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Washington Post gives blurred report on Muslim prize winner

4 hours 24 min ago

American televangelists have Muslim counterparts, you know. One of them, India's Dr. Zakir Naik, just got the $200,000 King Faisal International Prize in Saudi Arabia for his outreach to some 100 million online viewers -- an outreach seen by many as inspiring, by some as controversial.

The Washington Post offers a rather terse report on the doctor's honor, studded with 15 linked articles and videos. But the story is a mixed bag. It highlights the controversies more than the body of Naik's message. Some of it is blurred or inaccurate. And it scarcely allows the man or his supporters to answer.

The report starts impartially, then quickly turns into j'accuse:

Naik's creed is an expansive one. "Islam is the only religion that can bring peace to the whole of humanity," he said in a video biography aired at the ceremony.The preacher is not short of controversy. His orthodox, Wahhabist views — affiliated closely with the Saudi state — are polarizing in India, which is home to a diverse set of Muslim traditions and sects.

Then comes a laundry list of Naik's pronouncements: 9-11 was an "inside job;" Christians are deceived by Satan; Jews control America; Muslims may have sex with their slaves, and Muslim terrorists do no worse than the U.S. does. The newspaper adds that Sufi Muslims picketed Naik in New Delhi this year, condemning his beliefs as divisive and dangerous.

I'll be blunt: Much of this article rubbed me wrong. As an evangelical Christian, I naturally don’t share the religious conclusions of Naik or any other Muslim. Nor do I have much patience for conspiracy theories or moral equivalencies with terrorists. But as an evangelical Christian, I also know what it's like to be caricatured with stereotypes and biased reporting.

But let's look closer.

To start, the Post blurs things by calling Wahhabi Islam the same as orthodoxy. Millions of Muslims hold the six basic beliefs of the faith -- God, angels, prophets, scriptures, destiny, a day of judgment -- without accepting the political, puritanical aspects of Wahhabism.

Another blur: The Post picks out a video from Naik's YouTube channel called "Who is deceived by the Satan, Christians or Muslims?" Sounds sinister, eh? Well, in the video, it's an avowed born-again Christian who asks Naik during a Q&A: "How confident is Islam that it is not deceived by Satan?"

The item on Jews, now -- that sounds accurate if you compare it with the linked video. Answering a question from the audience, Naik says the Quran predicts that "Jews, as a whole, will be our staunchest enemies." He then goes outside the Quran and says that "Today, America is controlled by the Jews ... No one can be the president of U.S.A. without walking the Star of David."

For the "inside job" claim, the Washington Post link doesn't lead to the video as advertised, but the New York Times does.  In that video, Naik does sound like a vintage conspiracist: rattling on about 75 American scientists doubting the government's account, and that the Twin Towers couldn't melt from burning jet fuel, and that there was no "drag mark" at the impact site of the Pentagon, etc. He sums up: "It is a blatant, open secret that this attack on the Twin Towers was done by George Bush himself."

Naik's reply? "Naik's supporters argue that his comments are taken out of context," the Post says, without elaborating. But the New York Times article to which it links offers a fuller explanation:

Dr. Naik often deflects when talking about Muslim violence. Asked by phone about the Islamic State, he said he was against its actions if the media had reported them correctly, although he said he had no way of knowing.Years ago, he gave a similar answer about Osama bin Laden, saying he could not judge since he did not know the man. But Dr. Naik also said he supported him if he was fighting the United States.“If he is terrorizing America the terrorist, the biggest terrorist, I am with him,” he said. “Every Muslim should be a terrorist.”

So yeah, that’s a scary viewpoint, not to mention ignorant. The Post adds that we Americans are still friends with Naik's new friends:

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Saudi Arabia late Wednesday to consult with Salman on the status of negotiations with Iran, a Saudi foe. The United States' close relationship with Saudi Arabia endures despite the kingdom's horrific human rights record and its conspicuous role in helping spread the views preached by Islamic supremacists such as Naik.

On the whole, the Washington Post, the New York Times and other media are right to put someone like Zakir Naik on our radar. But if you're going to report by a patchwork of links, better make sure they work. Make sure also that they say what you claim they do.

And explain, not just report. If we're going to do more than recoil or lash back, we need more than links to videos and newsclips. We'll have to understand what 100 million people see in this man.



Categories: Main

Lesbian pastor makes FDNY history (on edge of Reformed Church in America)

7 hours 39 min ago

So, The New York Times recently ran a profile of the Rev. Ann Kansfield, the first female chaplain and the first openly gay chaplain in the New York Fire Department. As GetReligion readers would expect, the doctrines of orthodox "Kellerism" were in effect (click here for background on that term), with the Times team making no attempts whatsoever to explore any points of view other that those of people thrilled about this event.

So what else is news? Well, this time around the story did manage to contain a few hints that the denominational history behind this woman's ministry is a bit more complex, and interesting, than the culture wars triumph on the surface.

First, there is the rebel-with-a-cause lede:

Maybe it is her short, spiky hair, or the cigarettes, which she gives to the men repairing the wiring in her Brooklyn apartment. Maybe it is because she swears. For whatever reason, the Rev. Ann Kansfield does not fit the stereotype of a minister.Not that she is worried about meeting anyone’s expectations for what a clergywoman should say or do.“We shouldn’t have to hide ourselves or worry about being judged,” Ms. Kansfield, who ministers at the Greenpoint Reformed Church, said.

Now, remember the name of that church and the "Reformed" reference.

You see, this story is pretty predictable -- when it comes to New York City culture. However, if you read between the lines, it's offers interesting glimpses into the state of life in the Reformed Church in America, a small, declining flock that is perched right between the world of liberal, oldline Protestantism and the rapidly evolving world of evangelical culture. RCA leaders are trying to figure out which direction to fall.

So, is Ms. Kansfield an ordained RCA minister or what? That's a long story, a fact that someone at the Times is familiar with, since the newspaper covered her complex story back in 2006. Thus, readers are told in the new story:

Ms. Kansfield is familiar with the sort of institutional resistance that long marked the Fire Department. The New York branch of the Reformed Church in America would not ordain her, despite her being deemed “fit for ministry” by her seminary professors. She was instead ordained through the United Church of Christ. (Because the two denominations recognize each other’s clergy members, she is able to preach in the Reformed Church.)

Now, would it help if readers also knew that the president of the seminary that backed her ordination -- New Brunswick Theological Seminary -- was her father, the Rev. Norman Kansfield? Instead of that crucial fact, readers are simply told:

Ms. Kansfield, in her ministry and in her own life, has not always taken the path of least resistance.When she and her partner, Jennifer Aull, also a pastor at Greenpoint, wanted to marry, they asked Ms. Kansfield’s father, a minister in the Reformed Church, to officiate. He did and as a result, he was no longer allowed to minister, though he was later permitted to resume his clerical duties.

So the father was out of pulpit, but then he was allowed back in, while his daughter was ordained outside the church -- in the most doctrinally liberal oldline Protestant denomination -- and then allowed back in. Interesting. Might they be somewhat controversial in the RCA?

This brings us back to the church she leads, with her spouse -- Greenpoint Reformed Church. Note that Aull is also ordained. By whom? And what about that congregation itself? It takes about 90 active members to pay the salary of one pastor and surely that number must be higher in Brooklyn. So this church has co-pastors and, according to its website, it also has an ordained minister of family programs and a director of its urban hunger ministries.

So this must be a pretty large and important church, right? Actually, the Times notes:

In a sermon last month, she told the 30 or so congregants seated in the dark pews of her small chapel that they would fail in their efforts to live free of sin.

That's interesting and raises, for me as a reporter, a few questions. How did the pastor of such a small flock come to the attention of the the NYFD, landing such a historic appointment? Also, how is the church supporting its large staff with so few members in attendance? And one more: What is the denominational affiliation of Greenpoint Reformed Church these days?

Maybe I missed a reference, but I don't think there is an RCA reference on the Greenpoint website. However, it appears that Greenpoint is still in the RCA. Might this small church also be receiving quite a bit of financial support from its denomination? Government money for the hunger programs? These would an interesting and symbolic facts to know. Clearly, this tiny church is connected, somewhere.

Does any of this matter as much as the historic nature of Ms. Kansfield's FDNY appointment?

That is not my point. I am simply saying that this story raises some interesting questions about this important woman's ministry as a whole, in a national denomination that is clearly changing rapidly (at least in the Northeast). A few more sentences of content about the CHURCH in this story would have been helpful. That is, if the church matters.

Categories: Main

A Catholic priest, an Anglican bishop and a Baptist mom walk into a North Carolina family home ...

11 hours 18 min ago

In the late 1970s, my dad preached for a little Church of Christ in Elkin, N.C., a small town about 45 miles west of Winston-Salem.

We lived there for a year or two when I was in elementary school. I must have been 10 or 11 years old.

I remember that we lived in a church-provided home with a large basement where my brother Scott, sister Christy and I enjoyed playing hide-and-seek. I remember that a neighbor man owned a small store and always gave me a 5-cent-a-pack discount on baseball cards because my dad was a minister. I remember that we had a pet guinea pig named Snowball (she was white, as you might have guessed).

I remember that adults used to smoke cigarettes in the church parking lot after services, and nobody thought anything of it because we lived in tobacco country. I remember that the first time I experienced a shopping mall or a Chick-fil-A came on a trip to the big city of Winston-Salem. I remember that two Catholic popes died one right after the other in 1978 and kept interrupting my cartoons with news reports. 

My time in Elkin was 35-plus years ago, and I don't think about it much anymore.

But my memories came flooding back this week when I came across a Wall Street Journal story about two twin brothers raised in that same town. (Hint: If you get a paywalled version of the story when you click the link, copy and paste the headline and Google it. Generally, the Journal will let you view the full text if you find the story that way.)

Twin Baptist brothers find new faith, become Roman Catholic priest and Anglican bishop

— Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) March 4, 2015

The story concerns how the brothers, who grew up in a Baptist household, "found their way to two different faiths," as the Journal describes it. GetReligion readers can debate whether they actually found their way to two different faiths or simply chose different versions of the same faith. Either way, it's a fascinating feature.

The top of the story:

Many people change faiths, but not like Brad and Chad Jones.Identical twins, the brothers grew up in Elkin, N.C., a small town in the Bible Belt, the only children of devout Baptists. As boys, they attended the First Baptist Church of Elkin, studied Scripture, went to vacation Bible school and sang in the choir, as did many of their cousins, classmates and neighbors.Today, Brad, 43, is a Roman Catholic priest in the Diocese of Charlotte, and Chad is an Anglican bishop in Atlanta. Their parents, Jo Anne and Robert, remain faithful members of their Baptist congregation. When their sons visit, each celebrates mass according to his own rite in the dining room or living room of what has become a very ecumenical Jones household.More than half of the U.S. adult population has changed religious affiliations at least once during their lives, most before they reach 50, according to a 2009 Faith in Flux report by the Pew Research Center. In many cases, the move is from one major religious tradition to another, say, Protestantism to Catholicism, but it also includes those who leave organized religion altogether.

A little later, readers learn more about the brothers' religious journeys:

Tucked in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Elkin is a rural working-class community, historically dominated by farms and mills and the Baptist Church. The Jones family blended in, their father working for a large building contractor and their mother a homemaker.The boys were well-behaved and inseparable. Kindred souls, as preschoolers they spoke to each other in “twin language,” their mother said, using words that no one else understood. Neither was athletic, but both were musically inclined, joining the choir at the age of 6 and later playing in the high school marching band. Father Brad played the tuba and sousaphone. Bishop Chad, the more outgoing of the two, was the drum major his senior year. They were avid readers, digesting encyclopedias and discussing them.“They were always in a corner, reading a book,” says Mrs. Jones.Like many kids, in their early teen years they began questioning things, including the teachings of the Baptist Church, she says. Their curiosity was piqued in large part by an older, much-respected cousin, who lived in Greensboro and had recently converted to Catholicism. During one visit, their cousin took the boys, then about 12 or 13, to Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church. It was their first time inside a Catholic church. That Sunday morning remains 30 years later one of their most vivid memories.

Although this story doesn't mention it, Bishop Chad first switched to the Episcopal Church as a teenager, then became an Anglican in college.

Meanwhile, the Journal does a nice job of explaining the major theological difference between the brothers: disagreement on the authority of the pope.

It's definitely an interesting read. Check it out, and be sure to leave a comment or tweet us at @GetReligion if you've ever heard of Elkin, N.C.

Image: Me, holding Snowball, with my brother Scott and sister Christy

Categories: Main

Fine Sports Illustrated salute to Dean Smith, yet haunted by one ghostly error

Thursday, March 5, 2015

What we need here is a sports metaphor that will help me make a larger point about an amazing feature story that ran recently in Sports Illustrated, a tribute to the late, great University of North Carolina hoops coach Dean Smith.

This long and detailed piece story ran under the headline, "Hail and Farewell." The subhead provided the sad context: "Five years ago, amid his sad decline, the coach's former players and assistants found a way to say to him what he had always told them: Thank you."

I would love to link to this feature and share some of the finer points in it, in large part because both of my parents experienced dementia, of one form or another, in the last years of their lives. This SI story does a very sensitive job of dealing with the emotions involved in relating to loved ones caught in that bittersweet stage of life.

I would like to link to the piece, but I can't -- because it is behind a firewall, as is often the case with the best SI material (as opposed to swimsuit issue outtakes). I hope to add such a link in the future.

Anyway, my goal here is to praise this article, while also noting a really strange error at the end, during the crucial final passage. What I need here is a metaphor that links sports and religion to help readers understand the nature of this strange error.

Let's try this one, which uses a sports reference in a religion story, as opposed to this SI piece in which there is a timely religion reference in a sports story.

OK, let's say that you are reading a long, very detailed feature story about a world-famous preacher, like Tim Keller in New York City. It's a fine story and it offers all kinds of interesting and poignant insights into his life and work.

But right near the end, the article mentions this preacher being affected by reading a book written by -- this is the reference in my pretend article -- the "tennis player Jack Nicklaus."

At that moment, wouldn't you stop, puzzled, and say to yourself, "Wait a minute. Jack Nicklaus isn't a tennis player. He's a golfer. How could anyone mix that up?" You might even think, how could the team that produced this otherwise fantastic article include such a strange error of fact? You might conclude that the editors didn't take sports all that seriously. You might even think that this error indicates that the editors missed other sport-related themes in this otherwise fine piece.

What does this have to do with Dean Smith? The final anecdote in this piece describes a night in 1965 when Smith, as a young coach at UNC-Chapel Hill, crashed emotionally after a stunning 22-point loss to, of all schools, Wake Forest University. The players had even found "their coach hung in effigy" outside their own gym. The story then states:

Two years later Smith would reach his first 11 Final Fours, In another nine years he'd lead the U.S. to an Olympic gold medal, and by 1983 he'd be elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. But in the aftermath of that moment outside the gym, somewhere in the bottom he had just hit, Smith found an unlikely strength.

Wait for it.

His sister, Joan, gave him a book by the theologian Catherine Marshall called Beyond Ourselves. From reading one chapter, 'The Power of Helplessness," Smith gradually accepted the futility of pretending that we can control the forces that act upon us. That realization proved to be both liberating and empowering, a glorious paradox alien to his chosen profession: Surrender and you shall be free.

But wait, the careful reader might say, Catherine Marshall wasn't a "theologian."

This famous scribe was a novelist and the writer of popular devotional -- evangelistic, even -- works for the laity, not weighty tomes of theology for academics. She was the wife of a powerful New York City evangelist and preacher (and U.S. Senate chaplain). Did the writer of the piece think, basically, that anyone who writes about God is a "theologian"? Was the goal to avoid calling her one of the superstars of evangelical Christian fiction and apologetics?

Most strange. Would it even have been accurate to call her a "lay theologian"? I think so. Using that term hides her greatness -- at another form of writing, at another calling.

It also makes me wonder about the role that faith played in the life of Dean Smith. Maybe there is a ghost in this story?

Categories: Main

Memories of Mother Teresa and a religious-freedom story worth watching in India

Thursday, March 5, 2015

One of the highlights of my journalism career came in 1982 in Bombay (now Mumbai) where I had the opportunity to conduct a news conference for Mother Teresa, the late Nobel Peace Prize-winning nun and current candidate for Roman Catholic sainthood. The occasion was a conference staged by the International Transpersonal Association. My wife, Ruth, and I handled the press and Mother Teresa was one of the star presenters, hence the news conference opportunity.

Her talk and media comments were boilerplate Mother Teresa. Love the unloved, love the unwanted, love the dying; love, love, love until you think you have no more love to give -- then force yourself to love even more, for that is the way of God.

The diminutive, stoop-shouldered nun repeated some variation of that formula endlessly, in her talk and in response to every question asked at her news conference, and I, for one, was impressed. So it came of something of a shock to me years later when she famously admitted -- despite her popular image of saintly devotion to the poorest of the poor and the global public's assumption that her faith gave her the strength to persevere -- that she suffered for years from a spiritual dryness that distanced her from feeling connected to her God.

I'm sure that long ago news conference was just another day on the job for Mother Teresa. For me, though, it was a day to remember.

Mother Teresa, however, was a controversial personality, despite all the charitable work done by her and the order she founded, the Missionaries of Charity. Critics abounded, including the late atheist icon Christopher Hitchens. She was attacked for cozying up to the likes of Yasser Arafat and Jean-Claude Duvalier, ostensibly doing so for the large donations they sent her way (in return for reputation burnishing photo-ops). She was criticized in India and abroad for operating what were viewed as substandard medical and other facilities, which they certainly were by Western standards, and for her organization's alleged loose bookkeeping.

Mother Teresa died in 1997. Yet she continues to be a controversial figure, not least of all in the nation to which she devoted her life, India, as evidence by the recent words of the leader of the Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Mohan Bhagwat. He sparked a firestorm (in news media in India, anyway) by saying her work was tainted by her desire to gain Christian converts from among those she served. The RSS doubled down on his charge by demanding that the Indian government enact an anti-conversion law to stop coerced conversions it claims stem from "false promises, forceful or other wrong means," according to The Hindu, a leading English-language Indian newspaper.

This is not the first time Mother Teresa has been so charged (Missionaries of Charity leaders have denied the accuracy of this and the other criticisms leveled against her). And it surely won't be the last, because majority Hindu India, the world's most populous democracy and a burgeoning economic power, has serious ongoing religious tolerance problems that bear close watching by journalists and others. They have the potential to undercut the nation's democratic foundation.

For instance, a recent Pew Research Center report on global religious restrictions and hostilities singled out India as having "the highest level of social hostilities involving religion" among the world’s most populous countries.

Hindus, who account for more than 800 million people, or more than 80 percent of the population, dominate culturally and politically. The current Indian government is led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), another Hindu nationalist organization, which believes strongly in governing India in accordance with Hindu values. The RSS has been described as the BJP's ideological wellspring.

But India also has the world's third largest Muslim population, despite Islam accounting for only about 15 percent of the nation's 1.2 billion-and-counting people. Great antagonism's between Indian Hindus and Muslims date back to before the subcontinent's horrific rendering into majority Hindu India and majority Muslim Pakistan (and later Bangladesh). These conflicts often flare into deadly rioting between Hindus and Muslims.

Then there's the ongoing and occasionally bloody military standoff between India and Pakistan over political control of Jammu and Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state. Nor is foreign Muslim terrorism against Hindu and national targets unknown. (Under Modi, once chilly relations between India and Israel have grown warmer, in part because both fear Muslim terror. New Delhi "is concerned that Islamist groups are out to radicalize members of the 180 million people strong Muslim minority in India or recruit Indian Muslims for 'holy war' in the Middle East," The Globalist Website noted recently.)

Perhaps what is most surprising in this era of global Muslim discontent, I dare say, is that India's Hindu-Muslim conflict is not worse. The two faith traditions have been in competition since the 7th century, when the First Muslim traders reached India's west coast. There followed a series of Muslim regional invasions in the north and west that culminated in the Muslim Mogul Empire that ruled much of the subcontinent in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Conflict between India's Hindu rulers and the minority Sikh community has also been no small matter.

But my focus here is conflict between India's Hindus and Christians, who account for only 2 to 3 percent of the population. That conflict is underscored by the remark about Mother Teresa uttered by Mohan Bhagwat of the RSS.

If one is to believe the London-based organization Hindu Human Rights (HHR) -- and I have no reason not to, except that an admittedly cursory Web search turned up little in support or critical of this organization that I do not know well -- Hindus are being physically attacked, discriminated against and misunderstood around the world and on a regular basis; in neighboring Muslim states, by Buddhists (I've seen this myself in Bhutan, where temporary Indian Hindu laborers are treated horrendously) and by Christians as well. Just the other day, HHR posted a piece, picked up from the Website of New Delhi Television (NDTV, a leading Indian channel) saying that an 11-year-old Hindu girl attending a Christian school in India was forced to stand outside her school for two hours because she was wearing a tilak, the distinctive red forehead dot that has religious and cultural significance and is pervasive in India (it's also known as a bindi). To be punished in India for sporting a tilak seems to me as unlikely as being admonished for wearing a cross in St. Peter's Square.

Christianity is India's third largest religion, despite claiming such a small percentage of the national population. Thomas the Apostle is traditionally believed to have first introduced the faith to what is now India in year 52 of the Common Era. Today, India's 24-million-plus Christians belong to Roman Catholic, Eastern Rite Catholic, Oriental Orthodox and Protestant churches, and live, mainly, along the nation's long coastline and its northeast.

With relatively so few Christians, why all the concern about Hindus leaving the fold via conversion to Christianity because of the now-deceased Mother Teresa? Why has Bhagwat made it a headline-grabbing issue now? What is behind this story?

Could the deeper threat on his mind be economic and cultural globalization, seen in so much of Asia and Africa as a particularly insidious form of contemporary Western colonialism? Is Bhagwat echoing what so many in the Muslim world say, that globalization, with it's ostensibly secular but in actuality progressive Western Christian values, threatens to undermine and eventually replace the historic values of non-Western cultures? (I say a lot more about this in my book, "Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization: Making Sense of Economic and Cultural Upheaval.")

Remember that it's not that long since a heavy British hand -- colonialism at perhaps its most romantic, though no less exploitative -- ruled the Hindu homeland. And as is evident in much of today's global turmoil, the colonized do not soon forgive the indignities suffered, both real and imagined, at the hands of the colonizer.

This, then, is the story behind Indian Hindu annoyance expressed as criticism of Mother Teresa. As a Christian, the standard bearer for Western religion and culture, for many she stands in here as a proxy spear tip for Western colonialism -- whatever her motives. It's a story that is not going to go away.

PHOTO: Ira Rifkin with Mother Teresa, during that 1982 press conference.

Categories: Main

Sorry, Southern Baptists: AP slants Alabama same-sex marriage coverage in favor of gay-rights advocates

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Associated Press' quick-hit, 800-word coverage Tuesday night concerning the Alabama Supreme Court halting same-sex marriage licenses in that state seemed relatively straightforward and factual. It read like an unbiased news report.

BREAKING: Alabama Supreme Court halts same-sex marriage; contradicts previous ruling by federal judge.

— The Associated Press (@AP) March 4, 2015

MORE: All-Republican Alabama Supreme Court orders judges to stop issuing marriage licenses to gay couples:

— The Associated Press (@AP) March 4, 2015

"Bias" is, of course, contrary to AP's stated news values and principles.

Alas, AP's second-day, 1,000-word coverage Wednesday had a different look and feel than the breaking news. It read like advocacy masquerading as straight news.

A defiant Alabama regains ground against gay marriage

— Yahoo News (@YahooNews) March 4, 2015

Let's start at the top of the Day 2 report:

Alabama's stand against same-sex marriage regained ground Wednesday after the state's highest court ruled that its ban remains legal, despite federal court pressure to begin issuing licenses to gays and lesbians. But advocates said they're not giving up either — and that the justices in Montgomery will find themselves on history's losing side.The Alabama Supreme Court ordered county probate judges to uphold the state ban pending a final ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which hears arguments in April on whether gay couples nationwide have a fundamental right to marry and whether states can ban such unions.Stuck between the state's highest court and a series of federal rulings, many probate judges were at a loss early Wednesday. Mobile County, one of the state's largest, initially announced that it wouldn't issue licenses to anyone, straight or gay.By mid-day, gay rights advocates couldn't find a single county still granting licenses to same-sex couples.Dean Lanton said he and his partner, Randy Wells, had planned to wed in Birmingham on Aug. 12, the anniversary of their first date, but now might have to get married out of state because of the decision."It was a punch in the gut. It was out of the blue," said Lanton, 54. "It's just Alabama politics, deja vu from the 1960s."

After (1) Lanton, AP proceeds to quote directly (2) a Democratic county probate judge skeptical about the ruling, (3) the chairman of an Alabama gay-rights group who pledges a continued fight, (4) an attorney for a lesbian couple who challenged the state's ban on gay marriage and (5) the legal director of the Human Rights Campaign, a prominent gay-rights organization.

Anybody picking up a theme here?

Not until three-fourths of the way into the story does AP get around to quoting anyone on the other side: a county probate judge who posted on his Facebook page that he's "saddened for my nation that the word 'marriage' has been hijacked by couples who cannot procreate."

What about the Southern Baptist group that asked for the Alabama Supreme Court ruling (in a state with an estimated 1.2 million Southern Baptists and 2 million total evangelicals out of an overall population of 4.8 million)? 

No worries: AP includes an entire sentence on them near the bottom of the story:

The Southern Baptist-affiliated Alabama Citizens Action Program and the Alabama Policy Institute, a conservative think tank, had asked for Tuesday's ruling, "concerned about the family and the danger that same-sex marriage will have," said Joe Godfrey, executive director of ACAP.

That quote was a shortened version of the statement that AP included in its first-day story:

"We are concerned about the family and the danger that same-sex marriage will have. It will be a devastating blow to the family, which is already struggling," Godfrey said. 

Apparently, no such tightening of a quote from a lesbian couple's attorney was needed. His full quote appears in both stories — and up much higher than the Baptist quote on the second day:

"The Alabama Supreme Court has now demonstrated a willingness to defy and nullify a decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and the federal district court for the southern district of Alabama," said David Kennedy, who represented the couple whose case resulted in Granade's ruling.

In all, the Day 2 report contains 186 words of direct quotes supporting the same-sex marriage cause and 35 words of direct quotes from proponents of traditional marriage between one man and one woman.

If AP really abhors "bias" in its news reporting, it needs to a do a whole lot better job of showing it.

Categories: Main

Washington Post runs Spock-tacular story on Leonard Nimoy

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Whenever Trekkies flash Spock's Vulcan "Live Long and Prosper" sign, they're actually borrowing from Judaism, Leonard Nimoy often said. That fact came to the fore in numerous retrospects after Nimoy's death Feb. 27.

"People don’t realize they're blessing each other with this!" he says in one of the better stories, based on a recorded interview reported by the Post.

Nimoy became a photographer, a director, a narrator, even a singer over his career. But his best-known role was, of course, Spock, the logic-minded alien in three TV seasons and eight films based on the original Star Trek. The religious/spiritual gesture? Abby Ohlheiser of the Washington Post nails it in the first two paragraphs:

Leonard Nimoy first saw what became the famous Vulcan salute, “live long and prosper,” as a child, long before “Star Trek” even existed. The placement of the hands comes from a childhood memory, of an Orthodox Jewish synagogue service in Boston.The man who would play Spock saw the gesture as part of a blessing, and it never left him. “Something really got hold of me,” Nimoy said in a 2013 interview with the National Yiddish Book Center.

The story is absorbing both on a personal and religious level. Ohlheiser, with contributions by ace religion writer Michelle Boorstein, fills in Nimoy's Ukrainian background and upbringing in Boston. His acquaintance with Yiddish led him to helping support the book center.

In a little disclosure, Ohlheiser says she worked at the book center as a college student. Her experience led her to ask about anything that Nimoy had done there, leading to the gold mine of the recorded interview.

Religiously, the story is, as Spock might say, fascinating:

“This is the shape of the letter shin,” Nimoy said in the 2013 interview, making the famous “V” gesture. The Hebrew letter shin, he noted, is the first letter in several Hebrew words, including Shaddai (a name for God), Shalom (the word for hello, goodbye and peace) and Shekhinah, which he defined asthe feminine aspect of God who supposedly was created to live among humans.”The Shekhinah, Nimoy has said, was also the name of the prayer he participated in as a boy that inspired the salute. The prayer, meant to bless the congregation, is named after the feminine aspect of God, Nimoy explained in a 2012 post on the “Star Trek” site. “The light from this Deity could be very damaging. So we are told to protect ourselves by closing our eyes,” he wrote in the blog.“They get their tallits over their heads, and they start this chanting,” Nimoy says in the 2013 interview, “And my father said to me, ‘don’t look’.” At first he obliged, but what he could hear intrigued him. “I thought, ‘something major is happening here.’ So I peeked. . And I saw them with their hands stuck out from beneath the tallit like this,” Nimoy said, showing the “V” with both his hands. “I had no idea what was going on, but the sound of it and the look of it was magical.”

He plugged the gesture into Star Trek when a storyline had Spock revisiting his homeworld. "I think we should have some special greeting that Vulcans do," he said -- recreating the "Shin" gesture from synagogue.

The idea of Shekhina spurred more than science fiction, as Nimoy told me in a phone interview back in 2003. It also inspired him to try to capture the Shekhina in art photography -- an eight-year project that led to a book of the same name.

To my delight -- probably yours, too -- the Washington Post includes a comparatively generous five-and-a-half-minute video of the interview with Nimoy. Even over 80, he speaks with humor and animation in the video -- a man at ease with his spirituality, his profession, his ethnic heritage, and even the alien persona he bore for five decades.

The video also pops up in some of the other coverage, which reveals other sides of Nimoy's many-faceted life. CNN has an affectionate piece, which scans his roles in such projects as Mission Impossible, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and A Woman Called Golda. There's much on the Jewish "Shin" gesture in International Business Times, which borrows heavily from the book Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish," by Abigail Pogrebin.

There's even a decent effort in The Inquisitr, not the most religious of sites. I say "effort" because it says “Shin” means “Almighty God.” As you know by now, Shin is actually the first letter in Shaddai. Also, the article mentions the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. That was getting a little too Jewish; the title was actually The Wrath of Khan.

 All told, though, the story of Nimoy, the Shin sign and Shekhina stand as a welcome example of how news media can weave spirituality into coverage. This time, it's no mere religious "ghost." More like an acknowledgement of the Holy Ghost.

Categories: Main

Anglican wars update in Fort Worth: Star-Telegram misses a date or two in timeline

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Anglican wars timeline keeps getting longer and longer, as the court cases roll on and on and the lawyers keep cashing the checks. It is very hard for reporters to keep up with all of the details, of course, especially since there are brilliant experts on both sides whose views of the facts clash more often than not.

However, as always, it helps to know what happened when.

Take the case that is unfolding in Fort Worth, Texas, the subject of another amazingly short update in The Star-Telegram. I can understand the temptation to cut to the chase, but the problem with this story is that it is not nearly as complicated as it should be.

The new headline is that the old guard in the local diocese -- doctrinally conservative Anglicans -- won a major victory over the progressive Episcopal Church establishment , which, of course, will now be tested in another court. Let's walk through this story a bit and see where editors needed to plug in a bit more history.

FORT WORTH -- After a bitter, seven-year legal dispute, state District Judge John Chupp ruled Monday that the Episcopalians led by Bishop Jack Iker who broke away from the national Episcopal Church are entitled to an estimated $100 million in property in the 24-county Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.Fort Worth-area Episcopalians who remained loyal to the national Episcopal Church and reorganized the diocese under Bishop Rayford High have the right to appeal the decision.

Now, the key to this case -- from the point of view of the Anglican right -- is that Iker had for years been, and his supporters believe he still is, the leader of the real Fort Worth diocese. He was there first. This story hints at that fact -- note the word "reorganized" in the reference to Bishop High -- but doesn't state it clearly.

Why does that matter?

For generations, one of the key organizational principles for Anglicans has been that local parish property was help in trust by the diocese, not the individual parish council. In most Episcopal Church property battles individual parishes have been fighting to flee their local dioceses and keep their buildings. In this case, Bishop Iker and most of his priests and laypeople voted to take their entire diocese out of the national church. Many Anglicans see that as a radically different departure.

Let's read on:

The schism occurred in 2008 when Iker and a majority of the 56 churches in the diocese broke away from the national church over issues including ordaining of gays and lesbians. ... Chupp’s order reversed his 2011 ruling declaring that the property belonged to the national Episcopal Church for use by the Fort Worth group that chose to remain affiliated with the New York-based denomination.Chupp’s earlier decision was based on what are called “deferential” principles, meaning that state law should defer to the rules of hierarchical religious institutions. An Episcopal Church law, called the “Dennis Canon,” states that church property belongs to denomination, not local dioceses.

Once again, we return to the timeline. It helps to know that the "Dennis Canon" is a relatively new, and still controversial, development in Episcopal life. It was passed (although some argue that this is a murky issue) in 1979 here in the United States, as part of the wars over the ordination of women to the priesthood. The problem, for many, is the tension between this new law and older Anglican traditions.

The Episcopal establishment will note, with good cause, that American laws should rule in American courts. Yet the Episcopal Church is also part of the worldwide Anglican Communion and has the support, to one degree or another, of leaders in the Church of England. However, Iker and the traditional Anglican rebel alliance here in America have the support of the vast majority of the world's Anglican leaders, mostly in Africa, Asia and the Global South.

What to do? Some judges are suggesting that it is hard to choose between the new national rules in America and the older diocesan traditions being cited by Iker and others.

Yet note this next Star-Telegram paragraph:

The Texas Supreme Court overturned that decision and ordered Chupp to rehear the case on “neutral principles” that govern nonreligious organizations. That favored Iker’s group, which several years ago passed several local diocesan ordinances declaring that the Fort Worth diocese, not the national church, owned the property in the diocese.

This reference makes it sound as if the tradition of properties being controlled by the local diocese is a brand new concept, created by Iker and company in the very recent past. Did those ordinances "declare" this fact or affirm older traditions? Stop and think about it: Why was there such a bitter battle in Denver back in 1979 when the national church took the unusual step of creating and passing the Dennis Canon?

As always, I am not saying that journalists need to agree with Iker, or with High for that matter. The key is to understand the arguments being made by experts on both sides.

The bottom line: When dealing with Anglican controversies, it always helps to include specific dates in the timeline, while also remembering that these battles are being fought at the local, regional, national and global levels.

It's complex, tough work. I know that, because I've been covering these wars since the early 1980s. Be careful out there.

Categories: Main

Front-page news in Indianapolis: 5-year-old survey data on 'animus' toward same-sex marriage

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

In a front-page story this week, the Indianapolis Star reported on "the real reason behind opposition to same-sex marriage."

Prepare to be shocked.

Religion plays a role:

Why do you oppose same-sex marriage?Indiana University sociologist Brian Powell posed this question to hundreds of people across the nation as part of a research project.He was curious to see if what people say actually matches the legal arguments being made to justify bans on same-sex marriage.The legal arguments are rooted in public policy considerations. The public responses decidedly were not.From his survey results, published recently in the sociological journal Social Currents, here's one response that reflected the majority of opposition to same-sex marriage: "Because I don't believe God intended them to be that way.""It's beastly," said another. A third: "Well, they're sinners."

What the Star doesn't bother to mention: While Powell's paper was published recently, the survey itself was conducted in 2010 — five years ago.

As you might have noticed, there has been a little publicity on the issue since then — and rapidly changing attitudes, from the American public to the U.S. president. 

"Advocacy research" is how one legal proponent of traditional marriage termed the findings displayed so prominently by the Star. Indeed, the newspaper notes that the paper is part of an amicus brief being filed by the Human Rights Campaign, a prominent gay-rights organization.

According to the paper, 65 percent of same-sex marriage opponents cited religious or moral objections. That doesn't sound too surprising.

However, the "representative responses" out of hundreds surveyed strike me as cherry-picked for shock value:

Because I don’t believe God intended them to be that way. No. I think it’s a travesty. I follow God’s commands. It’s beastly. It’s like sickness, some sickness you know. Mental sickness, physical sickness or something, but it is mental sickness. So it’s not natural. I mean, two—two girlfriends can live together as long as they’re friends. You know, if they don’t have nobody and they’re friends and they’re helping each other survive, if they’re friends, that’s fine. But when they cross that line of becoming lovers, then it’s sick, I think. Because my religion believes that’s an abomination. Because that, marriage, is a sacred thing between a man and a woman that is orchestrated by God, and the Bible clearly says that homosexuality is a sin, it’s perverted, and deviant. That’s all. I don’t know what promotes that kind of garbage. Well, they’re sinners. I think the reason why gays and lesbians want recognition of their marriage as being a valid marriage is because they want their dysfunctional sexuality viewed as normal, when I don’t think it’s normal.

If the Star were to ask random people why they support the government sanctioning only marriage between one man and one woman, would the responses use the same kind of terminology that the research presents as representative? I doubt it. 

Or would, as I suspect, the interviews reveal more subtle and nuanced expressions of concern, as the Washington Post discovered when it highlighted how traditional Oklahoma believers reacted to their lesbian friends' wedding?

Image via Shutterstock

Categories: Main

Shocker! Archbishop Cordileone attempts to defend Catholic Catechism in his schools

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

It’s a sign of the times that the idea of the Catholic archbishop of the nation’s most gay-friendly city standing his ground on sexual practice is front-page news. There’s been quite the media war going on this past month ever since Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone lowered the boom, making it clear how he expects teachers in Catholic high schools to behave.

First, some back story: The San Francisco Chronicle laid out his new requirements in a straightforward piece on Feb. 3:

The conservative Roman Catholic archbishop of San Francisco has developed a new document for Catholic high school faculty and staff clarifying that sex outside of marriage, homosexual relations, the viewing of pornography and masturbation are “gravely evil.”Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s document applies to faculty and staff at four Catholic high schools: Riordan and Sacred Heart in San Francisco, Marin Catholic in Kentfield and Serra High School in San Mateo. It states that administrators, faculty and staff “affirm and believe” the controversial statements, which will be part of the faculty handbook.The document goes on to say that marriage is between “one man and one woman,” despite California law allowing same-sex marriages. It also notes that sperm donation, the use of a surrogate and other forms of “artificial reproductive technology” are also gravely evil.The document notes that while not all staff at the schools are Catholic, they are “required to stand as effective and visible professional participants and proponents of truly Catholic education.” Those who are not Catholic “must refrain” from participating in organizations that “advocate issues or causes contrary to the teachings of the church.”

Apparently this is news to some of the 317 teachers affected by this rule although you must wonder what planet they’ve been on to not know where the Catholic Church stands on these issues. But some Catholic schools have doctrinal covenants of this kind and some do not. Apparently, this document is new.

Next, Cordileone held a closed meeting on Feb. 6 with teachers to explain his side of the story.

A teacher could face punishment or dismissal for “escorting a woman into an abortion clinic, handing out contraception to students or for being a member of a white supremacist group,” Cordileone said, according to a recording made by someone present during the question-and-answer session that followed a morning Mass for school staff. Media were barred from attending.

The team that produced this article got a bunch of quotes from students and parents standing outside of the closed meeting -- all of them opposing the archbishop -- but only found one person (out of the archdiocese’s 444,000 Catholics), and that an 86-year-old woman, who supported Cordileone.

Now think about that. It can’t be that hard to find orthodox Catholics in the city. Ignatius Press is based there and Joseph Fessio, its very conservative founder, is usually happy to talk with the media.

By the time the Chronicle revisited the situation on Feb. 22, there was an online petition signed by more than 6,000 people opposing the updated handbook, a move by the teachers union to negotiate over its language and an open letter from eight California legislators decrying Cardileone’s “message of intolerance.”

Despite the fact that the use of “strict moral code” in the headline is problematic, the piece does give equal weight to Cordileone’s viewpoint in the words of fellow Bishop Robert Vasa of Santa Rosa who said:

“The shock and surprise that the church has standards and that it will actually enforce them should not be happening,” Vasa said. “Of course you need a code of ethics. Look at UPS. They have strict dress codes, hair codes, business conduct codes. Why should the church be different?"

Cordileone then appeared before the Chronicle’s editorial board on Feb. 24 to explain that he’s not going to be spying into peoples’ bedrooms and suggested he was backing down on his earlier stand.

Cordileone said he has no intention of invading private lives. The purpose of his guidelines, he said, is to make sure his teachers’ behavior, and the examples they set in public, don’t contradict bedrock Catholic principles -- which condemn same-sex marriage, abortion and birth control.

In other words, this a battle about defending doctrine. Journalists, of course, don't have to support the doctrines (GetReligion people keep saying that), but they do need to accurately cover both sides of these debates.

The diocese took issue with that piece and issued its own statement disagreeing with the Chronicle’s take on it. The archbishop hasn’t repealed or changed anything, it said.

Now, I covered all of those articles in order to note that The Chronicle’s coverage is a model of propriety compared to certain outside media in other elite zip codes. The piece The Los Angeles Times ran on A1 was indignant.

San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone sparked a protest last summer when he ignored pleas from public officials to cancel his plans to march in Washington, D.C., against same-sex marriage.Now Cordileone has prompted fresh outrage in the liberal Bay Area by imposing morality clauses on teachers, staff and administrators at the four high schools under his control in San Francisco, Marin and San Mateo counties.

Note the editorial language: “ignored pleas,” “promoted fresh outrage,” “imposing morality clauses,” etc. Yes, definitely, this is a return to the Dark Ages.

Then The New York Times weighed in to declare the issue is “stirring San Francisco.” The newspaper of record offered a perfect blast of Kellerism and failed to quote even one local supporter of the archbishop.

Some Catholics have fought back, and there is an interesting story there. Catholic News Agency wrote that some parents have hired a top San Francisco PR firm -- one with a colorful and complex history -- to go after Cordileone. A piece at National Review noted the same thing, saying opponents are “calling in the big guns to fire at San Francisco Archdiocese.”

What no one has reported is that no one forced any of these teachers to work at a Catholic school. In other words, this is another battle over the rights of voluntary, doctrinally defined associations. This is big issue nationwide and getting bigger all the time.

Meanwhile, parochial schools often pay far less than public schools, so it’s often a labor of love for those who work there. Surely employees knew that whatever their sexual practices, they were expected to at least publicly adhere to Catholic teaching in their classrooms or at least not trash these doctrines? If that is not the case, then why didn't they know that?

Categories: Main

Shocker! Erskine College covenant affirms 2,000 years of Christian doctrine on sex

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

GetReligion readers who know a thing or two about religious colleges and universities (also private schools for younger students) know that there is nothing unusual about these institutions asking students, staff and faculty to sign a "doctrinal covenant," often called a "lifestyle covenant," which confuses matters a bit.

This is an issue that frequently comes up in GetReligion critiques of mainstream news coverage, in part because many journalists don't seem to realize that it's normal (think First Amendment, once again) for voluntary associations on both the left and right to ask those who choose to become members to affirm, or at least not to publicly oppose, the goals and teachings (think "doctrines") of these groups. Thus, there is nothing unusual about the leaders of a network that opposes global warming to insist that its members to oppose global warming. There is nothing strange about a group for vegetarians choosing not to have officers who are openly affirm eating meat. Few Jewish groups want Messianic Jews/Southern Baptists as leaders. Ditto for Muslim groups welcoming Zionists.

This brings us to the hands-down winner of the worst headline of last week, care of The Washington Post. Once again, this headline graced one of those strange, brave new journalism (What is this?) "reported blog" pieces that was, nevertheless, promoted by the Post in lists of major news stories. News? Editorial? Who knows? Oh well? Whatever? Nevermind? The headline:

South Carolina college bans homosexuality after two volleyball players come out as gay

Uh, no. I guess this is why the headline was later changed to:

South Carolina college denounces homosexuality after two volleyball players come out as gay

The top of this alleged news piece does contain the text of what appears to be a rather normal doctrinal covenant statement on sexuality, common to those found in the student and faculty handbooks of hundreds of schools in America (Yes, I currently teach at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and, next fall, will be Senior Fellow for Religion and Media at The King's College in New York City).

But first, here is some of the "reported blog" language (as opposed to news copy):

Erskine College in Due West, S.C., describes itself as a “liberal arts” institution, but as far as that freedom applies to the hearts and minds of its students, it seems limited.In response to two male athletes on its volleyball team coming out in an article published on last year, the college, which is aligned with the Associate Reformed Presbyterian tradition, released a strongly worded denouncement of homosexuality on campus that many read to be a behavioral ban. The document, titled “Statement on Human Sexuality,” was submitted by the Student Services and Athletic Committee and adopted by the board of trustees last Friday.

To its credit, the Post then published large chunks of the doctrinal covenant, which does indeed oppose -- in keeping with 2,000 years of Christian orthodoxy -- certain behaviors, as in sex outside of marriage. The key passages include:

“We believe the Bible teaches that monogamous marriage between a man and a woman is God’s intended design for humanity and that sexual intimacy has its proper place only within the context of marriage. ... Sexual relations outside of marriage or between persons of the same sex are spoken of in scripture as sin and contrary to the will of the Creator (Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; 1 Tim. 1:9-11)."

While asking those in the Erskine community to approach these issues with "humility and prayerfulness," the statement also -- prepare to be shocked -- said people who voluntarily choose to study, teach and work at the college will be expected to honor this covenant.

“As a Christian academic community, and in light of our institutional mission, members of the Erskine community are expected to follow the teachings of scripture concerning matters of human sexuality and institutional decision will be made in light of this position.”

The Post team also noted what it appears to think was a contradiction in the policy:

It is unclear how the newly adopted statement will affect student life going forward; however, Erskine said in a followup statement ... that the new language “does not ‘ban’ any individual or class of individuals from attending Erskine.”

The Post then offers waves of outraged tweets and reactions, and more snark. Yes, the scare quotes are in the original in this following statement:

Erskine’s official statements may seem shocking in the context of modern America, but it is hardly imaginative. Such “positions” on homosexuality already exist on several other conservative Christian college campuses in the United States, including Baylor University.

Perhaps the "positions" quote marks are some kind of crude joke? The word the Beltway bible editors are searching for here is "doctrines."Also, they need to realize that -- in centuries of Christian teaching -- it is one thing to call a behavior a sin. It it something altogether different to "ban" people who struggle with any given temptation to sin. The key is public rejection of these defining doctrines.

Also, rather than "several" other schools affirming Christian orthodoxy on this topic, there are hundreds. Now, it is likely, in the near future, that there will be fewer schools with these covenants. Why? Watch for decisions at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Then again, there may be others, like Erskine, who announce decisions to publicly embrace doctrinal covenants. The fact that a school like Erskine has at this moment in time publicly embraced such a doctrinal covenant is not all that surprising, in light of recent legal trends, including the much debated Health and Human Services mandate linked to Obamacare.

Say what? As I explained in an "On Religion" column, quoting Stanley Carlson-Thies, president of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance:

... The HHS mandate only recognizes the conscience rights of employers if they "fit a particular tax code definition that applies only to churches and their closely controlled affiliates," he said. These non-profit employers must have the "inculcation of religious values" as their goal, primarily employ persons who share their "religious tenets" and primarily serve persons who share those same tenets.

In other words, the government is offering key First Amendment protections only to religious institutions that are very open and transparent about the "religious tenets" that define their voluntary associations. Those "closely controlled affiliates" could be colleges and universities.

Now, to be blunt about it, the leader of many Christian institutions in the Bible Belt have, in the past, not openly used these kinds of legal covenants because -- surrounded by what they perceived as an affirming culture -- they thought these kinds of issues were simply understood and didn't need to be explicitly stated. Well, those days are gone.

So is there a story here? You betcha. Do the Post editors seem to grasp the story? Not so much.

For years, a school like Erskine didn't need to take a public stand on the doctrines that its supporters -- think trustees, donors, churches, parents -- assumed it affirmed. Now, the current legal climate -- think HHS mandates and perhaps the high court -- will not allow that kind of mushiness to continue. Schools are being forced to be much, much more transparent about their goals, when it comes to the "inculcation of religious values" and the "religious tenets" that define their work, in voluntary associations defined by those doctrines.

So Erskine is trying to clean up its legal act, almost certainly after leaders of its denomination saw the legal writing on the government walls. Will current faculty agree on this public stand? Probably not. Will students recruited before these doctrines were clearly stated agree? Probably not. How about their parents? Probably not. Are there other schools facing the same challenges? You betcha. Is that a news story?

Do journalists have to agree with the doctrines affirmed by these institutions? Of course not. However, if the goal is to do basic American model of the press journalism, it is crucial to understand these doctrines and to accurately report the views (perhaps even in a balanced manner) of believers on both sides of these important doctrinal and legal debates.

Meanwhile, as an Erskine alum noted in a communication with me, it is a strange time when readers seeking better coverage on this story should, wait for it, turn to BuzzFeed.

Perhaps Post editors will, at this point, decide to do an actual news report on the legal trends behind the Erskine story. Or, hey, they could try doing journalism about the Erskine story, itself. Just do it.

Categories: Main

In the New England forecast: Lots of snow, with a chance of coffers drying up at houses of worship

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

New England's tough winter is starting to make headlines — on the religion beat:

At houses of worship, costs are up but are donations down as New England endures tough winter:

— The Associated Press (@AP) February 28, 2015

The Associated Press reported over the weekend:

BOSTON (AP) -- Religious leaders in snowbound New England are beginning to ask themselves how on Earth their houses of worship will make ends meet after all these acts of God.Churches, synagogues and mosques report attendance is down at services, as poorly timed winter storms have hit on or close to days of worship. And getting the faithful to come out is challenging, with limited parking and treacherously icy sidewalks plaguing the region.For many places of worship, that has meant donations are drying up just as costs for snow removal, heating and maintenances are soaring."You have this perfect storm of people not being able to go to worship and so not bringing in offerings, combined with much higher than usual costs," says Cindy Kohlmann, who works with Presbyterian churches in Greater Boston and northern New England.

The AP lede's emphasis on "churches, synagogues and mosques" drew this response from Ira Rifkin, one of my fellow GetReligionistas:

Hmmm ... just the big three, once again. I believe the Boston area has more Buddhist centers than any other city in the nation (needs fact checking). But even if not, it's just the big three. America's more diverse than that.

Interesting point, and honestly, not one that would have struck me on my own. Indeed, Massachusetts has more Buddhists than Muslims, according to a 2010 demographic report by the Association of Religion Data Archives.

Still, give AP credit for a timely, enterprising religion angle on the weather.

But another national wire — Religion News Service — had the story a full 10 days earlier:

In the face of unrelenting snow, pastors and priests get creative about services. @RNS

— Religion NewsService (@RNS) February 18, 2015

I enjoyed RNS national correspondent Lauren Markoe's creative opening:

(RNS) If God brought all this snow, he also made it very hard to get to church.New Englanders, clobbered by four major storms in the past month and bracing for a fifth, are finding it difficult to travel anywhere, including to services on Sundays.And the Rev. Andrew Cryans of Durham, N.H. — where more than 45 inches of snow fell in the past week alone — can’t help but notice that most of these meteorological whoppers have arrived on weekends, so that churchgoers might have a harder time getting to church than, say, school or work.But the liturgy goes on, no matter how many show up, or how creative a pastor may have to get to connect with the flock. That can mean a priest snowshoes to work, or delivers a sermon via Facebook.“I always tell parishioners that I live in the house behind the church, so it’s easy for me,” said Cryans, of St. Thomas More Catholic Church. “I’m here if you come and we will have Mass no matter how few of you there are.”

Churches find ways to hold services on snowy Sunday via @BostonGlobe

— Bob Smietana (@bobsmietana) February 16, 2015

The Boston Globe, too, had a compelling take a couple weeks ago.

Once again, God makes the lede:

No act of God would deter them from Sunday worship.Sunday’s blizzard seemed designed to test even the most dedicated churchgoers, but across the region, churches drew on a reservoir of Yankee ingenuity to adapt to the weather and connect with their congregations.Many churches simply declared a snow day, leaving would-be attendees to trudge home through the deepening snow. But others came up with innovative alternatives: a Marshfield church live-streamed a service from a living room couch; some churches held Sunday services a day early; a Jamaica Plain church conducted prayers of the people via Facebook; and others e-mailed hymns and readings ahead of time so people could conduct their own services at home.Other churches refused to yield to the storm and opened their doors as usual, even if for just a few hardy souls.

How often do we go to church in New England? Not very

— Hartford Courant (@hartfordcourant) February 22, 2015

Ironically, the most revealing New England religion story that I came across in my Googling featured a "snow" photo but actually has nothing to do with the weather.

Instead, the Hartford Courant reported on the latest Gallup poll concerning weekly religious attendance:

If the last time you walked into a church was at Christmas or for someone’s wedding, you’re not alone. At least not in New England.Only 25 percent of Connecticut residents say they attend religious services every week, according to a recent poll — one of the lowest rates in the nation.Elsewhere in New England, attendance is lower still. In Vermont, only 17 percent said they attend religious services weekly — the lowest rate in the nation — and 71 percent said they attend “seldom or never,” the highest rate in the nation, according to the Gallup poll, which surveyed 177,000 Americans throughout 2014.New Hampshire's weekly attendance rate was 20 percent, as was Maine's. Twenty-two percent of Massachusetts residents said they went to church every week, and Rhode Island residents claimed the highest rate in New England at 28 percent.Why is attendance at religious services so low in New England? A number of factors come into play — including competition for our time, the region’s racial characteristics, and the role of church in society, experts said.

Many GetReligion readers will recognize the names of the experts quoted: Scott Thumma, Stephen Prothero and Mark Silk. All are excellent choices for expert insight.

But experts are all that the Courant quoted. I found myself curious about the takes of ordinary New Englanders and religious leaders. Their perspectives, methinks, would make for some intriguing reading on a snowy day.

Categories: Main

How should we understand the three 'Abrahamic' religions?

Tuesday, March 3, 2015


Why aren’t the three Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) one main religion?


Nihal posted his query while preparing a 9th grade school report, and unfortunately this response comes too late to help. On the specific question of”why” these three faiths exist the way they are the best a mere journalist can say is “God only knows.” However the interrelationships, overlaps, and differences among these great religions are certainly worth pondering, and not just in schoolrooms.

Christianity and Islam are No. 1 and No. 2 in size among world faiths and together encompass a majority of the people on earth. They are major competitors today and their past political confrontations, raised recently by President Barack Obama, were often violent.

However, it’s been 1,169 years since Muslims sacked Rome and the original St. Peter’s Basilica, 920 years since Pope Urban launched the First Crusade in an ill-fated attempt to protect Christian access to Jerusalem, 724 years since the vile Crusades ended and 332 years since Muslim troops last threatened to conquer Vienna.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam emerged in the same sector of the Mideast and jointly uphold Abraham as a founding ancestor who established worship of the one God (“monotheism”). Judaism’s roots are by far the most ancient. Christianity gradually grew apart from Judaism after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the early 30s A.D. Islam, the youngest of the three, dates its history from 622 (“Common Era”) when founding Prophet Muhammad fled from Mecca to Medina.

The three share broad similarities on aspects of God’s nature and morals. And following the 9-11 attacks on the U.S. there was an upsurge of discussion about three “Abrahamic religions,” with what Protestant sociologist Peter Berger calls the “admirable intention of countering anti-Islamic hatred.”

Continue reading "How should we understand the three 'Abrahamic' religions?" by Richard Ostling.

Categories: Main

OK, I'll ask The New York Times: Any faith issues lurking in firestorm about Netanyahu speech?

Monday, March 2, 2015

Hang in there with me, because I am going to ask what I freely admit could be a very silly question.

As you may have noticed, people here in the land of the Beltways, and in New York City of course, are melting down as they argue about Speaker John Boehner’s decision to invite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to address Congress. How big an issue is this across the nation? I don't know, but it's a big deal here.

My question is about religion (#DUH) I am aware that doctrinally liberal, oh, Episcopalians are highly likely to be liberal politically, especially when compared with doctrinally conservative Anglicans. The same thing is true with, let's say, doctrinally liberal Lutherans and doctrinally orthodox Lutherans. Or Baptists. Or Methodists. You can see this perfectly obvious point.

Now, I know how to connect the doctrinal dots in these cases, how, for example, doctrines on sexual morality lead to political views that point left or right. What I'm struggling with is understanding the patterns in this case -- the Netanyahu wars. Consider this passage from a report in The Forward, on the Jewish left:

As the Israel lobby kicked off its meeting, Netanyahu jetted into town after proclaiming that he speaks “for the Jewish people” on Iran -- a claim that drew an unusually harsh critique from pro-Israel stalwart Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat.“(Netanyahu) doesn’t speak for me on this,” Feinstein told CNN. “I think it’s a rather arrogant statement. I think the Jewish community is like any other community, there are different points of view. I think that arrogance does not befit Israel, candidly.”

Understood. This leads me to the A1 political story in The New York Times that is causing so much talk, the one that ran under the headline, "Netanyahu’s Visit Bringing Uninvited Problems for Jewish Democrats."

Now, there are few -- in any -- religious references in this piece since (cue: rim shot) it is about debates inside postmodern American Judaism. But there are some very predictable clues as to who is comfortable with the Netanyahu speech and who is not. For example, follow this passage to its conclusion:

Through foreign policy trials as difficult as the wars in Gaza and Lebanon, Israeli settlement policies, Arab terrorism, and the repeated failures of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Jews in Congress — and to a large extent, Jews in the United States — have spoken in a near-monolithic voice, always in support of the government of Israel.But the Boehner-Netanyahu alliance has done something that larger foreign policy crises have not: It has led to the open distinction between support for the State of Israel and allegiance to politicians who lead it.“It’s a tipping-point moment,” said Rabbi John Rosove, an outspoken liberal and head of Temple Israel of Hollywood. “It’s no longer the Israeli government, right or wrong. The highest form of patriotism and loyalty is to criticize from a place of love.”

So what would you assume is the theological tradition of Temple Israel? Well, that's pretty easy to see right here on it's home page:

Since founding by a group of entertainment luminaries in 1926, Temple Israel of Hollywood has never strayed from its Hollywood roots or its connections to Reform Jewish traditions and values. Today, Temple Israel’s dedication to worship, community, Jewish life, social justice, and to Israel has a distinctly contemporary flair.

Now, another tiny dose of religious content comes later, in this long passage about how this debate is, once again, creating fault lines in American Judaism. Read carefully:

J Street, which bills itself as the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby, has taken out full-page newspaper advertisements demanding that the speech be postponed.The Orthodox Union, an umbrella organization for Orthodox Jewry, released a statement urging “all members of Congress and Americans who care deeply about American and global security to respectfully and carefully listen to the unique perspective of the elected leader of our key ally -- Israel.”Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the speech should be canceled.“For some time, there has been a greater diversity of viewpoints on Israel issues within Israel than within the American Jewish community,” said Representative Adam B. Schiff, a Jewish Democrat from California who will attend. “You’re now starting to see more diversity of opinion in the pro-Israel community here.”

So the strongest voice in the piece calling for people to lend Bibi their ears and, hello, listen respectfully comes from Orthodox Jewry. Is that surprising? Of course not.

Now, to my question (even though, yes, I know that this is a political story): Why, when dealing with this particular issue, do the the political lines appear to fall along the doctrinal lines? 

I would understand if this debate focused on marriage, or abortion, or tax credits for religious schools, or similar moral and cultural issues. But what is the missing X factor here? What is the doctrinal fault line that is linked to this clear division among Jews in this culture?

Is it simply so obvious that the Times team does not owe the subject a single paragraph?

Categories: Main

Brooklyn terrorism arrests: Suspects talk like jihadis, but New York Times doesn't notice

Monday, March 2, 2015

"When to act? When to watch? When does someone seemingly radicalized become an imminent danger?"

Pithy questions for law enforcement and anti-terrorism agents, and for news media -- especially when three young men in Brooklyn are picked up on charges of supporting the Islamic State, even though they weren’t prominent in any terror plots. But just as the authorities don’t always track all the clues, neither do some newspapers like the New York Times.

The Times looks carefully at the case against Akhror Saidakhmetov and Abdurasul Hasanovich Juraboev, who are accused of trying to join the Islamic State in Syria. The third, Abror Habibov, is accused of helping raise funds for them to do so.

The newspaper examines their jobs and interests; it scrutinizes their e-mails and relationships; it asks agents how they investigate. What it doesn't do is focus on the mutant form of Islam into which the youths were apparently being sucked.

One Times article looks at dilemmas for law enforcement:

The decision to arrest the men highlights the evolving challenges confronting law enforcement as officials calculate whether and when to intervene in instances of what some have begun calling “known wolves.”There are “lone wolves and known wolves,” said a law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the continuing investigation. “A lone wolf is someone who comes out of the woodwork; a known wolf is on your radar.”

The other article profiles the young suspects, including their lifestyles and relationships. It also tells of Saidakhmetov's interest in online IS videos:

But it was some of the darkest corners of the Internet that compelled him, according to the authorities. On websites sympathetic to the Islamic State, he could find videos of the organization’s beheadings, mass executions and crucifixions, carried out in a campaign to seize territory in Iraq and Syria and establish a fundamentalist Islamist caliphate.

The Times even reveals that IS has tweaked the vidgame Grand Theft Auto to muster new recruits. The stories don’t link to the game, but the trailer is available in several spots on YouTube, as in this review by Rich of ReviewTechUSA. (Language warning.)

We also read a lot of hints of the religious beliefs of Saidakhmetov and Juraboev. One relates their beliefs to the actions of another man:

When a man attacked police officers with a hatchet in Queens in October, the police said he had spent time online looking at the videos of killings done in the name of the Islamic State, and they may have helped push him to act.Similarly, the radicalization of the two men in Brooklyn and their willingness to act on their desires expressed online, officials said, show how quickly aspirations can turn to reality.

The other story drops even more hints. It says Saidakhmetov wanted to go to Syria "to become holy warriors." It adds that Juraboev complained online that his parents in Uzbekistan sometimes "do idolatry" and that his sisters were "uncovered." He "wondered how he could live a pure Islamic life," the Times says.

And in the days before Saidakhmetov tried to leave, he told an informant that "he felt that his soul was already on its way to paradise." The Times also reports:

But Mr. Saidakhmetov still needed his passport, and on Feb. 19 he called his mother. In a conversation recorded by federal agents, he asked for it. She asked him where he was going. He said to join the Islamic State.“If a person has a chance to join the Islamic State and does not go there, on Judgment Day he will be asked why, and it is a sin to live in the land of infidels,” he told her, court documents say.

It's possible that no one has a full answer. As the Christian Science Monitor indicates, world leaders are still trying to understand Jihadi John. "The family was religious, but not radical," the Monitor reports. "It is unknown how, exactly, Emwazi’s developed his sympathies for radical Islam."

But when young men are inspired by online atrocities, the beliefs of those who commit the atrocities would seem to be a good place to probe further.

Picture: Screenshot from YouTube of the Islamic State trailer for Grant Theft Auto.

Categories: Main

Welcome Julia Duin: Home in the Northwest and still watching the religion beat like a Seahawk

Sunday, March 1, 2015

EDITOR'S NOTE: Veteran religion-beat reporter Julia Duin -- now a journalism professor who is active writing books and in magazine journalism -- is joining us here at GetReligion. She will focus her work on the American West, which is her home territory. Make her welcome, please. -- Terry Mattingly.


You might say I got into religion reporting while a high school student in the Seattle area. I saw the huge readership -- and tons of letters -- that Earl Hansen received for his religion columns in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and I thought, I can do that. And so my first religion piece ever was for the Covenant Companion, a denominational magazine, about my bike trip around Puget Sound with the youth group from a local Evangelical Covenant church.

While majoring in English at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, I came to know the religious community in western Oregon pretty well. I also could not believe what a poor job the local papers did of covering the religion beat. I soon got a job as a reporter at a small daily just south of Portland where the editor told me I had to choose one page to edit: agriculture or religion. I chose religion and have not stopped covering it ever since. I also began corresponding for Christianity Today at that point in an era when women rarely wrote for that publication. 

I then moved to south Florida for a few years, covering religion among other beats and my work at CT and a first place in an RNA competition for religion reporting for small newspapers caught the eye of The Houston Chronicle. They hired me as one of two full-time religion writers in 1986. Those were the salad days of covering the beat: the Jim-and-Tammy-Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart "Pearlygate" scandals, Pat Robertson running for president, a local United Methodist bishop dying of AIDS, Pope John Paul II’s swing through the southern USA and Oral Roberts’ claim that God would “take me home” if he was not able to raise $4.5 million. It was rich. 

I then attended an Anglican seminary in western Pennsylvania to get an MA in religion, spent a year as a city editor of a small newspaper in New Mexico, then moved to Washington, D.C. where for 14 years I was first culture page editor, then religion editor of The Washington Times. They sent me to Italy to cover the election of Pope Benedict XVI, to India to research female feticide and to Jerusalem to hang out during the millennial changeover in 1999-2000. I also wrote five books during these years on topics like why evangelicals are quitting church and a tale of the rise and fall of the charismatic movement, captured in the story of a mesmerizing priest who headed the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Houston. 

One theme in all of that. If I have a specialty, it’s a group that I’ve followed for 40 years and written two books on: pentecostals and charismatics. Check this 2006 Pew Forum study to see if that's an important subject.

I won a bunch of awards with the Times, but alas, I was laid off in 2010, after which I turned to freelancing and teaching. This included covering the latest Narnia movie for The Economist, writing up topics like Christian anarchists and Orthodox bishops for The Washington Post Sunday magazine, doing quirky pieces for More magazine about women trying to become Catholic priests and Lutheran pastor/tattoo queen Nadia Bolz-Weber and covering 20-something Appalachian Pentecostal serpent-handlers for The Wall Street Journal. (A book on the latter is in the offing). 

I also taught religion reporting at the University of Maryland for a semester, which led to a year of teaching journalism at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., followed by 18 months at the University of Memphis, which just awarded me an MA in journalism this past December. Meanwhile, the University of Alaska/Fairbanks was casting about for someone to be their ninth visiting Snedden Chair of Journalism for the 2014-2015 academic year. I’m teaching there now.

Interests: Anything to do with Kurds, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, ballet, sushi, gymnastics, Iceland, movies by Hayao Miyazaki, covenant Christian communities, cats, the Pacific Northwest, classical music, playing lever harp, works by Philip Glass and all things Central Asian, including Kazakhstan, where my daughter Olivia Veronika was born nearly 10 years ago. 

EDITOR'S NOTE II: Because of her ongoing relationship with The Washington Post Sunday Magazine, Julia Duin will not be critiquing news coverage from that newspaper.

Categories: Main

Why the whole 'Is President Obama a Christian?' controversy just won't die

Saturday, February 28, 2015

This week's "Crossroads" podcast focuses on the Frankenstein question in American public life that has left journalists shaking their heads and muttering, "It's alive, it's alive!"

I am referring, of course, to the whole Gov. Scott Walker and the "Is President Barack Obama a Christian?" thing. Then that media storm -- click here for my previous post -- led into the silly "Does Scott Walker really think that he talks with God?" episode.

Then again, am I alone in thinking that some rather cynical political reporters are creating these monsters and trying to keep them alive? Whatever. I remain convinced that Obama is what he says he is: A liberal Christian who made a profession of faith and joined the United Church of Christ, a denomination that has long represented the left edge of free-church Protestantism.

Anyway, host Todd Wilken and I ended up spending most of our time talking about the subject that I am convinced is looming behind the whole "Is Obama a Christian" phenomenon, especially this latest flap with Walker. Click here to listen in on the discussion.

Believe it or not, this brings us to a discussion of a question that quietly rumbled through the Southern Baptist blogosphere the other day: Forget the question of whether the 21 Coptic Christians who were beheaded by the Islamic State should be declared as Christian martyrs? Were they actually Christians in the first place?"

Yes, you read that right. Here is a key passage from the discussions at the Pulpit and Pen website:

Do Southern Baptist leaders and other evangelicals really not know what a Christian is or how you become one? Is it being born into an ethnic group that denies the dual-nature of Christ in his full deity and humanity? Is it embracing a meritorious, works-based salvation nearly identical to that of the Roman Catholic church? Is it in aggressively denying salvation by a personal, saving relationship with Jesus Christ? We ask because that’s what Coptic ‘Christians’ believe. This really isn’t new, and we have to wonder why our leaders don’t know what Coptics believe and if they do, what on Earth makes them think they should be categorized as Christians.Now, sure. In the broadest possible (and most inaccurate) sense possible, the term Christian is applied to the Coptics for the same reason it is applied to Roman Catholics by major media. To secularists, all one has to be to be considered Christian is to call themselves one.

As you would imagine, this talk rather incensed Rod "friend of this blog" Dreher and others, including some major Southern Baptist leaders.

So what's the connection to the Obama controversy? Let me explain.

You see, for many Christians (and, frankly, traditional members of other faiths as well) the question of whether or not someone is truly a believer is a highly complicated and doctrinal question.

The Vatican has openly stated that Mormons need to be baptized again in order to become Catholics. There are evangelicals who think Catholics are not really Christians. Then there are other evangelicals who think that Catholics are usually not Christians, but, then again, they have some Catholic friends who "really love the Lord" and they must be Christians, but that's not the norm. And so forth and so on.

This happens in other faiths, too. Right now, many traditional Muslims are arguing that Islamic State leaders are not, in any meaningful sense of the word, Muslims. ISIS leaders insist that Muslims who do not accept the doctrinal authority of their alleged caliphate are not true Muslims. And then there are liberal, progressive Muslims who have thrown off so many basic Muslim beliefs and disciplines that a wide variety of other members of the faith doubt that they are truly Muslims. There are Jews who believe that someone cannot claim Jesus as Messiah and remain a Jew (but they can practice Buddhism and be OK). And so forth and so on, again.

How many core doctrines and beliefs can someone in a religious tradition reject before they become the equivalent of (as that controversial Atlantic cover story on ISIS put it) vegetarians who say that it's fine to eat meat?

Now, when some believers hear the Obama faith question, they immediately want to get into this kind of detailed discussion of what the president believes and what he does not believe. For many believers, including evangelicals who are part of the Republican base, this is essentially a doctrinal question. They are not conspiracy theory people, but they are people who believe the word "Christian" should never be watered down.

Meanwhile, the journalists who keep asking this question are not thinking about doctrine. They are asking a political question and it is not the president who was really on trial.

So how should Gov. Walker have answered the question? After all, he has to answer the political question, while knowing that many religious believers will expect an answer that is also acceptable from their doctrinal point of view?


Enjoy the podcast.

Categories: Main

Scott Walker’s church is as interesting an American story as Walker himself

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, 47, is facing new scrutiny as the flavor of the month in Republican presidential politics.  Among various disputes in play, he’s an evangelical Protestant and thus needs to be prepared for skeptical questioning about religion and pesky  “social issues.”           

While in London, Walker was asked if he’s “comfortable with” or believes in evolution. He said “that’s a question politicians shouldn’t be involved in one way or another.” Skewered for ducking, he quickly followed up with a vague faith-and-science tweet.  He also ducked when asked whether President Obama “loves America” after Rudolph Giuliani raised doubts about that, and then again when asked if the President is a fellow Christian.

Walker would be a Preacher’s Kid in the White House, the first since Wilson, so reporters will be Googling a Jan. 31 Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel piece on this, datelined Plainfield, Iowa  (population 436).

When Scott was young his father Llewellyn was the pastor of Plainfield’s First Baptist Church on -- yes -- Main Street and a town council member.  Llewellyn was also a pastor in Colorado Springs, Scott’s birthplace, and Delevan, Wisconsin, where Scott completed high school.

The father, now retired, served in the American Baptist Convention (now renamed American Baptist Churches USA), which has a liberal flank but is largely moderate to moderately evangelical.  The Journal-Sentinel missed that the current Plainfield pastor endorsed the 2009 Manhattan Declaration, which vows bold Christian opposition to abortion, assisted suicide, human cloning research, and same-sex marriage.

The governor emerged from obscurity during a furious fight with government unions that were backed by some clergy (including American Baptists). commentator Diana Butler Bass contended that “Walker does not give a rip about pronouncements by the Roman Catholic Church, any Lutheran, Episcopal, or Methodist bishop, or the Protestant social justice pastors. These religious authorities, steeped in centuries of theology and Christian ethics, mean absolutely nothing to Scott Walker’s world. His spiritual universe is that of 20th century fundamentalism in its softer evangelical form, a vision that emphasizes ‘me and Jesus’ and personal salvation.”

Look for more of the same. But actually, we know little about Walker’s religio-moral thinking. A quick Internet search turned up only a couple unsatisfying interviews with him about  this. There’s much ground left to explore.

Meanwhile, don’t miss the significant American scenario represented by Walker’s home congregation, Meadowbrook Church in Wauwatosa.  It’s part of a southeastern Wisconsin phenomenon that highlights the spread of evangelical and independent (“non-denominational”) congregations.

Meadowbrook began with a core group meeting for prayer in 1987, soon launched worship services at the local YMCA, called a pastor, and has prospered since. It practices the Baptist-style believer’s baptism by immersion in which Walker was raised, and upholds typical conservative Protestant theology.

This church was “planted” by the remarkable Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, with which it shares credo and method. Elmbrook began in 1957, also with a prayer cell, began to worship in a rented school, dropped its “Baptist” label, and in 1970 it called as pastor British go-getter Stuart Briscoe. He remains a popular speaker in retirement.

Since 1979, Elmbrook has planted not only Meadowbrook but four daughter congregations in the city of Milwaukee, and one each in Hartland, Richfield, Franklin, and Mukwonago. These younger churches in turn have established new congregations in West Bend, Sussex, and Muskego. Like multiplied loaves and fishes, one congregation has fostered a dozen more. How was this accomplished? Good story there.

Categories: Main

Godbeat news: A funding boost at USC's Knight Chair and a new religion writer posting in Louisville

Friday, February 27, 2015

Mostly, GetReligion focuses on critiquing media coverage of religion.

Occasionally, we update readers on important developments on the Godbeat. The following news — which we are a bit behind in sharing — falls into that category.

New grant funding will give @RDispatches a new editor and freelance reporting budget, led by professor @dianewinston:

— USC Annenberg (@USCAnnenberg) January 15, 2015

Via a release from the University of Southern California:

Comprehensive reporting efforts on the changing landscape of American religious practice and theological thought will see significant expansion in 2015 as a result of $1.25 million in grants awarded to the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism by Lilly Endowment Inc. and the Henry Luce Foundation.Diane Winston, holder of the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at USC Annenberg, will direct the effort.The grants will fund a new editor and freelance-reporting budget for Religion Dispatches, the award-winning online journalism magazine based at USC Annenberg. The magazine is one element in the Knight Chair’s ongoing effort to advance specialized reporting.Lilly Endowment awarded $1 million for a project titled “Remapping American Christianities” and the Henry Luce Foundation awarded $250,000 to pursue “Innovating Coverage of Theology.”In addition to funding freelance reporting and a new editor, the grants will allow Winston to convene thought leaders who will help chart new directions to cover territory overlooked by other websites and print publications, she said.The grants also will support greater collaboration between editors of Religion Dispatches and the Knight Chair with students at USC Annenberg.“The next generation of reporters should understand the importance of religion in the daily lives of Americans and learn how ordinary people look for and find meaning, identity and purpose,” Winston said.

To Winston's comment, we offer a hearty "Amen!"

Congratulations to Winston and USC on the funding boost.

Religion Newswriters Association President Bob Smietana told me:

This is good news for the religion beat. The more journalists and journalism students who are informed about the changing face of religion in America, the better. Congratulations to Diane and the staff of Religion Dispatches. I'm especially happy that my friend Cathleen Falsani, a fabulous religion writer, will be back on the beat as senior editor for the Remapping American Christianities project.

God Girl's gotta new gig: Starting Mon, I'm joining @RDispatches as Senior Editor for Remapping American Xianities

— Cathleen Falsani (@godgrrl) February 27, 2015

Congrats, too, to Falsani.

In other Godbeat news, we mentioned in a recent post that the San Antonio Express-News seems to be wavering on replacing the great Abe Levy, even though the Texas newspaper advertised for the position.

On a positive note, it appears that the Louisville Courier-Journalwhich did not replace star religion writer Peter Smith after he left for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2013 — will appoint a religion writer.

Out with the old! New job descriptions at Gannett's Louisville paper use "young" or "younger" 45 times.

— Romenesko (@romenesko) February 18, 2015

This is among the job descriptions as Gannett's Courier-Journal revamps its coverage area and adds beats, according to media blogger Jim Romenesko:

LVL Reporter I, II or III – Louisville Life – Religion, Faith, Spirituality and Paying it Forward: Louisville has a strong religious heritage. It is home to two major seminaries and a significant Catholic Archdiocese. One of the largest mega-churches in the country is here. And it is increasingly diverse in the range of religions represented. In addition, the church is often the center of many activities for young families, and young professionals are beginning to look at their spiritual beliefs. This beat should produce a wealth of coverage that will appeal to those readers. In addition, it will look at young professionals and young families are getting involved through political, social and community activism to serve their communities or solve critical problems in the city.

It's good news that the Courier-Journal apparently recognizes — once again — the importance of the Godbeat.

Should the Louisville religion beat focus on people of a certain age? That's a different question, and I don't know enough of the inside story to offer an educated opinion.

Categories: Main

Now we're talking big news: ISIS attacks museums (plus Christians and other believers)

Friday, February 27, 2015

The story began with reports in "conservative" and religious media, which, tragically, is what happens way too often these days with issues linked to religious liberty and the persecution of religious minorities (especially if they are Christians).

Earlier in the week I saw this headline at the Catholic News Agency: "Patriarch urges prayer after at least 90 Christians kidnapped in Syria." The story began:

With reports circulating saying that ISIS forces have kidnapped at least 90 Christians from villages in northeast Syria, Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan said prayer is the only possible response.

“Let’s pray for those innocent people,” Patriarch Younan told CNA over the phone from Beirut Feb. 24. “It’s a very, let’s say, very ordinary thing to have those people with such hatred toward non-Muslims that they don’t respect any human life,” he said, noting that the only reaction to Tuesday’s kidnappings is “to pray.”

Alas, none of these believers were cartoonists. However, as the days went past the numbers in these distressing reports -- especially this soon after the 21 Coptic martyrs video --  began to rise.

I kept watching the major newspapers and, while I may have missed a crucial report or two, I did see this crucial story from Reuters -- always an important development in global news -- that represented a major escalation of the coverage, with several crucial dots connected. Do the math.

(Reuters) -- A U.S.-led alliance launched air strikes against Islamic State on Thursday in an area of northeast Syria where the militants are now estimated to have abducted at least 220 Assyrian Christians this week, a group monitoring the war reported.The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the air strikes targeted Islamic State fighters near the town of Tel Tamr, where the militants, also known as ISIS, had captured 10 Assyrian villages.A prominent Syrian Christian, Bassam Ishak, told Reuters: "Some people have tried to call them by cellphone, the relatives that have been abducted, and they get an answer from a member of ISIS who tells that they will send the head of their relative."They are trying to terrorize the parents, the relatives in the Christian Assyrian community," said Ishak, who is president of the Syriac National Council of Syria.

Ten villages! And what is the larger threat there?

Islamic State has staged mass killings of religious minorities, as well as fellow Sunni Muslims who refuse to swear allegiance to the 'caliphate' it has declared in parts of Syria, Iraq and other areas of the Arab world.

Yes, mass killings of "religious minorities" -- the word "Christians" could have been used -- as well as Muslims who are not backing the ISIS approach to Islam and sharia law.

At that point, I saw a short New York Times report (not a wire service story) online that began to point toward a major story. The original short story on Thursday, which has since been expanded, began like this:

ISTANBUL -- Continuing its assaults on a string of Assyrian Christian villages in northeastern Syria, the Islamic State militant group has seized scores more residents over the past two days, bringing the number of captives to as many as several hundred, Assyrian organizations inside and outside Syria said on Thursday.

The number of captives reported by different Assyrian groups has varied because, in the chaos of fighting, many families are fleeing and it has taken time to verify by name those captured.

The Syriac Military Council, a militia formed in recent years to protect Assyrian villages in the traditionally diverse area of Hasaka, in northeastern Syria, said in a statement that more than 350 civilians from 12 villages had been abducted.

At this point, something happened that -- yes, this is the cynic in me talking -- turned this into a major story with front-page, major news potential. Heavens! This might even merit television coverage.

Forget hundreds of kidnapped Christians (some of whom, once again in those alternative conservative news reports, may have been murdered already). The Islamic State started targeting museums and works of art and some of that destruction is on video.

Beheading believers is one thing. Beheading statues? That's really bad. Actually, I think people matter more than art, but I think that both of these crimes are horrible and both merit coverage. Pronto.

So the BBC went with this report, which was all statues. However, BBC had been doing other reports that merit attention, both on the kidnappings and the Islamic State persecutions of Christians, as well. Check out this collection. Note the dates?

So that brings us to the expanded Times piece that puts both half of these equations together.

What's my point? Obviously, I wish (and my Eastern Orthodox Christian biases have been openly stated many times) that the mainstream press was more interested in early and timely reporting on the persecution of Christians and members of other minority faiths in this region, as well as the hellish oppression of Muslims who reject ISIS.

It is tragic, but perhaps inevitable, that the 21 Coptic workers had to be slaughtered on video in order to pull the plight of the Copts back into the news. It is sad that it takes attacks on priceless statues to get some (but not all) journalists to wake up to what is happening to the truly ancient Assyrian Christian culture that is being destroyed.

But in the end, finally, you can get a story that opens like this:

ISTANBUL -- The reports are like something out of a distant era of ancient conquests: entire villages emptied, with hundreds taken prisoner, others kept as slaves; the destruction of irreplaceable works of art; a tax on religious minorities, payable in gold.A rampage reminiscent of Tamerlane or Genghis Khan, perhaps, but in reality, according to reports by residents, activist groups and the assailants themselves, a description of the modus operandi of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate this week. The militants have prosecuted a relentless campaign in Iraq and Syria against what have historically been religiously and ethnically diverse areas with traces of civilizations dating to ancient Mesopotamia.The latest to face the militants’ onslaught are the Assyrian Christians of northeastern Syria, one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, some speaking a modern version of Aramaic, the language of Jesus.Assyrian leaders have counted 287 people taken captive, including 30 children and several dozen women, along with civilian men and fighters from Christian militias, said Dawoud Dawoud, an Assyrian political activist who had just toured the area, in the vicinity of the Syrian city of Qamishli. Thirty villages had been emptied, he said.

And what about the art? The Times team described in terms that might bring a tear to the eye of even the most jaded editor in that elite newsroom:

An Islamic State video showed the militants smashing statues with sledgehammers inside the Mosul Museum, in northern Iraq, that showcases recent archaeological finds from the ancient Assyrian empire. The relics include items from the palace of King Sennacherib, who in the Byron poem “came down like the wolf on the fold” to destroy his enemies. ...Islamic State militants seized the museum -- which had not yet opened to the public -- when they took over Mosul in June and have repeatedly threatened to destroy its collection.In the video, put out by the Islamic State’s media office for Nineveh Province -- named for an ancient Assyrian city -- a man explains, “The monuments that you can see behind me are but statues and idols of people from previous centuries, which they used to worship instead of God.”A message flashing on the screen read: “Those statues and idols weren’t there at the time of the Prophet nor his companions. They have been excavated by Satanists.”

Wait for it.

The men, some bearded and in traditional Islamic dress, others clean-shaven in jeans and T-shirts, were filmed toppling and destroying artifacts. One is using a power tool to deface a winged lion much like a pair on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Oh, by the way: Are the ISIS forces destroying any ancient churches and monasteries? Just asking.

Categories: Main
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