyone join the Journal team in singing:

“They say that breakin' up is hard to do,Now I know, I know that it's true.Don't say that this is the end.Instead of breakin' up I wish thatWe were makin' up again.”

-- Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield, 1962

Next time around, let's see some more sources and facts, please.

Categories: Main

Waltons? Little House? Have faith in ratings success of Dolly Parton's latest Christmas movie

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

My wife, Tamie, and I share different tastes in music and entertainment.

For instance, I love country music, much to the chagrin of the queen of my doublewide trailer.

I also enjoy sappy movies, no matter how predictable, which is why I DVR a lot of Hallmark Christmas films this time of year.

My wife cringes at the dialogue on certain made-for-TV entertainment, including Dolly Parton's latest holiday classic "Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love," starring Jennifer Nettles as young Dolly's mother and Ricky Schroder as her father. I, on the other hand, require a tissue to make it all the way through.

Sentimentality? If you ask me, 2016 could use some. And NBC's huge ratings for Parton's "Christmas of Many Colors" tell me I'm not alone (sorry, honey!).

("It's very good — and frightening," Tamie said when I asked her to read the above lead-in. It's a good thing we have a few things in common, such as three wonderful children and a daughter-in-law we adore.)

Yes, there's a faith angle — a big one — both in the Parton movie and the country legend behind it.

In an advance story, the Los Angeles Times noted:

Nettles reprises her role as Parton’s mother, Avie, in the sequel to last year’s ratings hit “Coat of Many Colors,” based on the country legend’s classic song of the same name.  This time, however, the “9 to 5” star gets in on the action herself, playing a “Painted Lady” who, in a very meta moment, inspires the future image of her younger self, played again by Alyvia Alyn Lind.The new film is based on two true stories from Parton’s childhood. One concerns the family’s plan to save up money to buy Avie a wedding ring.“She had a house full of kids and never had a wedding ring,” says Parton of her 11 siblings. The second is “about a Christmas miracle that actually happened to us when we got snowed into our little cabin and we almost froze to death. My Daddy was gone and we were out of food and we couldn’t get out and so it’s about a miracle through prayer that Mama had.”Parton tears up at the memories and says the greatest gifts the films have given her is the way they bring her parents back to life for her. She hopes viewers will watch with their own loved ones.

“I think we need more family things,” she says. “I think people are missing shows like ‘Little House on the Prairie’ and ‘The Waltons.’ And obviously they were because we got really good ratings!”

In case you were wondering: Yes, I grew up watching "Little House" and "The Waltons" and would welcome more shows like that.

Meanwhile, those who saw "Coat of Many Colors" will recall that Dolly's pastor grandfather, played by Gerald McRaney, has a key role. Also, Dolly's father (Schroder) makes a decision to become a Christian in the original film, and the sequel opens with his baptism (I'm 95 percent certain of this, but I've seen a few Hallmark movies since I watched the Parton movie last week, so forgive me if I'm misremembering). And as Parton told the Times, prayer figures heavily in the latest movie.

But what about Parton's own faith?

The L.A. newspaper gets into that. A little anyway:

Although she stresses her own belief in God and that faith is reflected in the film, she believes people from all walks of life can enjoy the message of “Christmas of Many Colors.”“You don’t have to be Christian,” she says. “You just need to relate to family and love and acceptance and forgiveness."

In a separate piece, a Daily Beast columnist also delves into the religious side of Parton (perhaps going a little overboard even for my tastes):

Coat of Many Colors, with its preachiness and brazen earnestness, suffered its fair share of critical bah-humbugs. But, as faith-based family entertainment at a time when pop culture was overrun with cynicism and agnosticism, the film was a holy unicorn for viewers, who tuned in like churchgoers gathering for Mass. (At the Church of Dolly, of course.)“I think folks were starved for something like this,” Parton says. “It’s not often you can all sit down and watch something that’s not shy about family and about God anymore.”

Dolly Parton speaks her mind, and it's hard to stop her, huh? She offers few apologies for God being a part of "Dolly-ness," and that gives entertainment writers little choice but to reflect that side of her.

Categories: Main

Baltimore Sun finds the faith angle in the Baptist officer ensnared in Freddie Gray case

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Baltimore Sun is no longer the dead-tree-pulp newspaper that lands in my front yard each morning. Thus, logically enough, there has been a sharp decline in the number of Sun stories that show up here on GetReligion.

Also, the newspaper's website features a numbing array of intrusive auto-cue forms of advertising, so sane readers would only go there when there are no other options. However, my many Charm City-area friends still let me know, from time to time, when something interesting shows up.

In this case, the Sun recently offered an in-depth profile of Alicia White, the only female officer charged in the death of Freddie Gray, the infamous case that still hangs over life in Baltimore like smoke from burning urban neighborhoods. This was a big story for one simple reason, as stated in the headline: "Baltimore Police Officer Alicia White, charged in Freddie Gray case, becomes the first to speak out."

The surprise in this story is that it truly explores the human side of this woman, as well as the legal and political angles of the story. As is often the case among public servants in Baltimore's African-American community, that led the reporters into spiritual territory.

Right from the get-go, the story stresses that this case has had painful consequences for White as a person and as an officer.

For the past 18 months, her co-defendants either went to trial or were called to the stand to testify while she awaited her own trial. Out of public view, White spent much of the time grappling with crippling anxiety, and at one point was rushed to a hospital. The stress led her and her fiance to call off their engagement, and she spent months unemployed. Then, in July, all charges were dropped.

In addition to the interview material from White, it's clear that the Sun team did extensive background work in the community, digging into her life and work. That's where her educational background and church ties show up.

In other words, her Christian faith was and is part of her identity and, in the past, it affected her actions. Thus, it's part of the story.

Sadly, that's a simple equation that journalists often fail to understand.

Before being charged with manslaughter and other counts in Gray's death, White was likely to be described by family and friends as the Catholic school student from West Baltimore or the ardent churchgoer. And to many residents and co-workers, she was the community resource officer who stayed late at the children's center in her district or the young sergeant who, with just five years on the force, was already rising through the ranks.

That sets up a lengthy passage in the story that mixes White's family background with references to her faith and to people discussing her character. It's clear that faith and family are actually, in her life, woven together.

This may read like ordinary news copy but, in my experience, this is actually rather rare in mainstream news coverage of cases of this magnitude. This passage is long, but worth walking through:

White was raised in West Baltimore near Mondawmin Mall, where rioting began after Gray's death in April 2015. With the exception of her time at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, she has lived in that same home with her mother.She was raised an only child in a Baptist household and recalls family dinners and her parents attending her school events together. At age 11, she lost her father -- a Maryland Transit Administration bus driver -- to lung cancer. He had asked to be at home instead of hospice when he died, according to White's aunt, Marian Haggerty. White said she watched him die.

What is missing there?

Obviously, it's the name of the Baptist church in which she was active while growing up. Is she still part of the same congregation? (A cutline with an online photo notes that the New Bethlehem Baptist Church remains her church home.)

It's possible that this hole in the actual news story is there for a reason. My question: Has her involvement in this case made her too controversial for her own pastor and church leaders to speak on her behalf? Perhaps her church involvement has faded? 

Whatever happened, the Sun team makes it clear that her faith has been a major part of her life story. Thus, this hole in the narrative is rather obvious.

Moving on.

She attended public elementary school before switching to parochial schools, starting with the former St. Mary of the Assumption in Govans, then Mercy High School in Northeast Baltimore."She was the one who always led us in prayer," former classmate Brittany Ripple recalls. "If there was a conflict, she was the one to step in and resolve it."She also had a military-like sense of order. Ripple said White's hair was always flawless, her sneakers gleaming. She ironed creases into her blue jeans.White attended UMES, a historically black college, with an eye toward working with computers, but after graduation she contemplated joining the military. Instead, she came across a hiring push by the Baltimore Police Department, which was looking to boost its female ranks.

Her motive for signing up is consistent with her roots and her actions in the rest of the story, other than the alleged failures linked to the Gray case.

She was attracted to the service aspect of law enforcement. ..."I thought, 'There has to be a way to give back and serve. What better place than my own community?'" she said.

As I said earlier, the story gets into the details of the debates about White's role in the Gray tragedy, making sure that readers understand both the accusations and her side of what happened.

I simply wanted to note that, in this case, the Sun team deserves praise for including some of the basic facts of this woman's religious faith. That may seem like a rather simply thing to praise, but it still stood out from business-as-usual work in this particular newspaper.

Categories: Main

Back to Indonesia: When covering disputes among faithful, AP should talk to more Muslims

Monday, December 5, 2016

Tensions remain high in Indonesia, where opponents of the nation's Christian governor -- he is part of the nation's minority Chinese population -- held a massive rally calling for the arrest of Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja and his trial on charges of blasphemy.

Obviously, many journalists believe that a story like this requires lots of vague adjectives in front of the word "Muslims."

In this case, the opponents of Ahok are "conservative Muslims" and the Muslims who support him are "moderate Muslims." What does this mean? Who knows, other than the fact that the conservatives are (you knew this was coming) mad about the growing presence of LGBTQ activists in public life.

Here is the key passage in an update from the Associated Press:

The crowds massed in the area of the national monument formed a sea of white that spilled into surrounding streets while gridlocked motorists sat on the sidewalks. Some held huge banners calling Ahok a blasphemer who should be jailed while others chanted and prayed. The blasphemy controversy erupted in September when a video circulated online in which Ahok criticized detractors who argued the Quran prohibits Muslims from having a non-Muslim leader.It has challenged the image of Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, as practicing a moderate form of Islam and has shaken the government of Jokowi, who accused unnamed political actors of trying to undermine him.

Recently, I criticized a Washington Post story about these events in the incredibly complex culture of Indonesia because it didn't include quotes from non-Muslims. As Ira "Global Wire" Rifkin noted at that time: "Tremendous hole in this piece: What about non-Muslim Indonesians? There are many Hindus in Java, Christian Chinese, Sikhs and others living there."

The problem with the recent AP coverage of this dispute is that it offers a different kind of simplicity -- by (a) dealing with these clashes as a matter of politics, alone, and (b) by failing to interview representatives of some of the largest and most powerful Muslim organizations in Indonesia.

Once again, readers are being handed press coverage that pits "conservative" Muslims who are concerned about morality and religion against "moderate" Muslims who, it would appear, are only trying to protect their political turf.

So who is missing? To be specific, it's crucial that AP reporters on the ground in Indonesia are not quoting leaders of the massive Muhammadiyah network or representatives of Nahdlatul Ulama, one of the world's largest Muslim organizations. That superhero at the top of this post? He's a popular symbol of Nahdlatul Ulama.

To get a sense of what these groups are about, let's back up a year and look at part of a New York Times piece about Nahdlatul Ulama and its efforts, through an online documentary, to fight the theological teachings of the Islamic State:

The challenge ... comes from Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population but which lies thousands of miles away from the Islamic State’s base in the Middle East.“The spread of a shallow understanding of Islam renders this situation critical, as highly vocal elements within the Muslim population at large -- extremist groups -- justify their harsh and often savage behavior by claiming to act in accord with God’s commands, although they are grievously mistaken,” said A. Mustofa Bisri, the spiritual leader of the group, Nahdlatul Ulama, an Indonesian Muslim organization that claims more than 50 million members.“According to the Sunni view of Islam,” he said, “every aspect and expression of religion should be imbued with love and compassion, and foster the perfection of human nature.”This message of tolerance is at the heart of the group’s campaign against jihadism, which will be carried out online, and in hotel conference rooms and convention centers from North America to Europe to Asia.

The crucial point in this article is that Nahdlatul Ulama is making its case against radicalized forms of Islam, and ISIS in particular, in terms of theology and the actual practice of Islamic faith in daily life.

An earlier AP report on this topic contained the same hole as the AP story I began with in this post, in terms of throwing labels at this conflict ("hardline" Muslims get lots of attention in this case) instead of quotes from religious groups on both sides of this theological and, yes, political debate in Indonesia. Here is that article, as it appears in Time magazine and here is the crucial passage:

The furor over Ahok, sparked by his criticism of detractors who argued the Quran prohibits Muslims from having a non-Muslim leader, has highlighted religious and racial fault lines in Indonesia, the world’s most populous nation, and the growing challenge from proponents of Shariah law to its secular system of government.

For Chinese Indonesians, the controversy has awakened painful memories of the mass protests that ousted late dictator Suharto during the 1998 Asian financial crisis. Boiling resentment against immigrant Chinese tycoons who profited from ties to Suharto and his famously corrupt family spilled over into mob attacks on Chinese property and people, killing many. Nearly two decades later, Jakarta’s Chinatown is still scarred by the burned out shells of buildings torched in the chaos.

Later there is this:

When Ahok in 2012 became the first Chinese to be elected deputy governor of Jakarta, and the first Christian in half a century, it was seen as a sign of the pluralistic tolerance fostered by the moderate form of Islam practiced in Indonesia.

But his rise to governor in 2014 to replace political ally Joko “Jokowi” Widodo after his election as president was unpalatable to hard-liners. With the support of moderates that hope to gain from Ahok’s fall, they have elevated their agenda to the national stage, and revealed that intolerant interpretations of Islam adapted from the Middle East have made greater inroads than believed.

I am trying to come up with some comparisons in American life to illustrate what is happening here, in terms of journalism. This would be like covering a dispute among American Protestants without interviewing anyone from the National Council of Churches or the National Association of Evangelicals, or reporting an article about a dispute over Judaism in public life without quotes from the American Jewish Committee.

In other words, where are AP's quotes from the religious leaders who are, for millions in the mainstream, at the heart of Islamic life in Indonesia?

Just asking.

As always, it pays to remember that there is more to life than politics -- especially when people are arguing about morality and religion, as well as politics. #Really

Categories: Main

Oh, Politico! We're not laughing with you, but at you, after that 'advance God's Kingdom' scoop

Monday, December 5, 2016

Hey, remember after Donald Trump's stunning election victory when some navel-gazing media types contemplated their cluelessness.

Good times.

But that didn't last long, huh?

Which brings us to Politico's laugh-out-loud "scoop" featuring 15-year-old quotes from President-elect Donald Trump's pick to lead the U.S. Education Department:

The billionaire philanthropist whom Donald Trump has tapped to lead the Education Department once compared her work in education reform to a biblical battleground where she wants to "advance God's Kingdom."Trump’s pick, Betsy DeVos, a national leader of the school choice movement, has pursued that work in large part by spending millions to promote the use of taxpayer dollars on private and religious schools.Her comments came during a 2001 meeting of “The Gathering,” an annual conference of some of the country’s wealthiest Christians. DeVos and her husband, Dick, were interviewed a year after voters rejected a Michigan ballot initiative to change the state’s constitution to allow public money to be spent on private and religious schools, which the DeVoses had backed.In the interview, an audio recording, which was obtained by POLITICO, the couple is candid about how their Christian faith drives their efforts to reform American education.

Wow, talk about an insightful piece of "gotcha" journalism! (Sarcasm intended.)

Sarah Pulliam Bailey, the former GetReligionista, couldn't resist commenting on the Politico story:

It's hilarious when media obtains audio of Christian subculture lingo: Trump education sec to 'advance Gods Kingdom'

— Sarah Pulliam Bailey (@spulliam) December 4, 2016

Note to Politico: Bailey isn't some right-wing media basher. She's a national religion writer for the Washington Post. So when she makes light of your "scoop," it might be a clue that your ignorance about how many Christians talk is hurting your journalistic credibility.

Eric Gorski also has major journalistic street cred as a former Associated Press national religion writer. He, too, chimed in on the story:

Thought the same thing. Journalist as anthropologist ... From the journalist genre of, "Those kooky Christians!"

— Eric Gorski (@egorski) December 4, 2016

And there was this suggestion from Bob Smietana, the Godbeat veteran and former president of the Religion News Association:

@spulliam Someone should teach an "exegesis for reporters" class -- for helping reporters understand what recordings/texts mean

— Bob Smietana (@bobsmietana) December 4, 2016

Some of the other, similar reactions on Twitter:

Politico obtains recording of Christian woman saying Christian things

— Joe Perticone (@JoePerticone) December 4, 2016

Oh dear, a believing Christian in the cabinet! What will we ever do? Media give themselves away again.

— Brit Hume (@brithume) December 4, 2016

Trump's education pick caught red-handed believing in God. @kateaurthur got scooped, must be embarrassing.

— L (@OrwellForks) December 4, 2016

If you don't understand the @katearthur reference, she's the Buzzfeed writer who produced an "exposé" last week on Chip And Joanna Gaines’ church opposing same-sex marriage: 

Damned by association: Buzzfeed 'news' story goes after the 'Fixer Upper' couple

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) December 1, 2016

This is, of course, at least the second journalistic crash-and-burn by a mainstream news organization attempting to cover DeVos' selection as education secretary:

So @NewYorker learns that Dutch Calvinism is a tradition, care of @james_ka_smith & Co. @CalvinCollege

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) November 28, 2016

So what's the journalistic takeaway or lesson for Politico here?

One that comes to mind involves actually reporting the news from an unbiased perspective. For example, the "promote the use of taxpayer dollars on private and religious schools" in the second paragraph is slanted against voucher proponents. Why not say "allow taxpayers to use education funds to send their children to any school they choose, public, private or religious?" But this isn't GetEducation.

So my main advice for Politico, focused on the GetReligion angle, is pretty simple: When writing about a subject on which your knowledge is extremely lacking (say, Christian subculture lingo), be more careful with your laughable gotcha/scoop/exposé pieces based on 15-year-old quotes. Or something like that.


Categories: Main

Southern Baptist offers poor churches free websites; RNS does compelling story

Monday, December 5, 2016

One thing I’ve noticed about churches is how awful their online presence is. Having an effective website isn’t optional these days. Yet, I’ve been amazed at the sheer sloppiness of most churches’ online offerings. And then they wonder why no one attends their services.

I always thought a model website should have a “coming attractions” kind of ad for the upcoming sermon. Churches have been asking visitors to accept on faith that the sermon will apply to them that week, only to find out that the sermon’s about marriage, but the visitor is single. Or the sermon deal with God and the workplace while the visitor homeschools her kids.

So I was glad to see Religion News Service’s piece on a Connecticut firm that’s offering to build free web sites for churches, especially those too poor or technology-phobic to get their own.

(RNS) Members of Trueworship Tabernacle used to walk their Corpus Christi, Texas, neighborhood, passing out fliers about upcoming events.But in March, the small, multicultural church got a new website.Six months later, its online postings helped boost attendance at its “Youth Car Wash and Enchilada Sale” as well as its “Hallelujah Night” on Halloween.In February, TicketNetwork executive Don Vaccaro started Grace Church Websites to meet a need he discovered while talking to his friend, the Rev. Boise Kimber of New Haven, Conn.More than 670 participating churches and nonprofits, many of them predominantly black or Hispanic, have new sites. They include African Methodist Episcopal, Church of the Nazarene, United Methodist and nondenominational congregations as well as chapters of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.

Operating a website is a bit daunting when you haven’t done it.

First you have to think up a domain name and buy rights to it. Then you have to pay someone to host the site. Not everyone knows about places like Bluehost or GoDaddy that do a lot of that for you. And even if you know where to plant your site, someone has to put together all the content. I mean things like staff bios, church office hours, service times, emergency contacts, information on the other activities that may take place in that church building, and so on.

That doesn’t count more advanced stuff such as posting updates, getting videos on the site and building a database for members to log onto. Churches that have online giving through their sites get a $114 per capita increase in giving per person than do churches with no such opportunity.

I’m surprised someone had not thought of this idea before. But of course it gets expensive, as the article points out.

Vaccaro, a Southern Baptist, said more than 10,000 unique visitors a day connect with the sites overall, and he estimates that it cost his company about half a million dollars to create the system and provide hosting and routine maintenance. He has committed to host the websites for at least five years. 

I wish the article had asked Vaccaro where he’s getting the funding to basically give away so much in the way of services. Also, I would have liked more backstory on why and what made Vaccaro decide to jump into doing this. Was it out of a desire to help poorer, less tech-friendly churches or something else?

Looking up Vaccaro's name online, I found he'd been arrested four years before after an incident at a nightclub where he was drunk and was accused of making racial slurs toward a bouncer there. This was not mentioned in the article. Did that incident have any bearing on his decision to do free websites for mostly black and Hispanic congregations? 

His website also describes him as a financial conservative and a social liberal, which sounds like an unusual combo for a Southern Baptist living in Connecticut, or anywhere else, for that matter. The website has plenty of family photos and descriptions of his various pursuits but nothing about his faith. It would have helped to have probed that silence.

One interesting footnote was a quote by researcher Scott Thuma who said that many churches that do have websites aren’t leveraging them well. As a scanner of many church sites, I’d agree with that. Worse still are churches whose idea of a homepage is a Facebook page. It’s better than nothing, but not by much.

What RNS did with this story is focus on a someone who’s meeting a need that’s both obvious but rarely reported on. The vast majority of churches are notoriously low-budget affairs and even if there is some tech knowledge there, it’s often in the form of a parishioner who volunteers to keep up the site. Often that’s pretty haphazard.

So at least Vaccaro’s company is doing the upkeep itself with the idea that eventually churches will learn to do it themselves. Or perhaps, at the end of five years, he’ll offer them a low-cost maintenance plan if they stay with him. So in the long term, he may make a profit out of something he began by offering it for nothing. Not a bad business strategy, really. 

Smaller and poorer churches rarely get decent coverage. There are stories at these places and all it takes is a determined reporter with contacts and the will to find them. 

Categories: Main

In ruins of the East Tennessee fires, CNN & Co. spot a kind of miracle (maybe)

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Here's the news from East Tennessee, for those who are still following the story of the worst in a century wildfires that threatened to take all of Gatlinburg, a resort town east of Knoxville.

First things first: the death toll remains at 13, as workers carefully pick their way through the 1,000 businesses, homes, etc., that burned or were damaged. One of those lost was the Rev. Ed Taylor, the man who pretty much put this lovely corner of East Tennessee on the map as a site for weddings.

The other news is that we are in having a long, stead, soaking rain here and there is more rain in the forecast. The winds remain rather high, however, and the local authorities stress that the fires in the Great Smoky Mountains burned deep down into the ground cover and roots of these old forests. (For those who missed my earlier post on this topic, my family lives in Oak Ridge, which is up against the face of the Cumberland Mountains to the west of the fires.)

As you would expect, here in Bible Belt territory, there continue to be religion angles in many of the stories linked to the fires.

A reader sent me this CNN report, which I thought was interesting -- but had a rather important factual hole in it. The grabber headline proclaimed:

"Statue of Jesus only thing left standing in house burned by Tennessee wildfire."

Now, I grew up in tornado alley along the Texas-Oklahoma border and I have seen some rather strange -- some would say miraculous -- things in the wake of storms and other powerful natural disasters. I have seen (with my young eyes, in this case) a whole neighborhood leveled, except for the undamaged church in the middle. Or then there's the house that vanishes, except for the closet containing three children hiding under a mattress.

Well, in this case we are talking about something else:

(CNN) -- The pictures coming out of the Gatlinburg, Tennessee, wildfires are just devastating. Acres of woodland blackened. Row upon row of homes and businesses reduced to ashes.But a TV crew with CNN affiliate WVLT spotted something of a miracle amid all that destruction.On Wednesday, reporter Kelsey Leyrer and her team captured footage of what they saw at a house out in Sevier County. It was a statue of Jesus -- covered with soot and ashes, but still standing. It was the only thing left after the home burned to the ground.

As you would expect, these images went viral online.

However, watch the video at the top of this post for yourself and see if you were left pondering the same question that stuck in my mind.

So, the maybe-miracle is that the statue survived while everything else burned. But here is the rather basic factual question that I never found answered in any of the stories.

That question: What is the statue made of?

Isn't this a radically different story -- in terms of being a sign from God kind of thing -- if the statue is made of wood or soft plaster, as opposed to rock, concrete or metal?

As you would expect, some bloggers noticed this angle of the story and took their shots. Here's Dan Savage at The Stranger:

Jesus couldn’t be bothered to save your home, your business, your forest, or the lives of your family members, friends, and neighbors. But Jesus did save himself…Jesus also saved that cinderblock wall right behind him. Get yourself a concrete mom and maybe he’ll save her next time.

A rather cheap shot, methinks. However, there is a valid question here that I have not seen answered in the news reports that I have seen so far.

What was the statue made of?

Just asking.

Categories: Main

Tom Wolfe, foe of pompous elites, targets Darwinian evolution, so where are the religious responses?

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Perpetually white-suited Tom Wolfe is a both a novelist and “new journalism” pioneer who applies fictional techniques to non-fiction with trademark florid verbiage. He gladly punctures elitist pomposity, as in the famed “Radical Chic” satire from long-ago 1970 or later take-downs of modern art and architecture.

At age 85, he’s again rousing the rabble with “The Kingdom of Speech” (Little, Brown). The Religion Guy confesses he has not yet read the book so the following relies on media coverage. There’ve been vigorous responses over recent weeks but, oddly,  little from religious commentators.

Whatever the odds that “natural selection” of advantageous physical mutations produced countless new species across eons of time, religious thinkers often contend that Charles Darwin’s evolution theory cannot explain the origins of humanity’s self-consciousness, love, moral sense, creativity, artistry, or even Darwin’s own mind. So, does the origin of species ultimately and logically require a  Creator?  Are humans unique divine creations or mere mammals with special tricks, “trousered apes,” in Duncan Williams’ memorable phrase? Obviously, hot theological stuff.

Wolfe, a professed atheist, takes aim at Darwinism, also a target of many religious conservatives, because it fails to explain the origin of human language. One Wolfe hero is linguistics professor Daniel Everett, who theorized about the origin of language years ago as a Bible translator in the Amazon jungles. The book also champions the oft-forgotten Alfred Russel Wallace, who simultaneously came up with the natural selection concept while the upper-crust Darwin won the celebrity sweepstakes.

Wallace later broke with Darwin, figuring that evolution explains much, but not human attributes like language, which implies some higher power beyond nature. 

David Klinghoffer writes that his own “intelligent design” movement says exactly that, but Wolfe “does not pull the obvious trigger.” Like Wolfe, Klinghoffer carps that Darwin “was left to speculate absurdly about speech being an extension of bird song.”  Neuroscientist Michael Egnor likewise scoffs that chirping birds or  “grunts and grimaces” of lower primates could ultimately produce Cicero or  Shakespeare: “Evolutionary theorizing about language has been a colossal waste of time” and lacks “any real scientific basis.”

Though Wolfe is apparently as entertaining as ever, defenders of conventional science are not amused. In fact, they’re aghast at the pretensions of this popularizer and scientific amateur. In a Washington Post review, noted ecologist Jerry Coyne said the book suffers from “ignorance” and “grossly distorts” Darwinism and the theories of M.I.T. linguistics star Noam Chomsky. 

 Might be time for a journalist or two to do some heavy intellectual liftingand develop the religious aspect for a general readership. Customary sources would be those devout Darwinians and “intelligent design” proponents, plus “young earth” and “old earth” creationists and “theistic evolutionists” at  

However, The Guy’s first interview requests would go to:

(1) Leon R. Kass of the University of Chicago’s high-powered Committee on Social Thought (who shares a birthday with Darwin!), a natural scientist, ethicist and Jewish author of a Genesis commentary.

(2) Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame, an eminent Protestant philosopher who objects to some claims by evolutionary scientists on empirical and metaphysical grounds.  

Categories: Main

Abortion shocker! Media aghast concerning new Texas rules on burial of fetal remains

Friday, December 2, 2016

To understand just how biased media coverage of abortion can be, check out this lede from Yahoo News:

Texas’ newly adopted amendments requiring the burial or cremation of fetal remains every time a woman has an abortion are set to take effect on Dec. 19.

Let's run that by again. Read this real slow, because we don't want to lose the shock value of what is being said there.

How utterly horrible.

A woman will have to bury or cremate the fetal remains "every time" she has an abortion.

Did Texas' backward officials not even consider a lesser statute -- such as one as allowing a woman to undergo an abortion or two before the burial rules kick in? 

Of course, as one who believes in the sanctity of human life from the moment of conception, I see this from a different perspective than so many journalists -- for whom the ability to end a pregnancy is a sacred right (rite?) that must be protected at all costs.

The journalistic issue, in case it's not clear: The abortion battle is one with at least two sides. The American public remains highly divided on this issue, and there is evidence that young Americans, on this issue, are questioning the current national regime of abortion laws.

Thus, reporters and editors do their readers/viewers -- not to mention their profession itself --  disservice when they give only one side a voice. But that happens all too frequently, as the Texas case illustrates. (Good luck finding a pro-life source in the Yahoo story, for example.) 

Longtime readers of GetReligion know, of course, that news stories heavily favoring the pro-choice side are a longstanding and indisputable problem. If you somehow missed it previously, check out the classic 1990 Los Angeles Times series -- written by the late David Shaw — that exposed rampant news media bias against abortion opponents. Go ahead and bookmark that, because it remains painfully relevant for people who run newsrooms.

Since President-elect Donald Trump's election, there has been a lot of navel-gazing at how the brash billionaire's victory caught the mainstream media so off guard. Some have pointed to Trump's promise to appoint U.S. Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationally.

But coverage by Yahoo and other major news organizations of the Texas fetal burial rules gives no indication that post-Trump journalists are willing to cover both sides of the abortion debate.

Like Yahoo, the New York Times, the Dallas Morning News and the Texas Tribune all reported the story this week with a breathless focus on activists upset over the new rules.

Does anybody — anybody at all — support the new rules? Say, a pro-life group? Sorry, journalists don't seem to care about what the anti-abortion side has to say.

If I missed a mainstream news report that actually covered the story in a balanced way and gave both sides a voice, please share the link in the comments section. Otherwise, we'll just assume that the mainstream press has no interest in — or intention to offer — fair coverage on this topic.

It's business as usual, in other words, for abortion-promoting journalists.

Image via

Categories: Main

Major anniversary for an American classic: The 'It's a Wonderful Life' arguments roll on

Friday, December 2, 2016

In about a week, Seneca Falls, N.Y., will be hosting a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the release of filmmaker Frank Capra's classic (more to come on that adjective) Christmas classic, "It's a Wonderful Life."

This town was the model, in many ways, for Capra's vision of the fictional Bedford Falls, home of the angry, but blessed, dreamer named George Bailey, portrayed in the film by the great Jimmy Stewart. Some of the events will be held, I am sure, at the town's It's a Wonderful Life Museum

I wrote about the ongoing interest in this film this week in my On Religion column for the Universal syndicate, after interviewing Catholic film critic Steven D. Greydanus and digging through my old copies of "The It's a Wonderful Life Book" and "The Name Above the Title," Capra's chatty, but at times philosophical autobiography.

That led to this week's Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in), in which host Todd Wilken and focused on a two-part question: (1) Is there any real news in the anniversary of this film and (2), while we are at it, what are journalists to make of the fact that "It's a Wonderful Life" remains so popular AND controversial?

Well, I think it's likely that some feature writers will cover the Seneca Falls events as a hook for coverage of the anniversary -- period. However, the real question is whether anyone will probe deeper, exploring the debates that have raged about this film since it was first released (and flopped at the box office).

What kind of debates? That's where you get into the details of Capra's whole worldview -- which is both Catholic and fiercely American -- and the film's unique blend of stark darkness, even anger, and light. The key is that you really need to watch the whole movie, not just the joyful end of the famous final act.

As a clue to the contents of the podcast, let's compare two different views of this movie. First, there is this material from the values section of the Vatican's Best Films List:

This well-known film directed by Frank Capra is made great by the acting of Jimmy Stewart as a genuinely good man who resigns himself to having all of his life plans thwarted by his duty to his community and family. Sometimes vocation is more about doing one’s duty than fulfilling one’s desires. It is only when Stewart’s character submits entirely to his calling, and sees what good he has done for others in his life, that he realizes that his life has been worth living.Another theme of the movie is limits: the limits of human knowledge and acts and the limits on wealth and control one needs to have. It embodies Catholic social teaching as it shows how small-scale local communitarian aid is better for the community than large-scale business, which tends to be greedy and oppressive.Finally, please note that the Angelology of the film is controversial: we disagree with one another as to whether it could be in accord with Catholic orthodoxy.

That last line? Hollywood has long thought that good people, when they die, have a chance to become angels, as opposed to saints. Why is that? Beats me.

Now, compare that view of the film with these quotes from a rather complex 2008 -- yes, that recent -- essay in The New York Times by Wendell Jamieson (who is now the newspaper's Metro editor):

The headline: "Wonderful? Sorry, George, It’s a Pitiful, Dreadful Life."

First there is this:

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation.

Later on, there is this:

Take the extended sequence in which George Bailey (James Stewart), having repeatedly tried and failed to escape Bedford Falls, N.Y., sees what it would be like had he never been born. The bucolic small town is replaced by a smoky, nightclub-filled, boogie-woogie-driven haven for showgirls and gamblers, who spill raucously out into the crowded sidewalks on Christmas Eve. It’s been renamed Pottersville, after the villainous Mr. Potter, Lionel Barrymore’s scheming financier.

Here’s the thing about Pottersville that struck me when I was 15: It looks like much more fun than stultifying Bedford Falls -- the women are hot, the music swings, and the fun times go on all night. If anything, Pottersville captures just the type of excitement George had long been seeking.

By all means, read it all. It's kind of a blue-zip-code tribute to what needs to happen in red zip codes. Sort of.

The bottom line: Capra's vision of the meaning of life has always been controversial and I would argue that his emphasis on the ultimate values of faith, family, sacrifice, grace and redemption are at the heart of that.

Capra, of course, read the critics -- when the film was released and later. Thus, this is how my column ends:

In his autobiography, “The Name Above the Title,” Capra stressed that his film “wasn’t made for the oh-so-bored critics, or the oh-so-jaded literati” and defended it in explicitly biblical terms.This was, he wrote, a “film that said to the downtrodden, the pushed-around, the pauper, ‘Heads up, fella.’ ... A film that expressed its love for the homeless and the loveless; for her whose cross is heavy and him whose touch is ashes; for the Magdalenes stoned by hypocrites and the afflicted Lazaruses with only dogs to lick their sores.”It’s all there in the first frames of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” as the hero’s friends and loved ones are heard whispering prayers during his crisis.“I owe everything to George Bailey. Help him, dear Father.”“Joseph, Jesus and Mary. Help my friend Mr. Bailey.”“Help my son George tonight.”“He never thinks about himself, God, that’s why he’s in trouble.”“Please, God. Something’s the matter with Daddy.”The stars twinkle and the powers of heaven act.“This is a movie about faith, family, sacrifice and redemption,” said Greydanus. “But there’s a bigger picture here, and that’s the intercession of the saints. ... George Bailey really had a wonderful life and all of the people he touched call out on his behalf. Their prayers are heard and God sends help.“There’s nothing cynical and ironic about it. That’s why this movie still connects with people.”

There's more to say, but: Enjoy the podcast.

Categories: Main

Silent sanctuaries full of stories: The Post Gazette chronicles Pittsburgh's golden era

Friday, December 2, 2016

Recently I stumbled upon a collection of photos and prose about my old stomping grounds in western Pennsylvania.

Few places shone with the lights of a thousand churches like Pittsburgh did when steel workers arrived by the boatload from Eastern Europe, bringing their beliefs and clergy with them. Today, many of these buildings are empty and forsaken.

Thus, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has put together a series of beautifully written stories and photos about an era whose “silent sanctuaries” still haunt us today. There are all kinds of fascinating trends stories hiding in these empty buildings and there is no way to talk about them all in this one post. Readers really need to click around and explore all of this.

In the early 1990s, I lived just north of Pittsburgh; a place where churches were named after saints I’d never heard of (St. Canice, anyone?) and there were churches founded by people groups (think Carpatho-Russians) I’d never heard of.

But even then it was clear that the tiny city I lived in could not support five Catholic parishes. Starting around 1993, the Diocese of Pittsburgh began closing churches, much to the dismay of many Catholics who didn’t want to see their beautiful, historic buildings shuttered. I remember attending one candlelight vigil for a closing church on the city’s South Side. My reporting on the closings nettled then-Bishop Donald Wuerl (now ensconced in Washington, D.C. as Cardinal Wuerl) to the point where he summoned me to his office to ask why I was so troublesome.

The parishioners left out in the cold deserved a voice, I told him; a voice he didn’t seem to be hearing. Nevertheless, churches continued to close and this fall, the Post-Gazette chronicled how these empty places symbolize a glory this part of the country once knew. The lead article begins thus:

As they gathered over a banquet of roast chicken and rissole potatoes on May 30, 1948, members of Our Lady Help of Christians Catholic Church had every reason to think the future of their Larimer parish would be as golden as the 50th anniversary they were celebrating that night.In its first half century, the parish had been a spiritual and cultural hub for the Italian immigrant community, officially witnessing some 2,918 marriages and 1,3125 baptisms. And the landmark sanctuary -- with its deep, round-arched windows and its trio of golden-colored domes -- stood as a point of pride for the neighborhood. ...But the parish would close its doors just over 40 years later, with many of its congregants having long since moved to eastern suburbs and blended into the American melting pot…(After closing in 2008), the church has stood silent, its windows and doors boarded up like those of some other houses on its block. Ragged vines cling to the church walls, graffiti mars the Corinthian pillars and there’s more tarnish than gleam to the domes. Inside, the bare, cavernous sanctuary has been strewn with litter and marred by blasphemous graffiti.

The photos that go with this blog entry are of Our Lady Help of Christians. The lead reporter, religion beat veteran Peter Smith, reminds us that Pittsburgh’s story is not unique and the same story repeats itself across the Rust Belt. In other words, this is a story about religion, culture, demographics, economics and politics -- symbolized in these empty sanctuaries.

Inside Pittsburgh city limits alone, he located nearly two dozen former churches and synagogues in various stages of decay. Some have been re-purposed into restaurants, breweries, banquet halls and even a mosque. And not all unused churches are Catholic. He located Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal and Eastern Orthodox churches in a similar state.   

One reason for this series is that the Catholic diocese is about to close even more churches on a scale similar to what I covered 22 years ago. Soon there will be more silent sanctuaries.

What interested me was the why churches have closed. Partly it’s because of the disappearance of the steel mills. Partly it’s the allure of the suburbs as the area about 20 miles north of Pittsburgh is where churches are expanding. In many cases, ethic congregations are failing to evangelize their second and third generations. Or it’s the whole trend toward more Americans simply not attending church.

Anyway, call up the story, then click on one of 22 photos of closed churches or synagogues. There appears several more photos, as well as a map to where the house of worship sits; the year it opened, the year it closed, what sort of architectural style it has and its denominational history.

There’s tons of historical tidbits. At Shady Avenue Christian Assembly east of downtown, we learn that when it was a Presbyterian church, novelist Willa Cather had a hand in its founding. At Torath Chaim, a disused synagogue east of downtown, its founders stipulated in the synagogue’s constitution that all financial accounts must be done in Yiddish. A decrepit Lutheran church on the city’s North Side once had a Bible study for 600 men.

So many powerful stories.

As you page through the different stories of each congregation, it’s clear the huge amount of work that went into compiling the statistics on these places, looking up property deeds, taking the photos, running down the current owners and making one last written record of when the enormous blue collar segment of this industrial city was in the pews.

Old buildings are notoriously tough to keep up, which is why many of these congregations figured they could save money by abandoning these places, move to a growing neighborhood and invest in more modern digs. But the warehouse experience of many of today’s churches will never carry the history in its walls for people to remember.

It is one thing to capture a trend. It’s another to portray the lack of a trend and; the people who aren’t in these churches and temples any more. The Post Gazette, through the work of many photographers, writers and editors, knew that Pittsburgh’s past was glorious, but on its way to being forgotten. Their presentation calls up the memories and puts them on the record.

The Post Gazette is not a huge paper, but its staff did a huge thing. Would that many more media would copy them.

Photos by Peter Smith. Used with permission. 

Categories: Main

Save this New York Times Sunni-Shiite conflict backgrounder while awaiting Trump's moves

Friday, December 2, 2016

The New York Times -- still outclassing its Americans rivals in Middle East coverage -- has served up a valuable historical overview of the Saudi-Iranian proxy war conflict. It's not only worth reading, it's worth saving for those deadline moments when a quick history check is in order.

I've posted here before about the Saudi-Iranian competition for Middle East domination. I've also posted on the ongoing, multi-angled coverage of Saudi Arabia at the Times.

Why so much attention to this topic? And how might President-elect Donald Trump handle the situation?

 First question first.

Why, because the conflict, at its root a continuation of Islam's historic, internal holy war between the religion's majority Sunnis (read, Saudi Arabia) and minority Shiites (read, Iran) is at the core of today's seemingly endless Middle East bloodshed.

(Yes, it's the Sunni-Shiite contest, inflamed by the political maneuvering of a coven of regional authoritarian Muslim governments, plus Russia, that's at the root of the chaos. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as central as is to these two actors, long ago took a backseat to the Islamic sectarian war.)

Here's how the Times historical overview explains it, starting with the lede:

Behind much of the Middle East’s chaos -- the wars in Syria and Yemen, the political upheaval in Iraq and Lebanon and Bahrain -- there is another conflict.Saudi Arabia and Iran are waging a struggle for dominance that has turned much of the Middle East into their battlefield. Rather than fighting directly, they wield and in that way worsen the region’s direst problems: dictatorship, militia violence and religious extremism.The history of their rivalry tracks -- and helps to explain -- the Middle East’s disintegration, particularly the Sunni-Shiite sectarianism both powers have found useful to cultivate. It is a story in which the United States has been a supporting but constant player, most recently by backing the Saudi war in Yemen, which kills hundreds of civilians. These dynamics, scholars warn, point toward a future of civil wars, divided societies and unstable governments.F. Gregory Gause III, an international relations scholar at Texas A&M University, struggled to name another region that had been torn apart in this way. Central Africa could be similar, he suggested, referring to the two decades of interrelated wars and genocides that, driven by meddling regional powers, killed five million. But in the Middle East, it is just getting started.

Following that lede, The Times story segues into history, starting with Iran's Islamic 1979 Islamic revolution.

Saudi Arabia, a young country pieced together only in the 1930s, has built its legitimacy on religion. By promoting its stewardship of the holy sites at Mecca and Medina, it could justify its royal family’s grip on power.Iran’s revolution, in 1979, threatened that legitimacy. Iranians toppled their authoritarian government, installing Islamists who claimed to represent “a revolution for the entire Islamic world,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.The revolutionaries encouraged all Muslims, especially Saudis, to overthrow their rulers as well.But because Iran is mostly Shiite, they “had the greatest influence with, and tended to reach out to, Shia groups,” Dr. Pollack said.

It should be noted that the 1979 revolution, which included the takeover of the U.S. embassy and the taking of American hostages, was the spark that ignited what us old timers refer to as the golden age of American newspaper religion journalism.

Suddenly, editors realized they had no one on staff to explain the importance of religion in the Middle East. Suddenly, religion reporters were in demand and religion sections proliferated as editors -- I like to think prodded by their newly minted religion reporters -- realized that important religion stories  existed in their own backyards, too.

But I digress. So let's get back to the Saudi-Iranian theme. And let's do it with a question -- a big one, alluded to above.

Question: How will President-elect Donald Trump deal with this mess?

Answer: We really don't know, do we?

I'm not about to indulge in bottomless speculation about Trump and the Middle East. It will all unfold in due course. But we do know that candidate Trump was insistent that he'd move to untangle the U.S. from the international Iranian nuclear deal. Even if he did so fully, that wouldn't mean the deal is dead. Read this European Union statement underscoring its continued support for the deal.

Still, the Saudis and other Persian Gulf (or Arab Gulf, as they prefer to call it) Sunni states would applaud him (as would Israel).

We also know that candidate Trump campaigned on cooperating with Russian President Vladimir Putin in fighting Sunni ISIS. But that would align the U.S. with Syria (ruled by the Shiite offshoot, the Alawites) and Iran, and in opposition to the Saudis and their Sunni allies.

And let's not forget the Trump business empire's highly valuable assets -- click here and then here -- in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Sunni Gulf, and the president-elect's proclivity, so far, for mixing his business with the nation's business.

So who knows what he'll do?

In the meantime, keep in mind the daily toll the Saudi-Iranian religious rivalry takes in Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East -- Syria and Iraq in particular.

Hold onto that Times historical overview for future reference. It may help on deadline. Sadly, it won't save any lives.

Categories: Main

Hopping on, once again, the old GetReligionista merry-go-round ...

Thursday, December 1, 2016

If there really is "nothing new under the sun," I suppose a return to GetReligion isn't really "news," however pleasant it might be for a particular writer.

But here I am again, friends, happily climbing into the saddle to critique -- well, whatever tmatt and company permit.

There will be one exception. I will not be taking on the Deseret News, where I served 20 months as a national team reporter covering faith and freedom. That's a fine paper with good people, but having been in their employ, I can't be as fair-minded as you should expect a GetReligionista to be.

There remains, of course, a ton of material out there to examine, so, the Good Lord willing, I won't be short of subjects.

Take, for example, that religious freedom divide. That very timely subject -- though I agree with the crew here that we could all do without the "scare quotes," please -- is a particular interest to me. This blog has always been concerned with First Amendment issues, on both sides of the equation (religious liberty and freedom of the press).

So, too, is the way the media does (or doesn't) understand religious movements with which they are unfamiliar.

Don't ask why, but the Daily Beast seems to stand out in my memory on that topic, if, in fact, that is a mainstream news source. Sometimes it is and, well, sometimes we all wonder about that.

The misunderstandings, of course, aren't limited to 19th-century born American religious groups. The recent kerfuffle at The New Yorker over just what denomination Betsy DeVos is affiliated with, ably discussed by tmatt, is a good example.

Another that will likely resurface in the months ahead is the connection, or lack thereof, between President-designate Donald J. Trump (who actually becomes President-elect after the Dec. 19 Electoral College vote) and the Marble Collegiate Church of the Norman Vincent Peale-Arthur Caliandro era. The New York Times took that one on, but again, we'll see more about Trump and his religion in the months ahead. I hope it will be a tad more nuanced than that Times piece.

Anyway, jumping back into the GetReligion mix is a great privilege, and I'm looking forward to the exchanges.

My thanks -- and a salute -- to Jim Davis for his years of good work here, and to you, faithful readers, for sticking with this most useful (IMO) of media criticism websites.

Categories: Main
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