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Updated: 37 min 45 sec ago

Trans commotion again: USA Today skips religious angles in bathroom-showers ruling

2 hours 54 min ago

Religious conservatives cheered this week when a federal judge blocked the Obama administration's effort to force schools to allow transgendered people to use bathrooms of their choice.

Um … they did, didn’t they? (Squinting at article) Ummm, I could have sworn they would.  But they're not in the report by USA Today on the ruling.

This story, which was also distributed by Religion News Service, does cover a lot of ground in some 700 words. It reviews the lawsuit, brought by 13 states and two school districts, protesting Obama's directive. And it adeptly summarizes both the basic question and the mechanics of enforcement:

U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor’s 38-page order said federal agencies exceeded their authority under the 1972 law banning sex discrimination in schools. The injunction applies nationwide, and follows a number of other recent court rulings against transgender students and employees.The Texas ruling, issued late Sunday, turned on the congressional intent behind Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which requires that "facilities provided for students of one sex shall be comparable to such facilities provided for students of the other sex.""It cannot be disputed that the plain meaning of the term sex" in that law "meant the biological and anatomical differences between male and female students as determined at their birth," the judge wrote. "Without question, permitting educational institutions to provide separate housing to male and female students, and separate educational instruction concerning human sexuality, was to protect students’ personal privacy, or discussion of their personal privacy, while in the presence of members of the opposite biological sex."

One quick complaint on my part: the phrase "against transgender students and employees."

The ruling is not worded as opposing transgendered people as people. It simply says the government overreached in interpreting the federal educational law. Judge O'Connor even went out of his way to say that state governments could pass their own laws requiring transgender facilities. (And although this article doesn't say so, it sounds like the U.S. Congress, too, could pass a law with the same provisions.)

The USA Today article brings out several other interesting facts. It says that the plaintiffs said the administration made an "implicit threat" to withhold federal funds from schools that didn’t comply with the transgender bathroom order.  It says also that the federal government didn’t follow a requirement to get public input before writing new regulations. And it says that education officials were threatened with "sanctions" if they failed "to address students by their preferred gender pronouns." It doesn't say what kinds of sanctions, though.

I also admired this background paragraph:

The decision is at least the third legal setback for transgender rights in federal court this month. The U.S. Supreme Court blocked a lower court ruling requiring a Virginia school district to allow a biologically female transgender student to use the boy’s restroom on Aug. 3. And last Thursday, a federal judge in Detroit upheld the firing of a transgender funeral home employee, ruling that "neither transgender status nor gender identity are protected classes" under anti-discrimination laws.

That shows this battle has been going on for a long time, and that USA Today has been following the story.

On the downside, the article quotes only three sources: a spokesperson for the U.S. Justice Department, the federal judge who issued the injunction this week, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who spoke on behalf of the plaintiffs. And from the text, it looks like only the Justice spokesperson is quoted live.  The others "speak" via written statements.

You already know my biggest beef: the lack of religious-group voices in this story that has clear religious and doctrinal roots.  Religious groups have, in fact, been sounding off about the new ruling.

The Daily Signal quotes Roger Severino, director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation, celebrating how the ruling "stops the administration’s ideologically driven misinterpretation of the law in its tracks and protects the safety and privacy of our children in school showers, lockers, and bathrooms." And Christian Today got statements from the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Research Council, two veteran culture-war groups.

The USA Today team might have also checked with the Christian Medical and Dental Associations. As our own Dick Ostling reported this month, the 16,000-member group has issued its own statement on transgender identification -- which quotes science as well as the Bible.

No one expects mainstream reporters to cite conservative media like the Christian Post, but it would be a great place to raid for sources. But I suspect that USA Today people already knows a fair number of them. Why it didn’t call any up of them is a big question. 

Did USA Today -- and then RNS -- think the religious angle was obvious?

Hmmm. But I doubt that an article on banking would fail to quote a banker, or that a piece on politics wouldn't quote politicians.

Were some religious leaders quoted, then deleted by an editor?

Or did the writer write this piece on a tight deadline? Our own tmatt acknowledges that harried, overworked reporters these days don’t have time for religion news features. He counters, however: "But they do have time to listen to what people say and then include a few details and quotes about faith, when it is clear that these details are at the heart of a person's life and work."

I would add that when journalists cover stories linked to religion, they should take time to get comments from leaders in that field -- preferably on both sides and points in between. Liberal religious voices would have been valid sources too, you know. 

There is one more "maybe" we haven't considered. I notice that the RNS version of the article linked to a "related story" -- columnist Jonathan Merritt's piece back in May, on "3 reasons conservative Christians will lose the transgender debate."

Just possibly -- in the judgment of the RNS team -- the wrong side won.

Categories: Main

Bible Belt jackpot: Might Alabama lose its religion and approve a state lottery?

6 hours 46 min ago

For now, Alabama remains one of six states without a lottery, according to an ABC News report.

But could that soon change?

As early as the Nov. 8 general election, voters in that Bible Belt state may be asked to approve a lottery to help fund state government and education.

Is there a potential religion angle here? 

You think?

Fortunately for news consumers, veteran Godbeat pro Greg Garrison, who writes for the Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group, already is on top of the story:

Ministers voice opposition to a state lottery in Alabama https://t.co/jfR9e2H7SF

— Greg Garrison (@greg_garrison) August 18, 2016

Garrison wrote last week:

A Jefferson County ministry group representing dozens of area clergy has issued a statement opposing a state lottery in Alabama.The Gatekeepers Association of Alabama, a group of about 25 pastors that has met monthly for the past year and has included as many as 41 clergy, said a lottery runs counter to biblical principles. "We serve one another; we don't rob another," said the Rev. Jim Lowe, senior pastor of Guiding Light Church in Birmingham. "It's blatantly obvious that countless Alabama families would have a stumbling block placed before them if a lottery passes."The group quoted Romans 14:13-19, in which the Apostle Paul urges Christians to "make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister."State-sponsored sale of lottery tickets is just such a stumbling block for vulnerable families, Lowe said."There are vices such as these that destroy the family," Lowe said. "When you break families, you break communities. In order for somebody to win, somebody's got to lose. In the case of a lottery, there are thousands of losers. That's contrary to the word of God."

If the referendum moves forward, there will be no shortage of angles for journalists to cover — from the politics to the economics to, yes, the morality. Alabama is, after all, the nation's second-most religious state (after Mississippi), according to Gallup.

In my time with The Associated Press, I spent months covering the battle over a proposed Tennessee state lottery in 2002.

Interestingly, religious opponents purposely avoided the "sin" question in the Volunteer State — as I noted in a story for AP's national political wire the week of the election:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It’s a moral issue. It’s not a moral issue.That’s the mixed message from Tennessee lottery opponents fighting to keep the Bible Belt state from joining 47 other states with some form of legalized gambling.While their hopes of defeating Tuesday’s referendum depend heavily on a grass roots Christian army, opposition leaders purposely avoid casting the vote as a sin issue, instead treating it as a policy and economic matter.“To win, we could not make it a preacher issue,” said the Rev. Paul Durham, a Southern Baptist pastor and treasurer for the Gambling Free Tennessee Alliance. “We had to make it a truth issue.”The campaign’s lack of Bible thumping reflects political and theological realities in the battle over lifting a constitutional ban on a lottery. Polls have consistently shown most Tennesseans – those in the pews and otherwise – see no inherent evil in the concept of a lottery.

Despite that tactic, Tennessee religious opponents lost anyway. 

Could the same scenario play out in neighboring Alabama? It sounds like we'll soon find out.

Categories: Main

The Atlantic covers (sort of) the Ben-Hur flop and the epic quest to sell Christian films

10 hours 6 min ago

Let me start with a question: I do not know if the following piece from The Atlantic is a news report, an opinion essay or a movie review.

It addresses a topic that is certainly worthy of a news report -- the box-office flop (so far, I guess) of the latest version of "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ." Lurking behind this movie is a larger topic, which is Hollywood's ongoing attempt to tap into the "Christian audience" that turned out for Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" in 2004.

Studio executives have been chasing Gibson's "Passion" demographic for a decade and major newsrooms have been covering those efforts over and over and over. Like I said, this is a topic worthy of serious reporting.

Here's the crucial question: Is this "Christian" niche a $50 million or so marketplace for low-budget movies or a place where Hollywood players can find the magic formula that produces big box-office bucks for major releases that cost $100 or so? So that's what is going on in this Atlantic piece, that ran with this headline:

Ben-Hur Was Hollywood’s Epic $100M MistakeThe film flopped hard at the box office after studios tried to copy the success of 2004's The Passion of the Christ.

The following summary material is long, but you need to read it to understand my main point in this post.

The fifth film adaptation of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was a $100 million co-production between Paramount Pictures and MGM. It starred the relatively unknown British actor Jack Huston in the title role, was directed by the mid-tier action maestro Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), and drew largely negative reviews. Many critics noted the film’s supreme inferiority to William Wyler’s 1959 version of the tale, which won 11 Oscars and is widely viewed as one of the greatest classic Hollywood epics. Just the idea of remaking Wyler’s film feels like a colossal error in an age of tiresome franchise reboots -- but when you consider how studios tried to belatedly capitalize on religious audiences to save the movie, the existence of Ben-Hur seems all the more cynical.It’s hard to understand who else Ben-Hur was supposed to appeal to. The original novel tells the story of a Roman slave who becomes a champion chariot racer and devout Christian after being inspired by the deeds of Jesus Christ, whose story runs parallel to the main narrative. The older viewers who’d be most likely to recognize the title would almost invariably compare the new film to the beloved 1959 (the movie’s audience skewed older, with 94 percent over age 25). Meanwhile, younger audiences, the demographic Hollywood has the toughest time connecting to, would have little interest in Ben-Hur on name recognition alone. What’s more, they’d be even less drawn to a swords-and-sandals epic set in Ancient Rome, which has become a deeply unpopular genre in the years after Gladiator’s success in 2000.With no obvious age group to target, MGM and Paramount decided to pitch Ben-Hur straight at religious audiences.

Now, I will confess that I love the 1959 film, especially after viewing many of the documentaries that have been produced about it and its impact on how Hollywood began telling epic stories that center, at their emotional core, on the journey of one complex hero. (Also, I have not seen the new film and cannot comment on it.)

The classic "Ben-Hur" wasn't just an epic (more than three hours long) it was a PERSONAL epic, where some of the most spectacular moments centered on the face of Charlton Heston, almost full screen. If that final walk up the stairs of the demolished Ben-Hur house doesn't grab you, then you probably don't have a heart. I get weepy just thinking about it.

So who thinks that it was a great idea to have the maker of "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" remake that 11-Oscar classic?

So I am interested in this piece and in the issues it raises.

Back in 1992, I was doing a bunch of interviews in Hollywood as the movie industry braced for the Internet era -- which had not arrived, but many people (hello George Gilder) knew it was on the way. Over and over, I heard people state this baseball-framed thesis: We are headed into an era in which Hollywood would be able to make "singles" (great small-budget, indie niche films) and there would also be a market for "home runs" (as in big special-effects films for big audience films with buffo budgets). It would be hard to sell movies in the middle -- "doubles," let's say.

Several people -- secular folks and Christians -- said that they thought there was a strong potential for a "Christian" niche market built on hitting "singles." As several people stated, "born again" might even be "the new gay."

But when the "Passion" hit -- earning $600-million plus -- everyone started thinking that Christians might show up in "home run" numbers. The epic quest began to tap that demographic.

But who would make those movies? Love him or hate him, Mel Gibson is an A-list talent on several levels -- especially when he is sober and going to Confession. Who else has the talent and clout to make "home runs" that will appeal to traditional religious believers?

So read this Atlantic piece with that framework in mind. It certainly appears that the author of this piece -- David Sims -- knows what he is talking about.

However, as I read deeper and deeper into this piece I found myself wondering: Is this full of his opinions or are we reading material built on solid reporting? Who did he interview? Who is providing all of these facts about the new production? I end up wanting to praise and question this piece, at the same time.

Check out this passage, focusing on lessons learned from Gibson and the world of smaller "Christian" movies:

In 2004, Gibson’s roadshow tour for The Passion of the Christ saw him visiting church groups and giving impassioned speeches about the film (which Hollywood studios refused to fund or distribute). The result was an organic, grassroots movement that sprung up in the movie’s favor. But this year’s Ben-Hur marketing campaign was more haphazard, shifting to religious audiences only in recent months when it became clear word of mouth wasn’t spreading through the now-traditional methods of advertising (television, online, and social media among them). ...That approach has often worked for smaller-scale, faith-based films. In recent years, movies like Heaven Is for Real, War Room, Miracles from Heaven, God’s Not Dead, and Risen have been solid, mid-size hits, earning between $40 million and $90 million in the late winter and early spring seasons, when the box-office market is less crowded. But they weren’t the $100 million epics that Ben-Hur was, nor were they hoping to draw the younger, action-oriented audience that can boost an opening weekend. Instead, they opened small and added theaters as popularity grew. Because of its huge budget, Ben-Hur couldn’t do that -- it needed to open strong like The Passion of the Christ did. But a glance at the relative success of all Christian-oriented films shows that Mel Gibson’s 2004 triumph was probably a bizarre anomaly, not some magic model for studios to follow.Ben-Hur’s failure wasn’t just that it couldn’t appeal to Christian audiences. But its poor box-office take seems to reflect countless misguided Hollywood strategies, all of which have combined for a particularly lackluster blockbuster season this summer.

Amen. Preach it. Now can I know who provided all this information and these sharp insights?

I sure hope that someone writes a major news feature or even a series of articles on this important and newsworthy topic. This Atlantic piece left me wanting, well, something with more substance than on opinion essay, if that is what this is.

Who could handle this story? Does anyone trust the current version of The Los Angeles Times to take on that topic? Would Christian "players" in Hollywood, and there are a few great ones, be willing to talk on the record -- with mainstream journalists -- about this tricky subject in the current cultural atmosphere?

Stay tuned.

Categories: Main

Surprise! Kansas City Star covers only one side of United Methodist debate on sexuality

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Let's say that you are a mainstream reporter covering a story about a liberal United Methodist congregation that has been sent a very conservative pastor who decides to take a controversial stand on gun control.

People in the region are outraged and efforts are made to replace the pastor.

Who are the crucial people and groups that journalists would need to contact for input and quotes? First, you would have the pastor. Then you would have the pastor's supporters and critics in the congregation. Then -- absolutely -- you would need quotes from the regional UMC leaders who are in charge of resolving this situation and could speak to the state of church teachings related to this issue. Finally, if reporters have the time and space, they might contact activists on both sides of this hot-button issue.

Now, with these basic journalism values in mind, let's return to the case of the Rev. Cynthia Meyer, the openly gay and non-celibate United Methodist pastor who recently was removed, with some national media fanfare, from her altar and pulpit. Click here for my previous post on this case: "Do ordination vows matter? A crucial hole in RNS report on United Methodist dispute."

Now, The Kansas City Star has an update that starts like this:

On a cold Sunday in January, Cynthia Meyer, pastor at Edgerton United Methodist Church, came out to her congregation.She did so with hope that change regarding the denomination’s stance on homosexuality was coming. But eight months later, that hope, for now at least, is gone. And after the end of August, Meyer will be gone as well.To avoid a church trial, Meyer and Methodist officials agreed that she would give up her duties and go on involuntary leave. Her final sermon in Edgerton in Johnson County will be Aug. 28. ... She said she was glad to avoid a trial, which could have resulted in her losing her credentials to ever pastor again.

Before we get to the journalism sourcing issue, let's note a few questions raised in that passage. For starters, what is the UMC's teaching on sex and marriage? Also, when she "came out," did she announce that she was gay or gay and sexually active/partnered with another woman? These are important questions, under UMC doctrine and discipline.

The story does note:

While many other Christian denominations -- including the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (USA) -- already allow gay clergy, the Methodists have stuck to the ban.Liberals in the church think it’s time for change. Conservatives stick to homosexuality being a sin.

OK, does the United Methodist Church's Book of Discipline say that sexual orientation alone is sinful and just cause for disciplinary actions? Has this church (and many others) banned gay clergy?

As I asked in my earlier post, was:

... Meyer told to step down because she is a lesbian, or because she said she "loves and shares her life with another woman"? Under the Book of Discipline, orientation is not the issue -- it is sexual activity outside of traditional marriage (as defined by the church) that is the issue.But is this the real reason she has been placed on a leave of absence? Not really.Ultimately, the reason this has happened is that she openly violated her ordination vows.

And what was that vow? This vow:

... asks the new United Methodist clergyperson if she or he will accept the denomination's "order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God's Holy Word, and committing yourself to be accountable with those serving with you, and to the bishop and those who are appointed to supervise your ministry?"

Meyer and other candidates would then reply: "I will, with the help of God."

Defending the doctrine and discipline of the church, in this case, would include vowing to maintain "personal habits conducive to bodily health, mental and emotional maturity, integrity in all personal relationships, fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness." In keeping with two millennia of Christian teaching, the Discipline defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

That's what Meyer vowed to defend. However, as the story accurately states, she and many, many other American United Methodist leaders and activists want to see those ancient doctrines changed.

None of these statements and basic facts are addressed in the Kansas City Star report, in large part because the story contains zero -- repeat ZERO -- quotes from Meyer's critics -- even in the local church -- or in the regional United Methodist conference.

The story does have that unattributed statement that: "Conservatives stick to homosexuality being a sin."

Really now? Who made that statement? That's important to know because that happens to be an inaccurate statement of the denomination's teachings. Might that be a paraphrase of the views of the Discipline taken from one of its critics on the doctrinal left?

The Star report, as it should, does quote Meyer and some of her supporters.

Rita Jones, president of the United Methodist Women in Edgerton and secretary of the church council, said the congregation was greatly disappointed to lose Meyer.“She is the same person who walked through the door the first day,” Jones said. “A congregation never agrees a hundred percent on anything, but a big majority here supported her and wanted her to stay.“She is an excellent pastor and we are sorry to see her leave and wish her the best.”

Now, someone filed a complaint about her breaking her ordination vows. Who took that action? Was it a critic in the congregation? Another local church? The regional conference? Why is that side of the story represented only with second-hand material?

Here that familiar question, based on old-school journalism doctrines: Why talk to qualified, authoritative people on one side and one side only?

Might this editorial decision -- thinking Kellerism, of course -- be based on the assumption that Star editors have decided which side of this debate is worthy or respect and accurate, balanced journalism? I mean, why would they want to do fair coverage of bigots who think that 2,000 years of Christian doctrine in East and West might have some authority in their pulpits and at their altars (and protection of the truly liberal standards of the First Amendment)?

This is THE journalism question of our age, as editors lurch away from the ethics, skills and standards of the past century or so.

Categories: Main

Red Cross won't let Louisiana cop pray with flood victims? Please, news media, tell us more

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

In flood-stricken Louisiana, the American Red Cross has got trouble — with a capital "T."

Rebekah Allen of the Baton Rouge Advocate outlines the issues in an excellent news story:

Turning away food, donations has people railing against American Red Cross response to #laFlood. Read why here: https://t.co/PAzXh1Tdpd

— Rebekah Allen (@rebekahallen) August 22, 2016

Among the general concerns are claims, which the Red Cross denies, that the organization has kept donated supplies from evacuees and even allowed victims to go hungry. You really need to read the full story to understand what's happening.

But the nugget that drew our attention surfaces about two-thirds into the in-depth report.

Beyond the questions over meals and supplies, yes, a religious freedom question arises.

Check out these three paragraphs:

Capt. Clay Higgins, a reserve Lafayette city marshal who is running for Congress, posted a video of himself on Facebook saying he had tried to visit with evacuees and pray with them at the Heymann Center in Lafayette and was asked to leave by the Red Cross."Red Cross people here are great, but they have Red Cross rules they have to follow," he said in the video. "A man can't walk around the shelter and offer love and prayer for people who have been displaced." (Nancy Malone, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross) acknowledged that the organization does have a policy intended to be respectful of all faiths, but she said if Higgins had approached managers they would have accommodated him. 

A hat tip to Rod "Friend of this Blog" Dreher, who first posted about this story on his blog at the American Conservative:

I cannot believe that the Red Cross did this to Capt. Clay Higgins, a folk hero here in south Louisiana:

More from Dreher's post:

From the American Red Cross blog:Is it true that the Red Cross doesn’t allow people to pray in shelters?We have been so moved by the outpouring of care and kindness we’ve witnessed among Louisiana residents. At the Red Cross, our priority is also providing comfort to all that reside at our shelters. We recognize and are sensitive to the fact that hundreds of people from different backgrounds are often sharing a large space with limited privacy. It is of the utmost importance that we respect people’s individual needs, backgrounds and beliefs in accordance with our Fundamental Principles, which state that we bring assistance without discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinion. With this in mind, and for the privacy of our shelter residents, we do have policies in place on who can enter shelters to ensure that people have a private, secure place to stay as much as possible. Please know people in the shelters are also welcome to pray and gather among themselves.So much for the “Cross” in Red Cross. No wonder south Louisiana people are pissed off at them.

Sounds like a story worthy of deeper exploration by reporters, does it not? Perhaps an enterprising Godbeat pro would feel compelled to delve into that intriguing religion angle on this national story?

Please, news media, tell us more.

Categories: Main

Idaho Statesman lavishes multi-story package on another evolving theology professor

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

I make it my practice to scan newspapers all over the West for interesting pieces on religion and sadly, it’s newspapers in large cities that provide 99 percent of the coverage. Smaller newspapers tend not to have the budget for a full- or part-time religion reporter, even though there are lots of good religion stories out there.

Recently someone forwarded me a lengthy piece in the Idaho Stateman, a 47,855-circulation newspaper based in Boise. Seeing a two-story-and-sidebar package about a controversial theology professor at a local Nazarene university is a rarity for a newspaper that size.

Come to think of it, though, Boise, pop. 214,237, is larger than Salt Lake City (which has religion reporters at both of its newspapers), but there are no listings in the Religion Newswriters Association database for members in Idaho. So, it was a surprise to see the following Aug. 14 story in the Stateman’s Sunday paper:

Why does God allow evil?How come my loved one dies of cancer, even though I pray for recovery, but others survive without faith or prayer?Where did creation come from?These are the kinds of tough theological questions that many people spend their lives wrestling with.The Rev. Thomas Jay Oord wondered about these questions, too. But the answers he gave likely mean the popular theology professor at Northwest Nazarene University never works at a Nazarene university again.

Northwest Nazarene, by the way, is based in Nampa, just down the road from Boise.

Oord, who pushed against the boundaries of Nazarene beliefs, will leave NNU in 2018 through a negotiated parting of the ways after he was first told he would be laid off in 2015.School officials say his leaving is part of a plan to shift resources in times of tight budgets. Many others believe he’s going because of what he thinks, says and writes.The Oord saga is a story of academic freedom, religious liberty, theological differences and higher education economics. But at the heart of Oord’s story is the very American question of self expression in the workplace. From politics to the pew, people want to have their say. The conflict comes when the boss sees a need to draw a line.The question about how and where to draw the boundaries on free speech and diverse thought has prompted NNU to do its own soul-searching. The 103-year-old university with 2,000 students is rethinking its leadership structure and its commitment to academic freedom.

Usually stories of this type slip into the predictable pattern of embattled theology prof whose theological beliefs have evolved over the years versus a nasty clump of university administrators who don’t want to rock the boat. This story, however, is much more nuanced.

Everything was going fine in Oord’s career, the article relates, until about 15 years ago when the professor began writing about the problem of evil. As for his new theological ideas:

Among the most troubling: God, out of respect and love for his creation and humanity’s free will, does not control people’s lives.His ideas counter a vision of God as all alls: all-powerful, all-knowing, all-seeing, all-controlling.“A lot of people live their lives on that,” Hagood said. “It comes to a head in theology, when you talk about evil. Some people tend to say God caused it. He created it or he allowed it. Tom’s idea that (God) has limited his power to have a truly dynamic relationship with humankind sets people off.”Such ideas aren’t entirely beyond the scope of Nazarene theology and are certainly not rare in many theological circles. It’s called open theology, a sense that everything in our existence has not already been figured out and that God may not know the future.  But it’s one thing in academia. It’s received a different way in local churches and households, especially in conservative Idaho.

Is it right to blame "conservative Idaho" for this or the Nazarenes themselves?

The article switches to the viewpoint of the superintendent for the local Nazarene district and his worries that ministry trainees at the university were being disturbed by Oord’s questions. By 2010, Oord had been pulled from teaching introduction to theology classes. By 2013, the college president had set in motion a theological inquiry about Oord.

The piece goes into some detail about this inquiry, specifying that while Oord wasn’t exactly heretical, his were not typical Nazarene viewpoints. I called up NNU’s faculty policy manual to see if there was anything I could spot -- such as section 4.3 on “responsibilities of faculty” -- to see if Oord had violated that.

When faculty are hired at such institutions, they do agree -- signing on the doted line -- to teach according to certain doctrines which are spelled out in such manuals. The bottom line: It was unclear in these stories which doctrinal tenets Oord was said to have broken. That's a rather crucial hole in a story on this topic.

What was also foggy is what Oord asked for as a condition for his peaceful departure. The story said he first asked for $1 million and the school turned him down. The quote immediately after that is confusing, as it’s unclear as to whether Oord came back with a demand for more or less pay.

Those are my only two beefs, though, with a piece that goes to great length to get the points of view of the major players. This story, by the way, was twinned with another piece about the university’s self-questioning about academic freedom and when one professor’s freedom becomes a university’s stumbling block. But it’s clear the university hasn’t resolved things, by far. Near the end, the reporter asks:

But the question remains: Is there room at this theologically conservative campus for the liberal, challenging thought?

One problem I have with that approach is this: Private universities, especially religious ones, have issues with branding and identity just like anyone else. Students (or their parents) prefer places like NWU because it holds a certain theological line, which is why they attend it rather than, say, Boise State University. Why can’t journalists ask a dissenting professor why he –- or she –- stays on at a religious college when it’s clear their views have changed to the point they’re not representing the institution’s brand like they once were? After all, professors agreed to defend a specific approach to the faith.

And, will I ever see, a story asking whether a liberal college has room for conservative thought in the same way a conservative college is being asked to make room for liberal thought? Several of my colleagues, including Bobby Ross who wrote this post about a similar situation at Wheaton College last fall, have covered this question a zillion times. There simply aren't stories out there reversing the roles. 

Back to the Statesman: the larger piece provides links to other articles about the professor and a sidebar explaining the Nazarene denomination. I found some more links. Here is Oord’s personal blog and here’s a piece from Christianity Today saying Oord’s problematic beliefs included views on evolution and that other Nazarene colleges are struggling with similar issues. 

This is clearly not an easy time to be an administrator at a conservative Christian college. The Statesman's pieces are about as good as you're going to get in a situation where a lot of the college officials aren't talking.

My one plea to journalists: Even if it seems obvious who the villains may be, always ask hard questions of both sides. In this case, ask the professor why he hung on so long when it was clear he wasn't going to win this battle. Why didn't he bail out sooner and hunt for a more hospitable academic climate that welcomed his new theological beliefs? If he chose to remain, is it right for him to complain when the inevitable happens?

Categories: Main

Burkinis, Ghazala Khan and the overlooked issue of female religious free choice

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

You should by now be familiar with the burkini brouhaha, and French officials' (all of them male, as far as I can tell) unconvincing claims that they're acting in the public good by trying to help liberate Muslim women from Muslim male-imposed dictates about allowable female beachwear.

Frankly, I think its a ridiculous overreaction to the very real problem of Islamist terrorism that has France on edge and desperate to find a successful strategy to assimilate (or at least pacify) it's growing Muslim population.

It has made for some strange bedfellows, though. Many journalists who are normally harshly critical -- and rightly so -- of the horrible treatment of women in some Muslim-majority nations have opposed the burkini bans put in place by several French beach towns, and backed by Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

Journalistically, this issue underscores the complexity of balancing respect for religious tradition -- or religious freedom -- in an age of Western secularism. Put another way, as the French seem to be doing, it's about preserving local social norms (scanty female beach wear) in an age of globalized (Muslim) population movements.

These overlapping complexities can be downright confusing for journalists unschooled in the importance of religious traditions to individual and group identity. At the same time they're what, for me, make the religion beat so intellectually compelling.

The burkini controversy is one current example of this complexity. Click here to see previous GetReligion posts on this issue.

Here's another: Remember the Khans, the Muslim couple who were such a media hit at the Cleveland Democratic convention when the father, Khazr, spoke of his son killed fighting on behalf of the U.S. military in Iraq?

In his speech, Kahzr also went after Donald Trump. The Republican presidential candidate responded by intimating that Ghazala Khan, the mother, remained quiet as her husband spoke because as a Muslim woman she was expected to stay silent. (She later said she did not speak at the convention because she feared becoming too emotional.)

Liberal and conservative media folk were quick to chastise Trump for being insensitive to a family's loss and to all who have died fighting for the U.S. -- and for tossing more red meat to those Americans who support him primarily because of his consistent anti-Muslim rhetoric.

However, largely lost in this unholy political episode was mention that some women -- Muslim and otherwise -- strongly believe that their faith requires them to act and dress ultra-modestly in public, and so willingly and even happily do so.

One commentator who did pick up on this was Rabbi Avi Shafran, national spokesperson for Agudath Israel of America, which is a Haredi Orthodox Jewish movement.

As such, Shafran, is a must-know source for journalists writing about the Orthodox Jewish religious right (as he's been for me for decades).

What sets Shafran apart, however, is that, addition to his day job, he also writes columns for such famously liberal Jewish and Israeli publications as The Forward and Haaretz. Likewise, he also regularly publishes at Hamodia, a Haredi news site.

Writing in Hamodia, he addressed the issue of willing modesty in relation to Ghazala Khan. He said:

To be sure, there are sizable parts of the Islamic world where women are in fact cruelly oppressed, where physical abuse, forced marriages and “honor killings” are unremarkable. But what Mr. Trump was demeaning was the very concept of different roles for men and for women, the thought that a woman might, as a matter of moral principle, wish to avoid being the focus of a public gathering. He was insinuating, in other words, that a traditional idea of modesty is somehow sinister.Islam, though some Muslims may chafe at the observation, borrowed many attitudes and observances from the Jewish mesorah [religious tradition]. Islam’s monotheism and avoidance of graven images, its insistence on circumcision, its requirement for prayer with a quorum and facing a particular direction, its practice of fasting, all point to the religion’s founder’s familiarity with the Jews of his time. As does that faith’s concept of tznius, [modesty]  even if, like some of its other borrowings, it might have been taken to an unnecessarily extreme level.I don’t know the Khans’ level of Islamic observance, but Mrs. Khan wore a hijab as she stood next to her husband at the convention podium. So it is certainly plausible that her decision to not speak in that very public venue may have been, at least to a degree, informed by a tznius concern.A concern that the plethora of pundits chose to not even consider, thereby, in effect, endorsing Mr. Trump’s bias on the matter.

All of which is to say that the general media's failure to largely overlook the issue of free choice is yet another example of what we at GetReligion often refer to as Kellerism. Where are the voices on that side of the issue, in mainstream news coverage?

Here's one final note, mentioned in one of the many news stories and opinion pieces that The New York Times has run on the burkini ban. Our own tmatt mentioned this wrinkle in the debates in an earlier post:

The mayors who have enacted bans justify them with vague rationales that include maintaining public order and hygiene, “good morals” and laïcité [France's official secularism].The reality is far less clear, and in fact the presence of burkinis could be taken as a sign that at least some French Muslims have a relatively liberal stance, said Marwan Muhammad, the executive director of the Center Against Islamophobia in France. In conservative Muslim countries, women would never go to a beach with men, much less go swimming, since even in the burkini the wet cloth sticks to a woman’s body, outlining her curves.“This is a good news in a way because it means Muslim women who didn’t used to enjoy that day at the beach or at the pool are now taking part, they are socializing,” he said.

Now, isn't that what the French want?

Categories: Main

After that devastating flooding in Louisiana, there's hope — but apparently no faith

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

In the wake of the Louisiana flooding, a number of my Facebook friends posted about that Deep South state's heroic people coming together and showing their resiliency amid a major disaster.

But here's what I was curious about: how to mesh that totally appropriate narrative with the recent racial protests and violence in that same state.

I wanted to see journalists explore the big picture in Louisiana.

So here's the good news: The Washington Post did exactly that in an 1,800-word takeout on Sunday's front page. Well, sort of.

And that segues to the bad news: The more I read, the more something seemed to be missing. Something big. Something that just might have to do with all those evangelical Christians and Catholics who make up such a large proportion of Louisiana's population. 

Holy ghosts, anyone?

Let me share the crux of the Post story — dateline Baton Rouge — and then explain what I mean:

In fewer than six weeks, this city has faced grievous man-made and natural disasters, from the police killing of Alton Sterling that provoked protests and mass arrests by a heavily militarized police force, to the shooting of Nick Tullier and his fellow law enforcement officers, to the epic flooding that now has left tens of thousands displaced.The city and a vast swath of south Louisiana are facing a huge cleanup and a housing crisis. Families are grappling with moldy drywall, the intricacies of applying for federal disaster aid, and the trauma of loss and sudden homelessness.But alongside the devastation here, there have been astonishing displays of generosity and selflessness, and a swelling pride in the way communities have rallied to take care of each other.Hundreds and perhaps thousands of volunteers launched boats to rescue those trapped in their homes. First responders who have lost their own homes have continued working long shifts. And in the many subdivisions where people are doing the hard, hot, smelly work of pulling sodden debris out of their homes, strangers have shown up bearing bottles of cold water, snacks and clean T-shirts.Among many people, there is a hope that when Baton Rouge residents look back at this unnamed storm years from now, they’ll see that it didn’t just upend lives, but also began a much-needed healing.

OK, a few questions: Concerning all those people who have rallied to take care of each other, is there any chance any of them might be motivated by faith? And those strangers showing up with cold water, snacks and T-shirts, might they be part of the "faith-based FEMA?"

If you doubt that strong possibility, be sure to watch the report above from religion correspondent Kim Lawton of PBS' Religion Ethics & Newsweekly. Or check out this Associated Press report. Or read this story by Baton Rouge Advocate reporters including my friend Kyle Peveto, who has been reporting as well as helping with the relief effort:

Spent the day cleaning flooded houses with my church, South BR Church of Christ. So many need help. #OneLA #flood pic.twitter.com/rvoWY1aNEy

— Kyle Peveto (@kylepeveto) August 21, 2016

Yes, in a couple of spots, the Post provides vague hints of a potential religion angle, including here:

“Some people say it’s God teaching us a lesson to forgive and forget,” said Jewels Simpson, who is white, and whose home was flooded.

And here:

“Right now, it’s time everyone needs to pray,” McMillon said.

However, the newspaper fails to engage — really engage — the importance of religion in Louisiana. The front-page headline speaks of "hope that disaster can heal." But there's no mention of faith. None at all.

What we have here — regrettably — is an in-depth attempt to dig below the surface of difficult life issues in the nation's fourth-most religious state without ever mentioning, you know, religion. That's pretty much impossible.

 

 

 

 

Categories: Main

The Los Angeles Times misses wrestler's prayer refrain: 'Christ is in me, I am enough'

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Does anyone have time for yet another Rio 2016 religion-news post?

One of the responses that your GetReligionistas hear when we criticize the faith-shaped holes in mainstream news coverage goes something like this: You guys just aren't realistic. In today's age of short, quickie digital journalism -- with journalists dashing off three or four stories and 10 tweets a day -- reporters just don't have the time and space to add secondary, deep-background details about religion and stuff.

Or words to that effect. Trust me, we understand the pressures, in an age when the advertising crisis in mass media has left fewer reporters in mainstream newsrooms, while the World Wide Web demands more and more 24/7 content. We know that reality issue is there.

The veteran scribes here at GetReligion -- with nearly 200 years worth of experience in religion news, when you add us all up -- can see the challenges. Trust me, we know that people on beats that bump into religious content, from arts to politics, from sports to business, don't have the time to write religion feature stories.

But they do have time to listen to what people say and then include a few details and quotes about faith, when it is clear that these details are at the heart of a person's life and work.

Take team USA wrestler Helen Maroulis, whose win over three-time Olympic champion Saori Yoshida of Japan was -- in one NBC soundbite -- something like an unknown sprinter beating Usain Bolt (that Catholic mega-star from Jamaica) in the 100 meters.

Now, it helps to know that Maroulis has been training for several years in Southern California. Thus, you would expect The Los Angeles Times to be anxious to tune her in and capture the essence of this huge Olympics upset. So here is some key material at the top of a feature about the gold-metal winner:

The path to becoming the first U.S. women’s wrestler to win an Olympic gold medal was hardly smooth. After beating Yoshida, 4-1, in the gold-medal match Thursday in the 53kg (117 pounds) freestyle weight class, Maroulis cried on the mat. She cried on the podium and cried as she sang the national anthem and revealed how truly out of sorts she felt before the Olympics. “A couple of weeks ago, I was like, ‘I’m just going to book a plane to Iceland because I think I’m about to be like the biggest failure at the Olympics,’” she said. “I don’t even know if I’ll make weight. I’m doing all the right things and I’m not seeing results.”

Pretty emotional stuff. And later there is this:

The magnitude of the victory hit Maroulis hard on the podium during the anthem. “I looked at that flag -- the American flag represents our country and stands for so much, so much meaning, so much value behind it,” she said. “The flag is raised for a lot of different things. Today it was small … maybe small in comparison to the country.“It [the anthem] was being played and I have this gold medal. But then I’m also thinking there are people, Americans, in other countries, at war. And the flag is there. ... When the anthem plays, how can you not cry?”

OK, almost everyone loves patriotism in this day and age.

But now, click here to watch an NBC mini-video of what Maroulis has to say when she is asked about this experience. What was she thinking about? How did she handle all of the pressure? What was going through her head?

As it turns out, The Denver Post team was listening to what the wrestler was saying, during her public comments in Rio. Notice have little additional material it takes to make this material a bit more complete.

Maroulis, who had to win a qualification match in the morning just to get into the round of 16, paused to pray before she entered the ring for the gold medal match.“All I said over and over again was, ‘Christ is in me, I am enough,’ and that was one of the most freeing things I’ve ever said,” Maroulis said. “I don’t need to be perfect. Leading up to training camp, people would say, ‘How did you feel about practice today?’ or, ‘You looked good,’ and I had no answer because I was looking for perfection everywhere. Finally I was like, ‘You know what? I’m not going to find it. So what I have is enough, and I trust God that what I have is enough.’ ”

Now, that wasn't so hard was it? That didn't break the digital ink bank.

This one passage does not a this news report into some kind of covert evangelism project. It does, however, say something important about this young woman and her state of mind as she stepped -- in this case literally -- onto the world stage in Rio.

Kudos to the Denver Post team for keeping the faith element in her story. And the Los Angeles Times? Once again (remember the faith-shaped hole in the Michael Phelps feature) it's interesting to note what was edited out of the reporting, when covering the same person, in the save venue and, often, in the same presser events or with the same public statements.

I'll ask. Are there any religious believers in Southern California who subscribe to newspapers?

FIRST IMAGE: The team USA photo of Helen Maroulis.

Categories: Main

Post-Olympics: The Atlantic sees psychological, emotional issues, but not spiritual ones

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Atlantic meant well. Its post-Olympics feature examines the depression that athletes often suffer after such sports events, as they strive to cope with their futures and stress linked to big wins and big defeats.

It's a literate, sympathetic piece, gently but incisively examining the emotional crash; the reluctance to ask for help; how intensely athletes identify with their achievements; how  much they fear losing themselves by losing in competition.

Almost every angle is covered, it seems, but -- you knew this was coming -- the spiritual one. The story leaves Mount Olympus haunted with religious "ghosts."

This is the kind of eloquent passage that makes me loathe to write off the article totally:

Take the Michigan-born swimmer Allison Schmitt. After winning five medals, three of them gold, and setting a world record in the 2012 London Games, Schmitt sank into a hole from which she couldn’t emerge. She had no idea why she felt depressed -- especially considering her undeniable success -- but realized she needed counseling. The decision didn’t come easily; depression is still a dirty word in the locker room."I didn’t want to show my weakness," she said in an interview with Channel 4 in Detroit. "I didn’t want to ask for help, but in this situation I found out … that I couldn’t keep fighting it by myself. … There’s this thing that they call post-Olympic blues and I think I had a little bit of that and I kept isolating myself and isolating myself."

The Atlantic also quotes sports psychologist Scott Goldman noting that the Olympics amount to a "hundred-mile-per-hour ride" that "comes to a screeching halt." He says the sudden end leaves athletes "just physiologically depleted, as well as psychologically."

Some past champions' stories are also retold. Mark Spitz set seven records at the 1972 Olympics, but found it hard to function in any other job. And Taraje Murray-Williams retired from judo competition after the Beijing Olympics, although he was able to start a financial services business. 

That's the big take-away in this article: "Build an identity off the playing field." Says Kristin Keim, another sports psychologist. "You have to separate the individual from the result."

The Atlantic doesn't quite claim to have discovered the wheel, but it doesn't account for other sports stars who have found their way out of the ego trap. Nearly 17 years ago, I interviewed Norm Evans, a veteran of the Miami Dolphins. Evans noticed a lot of pro figures losing their sense of identity after retirement. As he told me, "If you are what you do, what are you when you're not doing it?" Athletes are not alone in facing that puzzle, but most hit that wall at a much, much younger age.

His answer, as a Christian, was to find his identity in the God who made him and still watched over him. He decided to offer the same to others in sports, first through Pro Athletes Outreach, then through Coaches Time Out.

And you don’t have to dig into news archives for athletes who anchor themselves in their faith. Here, I may sound almost like I'm doing a GetReligionista roll call. Here goes, anyway.

Try 2016 Olympic archer Mackenzie Brown, identified by the Religion News Service as an evangelical. Or swimmer Simone Manual, who, as tmatt notes, has offered "All glory to God! Isn’t He awesome!" in her tweets. 

Or Simone Biles, who carries a rosary and grew up attending Mass with her mother. Or, as Julia Duin noted, nine 2016 Olympic athletes who grew up in Catholic schools.

And how about Jamaica's gold medalist runner Usain Bolt, often seen throwing a kiss up to God before one of his jaw-dropping sprints? The Epic Pew blog reports (as tmatt noted this morning) that Bolt also wears a copy of the Miraculous Medal, which has an image of Mary on one side and a Marian prayer on the other. That famous Bolt pose? He's pointing at Mary and also up to heaven.

You also may have heard of one Michael Phelps, who has become the biggest gold medal winner in Olympic history. Phelps had pulled his life out of a drunken tailspin after reading Rick Warren's bestseller "The Purpose Driven Life" -- a fact lost on the Los Angeles Times, to cite tmatt again, although Warren's church is in the newspaper's back yard.

Another good subject for the Atlantic would have been Rajeev Ram, a silver medalist in doubles tennis with teammate Venus Williams. As he told the Washington Post

“Part of the Hindu religion teaches, more so than anything else, your control of your mind — your self-control, basically,” Ram said. For many, that self-control applies to an individual’s mastery over his moral and ethical choices. But for Ram, self-control also meant mastery of his body.“Obviously, your body’s going to do what your mind tells it to do. If you can have that inner control, a sense of peace, your body’s going to follow,” he said.It’s an idea his parents taught him: They cared not so much whether he won or lost his tennis matches as a child but whether he controlled his temper.  

And how did the Atlantic forget Olympic divers David Boudia and Steele Johnson, who won silver for the U.S. team in Rio?

The two friends and teammates were vocal about their faith, and Boudia is a perfect example of someone whose life crashed after winning gold in London and he had to bounce back to get to Rio. He credits his faith as the key to that journey:

"There's been an enormous amount of pressure. I've felt it," Boudia, who still will compete in the individual platform, told an NBC national audience. "It's just an identity crisis. When my mind is on this [diving], and I'm thinking I'm defined by this, then my mind goes crazy. But we both know that our identity is in Christ, and we're thankful for this opportunity to be able to dive in front of Brazil and in front of the United States. It's been an absolutely thrilling moment for us."Johnson agreed."The way David just described it was flawless -- the fact that I was going into this event knowing that my identity is rooted in Christ and not what the result of this competition is just gave me peace ... and it let me enjoy the contest," Johnson told NBC. "If something went great, I was happy. If something didn't go great, I could still find joy because I'm at the Olympics competing with the best person, the best mentor -- just one of the best people to be around. God's given us a cool opportunity, and I'm glad I could come away with an Olympic silver medal in my first-ever event."

As you can see, some of the reporting was good, some was flawed. But none of the Olympians above is mentioned in the Atlantic article -- none except Phelps. And that reference is scrubbed of any spiritual facet. It says only that "after a DUI in 2014, [he] checked himself into rehab and was able to reignite his passion for competitive swimming."

Just before the Olympics began, our own Bobby Ross Jr. wondered how many reporters would bother to speak with athletes who ask God for help. "What about the more than just a few athletes who are bound to proclaim that their faith helped them excel. Or sustained during the disappointment that followed failure on the field?"

We now have an answer: a few journalists bothered. But not at the Atlantic.

Categories: Main

Battling cancer, major-league coach puts faith into action — but what exactly does that mean?

Monday, August 22, 2016

This is an inspiring story.

For those concerned about holy ghosts in the mainstream press, it's also a frustrating story.

I'm talking about a heart-tugging feature from the Dallas Morning News on a major-league coach battling cancer:

How Rangers coach Tony Beasley's cancer battle became his most rewarding year in baseball https://t.co/djyidM8hnh pic.twitter.com/ls35L2T7Ld

— Dallas Morning News (@dallasnews) August 19, 2016

As a longtime Texas Rangers fan, I'm particularly drawn to this emotional profile by one of my favorite baseball writers. The subhead on the print version noted that third-base coach Tony Beasley sees his cancer ordeal "as a chance to put faith into action."

ARLINGTON -- This is how he has spent his season: chemotherapy treatment during spring training, five weeks of radiation in April and May and, in the next week, a five-hour surgical procedure to remove the remnants of a tumor from his bowel.And this is how Tony Beasley describes the year: "My most rewarding in baseball."Beasley is the Rangers' third-base coach in title, but he's had to move into more of a quality-control role for this season during a fight with cancer that is stretching into its eighth month. The disease may have turned his role upside down, but he'll be damned if it's going to do the same to him."It doesn't sound right to [call it rewarding] when you are dealing with a disease; you don't relate that to a reward," Beasley said. "But there has been so much good on so many fronts."Somebody once told me not to see obstacles, only opportunities. And this has given me the opportunity to be the man who I said I am. I've always said I'm a man of faith, but we can say things and not live it. This has given me a chance to live it. I'm thankful if people have had a chance to see it."

That's powerful writing, but I want to know more about Beasley's faith.

What is his specific religious background? Where and how does he worship? What precisely does it mean to him to live out his faith during this difficult time?

Such questions go unanswered — totally — in the Morning News story. Apparently, religion has no place in this piece that focuses on more general themes of inspiration and perseverance.

Is that surprising? No. We see this all the time in sports features. (Perhaps you saw our tmatt's latest post on Olympic holy ghosts just this morning?)

In fact, other news organizations have covered the Beasley story and similarly neglected to engage the faith question below the surface. Examples here, here and here. In the Fox Sports Southwest video above, Beasley says, "I refuse to allow the enemy to take my body and my mind." Might that be an Enemy with a capital E? The TV report doesn't say.

Yes, I'm inspired by Beasley's story.

But I'd love to see news coverage that delves into his actual faith. So far, such coverage has remained frustratingly scarce.

Categories: Main

Haunted house Olympics: How many of the faith-driven stories did you see in Rio coverage?

Monday, August 22, 2016

For many Rio 2016 viewers, it was the emotional peak of the entire Olympics.

I am referring to what happened -- far from the finish line -- during a preliminary heat for the women’s 5,000-meter run. That was when Abbey D’Agostino of team USA collided with Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand.

Both went down. D’Agostino didn't know it, but she had a torn ACL. Nevertheless, she stopped and helped Hamblin. Together -- with the American runner clearly injured -- they finished the race. D’Agostino left the track in a wheelchair and, later, was not able to accept an offer by Olympic judges allowing both runners to run in the final because of their fine sportsmanship.

That's the story that everyone knows about, the drama that left viewers coping with tears. But why did D’Agostino stay behind to help, as the pack ran off into the distance? Catholic News Service looked for that angle, which was not hard to find:

“Although my actions were instinctual at that moment, the only way I can and have rationalized it is that God prepared my heart to respond that way. This whole time here he’s made clear to me that my experience in Rio was going to be about more than my race performance – and as soon as Nikki got up I knew that was it.”She had previously recounted how her reliance on God helped calm her anxiety before a big race. “Whatever the outcome of the race is, I’m going to accept it. ... I was so thankful and just drawn to what I felt like was a real manifestation of God’s work in my life.” She told Hanlon that previous injuries forced her “to depend on God in a way that I’ve never been open to before.”

Did anyone see that angle in mainstream coverage? Actually, one or two major newsrooms saw that religion ghost and ran with it, including Sports Illustrated online. But not many.

I was exchanging emails with a media professional the other day and mentioned that there was no way GetReligion could have done posts on all of the valid, and often crucial, religion-angle stories that received little, if any, news coverage during Rio 2016. I have never received so many contacts from readers about a subject, pointing me toward more and more URLs with other Olympics religion angles worthy of note. It was like one giant haunted house of religion-ghost stories.

My friend agreed and added that, if she had tried to cover these stories, "we would have needed a special edition just to contain all of them."

Clearly, there are journalists who have become cynical about Godtalk among athletes, especially after victories. But, as your GetReligionistas have emphasized for two weeks, how can journalists leave the religion angle out of features that are, supposedly, focusing on what makes some of these athletes tick and what has allowed them to cope with the pain and struggles in their lives? If reporters ask athletes questions about these subjects, and the answers include faith content, isn't that part of the story?

I found it interesting that, at this point, D’Agostino said she has become afraid to talk about her faith in public.

“I don’t want to feel that I’m proselytizing and shoving it in people’s faces. But at the same time it’s authentic, when I do speak of it,” she said. “That’s been a real journey for me in the past year. How do I find my own voice within the social media realm and really just own it?”“I think people feel like I’m trying to sell it,” she added. “That’s my fear. I wouldn’t want to be sold Christianity. That’s not what it’s about. God’s truth can stand on its own. It doesn’t need to be sold, it’s true in my mind. ... But it’s hard to present your beliefs in a way that is inspiring and encouraging and gentle, and that’s how I would want to receive it. That’s how I did receive it.”

So now it's time to start -- repeat "start" -- wrapping things up. So far, at least two websites have tried to create lists of SOME of the religious stories from these games.

The Catholic site Aleteia offered a piece with this headline: "10 Olympic athletes who were not afraid to share their faith."

If you were looking for the "face" of these games, one of the nominees would have to be the world's fastest man, Usain Bolt. Here is the Aleteia blurb on Bolt.

... Bolt is less vocal and more visual in regards to the expression of his faith. He routinely makes the sign of the cross before each competition and wears proudly a miraculous medal around his neck. Additionally, the Catholic News Agency reported that the “Vatican invites Usain Bolt to address religious liberty conference.” The article mentions “As a Catholic, Bolt is known for making the Sign of the Cross before racing competitively. He also bears the middle name [St.] Leo.”

I asked folks on Twitter to help me look for images of one of Bolt's post-race rituals, when he kneels, puts his forehead to the track in prayer, and then makes the sign of the cross before standing and acknowledging the crowd. There's a glimpse of this in the NBC Olympics footage in this post.

However, there are far more images of his famous lightning bolt stance. However, by the end of the week, I had noted that there is even religious content in this victory pose. Note that his right hand, in these photos, is pointing toward the medal around his neck. The other hand points up and away from himself -- toward heaven.

The medal? It is:

... the Miraculous Medal, as promulgated by French Saint Catherine Labouré (1806-1876). By extension, as one awesome Redditor pointed out, based on Bolt’s wearing of the Miraculous Medal, the Blessed Virgin Mary is currently the most viewed woman in sprinting! This digression aside, the Miraculous Medal features an inscription invoking the prayerful intercession of the Lord’s Mother with these French words: “O, Marie, conçue sans péché, priez pour nous qui avons recours à vous” (“O, Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee”).

So even in his proud, "secular" pose, what is Bolt actually trying to say?

In addition to that list of 10 stories about faith and Rio 2016, the conservative Newsbusters site offered a slightly longer list under this headline: "Be Inspired by the Olympic Faith of These 15 Christian Athletes." There is some overlap between this list and the earlier Aleteia offering, but much totally new content.

Also, I didn't see much attention paid to the Islamic faith of the great distance champion Mohamed Farah of Great Britain, who knelt on the track in prayer before and after each race. People talked a lot about his wife and his family, but not his faith.

Thus, please check out this collection of IslamHashtag.com links noting the "Top 10 Muslim Athletes in Rio Olympics 2016."

Finally, for now, here is a very interesting item sent in my a reader.

I don't know how many people dug deep enough into the coverage to check out the astonishing rugby team from Fiji who just kept crushing opponents on their way to a gold metal.

A reader noted:

This, for me, is the best moment of the entire Olympics so far! And I've watched non-stop Olympics this past week. The Fiji Sevens Men's Rugby team won their country's first ever gold medal and they sang in perfect harmony about it. It was rugby's re-introduction to the Olympics, having last been featured in Paris' 1924 Games. After their 43-7 win over Great Britain, tears in many of their eyes, they huddled together and sang this in both English and Fijian:We have overcome
We have overcome
By the blood of the Lamb
And the Word of the Lord
We have overcome.
Forget all the negativity of politics and the awful violence and sadness we see so much of today. Why are so many people always so angry? I'm over all of it. We need more people like these Fijians! After this singing came the podium and, with great honor and humility, these men did something I've never seen. Every single one bowed to both knees to receive their medals. It was too beautiful! They were all class! Rugby is a tough game played by gentle people. Their play was unmatched but this singing... what an unexpectedly awesome moment of transcendence!

Well, I saw one of their matches -- or the start of it -- but I didn't see this unusual and powerful scene.

Which brings me to an appeal. Readers! Those of you who sent so many URLs during Rio 2016, can you paste them into our comments section? What other stories took place toward the end? What reports were solid and which ones contained God-shaped holes.

Yes, I already know about the SI cover package. Hold that thought.

FIRST IMAGE: Screen shot from @CatholicGag

Categories: Main

Some news skills never die: An obituary writer describes life on the death beat

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Obituary writing is an all-important corner of the news game. We are talking “first draft of history” and all that.

A key practitioner, Bruce Weber of The New York Times, is leaving the beat following eight years and 1,000 salutes to the dear departed. With considerable charm, he recently described his odd life in news and ink.

His subjects were “famous, infamous, or as obscure as the rest of us except for one instance of memorable distinction,” the latter including a stupid airline hijacker,  some guy who shot a ballplayer, a pederast, a con artist, or an embezzler, all thrown next to honored humanitarians, statesmen, and scientists seeking to cure AIDS or cancer.  (Unfortunately, these days such “mainstream media” routinely ignore the deaths of many worthy religious leaders.)

With unanticipated deaths, pieces must be knocked out in an hour or two. But at the Times and elsewhere, important obits are planned in advance. “You can’t write the comprehensive life story of a president or a pope or a movie star in an hour or even a day,” he explains. Indeed. Five months out of college, the Religion Guy compiled a two-page obit for Delaware’s Wilmington Morning News hours after JFK died, thanks mostly to canned AP and UPI copy and our "morgue" files.  

Most periodicals will (or should) have well-prepared sendoffs for religion’s big three -- The Rev. Billy Graham, now 97 and the prime U.S. clergyman of his era; the Dalai Lama, 81, and Pope Francis, 79. With such overarching personalities the temptation is to bigfoot the task, handing it to a veteran generalist instead of the staff religion specialist.

The bottom line: The result can emphasize the politics and downplay the religion.

But the religion-news professional is a better bet due to perspective and sources. With a sudden death (and many other breaking stories) the beat specialist’s list of home and cell phone numbers and e-mails is crucial.

With that in mind, The Guy pauses to thank  three stars who could provide a quick, perceptive quote on most anything: Richard Mouw, retired president of Fuller Theological Seminary; Jesuit priest Thomas Reese, omnipresent when journalists write about Catholics; and of course the one and only University of Chicago church historian Martin Marty. All three are at an age when their own advance obits should be in the bank.

One essential skill is up-summing the subject’s significance in a telling phrase. The Times, which often has an odd habit of burying the lede, correctly caught Jesuit priest turned political rabble-rouser John McLaughlin in its recent headline: “TV Host Who Made Combat of Punditry.” But it wasn’t until paragraph four that Elizabeth Jensen said he “helped reinvent the political talk-show format by injecting unabashed partisanship and a dash of entertainment.” Longtime liberal panelist Eleanor Clift made the key idea her second sentence: “He was the first to recognize the value of combative political talk on television.”

Some obit writing involves heavy interpretation and even some literary artistry, as with each week’s top obituary by anonymous authors that always graces the last page of The Economist. One highly readable master is Mark Steyn, whose 2006 anthology “Passing Parade” collected 51 examples. He got into this as a columnist for Canada’s National Post seeking “a welcome break from the grind of war and politics,” and subsequently wrote the “Post Mortem” column for The Atlantic.

An acerbic conservative, Steyn’s assessment of obits for Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham lampooned journalists’ self-absorption and liberal elitism. He was similarly bemused when The New York Times rushed Pope John Paul II’s obit onto the Web complete with an editor’s comment: “NEED SOME QUOTE FROM SUPPORTER”!

Wait, there's more. He observed that The Guardian was perplexed that a pontiff was “doctrinaire about his doctrine, dogmatic about his dogma,” while the Washington Post nearly implied that the pope opposed “abortion and gay marriage off the top of his head, principally to irk ‘liberal Catholics.’ "

Be careful out there: Nothing lasts longer than the anger caused by errors and cheap shots written into obituaries.

Categories: Main

US Catholics sort of hug ELCA: Why do liberal, oldline flocks always seem to make news?

Saturday, August 20, 2016

If you walked the religion-news beat in the 1980s, and especially if you covered mainline Protestants and the Episcopal Church, then you probably knew Bishop William C. Frey.

At that time, he was the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado and he eventually (a) was the symbolic evangelical/charismatic candidate to become U.S. presiding bishop, then (b) he became president and dean of the evangelical Anglican School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pa. He now lives in retirement near San Antonio, Texas, and -- it helps that he speaks fluent Spanish -- remains active in ministry in that region.

Among reporters (of all theological stripes), Frey was known as one of the most candid and, with his previous work in mainstream radio, sound-bite articulate figures on the national scene. His wit was legendary.

So what does this have to do with this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to listen) about that ecumenical document signed by U.S. Catholic leaders and the liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America? We are talking about the one that led to statements (see previous post here) that there were "are no longer church-dividing issues" between them.

Host Todd Wilken and I were curious as to why this document received so little attention in the mainstream press, since -- in the past -- this was precisely the kind of progressive, ecumenical event that drew banner headlines and then appeared in lists of the Top 10 religion-news stories of the year. Thus, we talked about why the oldline Protestant churches have always received so much attention and why, all of a sudden, that coverage may have faded.

This brings me to a classic Frey soundbite. Working on a column for the late, great Rocky Mountain News, I told the bishop about statements from several other local religious leaders who wanted to know why Colorado Episcopalians were always in the news. Some of them expressed what sounded like envy -- which made Frey laugh out loud.

"Oh my," he said, "that's like coveting someone else's root canal!"

In other words, it may not be a good thing if mainstream reporters and editors think your church deserves lots of coverage. Think about it.

A few years later, I wrote an essay for an alternative Episcopal publication (then edited by GetReligion co-founder Doug LeBlanc) that ran with this headline: "Why journalists love the Episcopal Church." It remains, I think, relevant to the current discussion -- even though I wrote it 22 years ago. It ended with this summary statement of my thesis:

I believe the Episcopal Church draws more than its share of media attention because its leaders wear religious garb, work in conveniently located buildings, speak fluent politics and promote a mystical brand of moral liberalism. Episcopalians look like Roman Catholics and act like liberal politicians.Clearly, this is a flock that will continue to merit the attention of America's media elite. The Episcopal Church's buildings will photograph well, even if the only people in them are behind the altars.

Wait, wait, you say, why does it matter that they "wear religious garb"? Note that this point would also figure into discussions of ELCA leaders in the news.

Thus, I wrote:

If at all possible, the media treat religion as a photo opportunity. And when it comes to taking pictures of religion, it helps if people wear religious clothing.Have you ever tried to take colorful, highly symbolic, news photographs at the Southern Baptist Convention, or even at gatherings of a wool-blend body such as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)? It doesn't work. Everyone is wearing suits and ties or some other form of street clothing. How many news photos have you seen of meetings of liberal Jewish rabbis, in comparison with gatherings of Orthodox rabbis?Episcopalians have been known to dress up. Episcopalians still look religious.

To be blunt, the leaders in some, but not all, oldline churches look sort of like Roman Catholics when you put them on camera. Yet the words coming out of their mouths sound more like the editorial-page scribes at The New York Times. That's the news ticket!

So why didn't this story about the ELCA sort of dancing with U.S. Catholic ecumenical leaders make more news?

To tell you the truth, I don't know. I was surprised. But I do have some theories and they're in the podcast. So there.

Enjoy the podcast.

Categories: Main

The seat of the matter: Most media updates on Target store controversy miss the obvious

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Target store chain, rocked for months by controversy over its bathroom policy, finally threw in the towel and said it would spend $20 million to build single restrooms for all its stores. Coverage of the announcement, though, was less complete, much of it bypassing the moral/religious cause of the national media storm.

The fracas began this year after Target announced that anyone could use its restrooms based the gender he/she identified with. "Everyone -- every team member, every guest, and every community -- deserves to be protected from discrimination, and treated equally," the statement said.

The announcement followed North Carolina's passage of a law requiring everyone to use the public restroom of his/her biological sex. Transgendered people, their LGBT allies and social liberals cried foul.
 
Perhaps Target saw a PR opportunity, but it backfired, drawing boycott demands via social media and pickets in front of some stores. For GetReligion readers, the key is that most of the opposition was coming from religious and cultural conservatives. We will come back to that.

This week, the chain confessed that earnings were down -- and, just coincidentally, it was adding the single restrooms.

Now you're up to speed. How have mainstream media been doing?  Not too well, in the case of America's largest newspaper chain. 

USA Today leads with the numbers -- adjusted earnings per share, same-store sales change and such -- then finally gets to the objections in the eighth paragraph:

Target Chief Financial Officer Cathy Smith said the company will add single-stall bathrooms at all of its stores where that option is not currently offered, reflecting a direct response to the debate that erupted earlier this year over its new transgender-bathroom policy.The company already had single-stall bathrooms that anyone can use at about 1,400 of its 1,800 stores, Target spokesperson Katie Boylan said.The $20 million investment does not reflect a change in Target's transgender bathroom policy, which allows people to "use the restroom or fitting room facility that corresponds with their gender identity." But Boylan said the company had heard from critics and wanted to ensure it maintains a welcoming atmosphere for all of its customers.

The article noodles over causes for the downturn: weak sales in electronics, competition from Amazon, "pockets of slowness in the East Coast." Neither Smith nor USA Today breathe a hint that the protests just might possibly have had anything to do with the downturn. This despite the fact that some of its newspapers covered them.

In contrast, a Washington Post article devotes six of its 17 paragraphs to the issue, starting with the headline, "Target to spend $20 million on single-stall bathrooms after backlash to its restroom policy":

Target said Wednesday it is preparing to spend $20 million in the coming months to add single-stall bathrooms along with men’s and women’s restrooms in its stores, a move meant to accommodate shoppers who have expressed concern about the retailers’ policy of allowing customers and employees to use the bathroom that corresponds to the gender they identify with."Some of our guests clearly are uncomfortable with our policy, and some are really supportive," said Cathy Smith, Target’s chief financial officer, in a conference call with reporters. 

Despite USA Today's lack of curiosity, someone during that conference call evidently did ask if the bathroom policy had helped caused the sales slowdown. "It’s difficult to tease out one thing," Smith demurs in the AP story, adding that the impact of the issue has "really not been material."

Fair enough. What's unfair is not checking in with the activists. The Richmond Times-Dispatch did so, just only halfway.

In its localized version of the Post story, the Times-Dispatch adds praise from a Richmond-area LGBT activist. He says Target is "making the right decision in providing more opportunities for their customers," including single parents. Says Ted Lewis:

"I think that single-use public restrooms benefit a lot of communities. Definitely the transgendered community, but also families with children. Mothers with sons, fathers with daughters, and caregivers for elderly relatives who need help with the restroom, might be more comfortable in a single-use restroom."

Good, enterprising reporting there. Except for the lack of interest -- the new normal, as noted often here at GetReligion -- in the voices of Target opponents. 

Which brings us to CNN's coverage. Although the article ran in the "Money" section, it leads with the controversy:

Target has decided to expand its use of a third, single-toilet bathroom at all of its stores, which can be locked by users. That bathroom can be used by any customer who needs some privacy, including parents with small children of a different gender or those who are uncomfortable with a public bathroom in which a transgender person is allowed. "We put that in motion for some time prior to the [June] shareholders meeting," said spokeswoman Katie Boylan. "At the end of the day, Target is all about inclusion. We want everyone to feel comfortable in our stores." 

Bingo. CNN noticed that objectors have opinions and beliefs, too. The article even leans too far in the other direction, by quoting an opponent but not an advocate:

"We're confident that our boycott has played a significant role in Target's financial results that came out today," said Walker Wildmon, assistant to the president of the American Family Association, which says it promotes traditional moral values. Wildmon says Target's policy poses a risk to children and women using women's rooms, a charge denied by LGBT advocates. Boycott leaders had urged Target to install the private restrooms at all locations, but they advocated that the store's policy be changed so that transgender customers and employees no longer be allowed into the bathroom and dressing rooms of their choice. "This doesn't completely answer our concerns," said Wildmon. 

CNN may have thought Cathy Smith's quotes provided enough balance to Wildmon's, but I don’t think so. A better match would have been a transgender or LGBT leader, as the Richmond paper sought out.

Another fairness question: How can Wildmon be so sure the boycott affected Target's money problems? There's no inherent sin in opinions, but people should admit when they're being subjective.

Finally, all of these articles lacked feedback from religious leaders, although the leaders have been prominent in the whole long story of the North Carolina law -- like this statement from United Methodist Women against the law. In GetReligion terms, all of the stories are haunted by spiritual "ghosts."

Categories: Main

Gabby Douglas redux: Why is her faith never mentioned in news about her suffering?

Friday, August 19, 2016

The 2016 Olympic womens gymnastics competition is over and the medals all awarded, but one gymnast seemed to have a rougher time than the others. That would be the 2012 Olympics all-around champ Gabby Douglas, who this time around didn’t come close to her triumph of four years ago.

Those of us who’ve been following gymnastics since Russian Olga Korbut’s smash 1972 Olympics performances know that women gymnasts who are gold medalists in one Olympics rarely do better four years later. In 1976, Korbut was not the star -- but Nadia Comaneci of Romania was. There are exceptions, such as Aly Raisman, but generally that’s been the rule.

The following USA Today piece is typical of what Douglas' second week of competition has been like. There is much more to this painful, social-media ordeal than people criticizing her scores in Rio 2016. Legions of people are even making fun of her hair. USA Today notes:

RIO DE JANEIRO –- If there was any doubt Gabby Douglas was hurting, that the Olympics had become far more painful than she’d ever imagined after her decision to return for an encore, it was all erased not long after she finished seventh in the uneven bars on Sunday.For nearly 10 minutes after the likely final event of her career, the 20-year-old American, who had such a thrill ride four years ago in London, spoke with reporters about the emotional roller coaster here. As if failing to qualify for the individual all-around finals after winning  in groundbreaking fashion in 2012 and earning just the team gold weren’t enough, she was criticized at every turn in the social media spectrum so often devoid of humanity.They said she was unpatriotic on Wednesday, when Douglas was the only member of the Final Five who didn’t place her hand on her heart during the national anthem after they won gold. They said she was bitter on Thursday, when Simone Biles won the individual all-around, Aly Raisman won silver and Douglas -- who was clapping -- didn’t stand and cheer like her teammates Laurie Hernandez and Madison Kocian.

The article goes on to chronicle her misfortunes this past week but it does not refer to her much-documented brand of stoic Christianity that has brought her through tough times. That was left to faith-friendly outlets like the Deseret News or Christian Today, which have chronicled her faith background.

Unlike many athletes, Douglas has written a book: "Grace, Gold and Glory: My Leap of Faith," about her beliefs, so no one covering the sports beat can make the excuse they didn’t know this about her. 

So why don't reporters ask her if her Christianity has made a difference during this tough week? The “faith factor” was never mentioned in this Washington Post article about Douglas’ trials nor in this ESPN commentary on the nastiness of social media in general and how it has affected Douglas.

In her most recent interviews, Douglas has not mentioned her faith -- at least, not in quotes that have made it into public media. Still, that does not completely excuse sports reporters from doing their homework. Did reporters feel that Douglas' faith was covered four years ago and that no more need to be said? 

We’ve been noting for the past two weeks now how religion is brought into the mix when a competitor wears a hijab but not so when they give “glory to God” immediately after a swimming victory. It seems to me that thanking God after a win or dropping to one’s knees on the tarmac of a race track is so common in sports, journalists typically ignore repeating religious remarks unless there’s a pressing reason to do so.

The key issue, as tmatt has been noting over and over and over and over, is what happens when journalists write feature stories about what makes athletes tick, the convictions and forces that shape their lives and help them cope with adversity. That's certainly what we are dealing with right now with the coverage of Douglas. Right?

Meanwhile, journalists apply a magnifying class to every other aspect of a competitor’s personality, yet consistently leave out their religious beliefs. We’ve seen this pattern for the entire Olympics and it does feel quite intentional.

The reasons vary. I’ve known of sports reporters who include such remarks, but their editors remove them. Other times, the reporters simply don’t repeat the God stuff. Or the quotes are so meandering, they’re too tough to get down in a sound bite. 

You'd think, though, that when the going gets tough, the tough occasionally call upon God. So if you're doing a piece on Gabby Douglas' tough week, why wouldn't you at least wonder if she's at least praying? Why can't they ask her if her faith is giving her solace? Does she feel that the faith-filled statements she made during more victorious times might ring hollow now? All these questions are worth asking, if reporters would have the guts to speak them out.

Categories: Main

More secular attacks on burkinis: The New York Times explains why this is not about religion

Friday, August 19, 2016

All week long, there has been a wave of news coverage about the burkini wars (earlier post here) in the very tense land that is postmodern France.

Part of the problem is that public officials are not sure what has been banned. One Muslim woman was sent home from the beach for wearing a long-sleeve T-shirt and pants, with a head scarf, according to The New York Times. Another got in trouble for wearing a "competition bathing suit" with a head cap. There appears to be confusion about whether it's illegal for Muslim women to take a stroll on a beach while wearing the hijab.

Meanwhile, one Muslim voice argued that it's progress that some Muslim women want to go to the beach at all, since a wet burkini still reveals the shape of their bodies. Progress!

In terms of journalism, the good news is that some reporters are beginning to explore what this story says about the links between French colonialism and the nation's aggressive approach to secularism -- which argues that all religious faiths must kneel before the powers of a superior French culture based on secularism, venerating modern saints such as Brigitte Bardot and Roger Vadim. I ticked off a few readers in an earlier post by suggesting this is a clash between Sharia law and a kind of secular Sharia law.

However, one still gets the impression that members of the college of cardinals in the Times newsroom are still clicking their heels together and chanting, "This is not about religion," "This is not about religion," "This is not about religion."

Well, it's hard not to sense a religion ghost in this haunted headline: "Fighting for the ‘Soul of France,’ More Towns Ban a Bathing Suit: The Burkini." The irony, of course, is that Prime Minister Manuel Valls and others have been placed in the uncomfortable position of arguing that their goal is to liberate women, by telling them what they can and cannot do.

Let's tune in some of the coverage, before we get to a Times "Interpreter" analysis piece that, logically enough, tries to tell readers what the great Gray Lady thinks is really going on.

That debate is a continuation of deep-seated discomfort in France with Muslim women’s dress that has long defied simple categories of left and right, leaving Mr. Valls, a Socialist, sounding a lot like the presidential hopeful for the center-right, Nicolas Sarkozy, or for that matter, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the extreme-right National Front.“This is the soul of France that is in question,” Ms. Le Pen wrote in a blog post that strongly supported the burkini ban. “France does not lock away a woman’s body, France does not hide half of its population under the fallacious and hateful pretext that the other half fears it will be tempted.”

This same Times piece also included some crucial background info, noting that French laws have placed some limits on visible signs of other faiths, as well:

The slippery slope of such restrictions first came into view with a law in 2004 that banned the wearing of overt religious symbols in public primary and secondary schools. It included wearing the Jewish kippa, large crosses and the hijab, but affected disproportionately those wearing the hijab because there are few parochial schools for Muslims, so they have no choice but to go to state schools.

Many Muslims in France responded with a logical choice -- attending Catholic schools, where the practice of their religious faith was respected.

At the heart of this, notes the "Interpreter" essay by former human-rights lawyer Amanda Taub, is one of those puzzles that define liberalism.

There is something inherently head-spinning about the so-called burkini bans. ... The obviousness of the contradiction -- imposing rules on what women can wear on the grounds that it’s wrong for women to have to obey rules about what women can wear -- makes it clear that there must be something deeper going on. ...This, of course, is not really about swimwear. Social scientists say it is also not primarily about protecting Muslim women from patriarchy, but about protecting France’s non-Muslim majority from having to confront a changing world: one that requires them to widen their sense of identity when many would prefer to keep it as it was.

The bottom line: It is getting harder and harder for postmodern liberals to tolerate people that they believe are intolerant. Or, as author Stephen Bates told me long ago, some progressives have found themselves saying, "There are people in the world who just don't love everybody the way that they should and I hate people like that."

Now, the leaders of France have found themselves striving to defend their large French minority, part of the land's awkward heritage of colonialism, while also using the power of the state to force Muslims to scale down the practice of their faith. This has placed a spotlight on some painful paradoxes.

Meanwhile, earlier battles over Islamic veils have evolved into the war on burkinis, in which topless women on public beaches are symbols of public morality and Muslim women practicing excessive modesty are officially immoral.

... The veil became a symbol not just of religious difference, but of the fact that people of French descent no longer enjoyed exclusive dominance over French identity. ...John Bowen, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, said France tended to experiment with such restrictions at times when it was struggling with both domestic and international tensions relating to Muslims and the Muslim world.This began in 1989 with the so-called affaire du foulard (“affair of the scarf”), in which three French schoolgirls were suspended for refusing to remove their head coverings. Ostensibly, this was because the scarves were visible religious symbols and thus ran afoul of the French rule of laïcité, or secularism. But laïcité had been on the books since 1905, with head scarves nonetheless by and large permitted.

But things keep changing, especially in an age of terrorism.

So there you have it. This is not about religion, it's about a clash between religion and a codified non-religion that, in some ways, functions as a religion when it comes to defining what is good and bad, moral and immoral, in France.

At some point, journalists may be forced to discuss the -- What's that very American term? -- religious liberty implications of all of this.

Stay tuned. Might this debate be linked, somehow, to the Brexit phenomenon and other tensions in an increasingly post-Christian Europe? Oh, by the way, who and what needed to die in order for France to establish into rule of laïcité?

Categories: Main

Anti-Muslim hate crime targets a ... Lebanese Christian? That sad murder case in Tulsa

Thursday, August 18, 2016

At first blush, an Oklahoma murder making national headlines this week seems to be a case of anti-Muslim hate. That would mean that it's another story about "Islamophobia," as the news media like to call it.

Except that Khalid Jabara, the 37-year-old man shot dead in Tulsa, was not a Muslim. The victim, whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Lebanon, was an Orthodox Christian. That simple fact should have raised all kinds of questions for journalists working on this story.

The basic details of the crime, via CNN:

Tulsa, Oklahoma (CNN) For years, the Jabara family says, their Tulsa neighbor terrorized them.He called them names -- "dirty Arabs," "filthy Lebanese," they said.He hurled racial epithets at those who came to work on their lawns, they alleged. He ran Haifa Jabara over with his car and went to court for it.And it all came to a head last week when the man, Stanley Vernon Majors, walked up to the front steps of the family home and shot and killed Khalid Jabara, police said."The frustration that we continue to see anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, xenophobic rhetoric and hate speech has unfortunately led up to a tragedy like this," it said.

To what or whom does the "it said' refer after that last quote? What person or group produced this statement?

I'm not entirely certain. My guess is that an editing error led to that awkward attribution. But the quote sets up the "anti-Muslim" angle:

These are tense times for Muslim-Americans -- and those perceived to be Muslims. (The Jabaras are Christians of Lebanese descent.)Ever since the Paris attacks, carried out by extremists hiding behind religion, xenophobic bile has poured out. Then came San Bernardino, and after it anti-Muslim rhetoric from the Trump campaign, and a steady stream of hateful incidents came rolling in.

Is it me or does that background material include a fair amount of editorializing by the members of the CNN team? Specific examples rather than broad generalizations (such as the "xenophobic bile has poured out" phrasing) might be more appropriate for an impartial news story aiming for an impartial reporting of the facts and relevant background. Am I right?

Later, CNN includes a full statement from a family spokesperson that includes this revealing quote:

This suspect had a history of bigotry against our family. He repeatedly attacked our ethnicity and perceived religion, making racist comments. He often called us “dirty Arabs,” “filthy Lebanese,” “Aye-rabs,” and “Mooslems” -- a fact highlighted by the Tulsa Police Department who also heard these comments from the suspect. The suspect’s bigotry was not isolated to us alone. He made xenophobic comments about many in our community -- “filthy Mexican” and the “n” word were all part of his hateful approach to anyone from a different background.

As often happens (drawing commentary from your GetReligionistas), lots of people -- including journalists -- tend to forget that the words "Muslim" and "Arab" do not always describe the same people, in real life. As our own tmatt once noted:

At the time of 9/11, my family was part of an Eastern Orthodox parish in South Florida in which most of the members -- a strong majority -- were either Arab or Lebanese. It was an eye-opening experience to say the least.One strong memory: The anger of grandparents noting that their grandchildren were being harassed at local schools -- in one case, pushed around on a playground -- because they were "Arabs" and "Arabs" attacked the World Trade Center. This American-born child from a Christian Arab home was wearing his gold baptismal cross at the time the other kids jumped him.Don't people realize, parishioners kept saying, that "Arab" is not a religious term, that "Arab" is not the same thing as "Muslim"? Don't they know that Christians have been part of Middle Eastern culture since the early church?

That appears to have been what happened in this Tulsa tragedy.

Like CNN, other national news reports -- from sources such as the Washington Post, McClatchyDC and the Los Angeles Times -- mention the anti-Muslim issue.

But what about the victim's actual Christian faith? Most news reports provide parenthetical references to it. However, they don't go into any detail at all.

That's why I was pleased to see a Tulsa World interview -- by Godbeat pro Bill Sherman -- with Jabara's pastor:

Faith and Values blog: Pastor of high-profile murder victim speaks out https://t.co/8azlmgfFXO via @tulsaworld

— Bill Sherman (@BShermanTulsa) August 17, 2016

Sherman notes:

Dozens of people are murdered in Tulsa every year, but something about this killing touched a nerve. It was covered by ABC, BBC, Good Morning America, CNN, Al Jazeera and scores of newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic.I talked about it Wednesday in a downtown coffee shop with Jabara’s pastor, the Rev. George Eber, of St. Antony Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church.Eber said he thinks the shooting drew global attention because “at the core, we’re alienated from a peaceful and loving God, and in a world without God, chaos reigns. ... There is a lot of blaming going on.”Most of the media coverage has been focused on the killing as a hate crime against people of Arab descent, or against Muslims, though Jabara was Christian, and on the failure of police to protect the family despite numerous signs that the shooter was a threat to them.

The World writer also provides interesting on the planned funeral:

He said the service will be a traditional Orthodox funeral service. It will be long and will consist largely of prayer, chanting of readings and Scripture, and some responsive readings by worshippers.He said he will speak briefly about the deceased, but unlike a typical Protestant funeral, there will be no time for others to talk about Jabara.That will take place later at a “meal of mercy” for family and close friends. ...He said the service will be a time to reflect on biblical realities of Orthodoxy, that “It is a fallen world, and there have always been tragedies, but God is not the author of evil and never wanted that to happen.“God is weeping with us, weeping for us.“We commit these crimes, yet God, in his mercy and love, comes to bail us out, so he became as one of us. ... God has turned the grave into a new being.”

Certainly, the killer's motivation is a key part of this story, as is the family's "perceived religion." But key facts and details concerning the victim's own faith certainly seem appropriate for news coverage, too, particularly as this case keeps making headlines.

Kudos to the World for shedding a little religious light on this sad news.

Categories: Main

Sticking to his guns: Episcopal priest denounces weapons, with Los Angeles Times' help

Thursday, August 18, 2016

An Episcopal priest in Oregon inserted himself into a gun controversy -- actually, created one -- and then he acted shocked, shocked at the public blowback.

So did the Los Angeles Times, in an article that could have been written by public-relations professionals working for anti-gun advocates.

Rather than lengthen this intro, let's just load up and chamber the first excerpt:

The Rev. Jeremy Lucas brought an olive branch to a gun fight recently, hoping for a mellow outcome. It began when he won a semi-automatic rifle in a local raffle, then revealed his plan to destroy it and was mostly congratulated for his stand.But the 44-year-old Episcopal priest’s token attempt to take another gun off the streets did little to keep the peace. In response to his gesture, Lucas got threats and demands for his arrest."I’ve come to learn a lot about the nature of social media," Lucas said last week of some of the comments about his one-man, one-gun protest. "The rabid gun activists come out swinging, trying to close down any meaningful conversation and attempting to intimidate people into silence."

But the article has large silences of its own, including many primary sources and a religious "ghost."

The Portland-area priest learned about a local girls’ softball team that was raffling an AR-15 rifle to go to a regional playoff. Lucas says he was concerned about the message that the raffle might convey, considering how often those guns have been used in mass shootings in the U.S.

The priest then offered to pay for the trip himself, but the team had already sold some raffle tickets. He then dipped into his church's discretionary fund (money donated to the parish for the priest's use in ministry, usually for work with the poor) for $3,000 and bought 150 of the 500 raffle tickets. Lucas then bought another 150 tickets -- presumably with another $3,000 from the church till, though the article doesn't say that with certainty -- and won the gun. 

His announced intent to destroy the weapon, as a symbolic protest, brought a crossfire of opinion on Facebook and news websites.

At least, Lucas says that is what happened.

The reactions included "Facebook thank-yous from relatives of some of the Sandy Hook victims and encouragement from hundreds of others," the article says. Any examples? None are provided in the article.

"Then there were the 'critics and trolls' on social media and on news websites, Lucas wrote on his blog, 'lobbing their hate and vitriol'," the Times says, taking Lucas' word for it.

In an interesting twist, the story says a gun-rights advocate blew a whistle on Lucas. The priest left his new weapon with a parishioner who hadn't gotten a background check per Oregon’s new gun law. Oops. Kevin Starrett, executive director of the Oregon Firearms Federation, says that if Lucas isn’t prosecuted, it will show the law is aimed at the "average gun owner."

The Times should asked Lucas about that: It says he is a "law school graduate who worked as an attorney before turning to the church." And why didn’t it say more about his turn to "the church"? Was there a personal crisis involved, response to some form of evangelism or just a gradual process? And did it have some bearing on his current flamboyant stance against guns? Ghosts aplenty here. Once again (as our own Bobby Ross just stressed), the factual details matter in a religion story.

This article does quote another religious source. Bishop Michael J. Hanley of the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon calls Lucas' gesture "a wonderful thing and actually filled me with a certain amount of glee" (at least he said that in a "statement," meaning the reporter didn’t actually interview him). Hanley says more people should do such things, "jumping into the unknown consequences of doing good deeds."  

Oh, and the Times accounts for the cash, kind of. It says that "donors" replaced it and then some. But were they members of Lucas' parish? The wording suggests otherwise. How did the members of Christ Church view their rector's actions? Given the generally liberal nature of the Episcopal Church, many would probably commend Lucas. But you never know until you ask. Asking questions is a good thing, in journalism.

And wouldn't it be a good idea to talk to someone from the softball team? That's what they did at the Williamette Week, where Lucas learned of the raffle:

"This is still America, where I believe we are free to pursue our own joy," writes Georgia Herr, a district manager for the team, in an email. "For those who have the money and resources to shoot rifles, I believe they have as much of a right to do so as those who spend their time chasing invisible Pokémon."

Later in the article, Herr adds that parents were involved in the raffle. "I don't presume to judge what is appropriate for others, but I do believe parents are responsible for teaching their children," she says.

Finally, the story could have offered a sample on the larger religious discussion that we could have about bearing arms. Jesus himself seemed ambivalent toward them. He approved his apostles carrying swords; yet he rebuked Peter for using one.

Some readers might say that such an angle isn’t needed in a mere news story. Perhaps, but the Times got live quotes from an Episcopal priest and his bishop. And it ends with Lucas saying that more coverage could "perhaps keep the dialogue going."

Well, part of that dialogue -- especially when clergy are involved -- would necessarily involve religious and spiritual details. Once again, God is in the details.

Categories: Main

Was this big news or not? U.S. Catholics share a symbolic hug with the Lutheran left

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Long, long, ago -- back in the 1980s -- an evangelical Presbyterian pastor in the Denver area asked me an interesting question. It went something like this: If the old mainline Protestant churches are shrinking and losing power, why do they keep getting so much news coverage in the mainstream press?

I think he was talking about the Episcopal Church, but the conversation ended up being about all of the famed "Seven Sisters" of the oldline Protestant world. And who are the "Seven Sisters"? Historians and sociologists have grouped these flocks under that label -- the United Methodist Church; Evangelical Lutheran Church of America; Episcopal Church; United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church (USA); American Baptist Church; and the Disciples of Christ.

There are lots of reasons that these churches receive so much attention in the news, starting with the fact that for decades their leaders have spent large amounts of time debating issues that journalists think are important, such as sex, war, economic justice, race, gender and the environment. While doing so, they have consistently steered to the cultural, political and doctrinal left. For journalists, that's the very definition of news.

In my experience, most -- not all -- of the religious believers found in American newsrooms are liberal Protestants or progressive Catholics. Long ago, I put it this way:

Walk into a meeting of the Religion Newswriters Association and say, "The Lord be with you,'' and a large number of the reporters in the room will say, "And also with you.'' A few will say, "And with thy spirit.''

The "Seven Sisters" still make news, but their impact seems to be fading. If you want to see an example of this, consider the short, short, short recent Religion News Service piece with this headline: "US Lutherans approve document recognizing agreement with Catholic Church."

Then there is this rather earth-shaking lede:

(RNS) Nearly 500 years after Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Castle Church door, the largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S. has approved a declaration recognizing “there are no longer church-dividing issues” on many points with the Roman Catholic Church.

Well now, that sounds like big news -- even with that crucial word "many" in the phrase stating that these Lutheran negotiators found agreement on "many points" of theology with U.S. representatives of Rome.

Still, does it seem strange that this declaration was covered in a low-key RNS piece? And if you look around online, this was just about the only mainstream coverage of this story. As a Catholic journalist, and longtime GetReligion reader, put it in a private email:

Got News? Honestly -- I first saw this as a brief in Catholic Culture and I seriously started looking for an "April Fool's!" tag somewhere or that it was from The Onion or The Eye of the Tiber.

With such a major piece of news, the RNS piece is almost a footnote. ... What about everyone else? Why isn't this being emblazoned with three-inch stacked headlines? Why isn't it running in the cable news networks? Not even Catholic News Agency or Service or
The Register or Reporter or OSV, at least that I've seen. What's going on?

It really is strange, even if this agreement represented a press-release update from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which represents the Lutheran left on matters doctrinal, and the ecumenical offices of American Catholic academia. Oh, and what do more doctrinally conservative Lutherans have to say? Never mind.

Obviously, the big questions is this: What does it mean to say that there are "no longer church-dividing issues" between the ELCA and Rome? Does this mean that your local ELCA pastor can preach at a Catholic parish or serve Holy Communion? After all, as the RNS story noted:

Last November, Pope Francis sparked controversy when he seemed to suggest a Lutheran could receive Communion in the Catholic Church, saying “life is greater than explanations and interpretations.” The pontiff  is scheduled to visit Sweden on Oct. 31 to preside at a joint service with Lutherans.

Well now, there is yet another crucial question.

The pope is going to "preside" -- an important theological term -- at "a joint service" with Lutherans. What kind of service might that be? If it is a Mass, then we are talking A1 banner headlines in The New York Times and the global top story on BBC. But if it is a service of morning or evening prayer, then this is nothing truly historic.

Another key point: What precisely did this document say about these two ecclesiastical bodies and mutual recognition of the validity of their clergy? In other words, is a Lutheran pastor truly a priest, in the eyes of Rome? This issue is directly linked to any discussions of the validity of Sacraments and, ultimately, to the very meaning of the word "church."

You know there are major issues there, and not just because the ELCA now ordains noncelibate LGBTQ believers as pastors. In 2013 the ELCA elected it's first openly gay bishop.

No, there are other issues. Read this part of the RNS piece carefully:

ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton called the declaration “historic” in a statement released by the denomination following the ... (Aug. 10) vote.“Though we have not yet arrived, we have claimed that we are, in fact, on the way to unity. … This ‘Declaration on the Way’ helps us to realize more fully our unity in Christ with our Catholic partners, but it also serves to embolden our commitment to unity with all Christians,” Eaton said.The declaration comes as the Lutheran and Catholic churches prepare to kick off a year of celebrations to mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

Yes, the statement was made by a female bishop. What, precisely, is Rome's view of her ordination and ministry? How about the status of the pastors that she ordains?

Readers will not find the answers to questions such as this in the RNS piece. However, it's hard to blame the reporter for two important reasons.

First of all, the piece is only 410 words long. I would doubt that the length was set by the scribe challenged with summing up this declaration in a news-consumer friendly news piece.

Second, as is often the case, this document contains few if any clear, punchy, quotable statements (at least not that I spotted in a quick read of the sections on the points of agreement and remaining points of disagreement). It is full of academic fog. Look at the document itself (.pdf here) or this short executive statement posted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

No wonder the RNS story says this:

[The document] also lists remaining differences between the two churches and next steps on addressing them.

And that's that.

In a way, what this document says is this: The ecumenical officers of these two churches plan to continue meeting, talking and socializing. Reporters are invited to read the highly academic and optimistically framed results that will be released after each and every meeting. World without end. Amen.

Was this statement major news or not? How will it affect life in local churches and parishes?

Categories: Main
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